In October 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported an interview with Alan Greenspan about his book, The Map and the Territory. Greenspan commented on a human feature he had not factored in when he was chairman of the Federal Reserve. Referring to the meltdown of the markets in 2008, he noted that none of the recognized forecasters saw the economic crisis coming. He went on to say that he had not factored in ‘the spells of (human) euphoria and irrational fear.’
The article continued, ‘Studying the results of herd behavior provided him with some surprises. “I was actually flabbergasted,” he says. “It upended my view of how the world works… He concluded that fear has at least three times the effect of euphoria in producing market gyrations. “I wouldn’t have dared write anything like that before,” he says.’
It is not my purpose to speak about the state of the US economy or the financial world. Rather, I want to take up the theme of human nature. The Wall Street Journal article raises the subject of the deeper aspects of our human nature usually hidden from others. It opens up questions about the complex nature of being human. Where do we turn for answers?
Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher in The View from Nowhere (1986, p.4), commented on the perplexity of doing this. He wrote: Certain forms of perplexity – for example, about freedom, knowledge, and the meaning of life – seem to embody more insight than any of the supposed solutions to those problems.
It is certainly true that from our human inquiry – be it through medicine, biology, neuroscience, psychology, social anthropology or philosophy – a satisfying answer seems shrouded in mystery.
Summarizing the human dilemma, Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher asked: Is life simply a journey… a great mysterious search for the unknown and unknowable? We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.
In response, given the complexity of the existence of all things in the universe, not just humanity, it is not inconsistent to suggest that there is a greater being who stands at the heart of the center of all things – one who not only exists but who is able to reveal himself and thus give us meaning and understanding about life.
Indeed, Dr. John Lennox (Emeritus Professor Mathematics, Oxford University), writes in ‘God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?’: To the majority of those who have reflected deeply and written about the origin and nature of the universe, it has seemed that it points beyond itself to a source which is non-physical and of great intelligence and power.
And CS Lewis wrote: I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
To return to the WSJ article and Alan Greenspan’s comments about the way that fear can trump euphoria in our attitudes and actions: why is that all too often we allow fear to shape our feelings and actions? Instead of living out the New Testament injunction to rejoice, we fear. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice, exhorts Paul the Apostle (Philippians 4:4). We fear what others might think of us if they discovered what we believe and that we go to church. We fear that we might be bullied or made to look stupid. We fear we may be treated as intolerant if we try to talk to them about our faith. We fear we may be stuck for words. We make excuses and are silent.
St Matthew concludes his Gospel with Jesus’ commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18ff).
The commission Jesus gave to the apostles has been passed down through the ages, not in some form of mystical ‘apostolic succession’ through the literal laying on of hands, but in the passing on of what the apostles preached and taught. One way or another all of us are involved in this.
Over the coming weeks, I plan to explore ways we can be more effective in our relationships and conversations.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com
In an article, ‘Faith’s Implacable Enemies’, in The Weekend Australian (November 4-5, 2017), Dyson Heydon, a former justice of the High Court of Australia, writes of the significant shift by society’s elites today away from the humble dependence on the blessing of Almighty God expressed in the ‘Imperial Act’ that brought ‘the Australian Constitution into being’.
Heydon comments that ‘the public voices of the modern elites are not humble. They conceive themselves to have entitlements and rights, not blessings. And they do not feel any gratitude to Almighty God for their entitlements and rights. Instead, they desire to exclude any role for religion in Australian public discussion, and perhaps any role for religion in any sphere, public or private. They instantly demand an apology for any statement they dislike.’
Furthermore, Heydon observes, ‘Indifference (towards religion) based on rising wealth can be insidiously damaging to religion… Religion inquires into the nature of humanity and the destiny of humanity… To those satisfied with the pleasures of this world, now so freely available, inquiry and search of these kinds is of no interest… But members of modern elites are moving away from mere indifference. They are embracing a fanatical anti-clericalism. Some want to destroy faith itself…’
‘Modern elites do not desire tolerance,’ Heydon notes. ‘They demand unconditional surrender’.
