Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What authority does the Bible have and why do I keep coming back to it?

To clear up a couple of myths to start with: the conservatively minded umbrella body the ‘Evangelical Alliance’ says in its basis of faith “We believe in…The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.” Not 100% geographically or historically accurate, not a definitive guide to physics, chemistry or any other science (what did ‘science’ mean in the first century?), but ‘fully trustworthy for faith and conduct’. Faith being what people believe, conduct how people live their lives. Still a mighty big claim, I’ll grant you, but best to be clear what we’re talking about.

OK: ‘supreme authority’. This is far more problematic – what does it mean in practice? In the seventeenth century Theology used to be known as ‘the Queen of the Sciences’. It used to ‘sit over’ all the other ‘subjects’, which would derive their axioms from assumptions about theology, but be free to explore from there. Now, nobody’s claiming that the Bible says anything specifically about the failure of world trade talks this week, but it might be possible to draw principles about just and fair exchange of goods from the Bible and apply them. The same might be true of all other subjects. If God gives us minds to create, explore and discover within his creation all scientific, social science and arts disciplines become an opportunity to glorify God and know more about Him.

Notice that it was Theology, not the Bible that was Queen of the Sciences and the ‘supreme authority’. The dictionary defines theology as ‘The study of the nature of God and religious truth’. Christians turn to the Bible to find out more about the nature of God, but Christian theology involves interpreting what is in the Bible. Interpretation immediately brings the experiences and knowledge of the interpreter into play and therefore different interpretations. Some Christians in the nineteenth century tried to side step ‘interpretation’ by calling on the fallacious doctrine of ‘inerrancy’. This meant that they believed every single word of the Bible text was literally ‘true’ – whatever that meant. In a 21st century world that is used to textual criticism, genre and relativism this concept is outlandish – we take it for granted that what one word means to one person in one moment of time in one sentence can mean something completely different to the person sitting on the seat opposite. Luckily all the many writers of the Bible, who were used to dealing in myths, stories and parables to explain truth would be similarly mystified.

So the Bible needs to be placed in the context of wider enterprise of figuring out who God is called Theology – otherwise we’d be missing out on other ways God might make himself known and also disastrously ignoring our own ‘cultural spectacles’ and preconceptions. Christians tend to include amongst other things, knowledge of God through Creation; personal experience and relationship with God; and tradition. Tradition in these terms means the cumulative experiences and learning of Christians down the centuries – what Godly men and women have found to be true in their lives and those of the church. Therefore tradition is living and ever-growing – when I am inspired and encouraged to become more like Christ by Godly people around me they are part of and adding to the Christian tradition. Personal experience and relationship with God means seeing answers to prayers, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and taking the risk to trust and follow God and finding His promise of ‘life in all its fullness’ to be true.

It’s here that the Evangelical Alliance’s belief the Bible is the ‘supreme authority’ comes into play. If I believe that God, by His Holy Spirit has told me to steal my next door neighbour’s X-Box, the Christian tradition says that the authority of the Bible telling me not to takes precedence over my personal ‘authority’ which says I should. Likewise, if there was a church pastor who told his congregation that the best way to be happy was to get rich as fast as possible, the ‘supreme’ authority of the Bible would come before the authority of ‘the church’. God can guide me and work through me, but will not speak outside of His written teachings. This sounds like an excellent idea at first - a kind of check and balance system to prevent abuse and stupidity. The Bible is unambiguous about some things, through both Old and New Testaments. For instance, it’s difficult to argue that the Bible as a whole doesn’t claim that there is One God; we are to follow Him with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and it matters to God whether we choose to do that or not. Therefore in some senses ‘the Bible’ could be treated as a ‘supreme authority’.

However, the Bible is not a ‘how to’ manual (how boring would that be). It is complex and logically paradoxical and is therefore nonsensical to talk of the Bible as a ‘supreme authority’ for all matters of faith of conduct without having some generally agreed interpretations. Supreme authority without recognised interpretation equals inerrancy. Generally accepted interpretations within the church (whether implicit or explicit) are that the Old Testament should be viewed through the ‘grid’ and understanding of the New and that it’s important to take different genres in the Bible into account. Interpretation has generally come from Church Tradition, which is the sum of Christian’s experiences and thinking down the ages, who themselves have been influenced by the Bible – the strands feed into one another and the boundaries blur.

