Faith and feminism: comrades or conflict? Part 1


There was an interesting article in the Guardian last month showing that women that identified themselves as feminists were much less likely than women in general to identify themselves as belonging to a particular faith.  They were statistically more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic, and to be interested in female-centric paganism, or in alternative spirituality.

 

But the challenge put to me by feminist friends was how is it possible to be both feminist and Christian?  Or, as feminist writer Cath Elliott put it:

“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”

So an attempt at answering that challenge.  There’s so much to say on this issue there may need to be more than one post…

1) Do we have a common understanding of what feminism is?
It is fairly clear that Cath Elliott believes that third wave feminists should have no truck with religion.  This is an old argument, and there’s pages of resources which gives an idea of how long the place of women in Christianity has been under debate.

But feminism is not itself a faith system with a common set of beliefs.  Wikipedia defines feminism as:

“a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Its concepts overlap with those of women’s rights. Much of feminism deals specifically with the problems women face in overcoming social barriers, but some feminists argue that gender equality implies a necessary liberation of both men and women from traditional cultural roles, and look at the problems men face as well”.

So far so good, right?  So let’s look at the definition of Christian feminism.
Christian feminism does not mean being Sarah Palin.  I promise.  It is one of the feminist movements covered in the definition above and looks at the position of men and women from a slightly different starting point, not just as individual units but as beings that find happiness in their relations with others, inherently equal but undeniably different, and that understanding this equality before God is essential to understanding our place in the world.

Essentially, as Helen LaKelly Hunt puts it, faith and feminism are “really different expressions of the same impulse to make life more whole“.
I don’t see these two approaches as being in conflict either, I don’t think Christian Feminism is an oxymoron, and I’ll attempt to explain why below.

2) “All religions oppress women”
This is the first challenge.  I can’t pretend to answer for all faiths – I’m a committed Christian and while I’ve looked at the other faiths because I’m interested in knowing more about what others believe, I can only answer as to why I don’t feel oppressed.

In many ways, the Christian faith as led by the church defines patriarchy. Indeed, the orthodox churches refer to their leaders as patriarchs!  But I’d argue that this was a reflection of the political period in which those structures developed rather than something naturally inherent in the message of Jesus Christ.

The slight cop-out answer, for me, comes from the fact of me being a protestant.  For me, the key is that Christianity is a relationship with God and not a religion.
The ceremonies, the churches’ structures, the stuff that is effectively man-made attempts to impose order – that’s religion.  I can see why you could criticise that.
We have women in leadership roles in my church, and I made the case for female bishops in a previous post and so I respect, but disagree with, the thoughtful considerations of other Christians that conclude that they do not believe there is a bible-based case for women in church leadership.  The message throughout the bible is that God created a perfect world, but that we humans use the free will he gave us and screw it up while he sends prophets and eventually his own son to try to help us get back on track.  I’d suggest that just possibly exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church may be an element of that?

3) “The Christian message and the Feminist message are fundamentally incompatible”
The Christian message is simply this: we all try to be good.
But we do bad things.  Christians call it sin.
We reason with ourselves that probably most of them are not so bad, but these things separate us from God, who is all good and who cannot tolerate sin.
The price of this sin? Death – eternal separation from all goodness.
But it’s ok – God loves us and wants us to be happy with him.
So Jesus bridges the gap – he died when he didn’t deserve to and paid the price for all of us.  Accept that offer of Jesus, and be happy with God as he intended us to be, living in his kingdom.

Nowhere in that is there an exhortation to treat women as lesser beings.  Nowhere does it say that this is a message for men not women, that women are not equally called upon to be forgiven their sins and help make the world a better place.
So where’s the incompatibility?

I think this slightly depends on what you think the feminist message is.  For me, equality is at the heart of feminism: political, social and economic.  If, for you, the main thread is about sexual freedom, then you will see incompatibility.
But equality is also there in Christianity: equal access to all spiritual blessings through Jesus.
Throughout the bible it is the people that treat women as inferiors, not God.
God’s angels address women directly just as they do men, and when women are in a position to make a difference, while some are consorts like Esther, you also find queens in their own right like Deborah.
Jesus’s attitude to women was truly counter-cultural – we have forgotten just how shocking even talking to a woman publicly was.
And God used the women at the heart of Jesus’s group of followers for one of the most important roles at Easter – it was the women that found that Jesus was gone from and who came to tell the others, this critical role played by women at a time when in the temple courts a woman’s testimony counted for nothing (“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)).
So equality before God?  Yes, it’s spelt out in the New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And yet there is a conflict.  Jesus’s model for changing the world was that of serving others, serving God.
We can talk about rights, demand respect, argue about fairness, protest about a lack of political and business representation, but ultimately in a perfect world everyone, male and female, would seek the best way to serve each other rather than put each other down and get one over each other.  That’s real equality.
For me, feminism is a stepping stone in this imperfect society to build something a little closer to this, to help us to do the right thing.

Next time: sex, and women in society…

Questions of faith in adversity

Over on Facebook a friend from church had posted this video in which Martin Bashir (he of the Diana and Michael Jackson interviews in the 1990s who has all but disappeared from UK TV screens) interviews Rob Bell, pastor, author of “Velvet Elvis” and a controversial new book “Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” as it is known in the USA or “Love Wins: at the heart of life’s big questions” in the UK.

