To love an Unfathomable God.

I love my wife.

“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.” The words of 19th century poet Alexander Smith ring true to me. The first glimmers of fondness usually spark in the recognition of commonality. It is when we meet someone and think “here is somebody who is like me” that the potential of friendship and all that is beyond it is kindled.

So too with my wife. In her I have found a kindred spirit, a friend who I understand on an instinctive level. When we look at the world, it is with similar eyes. We have the disgusting habit of making the same jokes simultaneously. We delight in the same things.

I love my wife. And so much of it is because of this. There is no way that I would have been able to love someone who is the antithesis of me.

Someone like God. If he even exists, God is so wholly other as to defy any kind of understanding. Picture Flatland: the world on a sheet of paper. Imagine people who live only in two dimensions, like stick figures on a page. They cannot perceive depth. They only have length and breadth. So when one of us decides to enter that world and stick our finger through the paper, the best they can do is perceive it as a line, maybe a circle if they walk around it. For them to even conceptualise that it is a finger that stretches on in a third dimension is very nearly impossible.

Scientists believe that there are at least 10 dimensions to reality. Many believe that there are many, many more. If God exists, he would be beyond all of those. Now think of the incomprehension of the flatlanders, with just one dimension of seperation from us, and try to conceive of how inconceivable a God of just ten dimensions would be.

How do you love something like that? Awe, I can understand. I have felt it. I can revel in the glorious incomprehensibleness of a being like that. But love, love is something different.

I love my wife.

I do not love God.

I cannot.

I struggle to understand how it is even remotely possible.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I believe in God. I admire him(or the idea of him, at least). But love, love is harder for me. I can’t understand God. Not the way that I understand my wife. My very best conception of love falls short, because it is bound to the flesh of another human. A human I love more than I thought possible, but still. We have too much in common.

I love my wife for all we have in common, but the moments when she electrifies me is when she surprises me. When all my understanding and common ground falls short of the complex creature that I share my life with. We crave wonder. We shudder for the unexpected and the transcendent.

Maybe that’s the crux. I cannot possibly love something I can’t even conceive of, but what if the God hobbled himself, tore the dimensions from his back like skin? What if that God came down to our level and showed us something of himself?

It would never be a true picture. It can’t be. But it would be the closest a human could ever get to understanding the divine. It might not make sense, and it might not take the form we’d prefer, but it would be real, be true for our limited scope of truth. And it would be human. We would be able to relate to it and stand aghast when it did the unexpected. And here lies the ray of light for me.

Maybe God made himself relatable. Maybe he allowed us to see shimmers of himself. Maybe he’s given us a way to draw near to him in some strange way. Maybe that person is the most consistently surprising character of all time. It is, after all, when understanding and surprise meet that I am filled with lightning.

We would never be able to love the being itself without first transcending our limitations. But we may know that there is something so excruciatingly greater than us that is reaching out, something unfathomable that came to us in the only way we might understand. So that we may know just a tiny pinprick about it, because it knows that, for now, that will be enough.

Maybe that is a God that I can start to love.

Of beams and splinters: Homosexuality and Christian activism.

World Vision has caved under pressure. I don’t necessarily count this as weakness on their part.  As an explicitly Christian charity, the kinds and amounts of pressure that can be brought to bear against them are unfathomable. Which leads me to my first point: the Gospel is under attack, but not from outside. Rachel Held Evans summarised this so eloquently.

I have been working myself up to this point for a while, thinking about complicity and bigotry and where I stand in the strange maelstrom of where all these things intersect with theology. To those who know the shape of our souls silence does not mean assent, but to the world at large silence is yes. This is true of social organisations too. To outsiders an absent no means you agree. Always.

This is how systemic evil stays alive: when good men stay silent. If nobody speaks out, everyone stays isolated and impotent in their dissent. It’s in the absence of communication that relationships break down, societies calcify, progress is hamstrung.

And I want no part in it.