I therefore prefer to think of the Bible not as a supreme authority, isolated from other authority, but the thickest of a number of shoots of a climbing plant, (creation, personal experience, tradition being others) woven around one another for support and strength as they grow. Not one of them could stand alone – they would all collapse and break.

This still all begs the question – ‘why do I believe what the Bible says?’. For me the simple answer is I’ve found it to be true in my life. However much I try to ignore the Bible or think that I’m bored of it I always get pulled back to the wisdom and life within its pages. That doesn’t mean that I understand it all or agree with it all or don’t find it confusing or difficult, but that it’s worth sticking with it like no other book. I frequently find stories or chapters in the Bible that in other books I would immediately dismiss or ignore, but if it’s in the Bible I’ve learned that it’s worth preserving, grappling and contending with.

A few years ago I heard Brian McClaren say that maybe what should unite our view of the Bible as a church was that we ‘take it seriously’. At the time I was horrified and couldn’t imagine a more wishy-washy way formulation. Now, although I’m not sure it’s how I would put it I have a sense of what he was getting at. If we, as a community of Christians take what the Bible seriously, really seriously - seriously enough to engage in thorough, honest studies of it bringing in all the analytical and spiritual skills we have at our disposal, to pray with it and take time with it - we invest it with authority as we communally find that it enriches our faith and lives.
Samuel Coleridge put it even better, as described in ‘The Church in an Age of Revolution’: “Coleridge held that if men would but read [the Bible] without preconceived ideas about its plenary inspiration, and see whether it did not speak to them with convincing power, they would be assured of its authority. It should be read and studied like any other literature, and then it would be found it be unlike any other literature...” (p81)

That’s my experience of the Bible. Somehow, against all the odds, God has fashioned a collection of books by working with deeply flawed human beings over thousands of years which are divinely inspired and therefore hold great authority in all matters of faith and conduct.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Welfare Reform - For the many, discussed by few.

Last week the government published a bill that will directly affect three million people in the UK, indirectly touch millions more. Its success or otherwise will have a major impact on the long term health of our economy. It received some newspaper and radio coverage, but virtually no analysis or comment. Amongst other things, the Welfare Reform Bill aims to restructure benefits for people unable to work because of ill health or incapacity.

At the moment there are two benefits for people unable to work: Incapacity Benefit is based on previous National Insurance contributions. This is worth c.£58 for the first 26 weeks rising in two stages to c.£75 per week for a single person. Income Support, is income based and worth about £57 a week for a single person. The two benefits interact in convoluted ways and the government is rightly combining the two to create one ‘Employment and Support Allowance’ (ESA). It’s also abolishing the crazy system that means that the longer you stay on Incapacity Benefit the more money you get.

However, the real problem with the system at the moment is that it draws a false distinction between fit and healthy job seekers who get assistance and support in finding work and those on IS or IB who get put on benefits and forgotten. In fact, most people who go onto IS or IB want to get back working as soon as possible. So the government is planning to implement its ‘Pathways to Work’ programme, already piloted, which gives support to people with their health and employment to get back into work. This will be compulsory for those people deemed to have a non-permanent disability and failure to cooperate will mean a cut in benefit down to Job Seekers Allowance level of around £57 per week. Those who are deemed permanently incapacity with no chance of work will be given a higher rate of benefit and not be forced to engage in support programmes.

The cost of the Pathways to Work programme is estimated at a tiny £147 million per year. My back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests that only 30 000 claimants per annum need to come off benefit for the scheme to break even. The pilot areas have almost reached that target by themselves over three years.

Compulsory attendance at interviews with the threat of benefit cuts can be both helpful and fair, as long as this ‘stick’ is wielded justly, as a last resort and as discipline not retribution. Ultimately claimants need to be aware that they are being supported by the wider public and need to take responsibility for their actions and progress. Knowing that their actions matter could be beneficial for some claimants. If no-one cares what you do and how you progress towards work you are more likely to experience apathy and low self esteem. The lost benefit could be reinstated after a period of six months if the person was ready to reengage with training.

