Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the second talk and for the audio click here.
Good morning and welcome to City Church. A special welcome if you’re visiting us this morning.
As part of our short series ‘If I could ask God one question . . .‘ we’re looking this morning at the second of the three questions we voted we would most like to ask God from our survey over Christmas time. Twenty-one percent of the 500+ votes cast were for this one; ‘God, why did you create a world with so much misery?‘
‘How are atheists produced? asked George Bernard Shaw” ‘ln probably nine cases out of ten, what happens is something like this. A beloved wife or husband or child or sweethearts is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, stuck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria; and the looker-on, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster, and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical, but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.‘
There is a certain logic to Bernard Shaw’s point isn’t there.
A) The problem of pain
Our world is a world full of pain and suffering so if God exists he must be to blame. There are, finally, so the argument goes, only three possibilities; either God is not good in which case he is not worthy of our worship, or he’s not sovereign in which case he’s not really God at all or he doesn’t exist.
Well what can Christians say in response. I don’t want to suggest that in the short time we have that I can possibly do justice to this question. Not least because for so many of us suffering has a very personal dimension. Maybe you are someone here this morning for whom this is a very difficult question because you are right now experiencing it.
But I do want to offer some pointers that will help us.
And I want to start with the question as put – is God responsible for creating our broken world? In our evening series ‘In the beginning – Genesis 1-3‘ that ran through the autumn up to Christmas we gave quite a bit of time to thinking about the world that God had made and what went wrong. We saw that the Bible is quick to point out that when God created the world he created it good. At the end of the creation account in Genesis 1v.31 we read ‘God saw all that he had made and it was good.’ So, the Bible insists that the problem of pain does not lie at the hands of a faulty designer.
Rather, what we see in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis is that in making human beings God made them good and to be in relationship with Him but he also made them with the freedom to choose good or evil. And pain, suffering and misery only entered our world after the first human beings choose rather than to obey God to decided to do his own thing without reference to God. It is from that first rebellion that suffering entered our world.
So, as Philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, ‘the source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom.’ Death itself enters our world and human beings begin to function in selfish and cruel ways. The whole created order itself is fragmented. This is what our world looks like when humanity turns from its creator and to selfish ruin.
But, as many have suggested, that doesn’t quite let God off the hook. If people only got hurt because they did something sinful or just plain stupid that would be one thing but it’s the fact that suffering seems so random and out of proportion that troubles us.
Here is how theologian John Stott puts it in his book the Cross of Christ ‘the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.’
It’s not just that the innocent and vulnerable suffer but so often they suffer the most? Isn’t God just vindictive and cruel to allow it? I want to highlight three responses the Christian can make in just a moment but before I do let me say that the problem of suffering isn’t just a problem for believers.
B) The problem for atheism
On the surface atheist seems a better option. Maybe it’s easier to believe that it’s not a God that causes random suffering but a random universe that results in random suffering. But I want to suggest that the problem for atheism is that we find it almost impossible to live with the atheists conclusion to the suffering question. Human beings seem unable to settle for the answer that ‘stuff happens’ and we yearn for a higher answer. Doesn’t the fact that after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris that the phrase that trended in the social media was #Pray for Paris suggest so?
After the Boston Marathon bombings Eleanor Barkhorn wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled Why People Prayed for Boston on Twitter and Facebook, and Then Stopped. In the article she comments on the “Pray for Boston” messages. Here’s what she then wrote ‘It was jarring . . It was . . .strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren’t especially observant. . .what I saw on Twitter and Facebook . . wasn’t just faithful people reminding other faithful people to . . .pray. It was also the non-religious invoking prayer.’(HT: Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering)
In the same article she also tells of her own journey to faith as a secular New Yorker after the attack on the Twin Towers in 9/11. She describes how ‘an involuntary urge to call on God’s name’ grew into a full-blown Christian faith.
The problem for atheism is that we seem unable to accept that suffering is a brute fact. We can’t or won’t just get over ourselves. We insist of seeking meaning in suffering. As Tim Keller notes in ‘Walking with God’ ‘the secular view of life simply does not work for most people in the face of suffering.’