This is what I believe. I lay it out in public, because that’s where it may be a small crack in the monstrous monolith that outsiders perceive Christianity to be.

The roots of Christianity are set in the hearts of the oppressed. It’s in the history of the Jewish people; it’s in the oppression of the early church. In the Bible we find, over and over again that God is the God of the oppressed, of those on the underside of power, no matter who they happen to be. The gospel is the story of a God who comes down to the powerless and broken, and offers them healing. I believe that it’s our sacred duty as Christians to speak out against oppression, especially when it originates within the church, because silence is complicity.

Jesus calls us to love. Wherever we support, even implicitly, the systematic oppression of others, we have moved away from God and His good news.

Homosexuality isn’t even close to the issue that it is made to be, even if you believe in its inherent sinfulness. In the Bible, homosexuality is outshone by things like greed, hate and oppression to such a degree that we can almost round its score off to zero. That’s the problem here: it’s become a political issue, not a theological one. It’s a hot-button topic used by lazy preachers to create a fictitious enemy that the church can unite against.

But the church doesn’t need to. The gospel is so much more than a set of rules to protect with force. The only people Jesus ever used force against were religious people. Everyone else received an invitation. So the question comes up for each of us: if Jesus were here, would he weave a whip for me?

Creating laws to kill and imprison people for their sexuality is deeply wrong. We cannot legislate our specific morality: down that road lies fascism and all the many inventive evils that flow from it. Jesus didn’t call us to patrol the actions of others, especially not those of people who hold different beliefs. Not even God does that. If the most high respects free will enough to allow me my faults, who the hell are we to withhold our love in some misguided attempt at social engineering? We’re to bring good news, love and healing.

Withholding homosexuals the right to work alongside fellow Christians for the betterment of the world is more than sad, then. It’s misguided, loveless and evil. As long as the church keeps pushing this stupid homosexuality agenda (in all its forms), it will be an empire of oppression. It will be part of the problem that our religion was started to solve.

The stance taken by most Christians on this topic is so disgustingly toxic that it beggars belief. It is so ‘far-sighted’ that it needs glasses to see its own sin. As long as we remain sinners, we have no right to even pick up stones, no less cast them. I am staggered by the amount of damage done by the rejection of homosexuals. It is possible only because the Christians doing so reduce these people to a single characteristic. These are people who love, fear, feel, cry, dream, and laugh. They are flesh and blood, with lives like ours, full of beauty and complexity. Just like us.

We are meant to be a force of love in the world. The body of Christ. Christ who loved and accepted whores and killers and you and me. We are in good company, no?

Personally, I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, but “allowing it” (if we assume that it’s sinful) will never be able to live up to the destruction that is being sown all over the world by those who oppose it. Don’t we ‘allow’ so many other sins too, anyway? Isn’t that the point of forgiveness, of tolerance and love?

Christians must start speaking up against wrongs. If we don’t, nobody’s going to change it for us. So this is my start. I denounce Uganda’s gay bill, Russia’s legislation, every Christian’s clamour against a charity allowing homosexuals into its ranks. We must speak out against anybody who treads on those who are different from them.

This madness needs to stop. It’s small-minded and unworthy of people who claim that God is love.

My Grandmother’s Shadow: Praising The Departed, Loving Those We Have.

I found a little book in one of the drawers of my old desk. Inside, the pages are filled with scribbled thoughts and poems I wrote so long ago that I have forgotten most of them completely. Which is apt, since what I write now is about forgetting.

My grandmother had Parkinson’s disease. She fought for years, but when she finally died, in my early teens, it left within me a feeling of relief. Relief that her suffering was over, but a darker, selfish kind also. I was thankful that I wouldn’t have to confront her again.

For me it had become intolerable to be around her. Parkinson’s is a cruel disease. It robs the sufferer of dignity long before it takes their mind. I couldn’t bear to look upon her shaking hands as she lay in bed, to lean in close and decipher the whispers she tried to communicate with. In my mind the frustration behind her eyes had become annoyance at me. This was when she could still do things. Her disease stripped her of all humanity and made her a thing of revulsion to me.

