The True God and the Real World

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

my-name-is-paul

So last week I saw this editorial from the “Scientific American”. [The New Science of Sex and Gender – Scientific American](https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-new-science-of-sex-and-gender/). It is not itself a piece of science, but I was moved on reading it to tweet this: “The real world is complex, and we find out more about it each moment. However it is, Christians believe God made it”

 

And as I thought more about it I found myself thinking about fear and love, and the true God and the real world. And this is what I thought:

 

 

Our confidence is in God, whom we believe to be the true God. When Elisha’s servant was intimidated by the armies of Aram, the prophet was calm: “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” (2Kings 6:16) The writer of 1 John shared the same confidence, “for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

 

This true God, the God revealed in Christ, the God who is Christlike and in whom there is no un-Christlikeness at all, this true God made and loves the world. The world God made and loves is the real world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

 

The real world is loved by God, saved and not condemned, real as it is. And the way the world is becomes clearer as we seek to understand it better. It  seems to me, then, that the Christian approach to the real world should be open, calm, loving, free from any sense of threat or fear. The surprises of science, the shocks of culture, the mysteries and realities of pain, suffering, sickness, evil – all these are seen and gently held within the still-greater mysteries of creation, incarnation and redemption.

 

But we must know that this calm and open spirit is not the way Christians are usually perceived by those around us. On the contrary we as a people are seen as defensive, jealous of our rights, nostalgic for the time when we were important, resistant to change, ready to attack any insight that surprises our existing worldview, just as the Pharisees and Sadducees were when the true God came among them in the real world, in the person of a carpenter’s son, scandalously human. 

 

We are seen always to be fighting, and often we are. Some of us want to diminish God’s truth by approximating God’s call to the call of the leader of the nation, as the self-styled  “German Christians” did in the 1930s and as so many self-styled “evangelicals” seem to be doing in the US today. Others of us want to turn from the world’s reality to a diminished little place sparsely peopled by God and God’s chosen, complacently counter-cultural, disdainful of so much around, as many have done through the ages and as the so-called “Benedict Option” asks us to do today. 

 

And if we are Anglicans we must know that the conversations within our Church too, and within our Communion, are so rarely marked by the pure and peaceable wisdom that the Bible commends (James 3:17). Instead we too fight the culture wars, to the gleeful entertainment of the world and the despair of those who seek God in our lives. 

 

And yet it seems to me that one of the geniuses of Anglicanism is that in our messy and foolish via-media way we have the tools to work together to turn away from these mistakes. 

 

We have the via-media capacity to trust God to have made the world well, even if we are surprised by the discoveries of science and the realities of experience; even if the world is not the way they thought it was in Victorian times, or in the Middle Ages, or in the time of the Bible. 

 

We have the via-media capacity to trust the Bible to have pointed the way as the way of love, even if in the time of the Bible, or in the Middle Ages, or in Victorian times, or today, we did and do not love each other as we should. 

 

We have the via-media capacity for self-awareness, even in the midst of all the shrill self-assertions that pass for conversation in our Church.

 

Because perfection still rests in God, and we are called to be perfect as God is perfect (Matt 5:48), and we are taught that the way to move towards that perfection is in love. The writer of 1 John wanted us to know that it is perfect love that casts out all fear (1Jn 4:18). The writer did not say that it is perfect strength that casts out fear, nor that it is perfect faith, nor perfect truth. All these things are lovely, but they rest in God and in God’s perfection and they are God’s gifts. For us the via-media road is the road of love, the road to perfect love, as John of the Cross understood when he wrote that “in the evening of our lives we shall be examined in love”.

 

A real world that is complex and surprising and in many ways mysterious, and a call of the true God to walk in love in the real world God loves, and the gift of the via media, the Middle Way, the way of open, trusting, fearless loving. These are the poles of our discipleship and the road on which we can walk. And as I have been on this road since I was newly born, so I will continue on this road until I die, this messy road of the Middle Way, my road and the road of my people.

 

Anyway, that’s what I thought. What do you think?

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12 Responses to The True God and the Real World

  1. Ian says:

    What do I think? That you rightly call us away from unthinkingly being sucked into the culture wars, which are largely unproductive and often superficial.

    But I am puzzled by your partial and decontextualising reading of John 3. Is there a reason why you stop reading at verse 17? It surely cannot be detached from what immediately follows in verses 18 and 19: ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

    Seeking to be Christlike will mean being caught up in conflict (John’s whole gospel is styled in the manner of a trial narrative, according to Andrew Lincoln) about what really is the truth, and it means that the reality of the world as God created it and intended it to be (for which Paul uses the term ‘nature’) won’t match up to the way that culture and even some aspect of ‘science’ will claim for it.

    Will we, like Christ, be faithful witness to God’s revelation about his intention for us and for the world?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pete Jermey says:

      Ian

      I’m intrigued if you see a disconnect between “the world as God created it and intended it to be” and the (true) real world that we live in.

      Do you believe that if science were able to truly see the world then it would match creation and intention of God?

      Or

      Do you believe that there is a genuine disconnect (perhaps due to the fall)?

      If you believe the latter (which I suspect you do) then the BIG question is how do we deal with that?

      I guess part of the problem is that not only do we not see a true picture of reality, we *really* do not see a true picture of God’s creation or intention.

      Like

      • Ian says:

        ‘Do you believe that there is a genuine disconnect (perhaps due to the fall)?