What’s more, as CS Lewis himself came to discover, the argument used by atheists against the existence of God in the face of suffering, actually, quite inadvertently, serves to bolster the argument for God. You see here’s the problem of pain for the atheist:why do we feel not just pain but moral outrage in the face of innocent suffering?
Evolution might explain the pain but it can’t account for outrage. Moral outrage is more than saying it hurts – it’s saying it’s wrong.
Stephen Fry’s answer to Gay Bryne’s question ‘What will Stephen Fry say to God?’ on the programme The Meaning of Life is full of such outrage. Here’s what Stephen Fry had to say:
‘I’d say, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” That’s what I would say.’
There is moral outrage. He talks not just about pain but the moral categories of evil and injustice. Fry seems to suggest that God has failed to do the right thing. He is guilty of breaking a moral standard. But where does an atheist get the idea of an absolute moral standard from in the first place and by what standard are we judging how anyone ought to behave?
Fellow atheists Richard Dawkins is been honest enough to admit in River out of Eden:
‘The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’
The simple fact is that there is no place for moral outrage in an amoral universe. To even use the language of good or evil, or right or wrong is to assume things that can’t exist without God. As Keller notes in making the argument Stephen Fry makes ‘in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.’ CS Lewis came to conclude that our awareness of moral evil was in reality an argument for the existence of God, not against it. For surely, if I believe in evil I must believe in God.
But can we find any hope and reassurance in the face of suffering that God does indeed know what he is doing?
What I’d like to do in the remainder of the time we have is suggest three answers to the problem of pain from the Bible. I don’t claim any of them are answers that fully resolve all of our questions but I do think that they are comfort and reassurance
1) God’s purpose in our pain.
Could we possibly ever come to accept that God himself might be at work in our suffering?
The Bible affirms just this point to suggest that God uses suffering to help us find not just temporary happiness but ultimate meaning. In Romans 5:3-4 the Apostle Paul expresses it this way: ‘We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’
That is not to in any way suggest that this process is easy or automatic. There is a whole book of the Bible, called Job, in which we find a believer in God struggling to come to terms with his suffering. And he doesn’t hold back from God. Here he is speaking to God early in the book (Job 3:11-16, NIV).
“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?
Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed?
For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest
with kings and counsellors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver.
Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?”
Job’s sense of sadness in his suffering is revealed in 6:2;
“If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas.”
Job’s pain is raw and real. He does not take it passively, yet by the end of the book he is a man who has found his suffering has changed him and changed him for the better. He comes to a point where he is ready to trust God but not because God has given him an intellectual answer. Job 42:5 ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.’ Could it be that God allows us to suffer because there are lessons we learn about ourselves and God that we could ever have learned in other ways. By the end Job realised that more important than the ‘why’ question was the ‘who’ question.
One of the things that I’ve seen in my time as a church pastor is that the bad news or tragic circumstances that might at first push us away from God seem to have the habit of bringing us back to him. What makes suffering a particular challenge in our western culture is that as secular people we often have no higher goal than our own comfort and sense of happiness. And that leaves little or no room to learn through adversity and struggle and pain in our world-view.
Let me ask you this question ‘could God have a purpose in our pain?’ I have seen it happen too many times.
Fiona was a member of our congregation for a number of years and she suffered from a degenerative disease of her nervous system – not too dissimilar from Stephen Hawking. It was a horrible disease – the result was that little by little her body was failing her. She was interviewed at the front of the church shortly before she died – by which time she could not move any of her limbs and had little control over her head. She was going deaf, her eye-sight was failing her and she could only speak very slowly and deliberately yet she could still say ‘I would rather be in this wheelchair and know Jesus than be able-bodied and not.’For her eternal happiness – a relationship with God – trumped everything. Even a life that most people would pity.
