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In the little poem ‘Contrasts’ I read earlier, I drew a contrast between the Gods and Goddesses of classical antiquity – the lofty Olympians – and the humility of the one true God. I want to bring that down to earth, and talk about the contrast between the ruler who is named in the Christmas story, Caesar, and the Prince of Peace, who was born, in the Christmas story.
Caesar held a census so that he could tax the people. Caesar decreed from afar that everyone should up sticks and move at his convenience, so that he could exact something from them – he was enrolling the world, so that he could take from the margins, and enrich the center – in Rome.
Meanwhile, even as this decree of a census is given out, another king – the king of kings – wants all the world to be enrolled. Why? He knows all things as God; His knowledge is always the knowledge of the great creator, looking down on creation. But now He gets the inside knowledge of hearts that hurt – the knowledge of what it is to be ‘in the dark’. You might say it’s one thing to write Hamlet, quite another to be Hamlet.
In contrast to Caesar, who stays in the centre and expect us to move for him, Jesus came to us and to come to know us. This wasn’t registering in the sense of an outer registration, but God became human so that He could register with Himself all the things that we can feel in the flesh. Caesar registered to exact; Jesus to share, and to give…
The church gets too preoccupied with what people think about Christ; there’s a time and place for a theology of Christ, but it’s not what I want to focus on this morning; instead, I want to focus on the experience of Christ. After all, it’s our experience of Christ that transforms us, rather than what we think about Him.
I want to look this morning at some of the different ways in which people experience Christ. Some of you may know the book William James ‘The varieties of religious experience’; what I have to say this morning could be a sort of appendix to that book: ‘the varieties of the experiences of Christ’.
There are people to whom Christ appears – as He did in the gospels. You may think that only happened in New Testament times, but it doesn’t: it goes on to this day. One such appearance happened not far from here, in Trumpington Church, about 50 years ago, when Christ appeared to a recently widowed lady, and wept with her as He stood in the sanctuary.
Sometimes Christ can appear through representations of Him, His radiance shining out from a picture. Sometimes Christ appears to people who are very ill…
Obedience has a valuable place in the Christian life, and a place in the journey towards personal freedom.
It may be counter-intuitive to defend obedience. However, for all of us, there is a valuable place for obedience to God. It’s tempting to think if we had the freedom to do exactly what we please we’d be completely happy and fulfilled. But that kind of ‘freedom’ doesn’t work: frequently we can’t even see what would be in our best interest. Often even when we can see what’s best we have too little willpower actually to do it. Worse, many of us get trapped in repetitive patterns of self-destructive behaviour. Often, these are subtle patterns of behaviour that are nevertheless as damaging as alcoholism.
Christianity promises to make us truly free (although it never promises to make us independent!). We can often only be lifted out of self-destructive behaviour by obedience. Jesus healed by obedience; and by inviting us to accept His authority, Jesus can lift us from our own egocentricity and inertia…
Where shall wisdom be found? What is wisdom? Is wisdom more than clever people or scholarship? If so, how is wisdom different from learning and cleverness?
The discoveries that clever people make are often ephemeral: things need to be rethought as time goes by. Wisdom in contrast is concerned with eternal truths: truths that transcend particular times and places and paradigms.
Learning and cleverness are no guide to how to live. Clever people can be unwise and immoral. Wisdom in contrast is linked to goodness; if you want to become wise, you also need to become a good person: the paths to goodness and wisdom go side by side. In contrast to cleverness, wisdom has moral implications for how to live.
Wisdom knows its limitations. Clever people are inclined to be arrogant; the human intellect operates on the assumption that it can get to the bottom of things. But wisdom is probing at a deeper level where there are no easy answers. It ponders, for example, the ‘unfairness’ of life. Cleverness always assumes it can get on top of things; wisdom admits there are some things it will never understands. It grows deeper by pondering unfathomable mysteries…
She was the sickly rather worrying tenth child of a family who couldn’t really cope, and a girl besides, so not likely to be a prop and stay, and although her family had some nobility they didn’t have a lot of resources, and they were at their wits end, so like many sickly, perhaps slightly difficult children at the tag end of large families that weren’t functioning very well, she was put into social care.