How will we respond? We need to keep before us the evidence of God in the existence of the universe. We also need to remember the evidence of God’s powerful work in history – especially in the life, death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Too often we forget and are silenced.
In 2 Peter 1 the Apostle Peter insists that his readers always remember what they had been taught about the faith. I intend to keep on reminding you …, he says (verse 12); I will always make every effort to refresh your memory (verse 13); and, After my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things (verse 15).
His words, reminder and memory point to the fact that Christianity is a received truth. There is a body of information that can be learned and recalled – God’s good news.
Peter wants us to understand that all Jesus said and did was true: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,…. (verse 16).
We often forget that Christianity was born at a time of hundreds of religions and philosophies — Paganism, Epicureanism with its rationalism, Stoicism with its moralism and ‘stiff upper-lip’; occultism, spiritism, mysticism, dualism, pantheism, animism, and a host of other ‘–isms’. Indeed the elites of the 1st century Roman Empire were hostile towards the followers of Jesus Christ.
How important is it that we remember the reality and trustworthiness of Jesus – God in the flesh, who lived amongst us, died for us, and was raised to life.
We need to keep front and center in our lives his words: “You are the salt of the earth,” he says. “You are the light of the world…” he continues. “In the same way, let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”(Matthew 5:13-14, 16).
Furthermore, Jesus expects us to play our part in his wider mission to ‘the lost’ in a hostile world. His words to the Seventy, sent out in the course of his ministry, identify principles for us: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep amongst wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Not all the seventy were preachers, but they were still sent. They were part of the witness to Jesus. In Colossians 4:5, Paul picks up the theme of wisdom: Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders… He calls his readers (including you and me) to speak graciously, looking for ways to introduce questions and comments that open up the larger issues of life. Our speech is to be seasoned with salt – not insipid, gossip (Colossians 4:6).
Dyson Heydon comments that the elites today, ‘By preventing any public expression of religious thought through ridicule and bullying, they tend to cause religion to wither away even in the private sphere. What can have no public expression will eventually cease to have any private existence…’
What we often overlook is that the followers of Jesus overturned the ancient Roman world, not by armed revolution, but through bold and confident prayer to the God ‘whose nature is always to have mercy’, and by the example of their lives and the testimony of their lips. Let’s pray for the grace, wisdom, and strength we need to serve Christ Jesus, the Lord.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com
Throughout my ministry, I have endeavored to find appropriate ways to hand on the light of God’s redeeming love to non-churchgoing people. Now at this time of aggressive and arrogant atheism, it seems to me that we need to revisit this task. The substance of the message of God’s gospel remains constant but the way we communicate it needs to be fine-tuned in every age. The reasoned apologetics of the twentieth century need to be re-cast for the twenty-first.
That said, in an interesting article in The Weekend Australian (October 28-29) entitled, ‘Idea of God is perfectly logical’, Greg Sheridan wrote: ‘…It is important to understand that there is nothing in reason that contradicts God. That our public culture so routinely suppresses this knowledge, mocks it and teaches the reverse, demonstrates just what a strange and dangerous cultural dead end we have wandered into. Yet even in our moment, in our society, there is already a nostalgia for God.
‘Reasoning from first principles, of course, is not even the primary rational way you can come to a rational knowledge of God. For it is one of the central realities of humanity, one of the deep mysteries of the human condition, that all truth involves a balance of truths. Rationality needs a context in order to be rational…’
Sheridan goes on to observe: ‘There are countless clues of God throughout the world and within humanity itself. There is the strange phenomenon of joy, the even stranger delight of humour, the inescapable intimation of meaning in beauty and music. There is the mystery of love, along with the equal mystery of our consciousness and our self-awareness…’
Once we get past the inconsistencies of the popular culture we often find that many will agree that God does exist but that he is unknowable – he is abstract, impersonal, and a mystery.
