Saturday, 26 September 2009

An update

I'm beginning to get into the swing of things now as Team Leader with UCCF in the North East.

This past week was a week of building gospel partnerships. There have been a number of meetings with other Christians: I met with representatives of eleven different mission agencies earlier in the week. These mission agencies come together to think, along with UCCF, how world mission can be better profiled and promoted amongst CU students. I came away with a lot of thinking to do - lots of exciting prospects ahead.

I've also met with a number of church leaders this week. Perhaps the highlight of the week was meeting the Yorkshire gathering of Newfrontiers ministers. I love the heart for Jesus and his gospel these folks have, and how that transfers itself in strong relationships and a commitment to church planting. It was exciting to hear about two plants that will happen in the next few months. I was also really encouraged by how many there wanted to develop stronger partnerships with CUs.

These were two very different gatherings, but I've spent the week reflecting on the second half of Galatians 2 having studied it with Hamish in Durham. How wonderful it is when Christians recognise that - above all, and through all of the differences - we have our justification in Christ in common.

Next week I'm heading back down again to Quinta in Shropshire; this time to speak at Durham CU's 'Freshers' Getaway'. There will be about 70 students coming away, 40 of them new Freshers. I'm really amazed at how this whole venture has come together and really excited by the thought of encouraging these Freshers to thrive as Christians during their time at university before they even start. To that end, I'll be teaching from the book of Daniel. Do pray that as I speak the Spirit will speak and reveal more of Jesus.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Now but not yet

I've been enjoying Alec Motyer's brilliant little book Journey which is a devotional guide to the psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134). These were the songs that pilgrims sang as they wound their way to Jerusalem for the three feasts each year.

One of the things that Motyer notes is that, throughout the psalms, the psalmists note that - even at the height of the Davidic covenant, at the height of Jerusalem's security and fame, and when the Temple is fully inaugurated - there must be more to come. Psalm 122, for instance, celebrates the throngs gathered for worship in Zion (verses 1-5), yet the need to pray for the future peace and prosperity of Jerusalem remains (verses 6-9). There is more to come. New Testament readers know that this is the new Jerusalem of Hebrews 12 and Revelation 21-22.

Reading Psalm 27 today with my boss Tim, we noticed something that is perhaps similar. David longs to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of his life - yet, this is something that as a member of the tribe of Judah (and therefore not a Levite or a priest) was not accessible to him. Yet David longs to seek the face of the LORD. Is this perhaps another occasion where the psalmists point beyond themselves, prophetically knowing that there is more to come?

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Is God merely a psychological crutch for the weak?

I've been giving some thinking over recent months to the above question. My post on Robbie Williams' latest song, Bodies, shows that the question regarding whether or not God is a psychological crutch is alive and well. Here are a few of my thoughts:

The presupposition behind the question: that there is widespread internal desire for the spiritual. This is true. A 2005 worldwide survey placed belief in the spiritual realm at 90%. Popular culture also attests to this fact. Sam Sparro's 2008 grammy nominated song Black and Gold, for instance, is about the seemingly innate longing for God.

The charge: God is merely a psychological crutch. People like Sam Sparro – and perhaps you – so desire ‘something bigger than them’ that they project these desires onto a big screen and call it ‘God’. Theorists from Marx to Freud have argued that, in some way, God is merely a figment of the imagination, a kind of wish-fulfilment.

The psychological crutch is a well-documented phenomenon, in academia and in popular culture. The Tom Hanks film Castaway depicts psychological crutches that help Hanks' character Noland to survive under extreme pressure: the most famous being Wilson, the volleyball that Noland turns into his confidante and friend. Richard Dawkins, when examining the Pacific cargo cults - a religious system very obviously rooting from psychological need - claims that all religious belief evolves in this manner. We desire certain things, and so we conjure up spiritual entities – God or gods – in whom we place hope in to bring us what we need.

Taking on the argument

1. The charge that belief in God is a product of wish-fulfilment for believers can be countered by the charge that unbelief might be a product of wish-fulfilment for unbelievers. Arguments that don’t rest upon objective evidence can cut both ways. If one group attributes the other’s view to emotion or sociology or psychological need, then the other only needs to reply in kind. Non-belief in God could, itself, be a form of wish-fulfilment.