Only they seemed to do social care for little girls a little bit better in the eleventh century than we do now, in terms of getting to the depths of a person’s spirit, finding out what it is that makes her grow and flourish; so little Hildegaard, at the age of eight, was put into the care of another strong and interesting woman, the Abbess Jutta, and she began the enclosed life. But actually within that enclosure, that sacred space, an extraordinarily vigorous and profound mystical culture amidst a community of women was flourishing. Within that enclosed community there was the herb garden, the enclosed garden, which turned out to be something Hildegaard was particularly good at looking after, a kind of central space that she loved, and in which she ceased to be sickly a little, and to grow, and to flourish.
We don’t know a great amount about the early years of her enclosure; she didn’t, as it were, suddenly flourish forth beyond the walled garden of her sisters, until an extraordinary sequence of spiritual events about forty years into her enclosure. But we do know that this sickly cast off tenth child – this little girl for whom there was no room – by the end of her long and fruitful life, had become a magistra, a teacher, an Abbess, a founder of abbeys; she had left behind her, nine books, 72 songs, 70 poems, over 100 letters, and all of them full of radical visionary theology…
Hell and the Problem of Evil
The Devil and all His Angels
Jesus frequently talks about ‘a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth’. In his parable of Dives and Lazarus he refers to there being ‘a great gulf fixed’ which cannot be crossed’ as existing between these two worlds. The existence of Hell as a spiritual reality is an uncomfortable thought. It remains, however, central, to traditional Christian thinking.
We are probably all familiar with the traditional story of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven because of his sin of pride, his desire to be a rival God. The traditional imagery pictures Lucifer as the brightest and best of the angels who falls into a fiery furnace, together with those other angels he incited to rebel against God. Some early theologians, largely drawing from the writings of the Apochyrpha, or Deutero-Canonical books, thought that there were subsequent rebellions in the ongoing war between heaven and hell. This they thought led to the emergence of three orders of the Devil’s or Hell’s Angels who fought the seven orders of angels in Heaven. Their battlefield was the Seen Creation in which we live as well as the spiritual world.
Christ’s Descent Into the Underworld
Ancient religious beliefs frequently have an account of a descent from this world into the world below. Perhaps the story of Orpheus in the Underworld (of which the film Moulin Rouge is a contemporary re-telling) is one of the most well known. Christian mythology, however, took nearly four centuries to agree upon the the sentence which now appears in the Nicene Creed; ‘He descended into Hell’. Partially this was finally agreed to resolve the issue of what happened to the souls of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Old Testament prophets who were born and died long before the Advent of Christ. Surely God would redeem them as well?
The importance of this belief in mainstream Christian theology was not finally affirmed until the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Council decreed that those who denied this doctrine should be condemned, presumably to a Hades or an underworld, in which they themselves did not believe.
So why did it take so long to agree on this. There are several subtle references in the Bible to Christ’s descend into Hell, although there is no direct account in the New Testament of this event (Revelations gets close, but remains somewhat oblique.) To find it, you have to read the Bible imaginatively. For instance how we are to understand the passage in Matthew’s Gospel:
‘As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ Matt 12.40.’
David Miller, in his study, ‘Hells and Holy Ghosts: A theopoetics of Christian belief’ argues that the reason Christian struggled to come to a common mind was because of the widespread persistence of Gnosticism.
Gnostic belief took Dualist thought to its logical extremity. They believed that the world in which we lived was Hell itself. Miller begins his book by quoting the words which most of us will have used, colloquially, at some point.
‘”My life is hell!” Uttered in anguish or felt so deeply as to be unutterable, these words involve the woman or man experiencing them, unwittingly to be sure, in ancient theological controversy. Indeed, it may well be that an unconscious residue of Christian thinking informs the person’s feeling in this moment, a theological habit of mind (rather than one’s psychological reality) leading the individual to believe that history can be hell.’ 1
The Gnostic view that the world was essentially evil did not accord with the Genesis account that God’s creation was ‘good’. It also, more seriously for early theologians, undermined Christ’s conquering of Hell, and consequently death. Gnostics did not believe in any other-worldy understanding of Hell. Miller goes on to observe that:
‘It may come as something of a surprise for a person who is suffering the feeling that his or her life is hell to learn that precisely in this feeling there is a heretical religious perspective, an unorthodox stance1 indeed, to such a one the 2descent into hell2 may be more real than for many of today’s orthodox Christians, not a few of whom would rather forget that portion of the creed which speaks about a descent into hell. The oddity is that those today who may be closest to this underworldly aspect of traditional Christian belief are those whose profound expression most resembles heretical belief, while those who most adhere to conventional Christian belief may well be most out of touch with the reality of depth to which that belief attests.’ 2
The Problem of Evil
Christianity believes in God who has three aspects to his nature, he is unique, he is all knowing and he is all-loving. In this last sense he is understood as being entirely good. How then do Christians explain away the problem of evil, of suffering in the world? How, in particular, is the existence of evil reconciled with the idea of there being only one, true God?