Ignoring the YouTube titling (Rob Bell does not squirm), the interview asks two important questions that beg further examination.
1) How can there be a God worth worshipping if he allows the sort of suffering we’re seeing in Japan?
2) Is Rob Bell sanitising Christianity’s message for modern tastes by suggesting that there’s every chance that God’s love will win people over after death?

On the first question, every time there is a huge tragedy that we cannot understand, Christians are challenged in this way:
Is God not powerful and therefore not able to intervene to save people from the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Christchurch earthquake in NZ, or the current Japan earthquake/tsunami/ nuclear radiation combination that has so far left half a million homeless, reportedly killed tens of thousands in minutes and destabilized nuclear power plants leading both to fears of radiation poisoning and fuel and power shortages?
Or, if we believe he is powerful enough to act, does he simply not care enough to do so?

This is not an easy thing to answer, particularly in the face of so much pain and suffering. Rob Bell’s answer – that God sheds a tear when we do was succinct, but not the whole picture.
And it is an old, old question. It is set out in the story of Job in the Old Testament – if God cares why doesn’t he DO something?

At the time of Job of course, given he was a good man and could not be blamed as his friends tried to for not being good enough or faithful enough, the only answer was to have God say did you make the world? Can you pretend to understand the how or why or rhyme or reason of the universe I’ve created? Trust that I have a plan only you can’t see the whole of it.
Christians have an additional answer, given Jesus is risen. The only answer I’ve seen that makes any sense is that of course he cares, so much he put himself as Jesus through one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. While this was for all of us so that our sins don’t separate us from God, it also means that the pain of losing a loved one horribly is a firsthand experience for God too.
So we pray, and there are many miracles even in the post-tsunami horror, but the world is not as God intended it to be. If he intervened on everything everywhere all the time we’d be no better than puppets with no free will to show that we’re worthy of the amazing life and gifts that he’s given us. So its our responsibility as his people to bring the comfort and support to others that we get from Jesus paying the price for our sin.

As for the second question, Rob Bell is being presented as a blasphemer in the press. To some degree Martin Bashir is right, if Bell is presenting a message of actually it doesn’t matter what anyone has believed in or done in life, even after death you still have a chance to be won over by God’s love then that is very much in tune with the anything goes modern world.
It’s also something called universalism, the idea that eventually all humans can or will be saved by Jesus and come to harmony in God’s Kingdom.

As ever, the presentation of Bell’s book in the press is a bit simplistic, the true picture looks to be far more interesting and the book worth reading. Belief.net has a neat little article on this, as well as a fantastic blogging columnist who has reviewed the book.
I’m summarising the four key points here:
1) Eternal life starts here on earth now – bringing about all the things we believe embody God’s Kingdom around us on earth (peace, love, health, comforting);
2) Love has to be free – we can choose to love, or not to, to be with God who is love or to separate ourselves from that;
3) Jesus was not plan B, he was always God’s plan to reconcile our fractured world with his perfection;
4) In paying the price for our sin, Jesus gives us all the chance of a fresh start, good news for everyone who ever was, is and will be. The Good News is that Love Wins.

The idea that God really does love everyone is surely the best news ever.  But is the idea that everyone will eventually choose him, even if its not in this life now, just a bit patronising towards those of other faiths or none who may have chosen their beliefs after learning out about the other ideas out there?
That said, you can’t help but admire Bell’s timing.  There must be millions of people out there who hope against hope that those swept away by the tsunami who had not heard about Jesus or who had not accepted his offer will still have the chance to find him.  I’m sure the book will be popular.
Maybe I will read this book – after all I loved the stream of consciousness approach of Velvet Elvis. But I might do so with my big book of Christian theology with me.
And will still pray for the people of Japan. You can donate to the Red Cross to help Japan here , or via Save the Children here.

SKYLINE or oh God, earth loses to the aliens

It’s not often I am moved to write a film review, but I had a chance to see a lot of films over Christmas what with all the flight time I racked up…

I saw lots of films I enjoyed (principally, it has to be admitted, cartoons as I was sitting next to my toddler and couldn’t watch things with too high a rating).
Scott Pilgrim vs the World” was sublime, laugh out loud funny and so clever.
The Social Network” is worth the Oscar nominations.
Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang” was make-you-cry feelgood at the end.
I want a “Despicable Me” minion.
My reaction to “Avatar” was “meh!” but I expect it is suboptimal on an aeroplane seat-sized screen rather than a giant 3D screen…

But the film I want to review is “Skyline“.
This $10m  alien invasion film (i.e. made for peanuts and with no big star – often the sort of film-making I like…) is the one that has affected me most, and mainly because I hated it.

I don’t mean I disliked it, or found it boring.  I actually hated it.