To return to words of Deuteronomy 6 that I have touched on over the last two weeks, we need to feel the sharpness and precision of verse 4: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
The words speak of the supremacy, the unity, the uniqueness and the personality of God. The Hebrew word translated ‘one’ here can refer to more than one person. Significantly it is the same word that we find in Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
In the light of this meaning of the Hebrew word, one, it is consistent that in Genesis 1:26 and 27 we read, Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Furthermore, it is not surprising that amongst Abraham’s three visitors (Genesis 18:1-21), the supernatural figure Jacob encountered (Genesis 28:1-17), the fourth man in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:24-25) was the pre-incarnate Son of God. We so often forget that the God of the Old Testament is the same as in the new. The one God exists in three persons. But I digress.
The God of Deuteronomy 6 is not an abstract being, without meaning or message. The language of Lord and unity (as we learn) implies personality – indeed, more than one person who enjoys a relationship and who speak. Deuteronomy 6 reveals the God who is Lord and who is passionately committed to being known and being loved by his people.
This theme is even more evident in the New Testament where we read in Philippians 2: At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue will confess him as Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2:11).
Every generation needs to hear these truths so that they come and live under them.
The French poet, writer, and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, once observed: If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
Given our task of handing on the light of God’s truth found in Christ, perhaps we need to start considering ways we can paint a larger picture of life, lifting people’s gaze from the ground to the reality of God who has not only given us our existence, but also the opportunity to experience life in all its fullness and joy.
How important it is that we keep before us God’s words to his people: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com
Parenting is not for the faint-hearted. A respected pediatrician was once asked by a mother when was the best time to put her children to bed. “While you still have the strength,” he replied.
Parenting requires time, patience and perseverance. One is never sure from one day to the next what issue we might have to deal with – helping children survive in a rapidly changing society; helping them safely through the trauma of growing years that can bring both laughter and tears; helping them with their successes and their failures; helping them with their decisions, especially their working through the moral issues of right and wrong, truth and falsehood.
We all know that there are some decisions that are more challenging than deciding what to wear or what to eat, for there are times when we have a sense of obligation, a sense of, ‘I ought to…’ or ‘I ought not to…’
It’s here that many people today are confused, for apart from the laws of the land, our secular society has not equipped us to determine what moral obligations we may have. So if we say to growing children, ‘You ought to do that…’ we get the response, ‘Why should I?’ Children will want to know if there is a reason for doing or not doing something.
Many parents have a problem here because they have rejected or ignored God and God’s moral authority over their lives. Ethics have become subjective, doing what feels right. This is one reason why people are ambivalent about sexual attitudes and behavior, or about honesty, theft, and compassion. Pragmatism has become the norm.
Children need to come to understand that morality rests on the authority of God, for we live in a moral universe where there is an ultimate accountability. Without God we all may as well do as we like. There will be no final justice.
Consider therefore Moses’ words: Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise (Deuteronomy 6:6f).
The command of Deuteronomy is that parents should talk about their own faith, creating an atmosphere of learning for their children – when sitting at home, going for walks, over meals and at bedtime.
The parent-child relationship is built into God’s pattern of life and parents are the most important influence on children. Children model themselves on their parents. As someone once observed, ‘Children are natural mimics: they act like their parents in spite of every attempt to teach them good manners.’
In his Second Letter to Timothy Paul told Timothy that he had a great advantage in life: Eunice his mother, and Lois his grandmother had, from his childhood, taught him the Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (3:15).
This weekend we remember Luther’s action in nailing ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Papal indulgences, designed to raise money for the renovation of St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, offered a pay-plan for the ‘satisfaction’ element in the church’s teaching on salvation. Grounding his theses on the supreme authority of the Scriptures for our knowledge of God and salvation, Luther questioned the pope’s authority and the abuses in the sale of indulgences.
