Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blessed be He who has imparted His wisdom to His creatures

Sacks and Watson were both awarded Hon Degrees
from Cambridge in the same ceremony in 1993
(photos from Chief Rabbinate and Wikipedia)

There are more gems from The Great Partnership though of course I don't agree with everything he says:
  • Curiosity leads to science, but it also leads to questions unanswerable by science. The search for God is the search for meaning.
  • Wittgenstein wrote: "The sense of the world must lie outside the world" (Tractatus 6.41)
  • Imagine what it would take to explain to someone who had no conception of money, what is involved in withdrawing cash from a dispensing machine. He might watch the process a thousand times, understand precisely the physical properties of the ...card and the ...machine, and still have no idea what had taken place.
  • Monotheism was...the discovery of a God beyond the universe. This idea, and this alone, has the power to redeem life from tragedy and meaninglessness.
  • We cannot prove that life is meaningful and that God exists. But neither can we prove that love is better than hate...Almost none of the truths by which we live are provable.
  • The world as conceived... by the new atheists is recognisably the world of ancient Greece in the third pre-Christian century, the age of the Stoics, Sceptics, Cynics and above all the Epicureans.
  • Western civilisation was born in the synthesis between Athens and Jerusalem brought about by Pauline Christianity and the conversion of Emperor Constantine...It was an astonishing, improbable event and it eventually transformed the world.
  • "Who are you" asks Moses. God replies, cryptically, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This was translated into Greek as ego eimi ho on and into Latin as ego sum qui sum meaning "I am who I am" or "I am he who is"...But this is the God of...the philosophers, not the God of Abraham and the prophets. Ehyeh asher ehyeh means "I will be what, where or how I will be"., {Though with great trepidation I must gently point out that Lord Sacks knows so well that he doesn't feel the need to tell his readers that it isn't that simple. In Biblical Hebrew there are just two tenses: perfect (v roughly past) and imperfect (v roughly present and future) so what he really means is "I am and will be what, where or how I am and will be"  But of course Lord Sacks is quite right that although God's essential nature doesn't change he really does interact dynamically with his creation - a point that the Greek philosophers didn't understand}
  • [receiving] an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University together with ... James Watson...gave me the opportunity of saying the ancient blessing...thanking God for bestowing wisdom on human beings. Essentially it is a blessing to be said on seeing a great scientist...The Talmud says it is to be said on seeing 'one of the sages of the nations of the world'. {The blessing runs "Blessed be He who has imparted His wisdom to His creatures"}

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Dawkins in Decline (from Google Trends)



An interesting news report about a paper which uses Google Trends to suggest the eventual demise of Facebook prompts me to look at this service. Is there similar evidence that Richard Dawkins is losing his influence?

Looking at the Google Trends graph there seems to be a slow but fairly steady decline since The God Delusion. The graph is scaled to peak at 100 and he is now at 29, so on this measure he as lost over 70% of his influence since his peak.

If we download the weekly data and then take a 20 week Weighted Moving Average we get the graph shown from the start of 2012 onwards. There is no material difference between the exponential and linear fits: we can reasonably expect Dawkins to be down below 20% of his peak influence (on this measure) in about 30-50 months.

Google Trends graph for Richard Dawkins
To put Dawkins' influence in context it's off-the-scale insignificant compared to that of Jesus, whose influence shows no signs of decline whatsoever.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The first meeting with Jesus for John the Evangelist?

St John Baptist Bearing Witness
Anniballi Caracci (Met)
The Gospel today was about John the Baptist referring two disciples to Jesus.
'...The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples;and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said "Behold, the Lamb of God!"  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said. "What do you seek?" And they said to him, "Rabbi (which means Teacher) where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see."  They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, it was about the tenth hour.  Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter was one of the two ...'

The point that stuck in my mind was why does it record "It was about the tenth hour."?  Space is precious in a scroll. So I pondered on this at home.

John' Gospel only mentions the time specifically on two other occasions (it was about the 6th hour when Jesus sits down with the woman of Samaria and when Pilate hands over Jesus to be crucified) but I don’t think this is the point.

We hear about John (the Baptist) and then John’s words to his disciples and then two of John’s disciples go to follow Jesus. One was Andrew who fetches Peter – who was the other one? We’re never told explicitly. But the Evangelist says “it was about the 10th hour”. How does he know?

He could have asked someone who was there at the time but this is a very odd detail to question someone about. I think he knows because he was the other disciple. And he mentions it to say in a modest and oblique way “I was there”. The time you first began to follow Jesus and meet him properly would be something you would remember forever. So this suggests that John the Evangelist was originally a disciple of John the Baptist, who hears John’s testimony and is the first along with Andrew to follow Jesus. But of course he never names himself in the Gospel – he is always “the other disciple”.