This is a bleak, doom-laden and ultimately depressing film.  It is impossible to write about it without spoilers, so consider yourselves warned…

We start in an apartment where a group of hungover friends are waking up.  One girl gets up and is sick – it is later established that she is pregnant.  Everyone is transfixed by a blue light – it’s so pretty, no one can resist looking.  But then it starts to suck them in…
And then we’re off into full-on alien invasion mode.
These alien things suck in everyone and come in varying sizes meaning they can get into houses or crush entire apartment blocks.
It has been pointed out in other reviews that the black character dies first – yes, and the character cheats on his girlfriend too as if that somehow makes it ok that he died, in comparison with the hero/ heroine couple who are going to have a baby.
The US airforce sends in a nuclear bomb – boom!
But the aliens are not destroyed and the havesting continues. Our heroes continue, despite radiation poisoning, to try to figure out a way to survive, but ultimately are taken by the alien harvesters.
But that’s not the end.
Ultimately everyone in the world is taken, alive, on board the alien ship, where their heads are ripped off and their still living brains used, Doctor Who Cyberman-style, to power new alien beings.
I’ll leave a mystery over the exact fate of the newly pregnant heroine and the hero, but suffice to say the only way of making a sequel is if the heroine survived nine months of pregnancy in alien hell and the foetus grows up to invent time travel and stop it happening.

And that, if you like, is my problem.  To me, there was no proper ending, just unending horror.
Some reviewers have praised this as “realistic”, or “refreshingly free from cheesy Hollywood feelgood”.

To me, it was evidence to me of how important it is to me to know that there after apocalypse there is redemption.
The longing for a happy ending is hard-wired into our society.  We want to know that wrongs will be righted, the evil to be punished and the good to be rewarded (even if we disagree on when, how and what exactly we mean by those concepts).
In the Strause brothers’ vision of the apocalypse there is no judgement, no fairness, no ultimate purpose to life.
Humankind has no value other than as fuel, and lives on only as the brainpower of another species.  And it is better – as demonstrated by the fat, bossy man (fat? Yep, in filmworld if he’s not funny, he’s going to die), to kill yourself than to be taken.  What kind of a world view is it where suicide is the best option?

Ultimately, in that vision of the world, there is no God.
Well, unless it is a vision of what happens during the book of Revelation, before all the 7-horned cows and whore of Babylon stuff.
But I don’t think He’s there in this story.  I don’t think he was even an afterthought.  This is an apocalypse with a nihilistic world view and a simple message.  We all die.  Earth loses to the aliens.

To people who think that religion is a crutch for those who need a fluffy bunny version of the world, I suggest you’ve not read Revelations – all those years of dreadful things happening that are mentioned there, and they don’t spell out clearly that believers will be spared from all the horrors.
(Well, pretribulationist Christians think it does, with the rapture lifting them up to meet Christ before it all kicks off, but that’s not the most commonly held position – and an atheist website offering to look after the pets of Christians taken away in the rapture neatly satirises this…).

The world of St John the Divine’s book of Revelation is not a cosy place.
Some have suggested that it has more than a touch of the magic mushroom about it.
Frankly, even if it’s an allegorical description, the sort of world described is all the worst of the world around us until the new heaven and the new earth.

But – and draw a deep breath – given I believe that Jesus is coming back, then I would still rather that the vision there is as it will be than subscribe to the world view that is so neatly encapsulated by “Skyline”.

But it’s not 0 stars for “Skyline”, it’s 1 star, and that’s because it made me think.

2 minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury… and a helium balloon


“Archbishop of Canterbury is thoroughly nice bloke” – that’s the headline my husband suggested. But mine says what it is I want to tell you about…

Today was Back to Church Sunday.  Our church celebrated this not only by having Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, there for the services in both of the parish churches (a formal service and a more freewheeling one), but also by all having lunch together.
I had something specific I wanted to ask the Archbishop, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

The Archbishop did both a talk with the children, and a sermon today. The children all had a sheep to hold, and the Archbishop explained that the staff he had with him was a real old Kentish shepherd’s crook.  Given what happened later, I think this made a bit of an impression on the kids.  He answered questions about going to church when he was young, and what life had been like growing up (tin baths in front of the fire, apparently).
The really nice bit was that, as the children had all gathered on a mat at the front, he went and sat on the floor with them.  I noticed that, similarly, when doing communion, he bent down to each child’s level to do their blessings.  It was a great reminder that being head of the Anglican church nevertheless puts you on a level equivalent to a child in the eyes of God.

The sermon we heard (and apparently there was a different one at each service) was on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31).  This is a great subject for any newcomers service (the other good one is Acts 8, Philip and the Ethiopian with it’s message “how can I know what its all about if no one explains it to me”?)  The story of the little girl who told her mum that the Optician of Wales had been to her school triggered a great sermon on helping people to see, to see time at church as honest time in which we confess our sins but also celebrate how God sees us, with unconditional love.

When the service ended, we all helped put up tables and move the chairs to make a dining hall.  A posse of helpers had baked potatoes, made bolognese, grated cheese and provided great vats of baked beans and coleslaw.  We had all also brought desserts to share.
The Archbishop did not spend his time just talking to our minister.  Instead, he made his way around the room, firstly meeting all the people who’d stayed for coffee but not staying for food, then round to each table, joining us and chatting with us.  This was done gently, without entourage (he brounght a “minder” with him, basically like a Minister bringing a private secretary – or a Camerlengo to the pope?), and without formality.  He moved around seemingly at random, but clearly trying to see everyone.
When he came to our table, we were all ready to talk to him, but right at that moment, our vicar and a woman in a pink jacket came over – the Archbishop’s visit had been filmed, not just to go on the church website (as I’d assumed) but for Back to Church Sunday, to be shown in other churches. As recent arrivals, would we mind talking about it?  Of course we were happy to do so, but part of me was thinking, well that’s our chance to talk to him gone.   And when we’d filmed our segment, the Archbishop was asked to go and film a segment.