For example, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hypothesised that belief in the existence of God as "merely a projection of a childish wish for the protection of the father.” But this statement can be turned around. As the psychologist Philip Witz has recently written, Freud had a very bad relationship with his own father. Whereas religious belief might be rendered merely a childish need for a father figure, the non-belief of others such Freud could be characterised as a form of adolescent rebellion against the father-figure of God.

Moreover, CS Lewis showed that there is a psychological dynamic of ‘fear fulfillment’: in other words, that people have reasons to wish God non-existence as well as his existence. According to Freud’s own theory of universal subconsciousness, a person would seem to have at least as plausible a psychological basis for wanting to do away with a Father in heaven as wanting to believe in him.

2. Not all forms of belief in God or gods can be lumped together. Richard Dawkins writes: ‘I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead, I shall define the God Hypothesis as this: there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual human evolution’. It sounds fair enough – that Dawkins wants to somehow remain politically correct and attack everyone’s gods!

But there's a flaw in this argument: just because some belief in God can be shown to be psychological doesn’t mean that all belief in God is psychological. No doubt some forms of religious belief are merely psychological, but it is logically fallacious to say that therefore all belief in God is merely psychology. Dawkins’ view assumes (without any argument) that all religions have the same basic core components, which can all be explained as projections of psychological crutches. All gods, and hence all religions, are simply projections of human desires. But there are differences between religions – crucially including how God is made known and is knowable.

3. Christian belief in God is not primarily founded in human experience, but in God's own revelation of himself. The Christian writer Gresham Machen wrote, 'The only God about whom I feel concerned is one who has objective existence, an existence independent of man. But if there be such a really and independently existent Being, it seems extremely unlikely that there can be any knowledge of Him unless He chooses to reveal Himself.' This is where Christianity differs to every other religion and philosophy. Whereas, for whatever reason – psychological factors or an inbuilt desire to want to know God – other religions are about humanity trying to find God, Christianity is about God coming to find humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that the way of knowing what God is like is not internal, but based upon revelation in human space and time.

An alternative perspective on spiritual desire

The Bible endorses the idea that each of us has a desire for God, and with it a primal longer for fulfilment and significance. We feel that without God we’re incomplete. But, according to the Bible, this feeling of incompleteness is no crutch or hope for an imaginary friend. Rather, it teaches is that humans are not accidents, but that we were created in the image and the likeness of God. As relational creatures made in the likeness of a relational Creator, it’s not at all surprising that we want to relate to God. We long for God because we have been created to relate to him. As one Bible verse puts it, ‘God has set eternity in the hearts of men.’

CS Lewis put it like this: “A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, then; is such a thing as water. People feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” Lewis is saying that our universal instinct for purpose and meaning is a strong evidence that God exists. It’s as if there is an inbuilt honing device in each of us that draws us beyond the physical.

God has designed us to want to know him, and we can only understand our creatureliness when we understand the Creator. In fact, we are truly human – we live as we were created to live – when we live in relationship with the God that made us. It’s something that Jesus won for us through his death on the cross, that we might be reconciled to God, start a relationship with him and therefore experience true humanity.

Please don’t dismiss this out of hand – dismissing it like that could be a psychological crutch – a fear fulfilment. Will you look into the evidence objectively for yourself?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

New universities and the need for community

One of the passions that has grown within me over recent years is the desire to see the 'new universities' of Britain reached with the gospel. The main stimulant of this desire was working with the Christian Union at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

I was often humbled by the Christian students in Preston, who continued to plug away with gospel proclamation and witness on campus, even though the odds were very much against them. CU numbers never really went over 70 in Preston, what is a university with a massive undergraduate presence.

No doubt there were other Christians on campus. One of the characteristics of new universities is that a large percentage of students commute in from nearby towns, and so never live permanently in their place of study. This makes it difficult to even grow a viable 'mission team' of any size.

There were other things that can make ministry hard and, for many, frustrating in new universities. Firstly, the subjects studied there are often more practical or vocational, making 'traditional' methods of apologetics and evangelistic proclamation less effective. In addition, my experience suggests that generally students at new universities are 'further back' in their appreciation for the gospel - particularly, there is the widespread assumption that becoming a Christian means you stop having fun (not the sort of objection that might be tackled effectively in an apologetic talk).

