When leaders of our society (political and intellectual) urge us to embrace social changes designed to promote social transformation their main argument is that such change is a mark of social progress.
The speeches of our politicians, the views esposed on the BBC and in the columns of newspaper commentators present the social revolution that has taken place as an inherently good thing. What lies behind the rhetoric is an assumption that we really do know better than the generation(s) before us when it comes to the issue of how to live well in the world. Our values, they say, are not merely different, they are superior. We are told that the new values demonstrate a more enlightened, better informed and more sophisticated view of ethics than held by previous generations. Whether its no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, more liberal licencing laws, redefining marriage they are each presented as indicators of moral advance.
What is beyond doubt is that a great ‘experiment’ is taking place in which we are exchanging one set of values (predominately Christian) for another set (predominately anti or post-Christian). But in his chapter on the philosophy of history in The Philosophy of Tolkien Peter Kreeft highlights just how profoundly Tolkien and CS Lewis disagree with the idea that the social progressivism we are witnessing equate to actual advance. Both men were proud traditionalists and here are my 5 points drawn from Peter Kreeft’s analysis of Tolkien & Lewis’s reasons why.
1. Traditionalists respects and holds onto tradition with good reason
Kreeft writes of how Lord of the Rings is itself a call to respect the wisdom passed on to us. Tolkien is implicitly asking his readers, his culture, to remember their links with their own ancient wisdoms… Few lessons, however indirectly taught, could be more socially relevant than this one, for tradition means linking, unifying over time; and no community can exist without common unity over time as well as place. A generation gap destroys a community more surely than a war.
2. Progressivists are not telling you anything about what is true but merely what is fashionable
Countless studies have proven that children are happier, healthier and perform better at school when raised in a home together by a mother and a father and that Mum and Dad are much more likely to stay together if married. You would think the results of repeated studies would lead to government promoting marriage yet that is the one thing politicians of all persuasions have refused to do for at least 20 years. The attitudes of progressivists highlight that in their minds fashion trumps wisdom when they do.
CS Lewis describes such progressivism as simply ‘’‘chronological snobbery’ when it insists that ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted ( and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.’
3. Progressivism hides behind a ‘great myth’
CS Lewis in his essay entitled the Funeral of a Great Myth shatters the myth that simply because a society is advancing scientifically and technologically it must also be advancing in its ethics. A society can be in advance and in decline at the same time – depending on what it is we are measuring! That is as obvious a conclusion as it is possible to draw from the 20th century. The philosophy of social Evolution has hoodwinked us into thinking that humanity is ever-improving. CS Lewis writes;
It is, indeed, manifestly not the case that there is any law of progress in ethical, cultural, and social history.
4. Progressivism gambles with your future
In rejecting a thousand years or more of Christian tradition one has to also face the question ‘how do we know what the new ethic will produce?’ How can we possibly predict the consequence, intended or not, of a whole new set of values. Kreeft highlights that progressivism is arrogant, for we know the past far better than we know the future.
CS Lewis again; About everything that can be called ‘the philosophy of history’ I am a desperate sceptic. I know nothing of the future, not even whether there will be any future…. I don’t know whether the human tragi-comedy is now in Acts I or Acts V, whether our present disorders are those of infancy or old age.
5. Traditionalism secures the future.
The great trick of progressivists is to label those resistant to change as being opposed to progress but as Kreeft is quick to point out traditionalists far from being those simply ‘stuck in the past’ with no vision for the future are actually those keen to secure our future. Tolkien’s traditionalism, with all its dependence on the past, does not make the mistake of ignoring the future. In fact, the main reason for tradition is to guide the future. It is not even accurate to say that Tolkien’s heroes balance their traditionalism with a sense of responsibility for the future, as if the two things were opposites. For listening to the past and responsibility for the future are two sides of the same coin.
Peter J. Kreeft’s stimulating book The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings takes a look at philosophical questions raised and answered in Tolkien’s work (as well as introducing us to helpful explanations from Tolkien’s private letters). On the issue of human identity Kreft reminds us that only human beings ‘can fail to achieve our nature’. Here’s a short extract on the theme and how Tolkien seeks to illustrate it from the lives of Frodo, Sam and Golem.