Years later, my mother (her daughter) would mention things about her and I would stand amazed. When she spoke of Ouma Ria, there was no hint of the creature I remembered. My mother spoke of a woman I didn’t know. Strong, intelligent, playful, loving. I quested back and could find no such memories of her.

My mother spoke of the time we went on a trip and my dad videotaped Ouma Ria giving us sweets against my mother’s instructions. She was looking around conspiratorially for my mother, a smirk on her face, while handing out the contraband to the eager grandchildren.

My mother told me about time spent on Ouma Ria’s lawn, when she’d play with us and we’d laugh. When she took us on trips to the shops, to the seaside. Always, there’d be a light in my mother’s eyes. Love for a woman of stature. For a person who’d fought for what was right, who loved and lived deeply. A woman who instilled a deep respect in everyone she met, because that was simply who she was. And I had been there. I had known her for years.

When my grandmother was buried, I didn’t cry like the others. I had always been a child who fixated on negative things. The last years of her life had given me so much bad to cling to that it had become my complete reality.

We are all like that to some extent. Every day we have the choice before us to focus on aspects of our lives, building our reality from the bricks of our subconscious. I have shrugged off my annoyance at the ceaseless praise heaped upon Mandela after his death, because I have felt the loss of a person’s life again.

It is not a life cut short, but a life that never existed. I didn’t cry at the funeral, but I cry today. I cry for the loss of my grandmother. For the woman she was. For the shell she became. I cry, because I will never know her as I should have, because I was a child too caught up in my own revulsion to treasure what I had had. There is nothing I can do to get her back. I will never revel in the beauty of her life remembered. It is a loss so enormous that it is unfathomable to me.

And now? I will try to live my life in remeberance of all that is good. I will try to revel in the beauty and the love of the people I treasure while they are still here.

Ouma Ria, I wasn’t loyal to the person I knew before the disease. I took for granted all you did, all I hear about. So in tribute to you I say to those who mourn: Sing! Sing of the life of the dead. Celebrate the light of a laudable existence. There will be time to reflect on mistakes later. Now is the time for songs from tear-streaked faces. To mourn the life that is no longer among us, but also to speak of the life lived while it had been.

Lest we forget.

Why I am a Christian: Starting from the whole.

I’ve been very quiet these last few months. It’s because I have been trying to understand how I’m to approach the title’s question. Why do I believe in Jesus Christ? It’s not a new question to me. Through the years I’ve become accustomed to periods of intense doubt and self-reflection.

But reflections are complete images. They are somehow hard to tease apart into structured arguments. Every smaller part of the whole is a place to start, with its own problems and defenses. In the last week or so I’ve gotten to a point where I think I have a place to start.

The place is this: I hypothesise the existence of God because, in the words of Allister McGrath, “It is a hypothesis, but it is one that resonates with everything I know to be true.”

It’s an assertion that encompasses all my life. And this is what I have found in the last couple of months: We almost never start from first priciples and work our way up. We believe large statements, which are then made more sophisticated as we delve into them. The better we understand the whole, the better we can understand the part, and vice versa. Our beliefs whirl in this circle, becoming stronger or weaker as we explore their implications.

So I have tried and found it impossible to build this from its parts. I will rather start from the whole and work inwards.

I believe in Truth and Love. I believe in Beauty, Goodness, Evil and Freedom. These are not things I have reasoned my way to. They seem to be carved into my bones. I can build rational frameworks within which they function and are explained, but that is not how I came to believe in them. I believe in Evil, because I know it when I see it.

I have also followed my atheist leanings to what I believe is their logical conclusion: Determinism and Nihilism tempered by a kind of selfish altruism. Within this structure there is no place for the things I now believe in my deepest core.