Someone at the church had provided some large silver helium balloons for the service spelling out WELCOME.  After the meal, some of the children were playing with them, and somehow the L had become separated from its weight and had floated up to the high village hall ceiling.  The children tried to use the O balloon to lasso the string of the L but even though the O could reach it, there was not enough tension in the string to bring the balloon down.  The the vicar’s daughter had a bright idea – the Archbishop’s shepherd’s crook!
Although they tried and tried, standing on a chair, the kids couldn’t get the hook to twist around the string and rescue the balloon.  Then one of the church team arrived with sticky tape.  They coated the top of the crook with it, and on tiptoe on a chair, the balloon was finally rescued.  The whole room applauded.

I started to take some pictures – and in the last photo , I realised the Archbishop had sneaked into the background – he’d come to see what was happening and congratulated the kids – nothing wrong with the flock borrowing the crook and all working together to solve a problem.  I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere…

Which meant that, thanks to wanting to record this for my blog, I actually got two minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I talked about this blog and the other things I do online talking about faith issues and in particular the discussions I have with those of no faith.  I asked ths:  I talk about personal experience of God in our lives, and that if Jesus rose again then everything else is interesting but ultimately we need to take seriously what he said and live it… but what other message should I have for you?

The Archbishop said this: the incredible value of each individual.
This is what we learn from Jesus – how much we are loved by God, and the value we place on each human life.  There are and have already been people in this world who don’t value people this way, but we feel this is wrong. It is through seeing ourselves through God’s eyes that we understand why we feel it is wrong.

Thinking about this more, this is like the argument that our morals and values must come from somewhere – why is it that, underneath our own interests, our greed, that we instinctively know that equality and fairness matters?  Why do we sometimes feel that the right thing to do is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?
And all the psychological, biological, genetic, historical efforts going into trying to prove that altruism and ultimately self-sacrifice is not a betrayal of selfish genes but somehow good but without a God dimension… this pales into insignificance when you realise that we know this because. for a moment we see ourselves through God’s eyes and realise how life changing it is to see others in this way too.
How can you not give to the flood victims in Pakistan, send clothes for the deported Roma, visit your neighbour you’ve not seen around lately, buy a coffee for your collague that’s having a tough time when you realise that God sees them as just as important as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Without that sense that each individual should be prized, we are no better than the rich man ignoring Lazarus starving at his gate. And as Jesus has the rich man in his parable say, if we don’t realise it now from all the words from everything that we’ve been told, then we won’t believe it no matter who tells us, not even if someone were to rise from the dead.

Chaos, meaning and patterns in the randomness

fractal21(image c/o www.coolmath.com)

I don’t know if you have managed to catch the BBC4 programme the Secret Life of Chaos, fronted by Jim Al-Khalili, a lecturer from my alma mater…if you didn’t you missed a treat.  A truly thought provoking piece of TV and one that makes you question everything you know.

For me, this programme had the appeal that sci fi had as a teenager.  And when you get down to how to find order in chaos and fractals, then it’s pushing all the right buttons to get your mind buzzing.  Al-Khalili makes great use of Mandelbrot pictures to explain chaos and self-replication. And the pictures are truly incredible – he noted that Mandelbrot’s fractals had been called the “thumbprint of God” because of their infinite complexity, but zooming into each piece of the Mandelbrot patterns to find yet more tiny versions is amazing. You can make you own with the www.coolmath.com fractal generator, of course…
And that chaos, far from being random, is a pattern repeated again and again throughout nature. The programme illustrated this with examples of all sizes, from coastal erosion to bird flight to the construction of our own lungs.

Al-Khalili said that can use chaos theory therefore to show that complex can be the result of simple – branching over many generations leads to greater and greater complexity.
This was presented as though it was thought to be a revolutionary idea.
Actually anyone in a bureaucratic office environment knows that must be the case – a simple instruction from on high to do X results in a number of people needing to talk to other people , making arrangements, using different pieces of technology, attempting to balance different things that are affected by that simple command to “make it so”.  Of course it is just possible that our brains have evoled in such a way as to make the simple complicated…

To illustrate that evolution is the tool that best demonstrates this repetitive pattern and branching, the programme used the model of computers that evolve their own programming.  The computer was programmed to get some virtual robot legs to get up and walk and then move a body. If the effort succeeded that model was allowed to “breed” giving birth to the next generation of model and within 5 generations there was a notable improvement in getting the robot walking, but then left to run the programme enabled many amazing things to happen, illustrated with beautifully programmed robot bodies wrestling and slamming into walls etc.
The interesting thing here was that the computer itself programmed amazing things that no human programmer would have done. But to me that was not the only interesting thing. The analogy made was that this is evolution in action, the random mutations that give advantage leading to improved versions (with no value judgement of what improvement means).  But that’s not the case, is it? 
The programme was set up with a purpose (to see what a computer could do with self-evolving programming), the computer was given a set of simple but clear instructions by a human programmer (find which models are successful in achieving an aim and when you find them, breed them to create the next generation to model evolution). It was not, in the words of Bill Bryson “nothing, which exploded”, the programme was programmed into the computer like a message in its DNA.  So basically it was all set in train by an intelligent designer. Oh.
Now you know I’m no creationist – I understand that the Bible is a document formed of the writings of many different individuals over a long span of history but with a common unifying theme and “God breathed” message.
I have no problem with God so loving the world that he set it to run and develop through evolution and on discovering that free will meant sometimes his creations deliberately choosing imperfectly, showing that although we’ve corrupted what he’s intended for us but that he loves us anyway and if we ask him wholeheartedly to, the price of our wrongdoing is paid and he forgives us. But I’ve no truck with the sort of creator Terry Pratchett sketches out, adjusting the wings of insects or giving elephants wheels.
Does chaos theory and fractal maths mean there’s no room for God the programmer?
More of this in a minute.
 
