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Covid-19 and Belfast Pastors: Part 2
(Text as at 26/05/2020 21:51:50)
- I had three responses to my Note on Covid-19 and Belfast Pastors1.
- Two – verbal – were broadly supportive, and both of these respondents found the video so mawkish they couldn’t watch it as far as the section at the end that I found objectionable.
- The other respondent raised questions, mostly related to what are popularly called in some Christian circles “God-incidences”; that is what might be coincidences but which are perceived by those Christians who encounter them to be too unlikely to be that, but must have God behind them.
- Unfortunately, there were no actual examples given of the “God-incidences” – though I’m sure they could have been given had they not been private – but the names of those who had had such experiences were given. All were within the ultra-dispensationalist Christian orbit, and would therefore be expected to have a general antipathy to “the miraculous” in the present age.
- It is possible, I suppose, that God – while standing well back in “an age of grace” – might yet strew little crumbs of comfort to some Christians in need of moral support. More on this later. However, …
- Firstly, on the probabilities of co-incidences. I don’t have any research papers on this topic, as far as I’m aware, but think I should spend time pottering about on the Understanding Uncertainty website (David Spiegelhalter is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge). However, given how many possibilities there are for coincidences to happen, I imagine they are more frequent than – pre-theoretically, at least – we might expect. For instance, I hadn’t knowingly thought of J.B.S. Haldane for years, yet encountered him in two different books I’m reading on the same day (namely “today”). We become aware of this sort of coincidence probably if one item has been recently active in our minds, but I may have come across Haldane many times over the last year, but have now forgotten. So the “surprise” should only be that the same item occurred twice in a day, and given how many “items” there are, I doubt this should be very surprising and probably occurs much more often than we realise.
- Many people, including those not noted for their piety, claim – after surviving some potential misadventure – that “someone up there” must be looking out for them. But more often (probably always) it is down to chance. Julie recounted how her friend Debbie was nearly hit by a falling photoelectric tile, and that she had felt “delivered”. But this isn’t a case of an angel swooping down like Superman and snatching her or the tile out of their collision course. It’s chance. In fact, she was unlucky to be near where the tile fell, as tiles rarely fall off buildings and the sides thereof aren’t continually thronged by people. Where they are – as in busy thoroughfares – it’s still odds on that a bolide will miss, or at least not kill, anyone in its path. But it does happen, and it’s not a case of God “smiting” the unfortunate victim, any more than it’s a case of God “saving” those involved in near-misses. In any case, even were it a case of divine intervention, what would the message be? Is it positive or negative? Was the individual “preserved” or “warned”?
- I might note here that there had already been something of a clarification of the straightforward “blessings and curses” of Deuteronomy2 by the time of Jesus, who pointed out that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous3, and that natural or other disasters aren’t punishment for the wicked4. Such threats and promises were aimed – I presume – at the nation as whole5.
- There’s nothing wrong (and everything right, provided it’s done with humility) about sharing how your life has been turned around following conversion provided this doesn’t involve claims to receiving private divine visitations or miraculous assistance when it’s doubtful that these wonderful events have occurred as fancifully described6. The generally credulous (or at least warm-hearted) may be encouraged by such stories, but how are the flinty-hearted sceptics (or those with common sense) supposed to respond. As one of my respondents remarked, “what are you supposed to say?” Also, as a correspondent noted, if such “testimonies” are made insensitively at public gatherings, or are broadcast without thought for the audience, those not subject to such divine bounty might think themselves spiritually inferior. While this is a fair point, if such things were genuine and happening all the time, then it could be right to shake people out of their spiritual torpor. But they aren’t, so it isn’t.
- Nor is there anything wrong (and everything right) in being grateful for any good things that come our way, and in particular being grateful to God that he has so constituted things in this fallen world that things turn out better than they might. But if we think the world is so constituted for our well-being, with God lending us a helping hand from time to time, then to be consistent we should be shaking our fists at God when things go badly for us. But – thankfully – few do that, but focus on the positives that they can “bring and share” about “what God has done for them” since the previous meeting.
- Daniel Dennett – an atheist and one of the “four horsemen” (Wikipedia: New Atheism - "Four Horsemen") – wrote an essay "Dennett (Daniel) - Thank Goodness!", in which he expressed his thanks for recovery following surgery to correct a very serious heart condition – but not to God, of course, but to “goodness”. That is, he was thankful for all the expertise and diligence (including that of “cleaners7”) that had been built up in the US health service and which enabled him to survive. Probably, this is the attitude Christians ought to have, while being thankful to God for so constituting things that – without the need for his personal involvement – so often things turn out for the good (though, medically, this is a rather recent phenomenon, since throughout most of history – as in NT times8 – medical care cost a lot but tended to make the recipients worse).
- So, should the Christian response to the goods and ills of this world “in this present age of grace” differ substantially from that of the atheist? It should, of course differ from the perspective of the overall “purpose of the ages”, and the acknowledgement that – whatever appearances might suggest – God is ultimately in control. But, in the present state of affairs, to get back to the point of my original Note, should our view of how things are be that God occasionally hands out little very specific favours to some of his followers while (as far as we can see, which admittedly may not be very far9) leaving so many greater ills unaddressed. Maybe, but accounts of such little interventions – if that’s what they are – should not form a major evidential part of the Christian proclamation, lest it be brought into to ridicule or make faith unnecessarily difficult for those who like to think things through.
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4: Footnote 5:
- So the righteous in Israel or Judah in a time of religious defection got rather a raw deal, in this life at any rate. Maybe the wicked in a rare time of religious conformity got an undeserved good deal; I don’t know.
Footnote 7: Footnote 8: Footnote 9:
- So, going back to Part 1 of this Note, was the encouraging cleaner “sent by God”, or did he just turn up, as encouraging cleaners are wont to do from time to time.
- This argument, that we aren’t smart enough to discern the divine plan, is a cornerstone of theodicy. Contrary to appearances – so the argument goes – we’re in the best of all possible worlds, or in the best of all possible fallen worlds, or at least all things happen for a purpose, or “work together for good” – for the faithful, at least – along the lines of Romans 8:28, NIV.
- I don’t know how to respond to such arguments, given that they are totally impervious to any conceivable evidence to contradict them. Enough to say, that both sides of the usual debate assume that in the present state of the world God is – or ought to be (were he to exist) – actively involved. This strikes me as utterly absurd, but the active involvement of God in their lives is a cornerstone of most Christians’ faiths, so they feel duty-bound to defend it to the last drop of ink.
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