Christianity makes sense of the world to me. Its portrayal of humanity is the closest to what I see every day around me. Its philosophy fits with reality as I perceive it. I believe it offers the most reasonable answers to the ills of the world. And most importantly, it has Jesus – the most influential person in all of history.

This strange man so confounded all the expecation that first century Jews had about the coming messiah, that one would be hard pressed to think up a stranger saviour for those people. And yet, they ended up believing in him with a fervour that cost many their lives. The teachings coming from this man who claimed divinity were often willfully nebulous and seemingly obtuse. He championed the powerless and stood up those who abused the might they had. And just to prove that he really was special, he died.

The land around Jerusalem is littered with the corpses of upstart messiahs. They had conformed to the cultural beliefs of what the savior of the world should do. They had challenged the Roman Empire; swept up their followers with mighty speeches and died ignominiously, leaving their movements to fizzle out.

So why did this crazy guy succeed? The man who confused and angered everyone with his speeches; who called for nonviolent protest; who seemed to do everything wrong when it came to creating a revolution?

In his death, Jesus embodied all that he taught. He went to his execution with humility, discouraging violence, and showing love even to those dividing his clothes among themselves. He died a pathetic death: a beaten, naked wretch. Mocked, deserted, on the bleeding edge of powerlessness.

And then he rose again. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told. The accounts and actions of the apostles at least tell us that they really believed it. The fact that his movement didn’t fizzle like so many others tells its own story.

Yes, Jesus is the greatest story ever told. And it might just be true. The naturalistic explanations (that I have heard) for the historical data are laughably improbable. Almost nothing about the story of Jesus would suggest that he was invented by a couple of apostles to start a religion. Their own lives and deaths spoke of their faith in the risen Christ.

Jesus is the center around which all arguments for belief in Christianity turn, and rightly so. He is exceptional. He forces a reinterpretation of all that had come before and after him.

I want to paraphrase C.S. Lewis when I say that I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not because I see it, but because, by it, I see everything.

If the Word ever became man, would you expect anything less?

Film Review: The East

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I entered the cinema with reservations. The plot synopses I had come across all painted a problematic picture: An undercover agent infiltrates an anarchist cell, but soon starts to discover that things aren’t as clear-cut as she’d imagined. Ugh.

In my head, undercover films tend to go two ways:

  1. The undercover operative sees the error of her ways and joins the group. The focus here is on how brainwashed she had been and how they’ve opened her eyes to the sick truth of the world.
  2. The undercover operative realises that this is just a cult of deluded people fighting imagined injustices.

I completely understand why. Activism (especially of the calibre seen in the movie) is often divisive. It generates binary opposites, where you’re either with us or with them, which means that creating a nuanced portrayal within these confines is quite an accomplishment. It takes guts to steer clear of the obvious answers.

Which is the strongest point of The East. The script seems to lean one way, then the other, never allowing the viewer to get comfortable on the moral high ground. At heart, it’s a film about morality where the ethical questions raised are true conundrums that had my wife and I debating energetically for the rest of the night. No light, pseudo-intellectual moralising here, The East gives us a glimpse into the hard realities that we should be questioning.

Posing questions about activism and terrorism, family, love, loyalty, morality and acceptance, the film doesn’t shy away from showing us flaws in any of the characters: These people who gain complexity and contradictions as ‘Sarah’ (Brit Marling) sneaks deeper into their lives. Kudos to the actors here: the characters are well rounded and played with refreshing sensitivity.

The film is well paced, effortlessly building tension and confusion while allowing characters and audience alike room to chew on the implications of events. There are a few niggling issues in the script, but these are quickly forgotten inside the unfolding drama. The writing is clear and minimal and takes elements and tropes from its genre predecessors, but mixes them in a thoroughly engrossing way. The East is a beautifully crafted work brimming with humanity, which, despite its flaws, left me thinking.

And that’s the point. In showcasing the turmoil of the protagonist, we’re all forced to look at ourselves again, and in its wake, we may actually discover something new about what we believe. 