If you’ve come this morning to church and your first thought is that God’s job is to simply make you happy – well first, you’ll be disappointed because that isn’t how life works, and secondly, you’ll never make sense of the deeper work that God wants to do in your life.What if God’s purpose is not to make me happy in this world – in a simply superficial sense – what if his goal is more to make you happy in the next? What if suffering could be redemptive?
The book of Job teaches us that God knows what he’s doing and we can trust him.
The great news this morning is that God has more to say
2) God experiences our pain
John Stott was honest enough to say ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross . . .In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’The comfort and consolation for any of us experiencing suffering is that if the gospel of Jesus Christ is true then we can say ‘God knows exactly what I’m going through.’
Tim Keller comments ‘we do not know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not. It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He understands us, he has been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually wipe away every tear. Someone might say, “But that’s only half an answer to the question ‘Why?’ Yes, but it is the half we need.’
In a room of this size there will be some who have experienced suffering at the hands of another. Things that have been said or done that should not have happened to anyone – acts of hate or spite, criminal offenses for which no charge has ever been brought. And you struggle to ever think that God could have allowed these things to happen to you. I don’t have an answer but I would like to ask you to consider the fact that it was the ultimate act of evil that resulted in the ultimate good. the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the death of Jesus – the supreme example of innocent suffering – ended up resulting in the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the salvation of sinners.
Yet, it wasn’t obvious was it. Maybe like you wonder what was going on in the minds of the disciples at the time. But was it not something like this ‘Lord, this is the best man that has ever lived. How can you allow this to happen? How can you abandon him? What possible reason could you allow this innocent man to suffer?’ It would be some time before they would really understand.
As Peter Kreeft comments ‘I don’t know why God allows evil things to happen, but I am glad that he did allow one evil thing to happen – He allowed Jesus to die on the cross.’
3) God will bring an end to pain
Pain is hard and suffering is real but for all of those who trust in Jesus Christ there is still a great hope for the future.
Paul writes in Romans 8:18 (NIV) ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’
One of the problems of pain is that evil people seem to get away with hurting others and we ask How can God do nothing? And God’s answer is that people aren’t getting away with it. For there is a judgement day to come and on that day God will right every wrong. At last, justice will be done and be seen to be done – fully and perfectly. And God will bring about a new world. We read of the future in our reading from Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV);
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
It will be a new world in which there will be no more suffering, misery or death. It is of course the world we all want.
Horatio Spafford is the author of the hymn ‘when peace like a river’ and we’ll be singing it together in a few minutes. An American lawyer Spafford decided that he, his wife and four daughters should enjoy a holiday in England. Delayed by business he sent his wife and four children on ahead. The ship they were on the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship midway across the Atlantic. All four of Spafford’s children drowned, only his wife survived. The pain of such a loss must have been unbelievable. Later Spafford set sail to join his wife in England and the ship’s captain showed him the very place where his daughters lives were lost. It was on this journey, in the depths of his grief that he penned the hymn;
When peace like a river, attends all my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll
Whatever my path, you have taught me to say,
‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’
The tune to which we sing it is called Ville du Havre – the name of the ship on which his daughters lives were lost.
Is misery the inevitable consequence of suffering? No. Our three reasons for confidence offer us hope and reassurance that God is working through our suffering, that he knows our suffering personally and that he will bring in an end to our suffering.
Gerald Sittser wrote a book entitled A Grace Disguised in which he describes the horrendous fall-out of losing his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law in a car crash caused by a drunk driver coming the other way.
Yet his conclusion is a testimony to God’s grace even in his suffering;
‘I am still not over it; I have still not recovered. I still wish my life were different and were alive. The accident remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me. But I have changed and grown. . . What I once considered mutually exclusive – sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life – have become part of a greater whole. My soul has been stretched. My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God. Though I have endured pain. I believe that the outcome is going to be wonderful.’
As we read in Revelation 21:6 (NIV) ‘He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’
Justin Taylor & Joe Rigney remember the day JFK and CS Lewis died in this piece for Religion News Service
Pete Wilson, in his book Plan B, puts his finger on the dilemma modern, western Christians face:
Whatever you wanted for your life, if you’re a Christian, you may well have assumed God want it for you as well. You might not admit it, even to yourself but you were pretty sure God was going to sweep down and provide for you as only God could do. The problem is, what you assumed was not necessarily what happened.