And there is no other incident in John which could be read as “the call of John”. Matthew records his calling and again it would be very odd to write a Gospel which didn’t give an account of the first time you met Jesus. And we know that James and John and Andrew and Peter were good friends.

Then I looked at the commentaries:
  • Tom Wright says “this passage introduces us to a shadowy character who is going to flit across the pages of this gospel several times …there is quite a good chance that this was John” 
  • William Barclay says “it may very well be that [the author] finishes that way because he was one of the two himself” 
  • CK Barrett says (in Peake) “it is possible (but beyond proof) that the other was John the son of Zebedee”
John Chrysostom says (Homily XVIII on John) "Wherefore then has he not made known the name of the other also? Some say, because it was the writer himself that followed; others, not so, but that he was not one of the distinguished disciples" though it seems that Chrysostom inclines towards the latter theory.

So I feel I'm in quite good company. What do people think?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Janie Dee in Putting it Together

A curtain call
To the St James Theatre to see our brilliant friend Janie Dee in Putting it Together a review based on Sondheim songs - the successor in fact of Side by Side by Sondheim.

The theatre is very new and a nice size with about 350 capacity. I was in row B so very near the stage - in fact Janie ad-libbed something at the beginning which she told me afterwards was because she had seen me in the audience.  Some old favourite songs were in there ("Ladies who lunch" and "Being Alive") but also songs from musicals I didn't know existed such as Dick Tracy (not in fact a musical but a film with a stellar cast including Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe and Dick Van Dyke, which won three Oscars) and Frogs (whose original student production at Yale had Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the cast). 

According to the blurb they only got permission to do the show on the basis that they would get their dream cast and certainly they have very fine people. Janie is of course simply The Best - but in David Bedella, Daniel Crossley, Damian Humbley and the lovely Caroline Sheen they have a great team. David won an Olivier Award for Jerry Springer The Opera and I think Daniel and Caroline toured together in Mary Poppins. Caroline got to sing "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy which was done by Madonna and which won Sondheim his (only) Oscar for best original song. The show concludes with Old Friends.

Janie very sweetly introduced me to everyone in the cast backstage but for various reasons we couldn't hit town together afterwards.

The audience loved the show and you should catch it while you can - it runs until the 1st of Feb

Friday, January 17, 2014

Jonathan Sacks' terrific book The Great Partnership

Jonathan Sacks - courtesy Wikipedia
Reading Jonathan Sacks' terrific book The Great Partnership which has been on my shelf for a while. He pulls no punches! Here are some gems from the Introduction:
  • If the new atheists are right, you would have to be sad, mad of bad to believe in God and practice a religious faith. We know that is not so.
  • When a society loses its religion it tends not to last very long thereafter. It discovers that having severed the ropes that moor its morality to something transcendent, all it has left is relativism, and relativism is incapable of defending anything, including itself. When a society loses its soul it is about to lose its future.
  • Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.
  • When you treat things as people, the result is myth... When you treat people as things, the result is dehumanisation.
  • In a world in which God is believed to exist, the primary fact is relationship...In a world without God, the primary reality is 'I' the atomic self. There are other people, but they are not as real to me as I am to myself. Hence all the insoluble problems that philosophers have wrestled with unsuccessfully for two and a half thousand years.
  • We cannot lose faith without losing much else besides, but this happens slowly, and by the time we discover the cost it is usually too late to put things back together again.
  • Atheism gives no reason to think the world could be otherwise. Faith does, and thereby gives us the will and courage to transform the world.
  • If neo-Darwinism is true...then every neo-Darwinian should abandon atheism immediately and become a religious believer, because no genes have spread more widely than those of Abraham and no memes more extensively than that of monotheism.
  • We make a great mistake if we think of monotheism as a linear development from polytheism...Monotheism is something else entirely. The meaning of a system lies outside the system. Therefore the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe. Monotheism, by discovering the transcendental God...made it possible for the first time to believe that life had a meaning.
  • The Greeks understood tragedy better than any other civilisation before or since. Ancient Israel, though it suffered much, had no sense of tragedy. It did not even have a word for it... There was no Sophocles in ancient Israel. There was no Isaiah in ancient Greece.
  • People have often noticed...that there is not one account of creation at the beginning of Genesis, but two...The Bible...sees the capacity to graps multiple perspectives as essential to understanding the human condition.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Cambridge Development Initiative Launch

A full house at the CDI Launch
Last night to the public launch of the Cambridge Development Initiative which is a student-run development consultancy. Daughter is the Events Officer so she had helped to organise it and I came to support and learn more.