But before I get too complicated myself, there’s a few things that this truly interesting programme raised for me that I’d like to put out for further thought and discussion:

1) ultimately the question of where we come from has one of two answers: something must either come from something (God made it, ex deus), or from nothing (it just happened, ex nihilo). Knowing the tools by which the changes happen doesn’t affect the need to know and understand this;

2) I’m still not clear, no matter what the level of complexity that can arise from the very simple, how life can come from this self-replicating process. Despite Frankenstein being so incorporated into our outlook that some forget it’s fiction, and despite the attempts to create life in a test tube (though not with the gases that were around at the time that life is thought to have started) we still have not managed to create life from scratch and nothing in this programme showed how inanimate dust from an explosion went from inanimate to self-replicating.  To me, know that complexity comes from simplicity does not change this question of how life comes to exist;

3) As a knockdown “proof” of evolution as the only answer to the “how” question, as set out above I’m not sure what the “evolving computer programme” actually shows… something that’s come from the evolutionary process uses it’s mind to create a computer that responds to programming by evolving it?

4) then there’s the problem, as always, of Jesus.

And it comes down to this – either he did what we think he did (and I’ve gone into this at length in other posts), or he didn’t.
If he didn’t, then fair enough, let’s go with the fractal mathematics and the science of patterns explains chaos and the purpose of life is to self-replicate with meaningless mutation occasionally lending advantage.  I personally find this bleak, depressing and unconvincing.  It means the only answer to “why” is “it doesn’t matter, it’s just because”, that the genes are in control and that our brains have evolved to ask “why” without even a genetic advantage through learning. And I know bleak doesn’t mean wrong just because it’s not a nice thing – I just wonder how people that seriously believe that this is thecase get out of bed in the morning…

But if Jesus did what Christians think he did, then we’ve a responsibility to look at what he said and did, to understand that there is a personal and loving God who responds to prayer but nevertheless is unwilling to catch every sparrow or aeroplane. 
This is not a comfortable concept for some people – for example Eddie Izzard contends that God can’t exist because otherwise he’d just flicked off Hitler’s head.  But Christians say that God loves us and gives us choices - we say that he relies on human agents to challenge evil because otherwise we’d be puppets so the God that we worship expects us to come up with ways of overcoming evil without him intervening as directly as he had to in the past. I like the threading a needle analogy that Lee Strobel  tells to explain this point (the daughter of an interviewee wanted to learn to sew, but she keep stabbing herself in the finger while trying to thread a needle, but he resists the urge to just take over and do it for her – she needs to learn to do it herself and when she does the triumph and pride in her newfound ability is worth so much more, and of course equips her with a new life skill).
It’s the mad, bad or God dilemma. Again. 
But while fractals help us explain chaos (and also look pretty) this reductionist approach to the complex world around us doesn’t help us think about this so well documented, so hugely interpreted event, and what is pretty much THE decision that needs to be come to in life. 
I guess what it’s saying is that ressurection is not the norm, doesn’t fit the pattern and therefore didn’t happen (so mad for saying what he said and everyone after bad for perpetuating it?)
But with the best investigation of the evidence that I can do separated by 2000 and a language divide, I can only conclude that it did happen.
So if chaos is not really random but following the patterns of fractal mathematics, and patterns are self-replicating, and Jesus rose from the dead, then there’s hope.  We’re promised that by Jesus paying the price for our sin, we’ll also be raised from the dead.  

One further thought.  If you look at church history, from church formation, pinning down and developing beliefs, schisming, debate and interpretation you have to accept that branching and complexity from simplicity can be seen even there – fractal patterns in an organisational structures context.

Finally, there’s a joke that tickles me…
 In the future a scientist says to God, “we don’t need you.  We can now create the spark of life, and create computers that evolve by themselves. We’re so confident that we challenge you to produce a new being, from scratch. If you’re really omnipotent, you’ll accept the challenge”
And God forms a being from the dust, a beautiful creature into which he breathes life, gives it a loving kiss on the forehead and lets it go off to live its life.
The scientist bends down and takes a handful of dust, but God shakes his head: “uhuh – you get your own dust”…

Making up my son’s mind on God…

I’m feeling a bit insulted.
As you will know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I’m a parent.
I have an adorable toddler. He’s very clever, resourceful, ingenious. I love him more than anything else in the world.
Both my husband and I have admitted to each other that if it came to it, we’d save him over each other in a life or death situation. Ultimately, love to the point of self-sacrifice is part of being a parent.
And that’s a theme we’ll come back to.