On top of all this, there are often no large halls of residence, a lack of emphasis across the university for involvement in extra-curricular activities and, perhaps above all, a lack of public meeting space. Certainly in Preston, students spent much of their time in their rooms, or out together in pubs and clubs. There was little sense of community.

A colleague yesterday was talking about another CU at a different new university. His observation of this group was that it was 'just a community' - that CU students had a tendency to sometimes huddle in a group. The evangelism that this group has tended to do has favoured first contact evangelism - this isn't surprising: as a relatively small group in a university of tens of thousands, it's tempting to think that first contact evangelism is the only way that it might be possible to make an evangelistic 'dent' in the university. The fact is, however, that such a large percentage of students on these campuses see Christianity as so functionally irrelevant, first contact is fairly ineffective. The students on these campuses need to see Christianity lived - to taste and see that the gospel is good - more even than students at traditional universities, who might be persuaded more easily to investigate Christianity through being convinced of its ring of truth. In fact, all of the people I know that have become Christians in Preston (and most of those who have shown any serious interest in Christianity) first became interested because they saw the gospel lived out in a friend or friends.

All this has got me thinking. I wonder if the need for friendship and community, that was so obvious in Preston, and which caused the CU my colleague was talking about yesterday to huddle, should be part of the outreach and evangelistic strategies at new university campuses. Obviously Christian huddling is a long way from the pattern of Biblical gospel ministry - but could CUs at these universities seek to meet the need for community to many around them with an outward emphasis? Sacrifical, outward-looking community, where everyone is accepted as they are, is - after all - a massive implication of authentic gospel living.

Imagine - building on solid gospel convictions, it's the CU at new universities including the lonely international students in dinner plans; it's the CU that runs a football team; it's CU members that offer their front rooms for other university meetings to take place. Imagine the way in which this would place gospel transformation on view, and the way in which this would require CU members to give a reason for the different hope they obviously have. Because CUs are currently very small at these universities, we're not going to talk about massive numbers coming into contact with CU members. But I wonder if the quality of contact might make CU evangelism in these tough mission fields more effective?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Bearing with others on disputible issues

An excellent post on gospel unity from Marcus which ties in with some of the ideas I've mentioned on this blog in recent weeks. Here's a taste:

Here is the principle: forebear with others in matters of indifference. Participate with them. Be friends with them. Encourage them.

But one more thing needs to be said: we need to be careful to distinguish what are matters of indifference and what aren't. I think ther are twin dangers: elevating to primary importance things that aren't - like style of meetings - and thereby refusing to have fellowship with people we should; or, demoting things that are of first importance - like core doctrines - to secondaries for the sake of wanting to be friends with everybody.

Friday, 11 September 2009


There is real benefit in reading through a book of the Bible all in one sitting. When reading Galatians recently, I noticed the repetition of the world 'cursed' in chapter 1 and chapter 3 (all quotes from TNIV):

Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God's curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let that person be under God's curse! (Galatians 1:8-9)

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because "the righteous will live by faith." The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, "Whoever does these things will live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole." (Galatians 3:10-13)
I think that maybe this explains why Paul explodes with such emotional intensity in the way that he does at the beginning of the letter. Paul explains that Christ 'gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.' To walk away from Christ is to place oneself under curse, because only he can deliver anyone from that curse. To wilfully teach others, then, in a way that draws away from trust in Christ is not only to place oneself under curse - but others under curse too. Christ alone is able to deliver anyone from their curse; we can turn to no other.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

District 9

District 9 is the much-hyped movie on current release; the current Number 1 in the UK box office, and reckoned to be pushing Star Trek as the premier science fiction movie of 2009.

One of the strengths of the film is the way in which it immediately engages the watcher. Like other recent films, the use of hand-held cameras and footage apparently CCTV cameras breathlessly grabs the audience's attention. About 30 minutes into the film I found myself surprised at the way in which I was so bothered about the welfare of a group of prawn-shaped aliens!

I had a love-hate relationship with the technical sides of the film. Sharlto Copley, in what I believe is his first, role as Wikus van de Merwe (an official charged with overseeing the forced evacuation from District 9 to the purpose-made District 10) is excellent. The scenes amongst the slums of District 9 have been excellently shot, and the special effects and costumes meant that I sometimes had to remind myself I was watching a science-fiction film. On the downside, the swearing in the film felt gratuitous (adding nothing to either plot or characterisation), Wikus' relationship with his wife wasn't developed enough and there was more gore than was probably necessary. Of the group that I saw the film with, some liked it, others didn't.

