Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).

 

According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.

 

Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.

 

Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.

 

As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?

 

Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.

 

I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.

 

This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.

 

Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.

Yesterday was a bit worrying. During my sermon at a Confirmation service in Ilkley an elderly woman began to look unwell. As I came in to land she lost consciousness and, assisted by medics in the congregation, slid to the floor. She came round and was eventually taken off to hospital for a check up. When I got home I picked up my eighteen month old grandson, Ben, and he promptly vomited all over me and the kitchen floor. I began to think that if the service at the cathedral later went wrong, I’d begin to take it personally.

Anyway, last week saw some interesting stuff flying around the e-sphere:

1. A new magazine for Muslims has been produced, called Critical Muslim. I haven’t seen a copy and am not sure how its appearance on the scene has been received within the Muslim community, but it is an interesting development. Dr Philip Lewis’s appraisal is worth a look.

2. Nick Spencer did a great parody of the nonsense trotted out by some of the uncritical New Atheists – that religion is dangerous and divisive and should be confined to the dark corners of private entertainment. He starts from the idea that people claim that sport is a religion. It only gets funnier from there.

3. Giles Fraser hits the nail further on the head with an account of how Nietzsche contributed to his conversion to Christianity.

4. Will Hutton bangs the drum for language learning to be taken more seriously in the UK. I bang on about it often enough, but Hutton is better at pointing out that the philistines in government are unlikely to advocate a culture they themselves don’t ‘get’.

5. Leonard Cohen’s new album has been acquired and is being listened to to death. That voice has been lived in. We used to say that Cohen did ‘music to slit your wrists to’, but this caricature has always only exposed ignorance or illiteracy. He is funny, astute, ironic and wonderfully honest about being a complicated human being. My favourite lines from Old Ideas

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

This week?

I have just arrived in London ahead of the General Synod which meets here until Thursday. The key item on the agenda is the matter of how we move ahead with bishops who might turn out to be women. It’s no secret that the debate is somewhat fraught – after all, this is one of only two issues that the media have any concern for (the other one being sexuality). Lots of other good stuff that drives and characterises the Church of England’s work in parishes and dioceses won’t get a mention, but the ‘loud stuff’ must not be allowed to distract us from what we should be about on the ground.

The torment about female bishops looks something like this. The Church has agreed that there should be no bar to women being bishops. The debate is about what provision should be made for those who cannot accept this. Huge financial provision was made back in 1992 when the Synod agreed to ordain women as priests. Twenty years on there are those who think enough time and provision has been made already. Then, the question is if the Church should create a ‘safe place’ for those who cannot accept ministry from women or men who have ordained women (like me).

There are many who wish to hold the Church together and make space in the Big Tent for the range of voices and commitments, but don’t want to set up first and second-class bishops. The pastoral urge to hold everyone in is tempered by the pastoral wisdom that advocates (a) making a decision, (b) ending the uncertainty and muddle, and (c) allowing everyone concerned to move on. Clarity has to be better than eternal muddle.

But, it is the understanding of what counts as ‘pastoral’ and to whom ‘pastoral provision’ is made that lies at the heart of the heart-searching going on in the Synod this week. And that is why debate is impassioned: we take stuff seriously and are not indifferent either to the theological/ecclesiological issues or the pastoral/people implications and consequences of the decisions we make. However, if it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that some circles simply cannot be squared. I am not aware of anyone – of any persuasion – who is looking forward with unalloyed joy to this week’s debates.

Liverpool beating Tottenham Hotspur this evening might come as a welcome distraction…