Jeffrey Burton Russell, an American Medieval Historian, who has written extensively on perceptions of the Devil, approaching this as ‘a history of ideas’, has claimed that 3:
‘This has always been the weakest seam in Christian theology, the spot at which generations of atheists have forcefully struck. 4 Their argument usually runs something like this: (i) If God exists, he is all good and all powerful; (ii) such a God could have no morally sufficient reason to allow evil; (iii) but there is evil in the world; (iv) therefore God does not exist.’
Over the centuries Christians have advanced a number of theories to counter this criticism. Some of them are outlined below:
Evil is necessary for the greater good. Although our own world is imperfect and is apparently in a state of dischord, there is a hidden harmony directed by Providence. Human understanding of good and evil cannot be attributed to God. If we only know enough, we would perceive that what we assume to be evil is part of a grander, essentially benovelent divine schema. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell dismisses this argument contempoouosly by saying if you presented it to a mother whose child was dying of leukemia it would be a sick answer. However this can be countered easily by saying ‘Would you rather tell the mother that her child’s suffering and death is completely meaningless? That there is no reward or justice offered in the afterlife by the suffering the child is presently experiencing? The main point is the horror of evil in the world is not removed, or even palliated, by an atheistic position. Facing up to the problem of evil is as difficult for the atheist as it is for the Christian. The question ‘Why is there evil in the world’ simply refuses to go away.
Evil is real, but it is the necessary by-product of an essentially good universe. Since the finite cannot be perfect, God is obliged to create a finite world that is imperfect. This is the best of all possible worlds, in the sense, that it is as perfect as God can create. God may be all powerful but to use that as on objection is at best inelegant, at worst ignorant, and seeking to reduce God to human understanding. Although we may find it difficult to comprehend God’s choice, it is a fact that God either cannot or chooses not to break his own rules, i.e. he will not do something that is self-contradictory. You cannot have one opposite without the other. In response to evil, however, there is a cosmic harmony which is good which overwhelms the existence of evil. The existence of any goodness at all implies a providential hand and the possibility of salvation to a world in which evil no longer exists. This argument is strengthened further by its acknowledgement of the importance of freewill, God has to give us the choice between pursuing an evil or good life and, has to allow, the consequences of our actions to affect the temporal happiness of others.
Evil should be understood as non-being. It is, essentially a destructive force, not a creative one. Good is essentially creative and healing. The world in which we live is perfect insofar as it has being, but it also has pockets of non-being. Again, this is the best world God could create because good clearly outweighes the evil in it. Again this supports the existence of freewill, to potentially dramatic consequences, God cannot save or redeem the atheist if he is determined to embrace an afterlife which is manifestly one in which ‘being’ or existence is a possibility.
Evil and its existence is simply beyond our understanding but, in the fullness of time, God will redeem all of his Creation in a state of bliss. This clearly is an evasive answer and, as such, is an unsatisfactory one. The only thing that supports this answer to have any validity, is the Crucifixtion of Christ on the Cross. God has entered into human suffering and such an act was essential, in order to correct the problem of evil within an eternal schema.
Another response, which addresses the issue of suffering head on is that evil is necessary to test us, to instruct us, and to permit us to mature within ourselves. It is possible to view the Old Testament Book of Job in this light. Satan tests Job’s loyalty to God, hoping Job will ultimately denounce God. Satan, however, fails in his endeavour. Good, in this case, ultimately triumphs over evil, although it can only do so at a great cost. The need for evil, in this view, is that, without it, we would be spoiled children who became selfish, insensitive and irresponsible. Our fall from grace may actually be understood as a ‘fortunate fall’, through which we acquire wisdom and maturity. The atheist responds to this argument by saying ‘very well, but, in that case, why is there so much suffering in the world? Surely there could be less?
A final answer might be seen in the role of Dualism, which was widely present in early Christianity, but which the Church sought to downplay as orthodoxy gained ground in Christian thinking. This was touched on earlier, but, in orthodox teaching, it continues to suppose the reality of spiritual warfare. Evil exists as a result of an ongoing war between heaven and hell for the human soul. This war will only end at the end of time. In orthodox belief good will vanquish evil, in a similar manner to the Revelation account of St. Michael the Archangel trampling the beast underfoot.