I once heard one of my heroes, the film critic Mark Kermode, saying that the best science fiction points beyond itself, where aliens are allegories or metaphors of people. And that's clearly in the mind of the film and script writers. The questions that the film poses are obvious: To whom should 'human rights' apply? Is it ever right to ignore a person's human rights? And what are the dangers when a population are treated as second-class citizens? There are also questions posed regarding the philanthropic intentions of multinational companies.

Above all, the fact that District 9 is set in Johannesburg and that it opens with the re-location of aliens from one township to another means that the movie watcher cannot help but associate the aliens with the black population of South Africa under apartheid. (Interestingly, the film opens in the early 1980s, when the aliens arrive over South Africa when, of course, apartheid was still in full force). Yet the politics of the film is far from a direct allegory of apartheid: there are other scenes that seem to echo the Nazi experiments on Jews during the Second World War, as well as the treatment of African-American slaves whilst away from home.

District 9 is an interesting piece. I, for one, hope that a sequel isn't made. An interesting discussion point with friends might be how they would imagine the loose ends of the film might be tied up, and to then discuss what is said about human nature.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Robbie Williams: Bodies

Robbie Williams makes his long-awaited comeback later this year with an album released in November and his latest song, Bodies, regularly on the radio.

I'm not a massive fan of Robbie's music but there's no doubting that he's something of a cultural icon. His forthcoming album Reality Killed the Video Star is dominating the charts on future release charts. And to his credit, Bodies, his comeback single isn't safe: not a ballad, but a sound that will appeal to a slightly more adult audience.

There's no doubt that spirituality plays an important part in the track. It opens with Gregorian chant and ends with a gospel choir. And whilst the lyrics sometimes feel somewhat forced, there's some interesting mileage in considering their message.

One of the lyrics at the end of the track is 'Jesus didn't die for you / What do you want?' I happened to hear an interview with Robbie on the radio over the weekend and there's no doubt that in part this is an effort to attract headlines through shock. But I wonder if there's more going on in the song.

There are masses of spiritual references: not only to Jesus, but also to the Bodhi tree (where the Buddha apparently received his revelations). In the interview I heard, Robbie confessed that although he'd been raised a Roman Catholic, he no longer knew who to pray to. He joked that the previous night he'd prayed to the Archangel Michael because he liked the look of his muscles, and also intimated that he enjoyed reading atheist writings by Richard Dawkins.

And I wonder if that brings the hearer to the crux of the song. Robbie sings about 'bodies' ('Bodies in the Bodhi tree / bodies making chemistry / bodies on my family...). Yet the song seems to point to a conviction that humans are more than just bodies finding themselves in space and time at a particular point ('Praying for the rapture / Cause it's strange, getting stranger'). Perhaps above all, though, the song represents a fear that the need for Jesus is merely a psychological need that we all have: possibly the need to be accepted as we are ('All we've ever wanted is to look good naked / That someone can take it / God save me rejection from my rejection / I want perfection').

And so the song closes, with Robbie singing that 'Jesus didn't really die for you', whilst a gospel choir sings 'Jesus really died for you'. I wonder: is this an argument that is going on in Robbie's head? Is Jesus merely a projection of our needs?

For more on Jesus being a psychological crutch or wish-fulfilment, click here, or see my post Is God merely a psychological crutch for the weak?

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Pastures new

It's been a while since I last wrote anything on this blog - a combination of a holiday and moving house has meant that my Internet access has been minimal.

In the mean time, I've started a new job: I'm still working with UCCF but I'm now Team Leader in the North East region. That means I'll be responsible for leading the team of Staff and Relay Workers across the area as they seek to resource and inspire students to live and speak for Jesus during their time at university. I'm somewhat daunted but also excited about the months and years ahead. Linda is also seeing her career change: she's retraining and doing a PGCE at Sheffield Hallam University nearby.

We've settled into South Doncaster Community Church, and have been blown away by the reception we have received. It's so nice enjoying time with a church family, having the conviction that even when we don't know each other well yet, we have so much in common. Our new church family have welcomed us well, supporting us and seeking to meet our practical needs. Our new pastor, Alistair Gooderham, has a blog worth scanning sometime.

I've had some more thoughts on unity and a range of other issues and will seek to record them here in the coming days.