Thursday, 17 March 2011

Thoughts on the Tsunami


I hope you will forgive me for a few words on wordlessness.

There is a strange kind of Christianity that always has a fixed smile on its face; the kind that thinks that people get what they deserve, that if you pray hard enough, everything will always be OK. I think the recent events in Japan should make us very sceptical of this kind of religion. It does not tie in with the deaths of thousands of innocent people. And it does not tie in with the words of Jesus himself, who taught that it rains on the just and the unjust alike. Even the book of the Bible that deals most explicitly with the problem of terrible things happening to good people, the Book of Job, is ultimately inconclusive. A Christianity that gives easy answers to painful questions does nobody any favours. Indeed, faith if anything should only make us question more deeply.

Nor does the idea that people get what they deserve tie in with the God who, we believe, knew suffering and torture on the Cross. One who knows a thousand loves knows a thousand sufferings; and we believe in a God who suffered precisely because He loves. When those we love suffer, we suffer too.

I cannot presume to speak for my Buddhist readers, and I hope that I do not speak out of turn. Please forgive me if anything I say is ignorant or simplistic; I speak with deepest respect. But during my studies, I have learnt much from the work of Shinran Shōnin, founder of the Jōdo Shinshū, Japan's largest Buddhist school. In his view, the one who realises enlightenment, the end of suffering, returns in the Buddha's great compassion to this world of suffering to guide others along the way. Indeed, Shinran believes that ultimate enlightenment can only be realised when all sentient beings have realised it. One person's suffering will finally end only when all suffering has ended. This strikes me as great compassion indeed.

Such compassion was the theme of the Emperor of Japan, when he said on television yesterday: “I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times." 'Compassion' is simply the Latin word for the Greek 'sympathy;' and sympathy literally means 'suffering together.' Questions about why this has happened - angry questions, theological questions - have their place. But right now, the answer to the question, 'where is your God now?' will not be answered by engaging in verbal acrobatics to get Him off the hook. It will be answered only by showing compassion; by suffering with those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn, weeping with those who weep: because the Gospel of Christ, like the wisdom of the Buddha, is too deep to express with such blunt tools as words.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

This Lent, you must be perfect

You must be perfect. 

You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbour. To love your neighbour only is not enough. The old law is too easy: even the pagans can manage that. I say to you, love your enemies.  You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If only. But even the first law, love your neighbour, the law that Jesus says is easy, seems too hard for us. So we hear reports of elderly patients abandoned to their ailments in NHS care. We hear of 'honour killings,' where not just neighbours but even family betray their sisters, daughters, wives. And even we live only streets away from people living homeless and despised, and seem as a society unable to care for them. To be honest, most of my neighbours - even most members of this college - I hardly know from Adam: so how can I love them? Yet this, Jesus asserts, even the pagans do.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Islands in the wilderness: privatisation of marriage in New Hampshire


Temptations, temptations.  One of the many is to believe that we know better than our forebears.  But it ain't necessarily so.  Sometimes even new wineskins burst, and it's all the more a pity when they are filled with a sturdy vintage. 

A friend on Facebook recently posted that New Hampshire is considering a bill to privatize marriage. The state government would no longer issue marriage licenses; instead, it would grant domestic partnerships to any legally consenting individuals.  Well, almost any.  As long as there are only two of them, and they're not too closely related by blood. 

Yet if marriage is really just a private contract between individuals, presumably there should be nothing to stop multiple-partner, incestuous or even fixed-term 'marriages,' either.

Ash Wednesday: Giving up love for Lent


Today begins the greater penitential season.  We have doubtless heard much, as every year, in its run-up about 'taking things on' rather than 'giving things up' for Lent.  So much so, perhaps, that it is in danger of becoming (like so much other church-talk) a platitude. 

It ceases to be so first when we realise that 'taking on' is in fact a kind of 'giving up.'  It is a giving up of time, of effort, of other more enjoyable things.


Second, it is no platitude if we realise that giving up something for Lent is not the same as 'giving up' in standard usage.  It is not the giving up of resignation, of handing in one's work card or hanging up one's soccer boots.  It is not giving up for God.  It is giving up to God, giving upwards, giving in the sense of gift. 

God does not need our gift, of course.  We cannot buy God's favour. 

Nor do we need to give the gift.  We do not get anything back for it. 

But exactly this makes it the truest kind of gift, in that it is utterly free.  We give it freely and God receives it freely, with no compulsion, no necessity on either side.  It is that absolute freedom in which God gave us creation and life, and in the same freedom we return ourselves to Him. 

In short, if we do it properly, what we give up at Lent - even if we do so by taking something on - is the totally unnecessary gift of love.