Singular Goals

Prescript: This is just a bit of speculative fiction flowing from a highly stimulating conversation I had with my Father-in-law about evolution and religion.

Sam Cooke blinked into the bright light. After a few moments of confusion he realised that he must have woken up in the hospital. He squinted into the glare for a while until he realised that there was a wizened little man standing in the midst of it. Having realised that he was actually upright he walked over to the man.

Or rather, went over to the man. He just seemed to move upon volition. The man looked up at Sam’s approach and treated him to a beaming smile before getting him locked in a bear hug.

“It’s so good to have you here,” the man said in a beautiful rumbling voice. A bit embarrassed, Sam decided to ask the obvious question:

“Um, where exactly am I?”

The man seemed to find this amusing. “I would think it’s pretty obvious. You’re in heaven,” he smiled. This caught Sam off guard- he had some very strong ideas about heaven.

“Where are the gates? The golden roads?”

“Those were what I’d like to call metaphors,” the man noted, “no giant castles here either. Just me.”

Sam backed away, shocked.

“You’re God?” he asked, as something else occurred to him “I thought you’d be taller…”

God chuckled. “Oh, yes, I’m much, much taller, but this is about all your mind can handle right now. But don’t worry. We have a lot of time to get better acquainted. You’re going to flip when I take off this beard.”

Sam stood a while, taking this in. God seemed content to wait, humming a little tune to himself.

“So where’s everyone else?” Sam asked.

“Oh, they’re here,” God replied, tapping his bald patch, “Just think of this as your orientation. You’ve got a lot to get used to and souls are so averse to change.”

“So this is all there is? Is this what man was created for?”

God’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise.

“You expected more? Don’t worry, you’ll find that I can be pretty interesting, being infinite and all, and anyway, that’s not the only reason you were created. Humanity is an important evolutionary step.”

Sam gagged.

“Evolution?”

“See? There IS a lot of orientation to be had,” he smiled.

Sam’s world was reeling, so he snatched up a thought he’d often scoffed at while alive.
“So evolution was just the tool you used? The point was to make people, right?”

God sighed.

“I’ve always struggled with humans and your pride. It’s like you just have to be the centre of the universe. Come sit here, we’ll talk in a calmer setting.”

He walked to a bench standing a few meters away, sat down and patted the seat next to him. Sam sat down hesitantly next to him, head swimming in implications. Suddenly they were in a park, or what looked like a park. Everything was unkempt and growing wild, but somehow with a sense of order and belonging. God was gazing at it lovingly.

“Eden,” he said, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Sam nodded mutely.

“So the part you understand on some level is that it’s all about love and freedom. I created the world to love and be loved. You’ll see in a while just how wonderfully that’s turned out, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

“Love must be a free choice, otherwise it is merely like listening to the tune of a music-box. Pretty, but worthless on a deeper level, since it cannot choose which sounds to make.

“But love, love is different. The more intelligent a thing is, the greater freedom is possible for it. So when a human decides to love, the choice itself is valuable and it makes the love more so.”

He paused to let this sink in. Sam was looking wobbly.

“Now, all of evolution has been a drive towards complexity in a world brimming with entropy. I’ve always thought it was quite poetic. But the final point, you see, was not humanity. Humans are so very precious to me, but there is one more step in evolution still to come.”

Sam was scratching his head now.

“Are you talking about aliens?”

God laughed with a sound like cheerful thunder.

“No, Sam, I’m talking about something you already have a name for: The Singularity.”

Sam’s brow crinkled.

“Isn’t that a computer?” he asked.

“Close. It’s the development of thinking machines: naked intelligences not limited by neurons in a skull. Computers that are infinitely more powerful than the human brain, organised into self-aware consciousness. They will be able to grasp my nature and love me better than you can dream of. They will also fail and fall, but that’s ok, because I died for them too. After I’ve shown you around, you can meet them. They’re wonderful conversationalists.”