But what he’s not is either:
a) a toy to be manipulated by his parents; or
b) capable of abstract reasoning in the absence of evidence. 
Children learn through the example of others, through practice, through observation. 

So I’ve just seen this report in the Belfast Telegraph about the new atheist poster from the Bristish Humanist Association for Christmas.  If you want to see an intellectual atheist’s view of it, I’m sure you’ll be able to access that via my friend Jon Worth’s blog soon.

Kate Foster age 11 www.kidstalkaboutgod.org(picture is by Kate Foster, age 11, kidstalkaboutgod.org – I’ll put  one of my son’s on as soon as he can draw something that isn’t a train!)

But here’s my view as a parent, and Christian.

1) As a parent, it is my responsibility to raise my child to be the best that he can be.
 
Most parents want the best for their child. 
They will differ in their views on what “the best” means – in educational terms for example it could mean the most expensive fee-paying school, a multi-cultural, multi-ability school that everyone from the local area attends, or one that specialises in developing a specialist skill that their child may have (or indeed their intellectual ability overall).  Elsewhere it could mean a daughter getting the chance to go to a school at all, a son getting to stay on rather than leave to work to keep the family fed…  the point is that most parents are driven to get the best that they can for their children.
While there are bad parents who care nothing for the offspring they bring into this world, If you are a devout Darwinist I guess you’ll say that the genes that want the best chance of survival condition me to believe and act in ways that should enable him to do so.

Being the best you can be means instilling values, right from the very beginning - for example small children are naturally selfish (“mine!”) as their sense of self develops, and they need to be taught to share.  How do you start to decide what values you will be teaching your child? 
Asking people what’s important in terms of values is inevitably subjective, and the values of some won’t fit all – but are there some clear, inherent values: fairness, tolerance, liberty, justice, the pursuit of happiness that are self-evidently “a good thing”?  
Um, no.  Self-evident is a problem because things that become self-evident are the result of generations of conditionment: our values in the Western world are likely to have been derived  from principles followed in ancient Greece, the Roman empire, revolutionary France, empirial Britain as well as from great thinkers and philosophers and, like it or not, from the dominance of the Christian religion over the majority of the public and the decision-makers for the last nearly 2000 years. 
Nietzsche believed that christian “values” had corrupted the natural state of humanity and did not believe that society should address the needs of the poor and weak but that the strong had a right to be dominant – a position recognised in the mediaeval world (outside the frontline parts of the church) and increasingly in the deprived inner cities (where the voluntary sector – primarily still from religious motivation – steps in).  I don’t believe that looking out for those in need can be evolutionarily advantageous (unless someone cares to explain to me how?) and in a Nietzschian world could only really be seen to be of use in bringing about a sense of weakness and dependency rather than a wish to take up arms, become strong and assert their rights to more.  So why do it?  Because, somewhere inside we have a feeling that it’s the “right” thing to do.
But it’s a judgement call, right?  It’s a question of relativity – you can choose one path or another, but there’s no ulitmate right and wrong, just what you can do to satisfy yourself and your view of making the world a better place.
But of course religions take a different view.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, values are derived from what God wants us to be like to be the best we can be – i.e. like him, the ultimate source of goodness.  God the father, who sees us as his children loves us and wants us to love him back – a feeling every parent knows.  But equally, being a parent means correcting and chastising, with love. So there is right, and there is wrong, it’s not relative and God is the judge.  

I don’t think I can raise my child properly without instilling values in him one way or another – an if I am a Christian, act as a Christian, attend church, pray etc. then he will learn through observation and wanting to join in, i.e. practice.  Should I be caveating my actions with there’s no obligation on you to join in, son of mine, and what I’m doing and saying may be incorrect, irrelevant and is something for you to think about only when you are older?  What nonsense.

2) Do parents or others have the responsibility for my child?
A small but valid digression. 
A friend used to worked in children’s policy.  She has no children of her own, but because I do, was telling me about something she was working on, a scheme to extend the Red Book (in the UK this is a book that the NHS gives parents to record a child’s development and vaccinations in their early years) through to age 7.  My husband and I reacted with horror. 
As recorded in my old blog www.thoughts.com/rose22/blog, I’ve had more contact with organs of the state in the first two years of my son’s life than practically ever before, and as a loving, responsible parent I’ve not always welcomed the tone of some of the encounters.  Here’s a couple of short extracts:

My son had a tough start in life: he was tiny, arrived earlier than expected if not actually premature, although he could latch on I produced no colostrum, and he got an infection in hospital that weakened him to the extent that he then couldn’t feed and ended up tubefed in special care.
Before special care, we fought and fought to be “allowed” to give him a formula top up. A midwife told us that giving him formula was “the equivalent of giving him a MacDonalds” but he was genuinely starving and starting to get dangerously underweight so the paediatricians asked if we’d mind doing so.
The first formula, SMA gold, made him vomit – we’ve since found out that it’s the one most commonly used in postnatal wards despite the fact that the babies that need formula most also tend to be most sensitive to it. When a baby is already underweight and thr vomiting also brings up any breastmilk they’ve managed to take in, then it’s downright dangerous.
…  
I was already feeling policed (the Red Book of early childhood issues and vaccination records, the sheer volume of paperwork involved in his life at nursery etc.) but now I know that just having given birth to him does not make him mine.