They key speakers with Lord Alton, Lord Malloch-Brown and Simon Anholt - none of whom I knew though I knew the first two by reputation and we had friends in common. My friend Eldryd Parry was one of the invited guests.

It was a very inspiring event, with presentations from the co-founders and from the leaders of the four projects as well as from the keynote speakers. It was also very full as you can see from the photo and I expect they will have got a lot of volunteers.

Lord Alton started by speaking of Thomas Clarkson who (he said) had abandoned his studies at Cambridge after writing an essay against the slave trade, and had played a major role in its abolition. It turned out that Lord Malloch-Brown had, with one of his old Professors who became a colleague at the UNDP, recently endowed an essay prize about modern slavery named in honour of Peter Peckard - the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge who had set the prize question for Clarkson!

Afterwards there was a reception kindly hosted by Greg Winter in the Master's Lodge at Trinity. Eldryd, David Alton and I then travelled back by train together and there was a most inspiring conversation mainly between Eldryd and David about Christian witness in difficult circumstances and our hopes for unity.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Epiphany, John Lucas and Rowan Williams

Adoration of the Magi by
Benveneuto di Giovanni. NGA.
Happy New Year!

Although Epiphany is tomorrow we get the readings today. What are we to make of the Magi?  They appear to be astrologers/astronomers (there was no real distinction until about the 18th century) and it is hard to believe that their astrological observations were inherently valid. But sincerely seeking God they were led to find Him - doing the right thing for the wrong reasons as is so often the case with humans even in the relatively rare cases where we get to do the right things.

It was great to see nine friends/acquaintances in the New Years Honours List, of whom the most distinguished is Onora O'Neill who becomes a CH. Curiously she is one of  only two FBA on this and the only FBA FRS there.

The great John Lucas sent us a Christmas card drawing our attention to his musings on the Gospels and the identity of Barabbas. In general John's ideas are very interesting and his point about the gospels not having a "publication date" is certainly valid. However the idea that Barabbas was a misunderstanding and that Pilate was in fact asking about acquitting Jesus on one or other of the charges is brilliant but far-fetched in the extreme. After all Barabbas was a brigand who had committed a murder. However he may well have had the name Jesus which was quite a common one.

Finished Rowan Williams' brilliant "Tokens of Trust" and let me finish with 12 gems from this:
  • The single central thing is the conviction that for us to be at peace Jsus' life had to be given up. It isn't that a vengeful and inflexible God demands satisfaction, more that the way the world is makes it inevitable that the way to our freedom lies through the self-giving of Jesus, even to the point of death. (p88)
  • When we have done our worst, God remains God - and remains committed to being our God...The resurrection displays God's triumphant love as still and for ever having the shape of Jesus (p91).
  • Christianity is a contact before it is a message (p92)
  • When we celebrate Easter, we are really standing in the middle of a second 'Big Bang'. (p95)
  • Perhaps the place to begin thinking about [those mysterious words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper] is to hear it as Jesus saying of the bread, "This too is my body; this is as much a carrier of my life and identity as my literal flesh and blood"...We prayerfully give in Jesus' hands the bread and the wine so that his prayer may be made over them...What he prays for happens...So the bread and the wine are given back to us, transformed by the Spirit, to make us more deeply what we already are, and to confirm the bond that God has created between himself and us (pp116-7)
  • What we call [the Bible's] inspiration is its capacity to be a vehicle for the Holy Spirit, making Jesus vividly present in our minds and hearts, and so making his challenge and invitation immediate for us. (p122)
  • It is one of the oddities of the 'Death of God' movement...that it professed an intense commitment to Jesus..yet wanted to sidestep the central importance in all that we know of Jesus of his relation to the one he called 'Abba, Father.' (p136)
  • To be in the Church is to be in the middle of that divine life, which Jesus uncovers for us - the outpouring and returning and sharing...the threefold rhythm of love, Father, Son and Spirit. Those are the waves which surge around you as you try to live the life of discipleship, which is not the following of a distant figure...but participation in the rhythm that sustains the universe.(p136)
  • Ultimately Christians believe in eternal life not because they believe something about themselves as human...but because they believe something about God. [that God is trustworthy] (p144)
  • Perhaps we should add a fifth mark of the Church to the four in the Creed ... one, holy, catholic, apostolic and repentant.
  • One of the odder things in our culture is that we seem to tolerant of all sorts of behaviour, yet are deeply unforgiving. (p152).
  • Prayer is letting God be himself in and for us...being carried on an invisible current of love that is sometimes discernible to us but often (painfully) not. (pp157-8).
May that current of God's love carry us all further and deeper in this exciting year.