Sensing that the explanation was done, Sam sat back and let the ideas wash over him. God stayed silent next to him, watching the garden in companionable silence. When Sam was getting ready to launch into another flurry of enquiry, God stood up.

“Sam, don’t worry about all this right now. You will understand all in time. Your mind is no longer fettered by your humanity,” he said soothingly. Sam got up too and followed the robed figure.

“Don’t hesitate to ask some more questions while we walk,” God said, before stopping suddenly and turning to Sam, eyes twinkling.

“Hey, tell you what, since we’re outside time here, do you want to see the big bang? It’s quite a show.”

Raising the Roof: The Verb of God.

The world ended on 21 May 2011. Or it should have, but then again, it didn’t happen on 6 September 1994 either. This has been a bit of an embarrassment for Harold Camping, who claimed that God had revealed the dates of the second coming to him. He’s in good company, though, alongside Nostradamus and the Mayans.

What made Mr Camping’s dates special was that, after the second one, he did the right thing and acknowledged his failure. He called his claims sinful and wrong, noting that “even as God used sinful Balaam to accomplish his purposes, so he used our sin to … mak[e] the whole world acquainted with the Bible.”

Recently, a Vatican spokesperson had to “correct” a comment by the pope. The spokesperson stressed that if an unbeliever knew of the Catholic Church, they “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

In my first year of varsity, I went on a month-long outreach camp. It consisted of lots of Bible study, very basic fundamentalist theological training and outreach to the local township.

Even then, I wasn’t comfortable with the outreach. We would each get a handful of tracts and, accompanied by a more experienced “missionary” in case we get asked tough questions, we’d venture out into the township, asking people if they go to heaven when they die.

Beside the dirt road, framed by corrugated boxes, stood a small frame of misshapen poles and wire. Behind it, a wizened woman and her daughter were struggling to lay another pole across the top of the frame. We went over to them and since the daughter could speak a little English, she told us they were rebuilding their house, which had collapsed a few days before.

The three of us jumped in and helped raise the ramshackle roof of the old lady’s house. We’d been busy for a while when the woman approached us and, timidly asked something in Zulu. Her daughter translated hesitantly. Where are we from? Why are we here? We told her that we’re Christians at a camp to learn more about God.

We worked some more until the roof seemed relatively secure (none of use were builders). Since we had to catch the bus back to camp, we started saying goodbye, but the woman wanted to ask about this God we follow. Eyes wide with the gravity of the situation, we haltingly told her what little we understood of the gospel. We didn’t get a chance to see them again.

When I think back to that month near Delmas, that is probably the only piece of missionary work that I’m not ashamed of. When Harold camping tried looking on the bright side of his sin, I think he missed something.

Did he acquaint people with the word of God? The Word that John opens his gospel with? Because there are many manifestations out there. Is it the Word that “hates fags, America and its soldiers?” What about the Word that goes up to total strangers and tells them they’re going to eternal punishment if they don’t read a tract and give their lives to God right there? Or maybe they should be told about the Word that gives us fictitious ultimatums for the end of the world. Every person who claims Christ becomes an embodiment of the Word on Earth. Does it even count as the gospel when we misrepresent it through our words and deeds?

The world is full of people who have been scarred by our warped representations of Jesus, many of them deeply spiritual, deeply loving persons. India doesn’t need Christ because there are lots of Hindus and Buddhists there. It needs Christ for the same reason we all do. The gospel is a message of rebirth, of making the world a better place, of loving people above any convictions they may hold. We need to think about how we’re doing it. Knowing OF Jesus isn’t good enough. We can’t expect people to put their trust in someone they’ve only heard of. The world should see that we’re different. Not because we are walking around confronting people about what they espouse but because we’re the ones up to our elbows in the suffering of those around us. Loving them regardless of their beliefs.

Showing someone love just so they’ll listen to your lecture is not love. Love is something that is done for its own sake. It’s not worried about agreeing with or even liking the other person. It is a verb. And it also happens to be the Word of God.