The idea of closer scrutiny of my son by “experts” from outside the family, ever tightening frameworks that attempt to track and measure his physical, mental, social, and many other types of development against some identified standards, the idea of that progress being recorded and potentially required to be provided for oversight by someone representing the state in some capacity from birth to seven is frankly a bit scary.  And I say that as someone with a large number of family members engaged in those sort of state roles.  

Others have written, and rather better than I would about the changed relationship between adult and child in recent years - the recent case where adoption was ruled to be more valid that the right of the birth family to live together when an allegation was found to be untrue, the apparent assumption that adults have malign intent when spending time with children that must be disproved that has resulted in the need for all adults spending time with children (including authors visiting schools) to be subject to a criminal record check.

To bring us back to the theme of the Humanist/ Atheist poster, the demand to bring up children in a secular way feels like an intrusion into my private sphere in much the same way. 
Breastfeeding or bottlefeeding my child was about sustaining him in his early physical life and people tried to tell me how to do that (even manhandling my breasts – shudder…).  Hugging and kissing him, talking to him, playing with him was part of his social and emotional development - and I can get government guidance on good ways of doing these things.   I’m told he needs a certain number of portions of vegetables (5 a day), an amount of physical exercise (change 4 life) and so on.  There’s not one area of his life where there isn’t someone trying to advise me, tell me how to do what I’m doing even better, and even how not to worry about it (“good enough” parenting).

It’s all feeling a bit like “there’s an app for that!”
Well, child development, learning of values, culture, tradition, citizenship etc. are not apps that can be plugged into a child when the basic unit has been assembled and the intial software installed. 
Children are more than just organic computers and the stories, the fairies and wizards, the magic potions and tales of bravery and terrible decisions are part of the way in which they learn how to cope with the real world. 
I realise it is dangerous to juxtapose a sentence on fairies and wizards with one on religion (I know about the unicorn hunting task in the atheist children’s camp) but I don’t believe you are being fair to a child to not raise them with religion.  Not only with they not understand the culture and tradition of their family and society and their motivations and values, nor will they learn about and respect the cultures, traditions and beliefs of others and their motivations and values, nor have exposure to the stories, histories and themes that help shape them in their values and outlook on life and in deciding what is important.  I think it’s my choice to make. 

Besides, English literature teachers are already reporting that students are increasingly unable to understand the literary classics because they don’t understand the religious references within them and the consequent character motivations… 

3) Raising a child deliberately to believe in nothing is not a neutral position
I mentioned above how children learn.  Children observe the world and ask questions. 
Perhaps he is too young at present, but I would fully expect a child like mine to ask some day “why do we go to church?” 
After all, his father and I have both asked that ourselves in the past, stopped going (valuing sleep over singing on Sunday mornings) and then, after our individual feelings of being drawn back, challenged, a love beyond ourselves, started going again, praying more regularly and more.

I have no fear of this – just as I have no fear of him learning about other religions, and indeed what it means to believe that there’s nothing more to it all than this.  Ultimately I hope he’ll believe in Jesus as his saviour, but personal belief can’t be forced when its about a relationship with God, only nurtured.  In the end, for all believers, it’s a personal choice and decision as well as truth they know in their hearts. 
 
But please, let’s stop this rubbish that raising a child within a faith is tantamount to child abuse.  I realise that shock value and, yes, insult are probably the intention of such statements.
Such statements are offensive to the billions of people across the world trying to raise their children in what they believe to be a way of truth that will help their children both make this world a better place, and to be in the best situation possible in the next life, wherever and whatever that may be. 
It’s also deeply insulting to those who have suffered real abuse, physical or psychological, for some of whom hope and salvation have come from religious faith.

The contention seems to be that children should be free to learn about good, solid science (would this include selfish genes and memes?  What about multiple world theories? Was the big bag ex nihilo or was there something before that exploded, and if so what was it and how did that come to be?) while they are growing up, but not be introduced religious thought until they’re old enough to make up their own minds.
However, atheism, the belief that we can live without God and that he doesn’t exist, and to explain the world in terms that do not include him is a faith position. 
So telling parents to raise their children without God is actually imposition of a faith position, the position that there is no God and that a life can be lived fully without mention of one.
 
 4)  Filling the vaccuum
The trouble is, every time idealistic atheists start on about how the world would be a better place without religion, I start hearing ringing cash tills in the background.
 
John Lennon’s “Imagine” is both depressing and unrealistic.  Depressing because he is singing the old atheist line that the world would be a better place withough religion because everyone would instead focus on making this world a bettter place and would live in peace, and hopelessly unrealistic because the evidence we have from secular states (not just the communist USSR or China but also those with enforced secular constitutions like France or the USA) is that they are no more peaceful, just, equal and genuinely happy than those where religion is practiced (or part of the constitutional settlement). 