        If you believe the latter (which I suspect you do) then the BIG question is how do we deal with that?’

        Yes of course I do. That is part of the central narrative of Christian theology. If you don’t think that, then I might be curious as to what you think Christian faith is all about.

        The overarching narrative of Scripture is that God is creator, but the creation has in some sense fallen from God’s good intention. God’s redemptive activity in Israel, Jesus and ekklesia is about the restoration of what is lost, as we await the final consummation when the whole of creation will experience renewal.

        So my observation isn’t trivial or marginal; it is about whether or not we engage with the large narrative of God’s redemptive activity.

        What are we to do about it? Listen to what God says has gone wrong; welcome the coming of his kingdom in our lives through repentance and faith; contribute to that restoration where we can; proclaim to others the good news of God’s restorative power offered by his Spirit; and wait patiently for the End to come.

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    • Pete Jermey says:

      Ian

      Thank you for your reply.

      Repentance is of course a good thing and it is a Christian attitude to be in frequent repentance for behaviours that we have done wrong. I do not see how this is relevant in terms of science seeing the created world.

      On question time this week I got a bit irritated by David Dimblebys annoyance at having a question on the environment. This is one way that we can repent and put the created world into a better state and arguably more towards one that God intended.

      Also this week I saw a three legged dog hobbling along. No amount of repentance is going to restore his third leg.

      There are sufficient numbers of gay Christians (both “conservatives” and “liberals”) to demonstrate that gay orientation is not something someone can merely repent their way out of. I hope you agree. So the big question remains unanswered and – I’m sorry, but waiting patiently aka “kicking into the long grass” isn’t an option on life and death issues.

      Like

      • Ian says:

        No, repentance is not a ‘good thing’. It is the fundamental pre-requisite, because of (according to the NT) the deep disjuncture between the way the world is and the way that God intended the world to be and remakes it when his rule (in the form of the kingdom of God) comes to be.

        That deep disjuncture, according to scripture, involves human sin, but also all the ways that the world is not as God intended. This includes the whole range of disordered desires, including (according to Scripture) sexual desire for one’s own sex. As with your three-legged dog, these are not necessarily things one can ‘repent of’—but neither can one look at them and say ‘That is the way that the world is, therefore that is the way that the world should be’.

        All the prominent commentators in this discussion, including all the people that you have engaged with in the context of my blog and my Facebook posts, make quite clear that it is not same-sex attractive which calls for repentance, but acting on it. That is also the way that all the statements of the Church of England have been framed. Indeed, making this distinction has been one of the central points of most ‘traditionalist’ arguments. If you are still able to put ‘repentance’ and ‘sexual orientation’ in the same sentence as you do above, then it suggests that you haven’t yet understood the basic shape of my position, so all this discussion so far does not appeared to have delivered even the beginnings of mutual understanding.

        Like

      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        Pete, I think the best example of what Ian is calling for is repentance for acting on what he believes is an ungodly impulse. It’s akin to adulterous behaviour if you’re married – where one should never act on one’s impulses or cross any boundaries, but if you do then you need to repent of what you’ve done. The question then becomes whether you should repent of this publicly or privately.

        Obviously you (Pete) and I do not believe that being in a same sex relationship is wrong, and therefore there is nothing to repent of. In addition, it’s worth noting that there’s a whole range of beliefs as to what people say you can and can’t do in such relationships, and what is actually sex and what isn’t.

        Like

      • Ian says:

        Jayne is correct in this—and this leads to the point that I began with. To determine what patterns of sexual relationship are holy or not, one cannot simply look at the world as it is and say ‘Well X is natural’. That seems to be the direction that Paul Bayes is heading in here, and it is not one that can easily form part of Christian theological reflection. We need to read scripture carefully, and in this regards Scripture is fairly clear and consistent. It is not a large issue, simply because there is little evidence of any dissent from this position prior to the modern era.

        Like

      • Pete Jermey says:

        Jayne, Ian

        But the article – as far as I can remember – was about what science tells us about reality so it’s not really relevant to speak of chosen behaviours.

        I think all three of us would say that science alone cannot tell us about reality as God intended it to be, but it can tell us the reality of what people experience.

        If churches decide to oppose or not tolerate relationships for gay people then there needs to be a recognition that there are people who have a God-given need to be in relationship, but with no permitted path for that. It seems to me that it would be far more fruitful for churches /Christians who believe this to be putting energy into seeking solutions for this.

        Just continually repeating that gay people need to repent isn’t a solution.

        Like

      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        Couldn’t agree more Pete – well said.

        Like

  2. Pingback: Bishop Paul Bayes on ‘God and the Real World’ | Kiwianglo's Blog

  3. Pete Jermey says:

    I think the inability of pretty much all denominations to truly accept scientific discoveries has caused no end of damage to the church and its mission. It hasn’t kept the gospel message pure (as we see in the US) and has actively driven many away from faith.

    Like

  4. Edward Ford says:

    Our task as Christians is not to judge others actions but to judge our own. The descendants of Abraham were chosen to be an example to the world of how to live with God in your life, but in the end that covenant was replaced because they strayed. God sent his Son so that we all could have a covenant with God through Him. Each individual knows their own covenant and how well they stick to it. The reality of God’s creation is unknown to us, but scientific research reveals the results of that creation. It is a shame on our Christianity that our research so often goes to help the few rather than the many or is diverted towards destruction rather than assistance of those in need.

    Like

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