Questions for discussion
What is your idea of Hell?
Do you believe in everlasting damnation, or just for a finite time?
What do you think is the best response to the problem of evil?
If God could create the world without evil would the Crucifixtion make any sense?
If evil is a necessary part of Creation was the Crucifixtion the only way God could finally overcome evil? Why do you think Jesus HAD to die?
The Devil’s greatest trick is to convince you that he does not exist. What do you think of this statement?
1 D Miller, Hells and Holy Ghosts, p. 13.
2 D. Miller pp. 14-15.
3 J. B. Russel, The Devil, Perceptions of Evil From Antiquity to Primitive Christianity pp. 222-223.
4 Ibid. p. 223. Russel goes on to claim, in a footnote, that ‘This argument works, if it works at all, against the idea of the Christian God, but not against a monist God, from whose being evil is not excluded. Some athiets address themselves, rather reluctantly, to the problem of monist theodicy, but most have paid Christianity the curious compliment of insisting upon a Christian definition of the deity. Matson, for example, in his 1965 study, The Existence of God, dismisses unorthodox theism as a refusal to play by the rules of the game. The rules of the game, as Matson sees them, consist in defining God in such a way that Matson will be able to disprove his existence.
Each year St Edward¹s supports a number of good causes. We try to focus on things where we have personal links and which we really know about. The Chapter has decided to support an orphanage in Sierra Leone with which Marcus Ramshaw has links through friends working in Sierra Leone. He will be visiting immediately after Easter, and there will be an opportunity for him to tell us more when he gets back, but here is some basic information about the project.
The orphanage, east of Freetown, was founded in 1996 to take care of children orphaned and abandoned as a result of the civil war which has devastated the country. It is a Christian-run, community-based organisation which accepts destitute and homeless children regardless of religion or ethnic background. All of the children have tragic backgrounds. Some were found abandoned after rebels had attacked their villages, some were present when their parents met with brutal deaths, some do not know if their parents are still alive.
The orphanage had to vacate their initial, very primitive premises last year, and they have been raising funds for a new building, a basic structure on land that has been given them. A local architect drew up plans without charge and local companies are providing materials and labour at cost. They have raised most of the funds needed, and the new building has just been opened. The orphanage has so far assisted 463 children, some of whom have been adopted by foster parents, and at the present time 60 children are resident. In addition to the Orphanage, there is also a Primary School, a Vocational Centre and a Foster Parents Anti-Poverty Programme.
Funds are desperately needed to finally meet the costs of the new orphanage and to equip it properly. Some of the urgent needs are for such things as sealed water containers, kerosene lamps, a small generator, kitchen and laundry bowls, plastic bowls and mugs for the children. Regular supplies of nutritional food and medical treatment are always urgently needed, including toiletries and basic medicines. Children¹s clothes are always needed too. A recent visitor wrote, “I was so impressed by the dedication of all concerned in running it that I decided to try to give what little assistance I could. I am sure anyone else visiting it would be as equally impressed.”
A special service to mark the beginning of the New Year, followed by ringing
in of the New Year on the church bells, and refreshments in the ringing chamber.
Special Parochial Church Meeting
- Following the recent informal meetings to discuss issues arising from my paper on Priorities for Ministry, I have consulted the Chapter about how to proceed. With their support, I have decided to convene a special Parochial Church Meeting. Initially, I thought informal meetings were a better way for us to discuss these things, but I have become aware that some people feel strongly that there should be a formal meeting at which resolutions can be passed, and have petitioned for such a meeting.
- It is important for us to find a procedure for handling these issues that is as broadly acceptable as possible. Accordingly, I give notice that it is my intention to convene a special Parochial Church Meeting at 2.00 pm on Saturday February 11th. A formal notice of the meeting will be posted in due course. Also, though this is not required, the Chapter will send a notice of the meeting to everyone on the Electoral Roll.
- There may be members of the Church who are eligible to join the Electoral Roll (eg. who are baptised and have attended worship at St Edwards for six months or more) but who have not yet applied. If so, they are welcome to do so. Forms are available at the back of the Church, and should be given to Marcus Ramshaw, the Electoral Roll Officer by Jan 19th. The meeting will be conducted on the basis of the Roll that obtains on Friday Jan 20th, when a list of names on the Roll will be posted on the Church notice-board. Fraser Watts
- Parish Communion: Please note that the 11.00 Parish Communion this month will be in January 8th, when we will keep the Feast of the Epiphany.