When the object we desire is God, or that which God is (truth, goodness, and beauty), the object is not possessable. And paradoxically, only then are we fulfilled, when we do not possess the object that we desire but it possesses us. But when we make anything other than God the object of our desire, when our goal is possessable, we are undone. This dark path began in Eden. Once we laid hands on the fruit we desired, the horrible effect took place immediately: it laid its hands on us. The self was ‘unselfed’ – not filled but emptied, not enhanced but devastated. The object grew into a god, and we shrank into slaves. We exchanged places: we became the objects, the its, and it because the subject, the I. We found our identity in what was less than ourselves, in what we could possess. We who began as the Adam (man) became the golem, the ‘un-man’.
Frodo and Sam illustrate one half of this paradox, Golem the other. Frodo and Sam attain and save their selves because they give themselves away for others, for the world. And not for some abstract cause but for each other and for the Shire. In contrast, Gollum is obsessed with his “cause”: possessing the Ring. His selfishness is so self-devouring that he almost has no self left. He talks to himself more than to others; he often makes no distinction between himself and his “Precious”; he is confused about who he is. He speaks of himself in the third person. (“Don’t let them hurt us, Precious!”) It is the Ring that is now the Precious, and Gollum has lost his preciousness, his value. He has become its slave, and it has become his master. In fact it has become the self, the person, the subject, the actor, and Gollum has become its passive object, its IT. He is nothing without the Ring, He cannot distinguish himself from the Ring. He is the Ring, The person has become a thing. He has lost his soul.
The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images-of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed.
It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters –when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out! ” we cry, “it’s alive.” And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back–I would have done so myself if I could–and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God” -well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads –better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap –best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband-that is quite another matter.
There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?
That the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic games included John Lennon’s Imagine was no real surprise. There is nothing in the world capable of uniting humanity like sport and nowhere is that more evident than at an Olympic games where for a few brief days politics, religion, hatred, discrimination of any sort are put to one side. Sport only works because we agree to live (for a short-time) under a set of rules and values that all sides recognise and accept. It works because someone enforces those rules; if your foot steps out of your lane, or you start before the gun, then no matter how fast you run you are out of the race. Sport only brings us together because we agree to live under a greater authority, a benign dictatorship that ensures fairness and equality for all.
The Olympic ideal is a world where we live as one, atheletes share in eachothers joys and console each other in loss. They live as one community in a village that unites the world and so the world is as one and at peace.
But such an experience is meant to teach us something much more than the benefits of sport and something to which sport is only meant to point. CS Lewis wrote of how our experiences of life in this world are pointers to another world and a greater reality and he says we owe this too to the Greeks.
Symbolism comes to us from Greece. It makes its first effective appearance in European thought with the dialogues of Plato. The Sun is the copy of the Good. Time is the moving image of eternity. All visible things exist just in so far as they succeed in imitating the Forms.
Peter Kreeft say ‘If Plato is right, everything we see is a shadow, copy, image, imitation, or sign of something unseen.’ Essentially everything that we experience in this world is an expression for a better world.
Peter Kreeft, in his excellent book, The Philosophy of Tolkien quotes CS Lewis’s words at the end of The Last Battle ‘when the whole world of Narnia dies and is swallowed up into its Heavenly Platonic archetype.’
“Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. . . . And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” His voice stirred enveryone like a trumpet as he spoke these words; but when he added under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” the older ones laughed.
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling…”I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”
And so what exactly are you and I are meant to learn at the end of an Olympic fortnight? That all along was only a sign of something yet unseen and something that we remember from a world long ago. There is a world to come, a world we are waiting for and a world that we have been looking for all of our lives not just in a church but in an Opening ceremony, a marathon race, a diving competition, a 100 metres race run in 9.64 seconds. When through Christ we get there we like the Unicorn will say ‘I have come home at last!’