Nobody ever grew up thinking, I’m going to get cancer at forty-one. Nobody ever grew up thinking, I’m going to get fired at fifty-seven. Nobody ever planned to be divorced twice by forty-five or alone and depressed at age thirty-five. Nobody thought their child would end up in prison at age twenty. You never imagined you wouldn’t physically be able to have children. You never imagined you’d get stuck in a dead-end job. You never imagined the word that might best describe your marriage would be mediocre. But it happened, and you’re frustrated. Or hurt. Or furious. Or all of the above.
We are preaching through a series on Sunday evenings at City Church called Perfected in weakness we are looking at the weakness of physical suffering. What CS Lewis called the problem of pain. It is a problem for Christian and non-Christian alike. Maybe for you suffering is the reason you are not a Christian. George Bernard Shaw once said:
How are atheists produced? In probably nine cases out of ten what happens is something like this. A beloved wife, or child or sweetheart is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, struck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria. The onlooker, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.
The problem of pain is also a problem for the Chrsitian. It works a bit differently for us, however. Our problem is not simply that as believers we might fall ill, or suffer as much as unbelievers. No, our problem comes in trying to reconcile what we know about God with what we experience in our lives. The problem for the Christian is that we do believe in a God who loves us and is sovereign over their health and it’s because he is in control that we know that when we suffer it is God who sends it. Our problem, to put it in the words of Christopher Ash is not ‘just that it hurts . . . it is more than this: it is the conviction that it is God who is doing the hurting.’
No wonder that we suffer in this way we find ourselves deeply perplexed as to what God is doing. Some Christians try to resolve it by denying that God does stand behind suffering and prefer simply blame Satan or put it down to ‘living life in a fallen world.’ Others wonder whether God is really sovereign in troubling times: a good God wouldn’t do this to me, maybe God doesn’t know everything that will happen to us.
Or if we can’t escape the idea that God must allow it, we begin to fear that although God is good we wonder whether he is good to me. What if our suffering is a punishment from God for sin in our lives. Christopher Ash writes of a suffering believer ‘in a way, the deepest question Job faces is this: ‘Is God for me or against me?’ For ultimately nothing else matters.’
Can God be both loving and sovereign and still allow his people to suffer?
In two places in the Bible we gain a particular insight into what is going on when we suffer, Job 2:1–10 and 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. We find something of an answer, although we may find the answer is not be the one we were hoping for. Christopher Ash identifies 5 truths in the story of Job that we also find in Paul’s thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. In both stories of suffering we find the same five truths at play:
1. God’s servant (Paul or Job) is blameless. This does not mean sinless but it means in a right relationship with God. God says of Job ‘In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.’ (Job 1:1 NIV). In their suffering, neither man has any reason to fear that he is being punished for sin.
2. Satan has real influence. He is the immediate, direct cause of the suffering they experience. Paul describes the thorn in his flesh as a ‘messenger of Satan’. In Job we read ‘Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.’ (Job 2:1 NIV)
3. The Lord is absolutely supreme. Satan and the Lord are not two equal and opposite forces at work in the world. Limitations are placed on Satan by divine command. Quite simply, there is nothing that Satan can do unless God allows him. See Job 2:6 and 1:12.
4. The Lord gives terrible permissions. God is in control and it is God who allows his servants to go through the suffering they do. It is not pleasant. It involves real pain and discomfort. If God is for us then God must have a purpose greater than our immediate personal happiness.
5. God’s servant grows in grace. In their suffering both Paul and Job trust God with what they don’t understand. Paul and Job both discover that their faith is not only proved but strengthened –by what they go through.
In the next couple of posts we’ll consider
1. Suffering – Who’s to blame? 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. Our suffering is meaningful only because God stands behind it
2. Suffering – who’s in control? Job 2:1-10. Suffering is not only meaningful because God is in it but it is purposeful because God will use it to teach us about himself.