In contrast to Timothy, Luther had not been brought up in a home or church where there was a clear teaching about God’s unique work of salvation. He had agonized over the assurance of his salvation. It was only when he came to understand the Bible that grasped all that God in his mercy had done for him. He was saved by faith alone, in Christ alone, through God’s grace alone.
The Scriptures set out clear principles for raising children – not just for parents but also for grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends and for churches.
Furthermore, the Scriptures indicate that we should not just teach children but that we should be ready to answer their questions – especially about life and death issues, about God and the Lord Jesus Christ, about right and wrong (as set out in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount). We also need to be prepared to tell our story of faith, explaining what Jesus means to us.
Parents are well placed to blend the demands of society and the needs of the child in a way that fully affirms the dignity of the child and yet also makes that child fully ready for society and not simply to be a self-centered little island.
So we need to keep God’s ancient words to his people at the forefront of our teaching and living: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Above all, whether we are parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts or cousins, we need to pray – pray for the children.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com
In a New York Times article (October 10, 2017), David Brooks commended Richard Thaler, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics. ‘Thaler,’ Brooks commented, ‘took an obvious point, that people don’t always behave rationally, and showed the ways we are systematically irrational…’ He went on to observe, ‘Thanks to his work and others’, we know a lot more about the biases and anomalies that distort our perception and thinking,…’
Furthermore, David Brooks continued, ‘It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” And when we don’t really know a subject well enough, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts,” and go with whatever idea makes us feel popular.
Brooks continues, ‘This is where Alan Jacobs’s absolutely splendid forthcoming book “How to Think” comes in. If Thaler’s work is essential for understanding how the market can go astray, Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now…’
And, I would add, this helps us to understand from a human perspective, why there is so much bad thinking when it comes to the matters of God and faith. Consider, for example, the way in which commentators and television shows constantly belittle and write off anyone who expresses a faith in God. People of faith are dismissed without any reasoned thought. We are tempted to remain silent because we want ‘the pleasure of sharing an attitude we know is socially approved’ (to paraphrase Marilynne Robinson’s words).
How important it is to keep the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 at the forefront of our thinking: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
The stress on the oneness of God and the need for us to be single-minded in our love of God and our loyalty to him is more important than we might at first think.
What these words are saying, and what Jesus himself re-iterates, is that behind all the diversity and complexity of the universe there is one God – one God who holds everything together and unifies it. We live in a meaningful, ordered world because everything that happens is all part of the one creation – all part of the one picture puzzle. Is it truly rational to say that the vast nature and complexity of the universe all came about by chance? Consider for example, what the very recent discovery of gravitational waves and neutron stars tells us about the fine-tuning of the universe.
Furthermore, the oneness of our creator God helps us begin to answer the question, “Who am I?” Like the hub of a wheel, he stands at the center of our very existence. Strip him from the universe and our lives, and we’re left with emptiness and meaninglessness.
Consider what has happened. Our Western world has cavalierly, and we could say irrationally, dismissed the idea of God, focusing only on the here and now. Issues such as security and peace, justice and the environment now dominate the conversation. While these subjects are important, they are not the be all and end all of life. As many New Yorkers commented to me over the years, ‘We know there is more to life.’
Sadly, because society has created a vacuum in people’s hearts, many use drugs and sex and social media in the attempt to fill the gap. This is a price we pay when we discard the core truth of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
So, what can we do to begin to reverse what David Brooks calls ‘the biases and anomalies that distort our perception and thinking’?
Towards the end of his article he makes the following observation: ‘But I’d say that if social life can get us into trouble, social life can get us out. After all, think of how you really persuade people. Do you do it by writing thoughtful essays that carefully marshal facts? That works some of the time. But the real way to persuade people is to create an attractive community that people want to join. If you do that, they’ll bend their opinions to yours. If you want people to be reasonable, create groups where it’s cool to be reasonable.’
Jesus himself taught: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).