Skimming through a friends copy of John Lennox’s Gunning for God: Why the new atheists are missing the taget I came across this striking quote from Professor Andrew Sims former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists taken from an article in The Times (£) newspaper:
The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally. If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land.
In the majority of studies, religious involvement is correlated with well-being, happiness and life satisfaction; hope and optimism;purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better adaptation to bereavement; greater social support and less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide; less anxiety; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug use and abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; greater marital stability and satisfaction… We concluded that for the vast majority of people the apparent benefits of devout belief and practice probably outweigh the risks.
His notes on Bill Hybel’s talk Leading Yourself are essential reading for all church leaders.
GK Chesterton on why without constant attention the very things we want to preserve will be lost;
All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white fence post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly,if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
The church is to change nothing of its message. Our goal is to keep an old white post — the unchanging truth about Christ. But to keep it we cannot afford to leave things alone. A great deal of work needs to go in to finding new and effective ways of communicating the same old message. To quote Chesterton we ‘must be always painting it again.’
The following is an edited section of a sermon preached on 2 Thessalonians 2 at City Church a few weeks ago on the knotty issue of when and in what way Jesus will return.
Maybe you remember Harold Camping, in the news last year, who predicted that Christ would come in judgement on 21st May 2011. When by May 23rd it hadn’t happened Camping stated that May 21 had been a “spiritual” day of judgment, and that Jesus would come again on October 21, 2011. Camping was wrong and no doubt there were lots of spiritual casualties too.
Something strange was going on at the church in Thessalonica (2 Thess 2v.1-2) Paul is writing to them about the coming of our Lord and v.2 the church has become unsettled and alarmed. The word unsettled has the idea of being ‘shaken from your mind’ like a ship being forced from its mooring by a storm and bobbing about in the high seas. The Thessalonians were in danger of being ‘all at sea’.
Something was getting to the Thessalonians and v.2 it seemed to be some report or prophecy saying that the Day of the Lord has already come. We don’t really know exactly what was going on here but 2 options are our best guesses.
1) The Greek word ‘already come’ can have the idea of ‘is at hand’. So the AV translation of the verse reads
be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand
It might be that they were thinking that the Lord’s Day was imminent.
2) Or it could be as the NIV translates the word the return of Christ has ‘already come’. Maybe some in the church were teaching that in some sense Christ has come spiritually. But if Christ has come, if the Kingdom of Heaven is powerfully breaking in, why were Christians still suffering so much?
Either translation could be right but if we don’t know maybe we don’t need to know the exact form of the error. Paul’s answer in v.3 seems to answer either way.
But Jesus is not coming yet v.3-4?
Now this is where it all gets difficult. Leon Morris wrote ‘This passage is probably the most obscure and difficult in the whole of the Pauline writings and the many gaps in our knowledge have given rise to extravagant speculations.’
What do we make of Paul saying that Jesus cannot come until evil gets worse and a certain man of lawless is revealed?
Does this mean Jesus can’t come back today?
Essentially 2 options are open to us. It could be that Paul’s answer to the Thessalonians doesn’t relate directly to us because he was thinking about something that happened in AD70.
1) a prophecy fulfilled in AD70
In 169BC the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanies’ captured Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in the most appalling way. He erected an alter to Zeus and sacrificed of all things a pig on the altar of burnt offering in the temple. Many saw this as a fulfilment of a prophesy in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament in which he describes ‘an abomination that causes desolation.’
But Jesus insisted that although this might have been a fulfilment in part Daniel’s prophecy awaited a further fulfilment. In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus tells us that Daniel’s prophecy is fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem. In AD70 the Romans defeated the Jews the armies entered the temple carrying the emblem of Caesar into the temple and offered sacrifices to their gods. So could the rebellion Paul is prophesying in 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to the same event? When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians it was still only 50AD and so the timing works. There was still 20 years to go before the destruction of the temple.
Now if the man of lawlessness is Caesar then what Paul says to the Thessalonians in one sense he is not saying to us. To them he is saying something like ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled …Jesus has not come….and he won’t yet come because the Romans haven’t invaded Jerusalem yet..the man of lawlessness is still to come.’