3. Suffering – what is God trying to do achieve through our suffering? Job 38:1–11, 40:1–5; 2 Cor. 12:7–10. We will discover that, finally, suffering is redemptive. It humbles us and therefore serves to keep us close to God. We learn to trust him with what we don’t understand as well as what we do. We learn to rely on him for strength when we have none of our own.
Today’s Telegraph contains the moving story of how Patricia Machin forgave the man whose crime of careless driving killed her husband. Ruth Dudley Edwards reports
Mrs Machin wrote Williamson a letter to use in his defence in which she said that on the day of the accident, “however bad it was for me, I realise it was 1,000 times worse for you…” This astonished the defence counsel, who said he struggled “to find words to express what is conveyed through the contents and the intentions”. Mrs Machin was in court on Tuesday as Williamson was given a suspended sentence.
But then Edwards, herself an atheist, goes on to say But why were people so astonished? Mrs Machin and her late husband were Christians who really lived up to their beliefs.No truer word has been spoken. Christians are under an obligation to forgive in a way no-one else. There is no other creed on earth that compels forgiveness because the obligation to forgive flows from our direct experience of forgiveness. CS Lewis writes To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. Only the Christian must forgive.
But whilst it is an easy thing to say that the Christian must forgive it is still an extraordinary thing if the Christian can find the resources and resolve necessary to forgive. Again as Lewis says Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive … And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.
The command to forgive comes from the gospel and the ability to forgive comes from the gospel too. When tempted to hate those who have hurt us and caused us undue pain the Christian seeks from God the ability to do the God-like thing and that is to choose to take the pain and hurt on ourselves rather than our ‘enemy’. God absorbed his own wrath when he suffered on the cross. In Christ, we too learn to bear the pain, commit it to God, seek his healing and hold out forgiveness to those who have wronged us. That is no easy thing. Praise God today for the example and courage of Mrs Machin
My son asked me a really good question after a great sermon on Sunday evening. The preacher pointed out that there are things God cannot do; he cannot lie for example and he cannot be tempted either.
How then was Jesus tempted by Satan in the wilderness? Rufus asked. Was that temptation real? The writer to the Hebrews thinks that it was when he writes that Jesus was tempted like us in every way and yet was without sin. So what is the answer?
The answer is that Jesus isn’t superman. Or more precisely Jesus isn’t Clark Kent. We all know how the story goes – in the superman films people think they’re face to face with an ordinary human-being yet we know that behind the persona Superman’s real identity is simply disguised.
It was Apollinaris of Laodicea (died 390) who taught that the best way to think about Jesus is that he was God carried around in a human body and that tends to be the way most of us still think of Jesus today. But the church rejected Apollinaris’s error and recognised that the Bible affirms that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man in one person, and will be for ever.
Because Jesus was fully man he had not just a human body but a human mind and human emotions because Jesus was fully God ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ Colossians 1:19. One person with two natures and those two natures inseparable yet distinct.
So Grudem concludes in his Systematic Theology the eternal Son of God took to himself a truly human nature, and Christ’s divine and human natures remain distinct and retain their own properties, yet they are eternally and inseparably united together in one person.
Jesus was no less human than you or I
Now that is really good news when it comes to the Christian life – not least when it comes to temptation. For there is a man (more than a man, but not less) who was tempted like me in every way and the promise given us is clear.
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. – Hebrews 4:16.
And before we refuse to go to Jesus with our temptations because we think to ourselves but Jesus never sinned and therefore doesn’t really know temptation as I do a word of advice from CS Lewis.
No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.
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.
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!’
Struck again by this remarkable section from CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity;
“The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill a tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”
A very helpful essay by Dr. Art Lindsley of seven insights that CS Lewis shared with the world
- Chronological Snobbery
- Objective Values vs. Relativism
(HT: The Poached Egg)
- Church Planting
- Global Church
- Jesus Christ
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- Social media
- Suffering Church
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- Transforming Society
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