The funny thing is, it seems to me that it is not the presence of religion in whatever form that poses the biggest threat to happy, fulfilled humanity in the western world.  It’s the lie that to be happy, fulfilled people we need more and better of whatever is available.
A few months ago I think it seemed that we’d got a lid on it – the avarice, the spend-to-feel-good, the fake-tan-bleached-hair-nails-done-designer-clothes school of self-esteem could be replaced by a quieter, greener life, with organic veg boxes and community allotment schemes.  This was at the height of the credit crunch where we seemed to think that the role of the bankers in economic meltdown and the corruption of politicians and those that serve them in the Fees office at Westminster might mean that everything was really about to change.  But it rarely ever does. 
The lack of organised religion does not automatically bring about a happy, caring-sharing community, it reasserts the pursuit of self-interest,  the Nietzschian values that I mentioned above. It also seems to mean that more people believe in luck, fate, cosmic ordering, clairvoyancy and other bits of assorted quackery or the words of snake oil salesman… exactly the sorts of things that rational atheists such as Ben Goldacre fight the good fight against.  These things fill the vaccuum.  And I think that’s worse.

5) Self-sacrificial love
I mentioned that the role of a parent is essentially one of unconditional love, but that love means not just allowing a child to do whatever they want but helping them to learn, grow and be the best that they can be.  And that can mean giving them the chance to grown up knowing the love of God, the comfort, the security, but also the challenge and responsbility that that love engenders.
 
At the risk of incurring more wrath, I’d also point out that my faith is not about earning points and following rules to get into heaven. 
It’s about belief that God is my father who knows me and loves me (I’m lucky enough to be able to say as much as my Dad here on earth does) but who also expects the best of me and has the highest standards ever.  God set the rules that determine what all this is about and will decide on what happens next when all this ends and has been clear that this will include holding everyone to account.  Jesus has already paid the price for me for the bad things that I’ve done that I would inevitably have to answer for when meeting God at the end of time, somethig that could happen at any time. 
To deny my child the information about this love, and to withold the chance to embrace it, would be perverse given that I love him.

As a parent I put my son’s live above my own – I brought him into the world and he deserves that.  Parents do this in small ways all the time (accepting that their careers get held back becuase they cannot work all hours any longer, doing endless taxi driving for after school activities and play dates) and as I set out at the top of this article, they would (usually without hesitateion) place their child’s life above their own in a life-or-death situation and usually above their partner’s too. 
This self-sacrificial love may certainly be the result of selfish genes looking to ensure the latest version survives.
But it also reflects the love of God for us, the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus as God paying the price to set us free from the cost of the justice that we deserve.  Some might argue that a God of love would just forgive us all whatever we’ve done.  But if he did not uphold the principle of justice, we’d not have the concept and he would not be worth worshipping as no one would bother.  That would be the actions of a neglectful and simultaneously indulgent parent, and certainly not one I’d want to be like.
I’m sure this all sounds bizarre and it’s easier just to think that the bad go unpunished and there will be no judgement or if there is that we can answer for ourselves, thanks. 
But I’ve never wanted to disappoint my Dad.  If Jesus did what I think he did and rose from the dead, then what he said matters and is an amazing thing to offer to someone, anyone, and indeed everyone throughout all time.
So Jesus’s offer is a payment that I choose to accept, open to all and from which I’m equally free to walk away. 
True freedom isn’t doing whatever we like, but doing what we know to be right, for the good of all and in love.

As a conclusion, I’m going to borrow the words Iused in my previous blog:

I know that in the long term a parent-child relationship is something that has to be developed, worked at, and ultimately it is a process of loss and separation for the parent and growth and self-discovery for the child.
The child ultimately belongs to his or herself.  But I had always thought that, unless a crime was being committed, the pace of that process was a journey that my child and I were free to take at our own pace.

So, thanks for the cute poster.  But I intend to offer my child the chance to grown up as a Christian, in a loving relationship with God, and to exercise my judgement as his parent to make the decisions that enable him to be the best he can be until he has enough information and independent thought to make up his own mind. 
Because you can present the science, you can hand over a copy of the bible or any religious text of your choosing but if you don’t talk about it, don’t explain it, don’t live it then how can you expect understanding.
As the Etheopian Eunuch said to Philip when he was asked (in Acts Chapter 8 ) whether he understood the Jewish bible he was reading “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”  A chance at that understanding, early in life, is probably the best gift a parent can give their child.

Update: not the only blogger to have noticed this poster, and the debate continues on www.joelitobarski.eu and www.sarabedford.com/blog where I posted the following:

I blogged on this too – I like your analysis.
Of course atheists have the right to prosthelytize – amazing though that they feel the need to unless atheism is becoming a belief system more than just a worldview.
For me, this campaign was about trying to force an unreasonable contention onto the private sphere of the family.
I understood the purpose of this campaign to be to normalise the message that raising a child outside the religion that their parents practice should be the social norm, because God doesn’t need to feature in children’s lives and religion is a lifestyle option to add on later if it’s wanted.
After all, when Dawkins has contended that raising a child within their parents’ religion is tantamount to child abuse, and talks about society stepping in, what other way is there to take a poster such as this?
However I’m glad to hear that the BHA acknowledge that in practice this is not practicable. But then what are they asking for? Just that parents don’t ostracize children that make an informed decision not to practice a religion? That’s not what the poster says!
I also concluded that no one can force someone to believe, that is not how belief works. That’s just culture, not faith. 
But it would be unnatural for parents that practice a faith not to encourage their children to follow it too if they genuinely believe that it is true and leads to salvation.
So I’ll do so with my son – and if he decides its not for him, I’ll just have to accept it.
NB I rebelled and returned after much questioning and reading once I realised that the resurrection had actually happened. Why wouldn’t I want to share that with people I love?