- The Unseen Creation: Following the success of this course last Autumn five extra sessions are being arranged to start on January 19th, at 7.30pm for 8pm. Each of these takes place on a Thursday evening at 19 Grantchester Rd. The first of these on January 19th will look at how we are to understand the Devil, does he really exist? On January 26th we will discuss Jesus’ curing of people who were possessed by demons in the Gospels. How are we to understand these stories. On February 2nd we will discuss the Paranormal: Can a Christian believe in ghosts? How does this fit in with Christian theology? On February 9th we will look at the Mystical Vision. What can we learn from Christian mystical writers and how should we approach the Book of Revelation in the New Testament – perhaps the hardest book in the Bible to understand. Finally, on February 16th we will draw together themes brought up throughout the course. There will also be a social event for those attending on February 23rd. If you wish to join the course (it doesn’t matter if you have not been before) please contact Marcus on firstname.lastname@example.org
- Friday Meditation: The weekly meditation will resume on Jan 6th . On that occasion the silence will be preceded by a short and simple act of Holy Communion.
- Holistic Spirituality Group: The first two meetings of the New Year will be about the psychologist, C G Jung. Both on Sundays at 3.30 pm in Church. All welcome. Further details from Fraser.
- January 22nd Patricia Elwood Jung and the Relationship to the Unconscious
- February 12th Fraser Watts Jung and Christian Renewal
- Christian Unity: The annual week of prayer for Christian Unity is from January 18th to 25th. and it will be the theme of the readings and sermon at the 11.00 am service on January 22nd.
- The Goth Eucharist: There will be a Goth Eucharist at 8.30pm for 8.45pm on Tuesday January 10th. All are very welcome to attend. It will last about forty-five minutes. More details will appear in the New Year.
This season of Advent, more than any other season in the church year, is about time; Advent places Christ in the context of time. We reflect on the long march of time that has led up to the incarnation of God in Christ, and we reflect on the great future that stems from that incarnation.
So let’s think about the long march of time leading up to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem: and in that long preparation I would want to include the evolution of species such as ourselves with sufficiently advanced mental capacities for that incarnation to be possible – and then the formation of a particular nation – the Jewish people – in whom the ground was further prepared for the birth of Jesus, a people in whom great prophets like Isaiah played an important role, a people shaped by historical events, like the exile in Babylon and their dream of returning to Jerusalem to build their temple there.
But advent isn’t only about the timeline that surrounds the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, because the incarnation is not just a once only event – it’s also about the birth of Christ in each one of us, and in society as a whole, in the church, in wider society. And when Christmas comes, we will sing that lovely carol O little town of Bethlehem – with that crucial line, ‘Be born in us today’. So advent is not only about how the long march of time prepared for Jesus of Nazareth; it is also about our past, and how we can use our past to prepare for the birth of Jesus within us.
And if we are going to prepare for the birth of Jesus within us, we have to come to terms with our past, to heal our past, to reshape our past. And the past for all of us is a mixture of good and bad. We all of us look back on our past with mixed emotion; no-one has a past that is all bad, but equally most of us don’t have a past which is all good either – we look back on it with some regret and sadness. And it’s perhaps good that it should be so; life would be rather monochrome if it were otherwise…
Last time we spoke about Julian, we did an overview of her life and talked about her most remarkable achievement – she was the first woman to write a book and have it circulated in her own lifetime. Her book was an astonishing advance in theology – a tremendous gospel of compassion, just when England and the church was being riven by dissention; she was a woman of extraordinary vision, praying to Christ that she might be made ill to participate in the sufferings of those around her that were dying of the plague.
This time we focus on Julian’s parable of the servant. The parable of the servant can be examined in (1) in its universal sense, as a clear revelation about the fall of humanity and its restoration; we will also look at it (2) in Julian’s own, historically context and finally (3) in the context of the sad divisions in the church today.
The parable describes a servant who stands before his Lord, who goes to do his will, who falls into the pit, who suffers, and to whom the Lord promises a restoration. In a sense it’s a retelling of the fall of Adam, but it focusses on sin as a form of woundedness that prevents us from seeing what is truly there and what should truly be…