But that wouldn’t be what he is saying to us. To us he’d say ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled because Jesus has not come…but do understand that he could come at any moment because everything that needs to happened has happened.’
So that’s option 1 and the problem with it is that every commentary I read rejected that interpretation for a number of reasons that space doesn’t permit us to discuss. Perhaps the key one is that a number of books of the Bible that are almost certainly written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – especially Revelation and the book of 1 John — still expect the coming of the man of lawlessness or the Antichrist as he is also known. John writes in 1 John 2:18 ‘this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming.’
2) The lawless one is yet to be revealed
If the man of lawlessness was not revealed in AD70 that would mean that what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians he is also saying to us (v.7) that the secret power of lawlessness, evil and opposition to God will be at work in the world until at the very end of history but then there will be one final embodiment of evil who will trigger the return of Christ. God’s plan and timing will decide when the arrival of the man of lawlessness will trigger the return of Christ and at that time the man of lawlessness will be utterly defeated.
Now if you are a suffering Christian somewhere in the world today (like the Thessalonians) then that is of great reassurance. Paul is saying ‘don’t be surprised by the presence of evil. There will be evil in the world right up until the day the Lord returns but God is in control.’
Could Christ come back today?
Firstly, we should admit that these verses are so difficult and Christians disagree on their exact meaning that whatever view we hold we should hold provisionally.
That means that if it is possible (even if we think unlikely) that everything that needs to happen has happened then we should be ready for Jesus to come back at any moment. Wayne Grudem in his chapter on eschatology in his Systematic Theology asks ‘is it possible to be ready for something that we think unlikely to happen in the near future?’ Certainly he says ‘Everyone who wears a seatbelt when driving gets ready for an event he or she thinks to be unlikely.’ The point is because we can’t be sure what will happen, because we don’t know for sure whether this prophecy has been fulfilled, either way we need to be ready.
Tim and Kathy Keller deconstruct the cultural myths that surround marriage and give a gospel answer.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
After yesterday’s post of 7 tips from friends of mine on their workplace witness for Christ here are a further 8 top tips from the same good people.
8. I think it’s important to socialise but not to compromise. I like to go out with my colleagues and join in the social events, but to be distinctive at them, eg for me that’s not drinking. I’ve had the most interesting conversations on nights out when people are more relaxed.
9. Be patient and in it for the long haul. You don’t have to be talking to people constantly about Jesus to be a good witness. As long as people know you’re a Christian, sometimes you just have to wait for them to come to you…and they will come. It took five years before one colleague/friend talked to me, and another 8 years for another colleague to take a real interest.
10. Don’t expect colleagues to behave as Christians would if they’re not Christians. Eg Some Christians ask others not to swear and blaspheme in front of them at work. In my opinion there are enough barriers to Christianity without putting more up (others may disagree with me though).
11. People will come and go at work. Don’t be disheartened when colleagues you’ve invested time in move on – we’re often just a small part of the bigger picture.
12. Accept that some colleagues will not like the fact you’re a Christian and it’s possible they will treat you unfairly because of it. Real wisdom is required in each situation.
13. Keep a long term perspective – in all likelihood you’re going to give more time to your colleagues than you receive back from them. Our reward is in heaven and it’s good to remember that.
14. I think it’s also worth saying that, whilst we should pray for and make the most of gospel opportunities at work, we should not beat ourselves up if we do not have a gospel conversation every day. Our first duty is to serve our employer well, i.e. to do the job we’re paid to do in the workplace God has chosen to place us. For most of us evangelism doesn’t feature on our job description but it should be a natural by-product of who we are as children of God. Echoing Nick’s point, if we’re genuinely saved and we’re genuine with our colleagues about who we are, then gospel opportunities will inevitably follow.
15. I also wouldn’t start by introducing yourself to anyone by saying ‘Hi I’m Fred Bloggs and I love Jesus’ because you may as well say ‘Hi I’m Fred Bloggs and I’m a nutter, give me a wide berth cos I’m going to Bible bash you at every opportunity’.
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