The success of the scheme will depend on two main factors. The first is the level and type of support. Is the DWP going to be able to provide individually tailored support, built on a relationship with a personal adviser that deals with mental health and stress, through to industrial injuries and lost limbs as well as retraining? It’s a huge ask and there is little evidence to suggest that the benefits bureaucracy can change its ways. Therefore the government’s plans to contract out some of the support services to the voluntary sector, whose ethos on relationship and developing individuals skills and gifts would be well suited, is to be welcomed. If the DWP succeeds in this area it will be a monumental turnaround and worthy of the epitaph ‘A welfare system for the 21st Century’. It would mean that claimants would be able to believe that the system is there to enable and support them rather than demean and dismiss them and treat them as an unwelcome statistic.

The second success factor is far wider ranging. Can the government lead the remodeling of the economy to promote more highly skilled part time work, anti-ageist practices and government-business partnerships to retrain people? Many people on IB can’t go back to working full time immediately or sometimes ever and need to gradually build up their hours over a period of years. By not modifying business practice to encourage more part time working the private sector are missing out on good people entering their organisations. If the government is going to retrain people they will need the cooperation of businesses on a significant scale. Central government needs to equip local authorities and Job Centre Plus’ to engage in partnerships that can produce win-win solutions and offer a package of incentives to businesses to engage. These changes are partly out of the government’s hands and will rely on the vision and expertise of political and business leaders and local and national level. As the population ages this remodeling is crucial for the long term stability of our economy.

The Welfare Reform Bill may not be much talked about, but it has the potential to transform Incapacity Benefits for the good of millions of claimants, the tax payer and the economy as a whole. Whether the government and the DWP can successfully legislate for and implement the changes remain to be seen: if they do manage, we should be talking about their achievement for many years to come.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Space for doubt…especially on Saturday.

Book Review: Reaching for the Invisible God
by Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey compares ‘Reaching for the Invisible God’ as a progression from doubt towards faith, a journey which he says he himself has travelled. He addresses what it means to try and have a relationship with a God who can’t be seen or touched, often doesn’t appear to be there and is vastly more powerful than we are, but apparently doesn’t feel inclined to use much of his power.

The opening sections of the book are a place of loss and hard questions. Just as Yancey found a church who ‘formed a safe place for my doubts’ Reaching for the invisible God is a safe space to ask honest, challenging questions, knowing that you are in the company of not only the author, but Christians, atheists and agnostics down the centuries. As Yancey says ‘We all need trustworthy doubt companions’. The reader is encouraged to ask the same questions as the people in his stories: “Really, what can we count on God for”, “why does God allow horrific suffering?”, why does God not answer all our prayers and seem to remain silent when we most want Him to speak?. ‘

Doubt can eat into people, leaving them paralysed by uncertainty or it can prompt people to dig deeper for truth. Yancey doesn’t leave the reader to wallow in doubt, thrashing around in despondency; being destroyed by uncertainty. He leads us, by seeking out the lives of writers, saints and otherwise ordinary people, who have spent their lives reaching for an invisible God and asks what we can learn from their endeavours. Their lives produce a sense of reassurance (‘Yes, that’s how it’s meant to be – there is a way forward’) as well as immense challenge (‘How I’d love to be more like that’). Yancey offers a way in to the variety and richness of Christian tradition. Yet he never loses the puzzlement, mystery and amazement which keep him from offering trite soundbites and solutions. I finished ‘Reaching for the Invisible God’ feeling enriched and peaceful, but knowing that I have not just indulged in escapism. At the end of his book Yancey quotes George Steiner: “We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian knows of it as well. They know of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historical dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives…We know also about Sunday. To the Christian, that day signifies an intimation, both assured and precarious, both evident and beyond comprehension, of resurrection, of a justice and a love that have conquered death.”

By asking ‘where is God?’ Yancey catches us where we are, in between Friday and Sunday, without trying to hide either from us.