A repost from 14th March 2007, as I think it's of general interest (and linked to Blink)
Transcript of my fourth lecture, explaining what idolatry is, and how our society is damaged by the idolatry of science. About 8000 words.
Good morning and welcome back. I have been looking forward to doing this session, principally because the subject matter of this session is one of the first things I ever learnt when I started the academic study of theology, and I think it remains possibly the single most important insight which academic theology can give, and it’s not because academic theology has created something new it’s just that academic theology gave me a way of understanding something which is actually profoundly ancient and certainly deeply scriptural. But firstly a bit of a recap. Jeremiah as our guiding partner really because I see this great calamity coming down upon western society and the last two sessions were really just describing why I believe there is this calamity, this crisis coming upon us. Firstly, looking at oil and the energy crisis and secondly looking at the deeper roots why things like energy and pollution and so forth are becoming a problem in terms of the exponential growth of population.
So really those were setting the scene for why I think we can perceive a crisis or a calamity coming. What I want to do in the next three sessions is really explore some concepts which will give us the tools with which to understand what is going on from a theological, from a Christian point of view. And it begins by thinking of the first and the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” Matthew 22, I’m sure you all recognise it. Or the Shema “Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and so on. It’s from Deuteronomy 6. Or the first of the commandments, “And God spoke all these words, I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Eygpt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other Gods before me, you shall not make for yourself an idol, a graven image”, and so on.
What does this mean? This first and greatest commandment. Not many people these days worship golden calves formed from their melted-down jewellery, which is the Old Testament’s classic image of what idolatry is. But does this mean there is no idol worship going on? Surely not. So what is idolatry in the present day sense? If it isn’t literally bowing down to small idols kept in your living room (and maybe that does go on, maybe they have a phosphorescent glow…) but idolatry is something subtler than it used to be and I really what I want to do is spell out how it’s formed. Now I want to begin by talking about someone named Phineas Gage. Anyone heard of Phineas Gage? Good. He was a railroad foreman in Vermont in the middle of the nineteenth century, breaking down rocks with explosives. So he used to drill and put what’s called a tamping iron through the rock which was grounded with gunpowder, and he had an accident. And this tamping iron went through his head, and passed throught the other side and landed about thirty metres away. OK? Now he survived, in fact he didn’t really lose consciousness. His skull is kept, I think it’s in Harvard’s Medical Museum. But there is all sorts of research being done on him, had this tragic accident and it led to a profound personality change. He had been as the railway foreman very competent and very sober-minded, and he became someone reckless, someone who had no powers of patience or persistence, someone who was foul-mouthed and abusive, someone who simply couldn’t track the path of their life as it had been previously set out.
He did spend some time as one of P T Barham’s “freaks”. He used to be exhibited holding the tamping iron that had passed through his head. Basically his life disintegrated. He lived for another fifteen years or so after the accident but he could never hold down a consistent job, and the distinct personality change. Well one thing to draw from that is the way in which brain damage changes the personality and in particular in what seemed to have gone wrong with him is that his judgement was impaired. He could no longer pursue a consistent course, but his reasoning ability was untouched. You could have a conversation with him. OK? Now I’m drawing from a book called “Decartes’ Error” by an American neuroscientist called Antonio Damasio who discusses him, and then he goes on to talk about a man he calls Elliot, who he calls a modern Phineas Gage. Now Elliot had a fall, had a brain tumour and the brain tumour was operated on and it was operated on successfully. Elliot was a man in his mid-thirties, reasonably successful businessman, and after the operation, everything seemed to be OK, and he went back to his place of work and he found he couldn’t actually sustain the job. When he would look, for example, at his client’s papers, he could read and so forth but he would just get distracted. He would just read something which would grasp his interest at that present moment and just pursue it. All sense of priorities had gone. And so after a week or two of this he was sacked from that job, tried a few other jobs, lost all those jobs, got divorced and basically his life began to disintegrate, until he was institutionalised, which is where Antonio Damasio came across him.
And the interesting thing which Damasio is drawing out is the way in which his brain damage was corresponding to the brain damage which Phineas Gage had suffered, hence he is the modern Phineas Gauge. In other words there is something about emotions and judgement which impaired their human lives but left their reasoning ability intact. They could still read, they could still converse, but something had been taken away. What Damasio develops is this sense that decision is making really a crucial aspect of our humanity, of what forming a human life is. And this rests upon an emotional response, it’s not a rational response, it’s not like something that is produced from logic and investigation, but it is an emotional reaction. And he draws the analogy with playing a game of chess. When you have got someone playing chess, you have got a vast number of potential moves, especially when you start going two, three, four moves in. But what a Grand Master for example, or what someone who is very good at chess will do, is actually exclude the vast majority of those options, because they can see, hang on, a few moves down if I do that I will lose my queen. And that is given a great value.
I won’t go into all the details, but what Damasio does in neuroscience is describe a way in which the emotional reaction governs the judgement. OK, and he uses this example of chess that the options presented are winnowed down, are guided, if you like, by the emotional basis of judgement, and that all judgement is ultimately this physical response, it’s a bodily, it’s a carnal process and ultimately it’s like what might be called the reaction of disgust, it’s “Yuk, that’s bad!” So it’s very much at heart a qualitative reaction. This is good, this is bad. And the reason informs this process but it rests, the bedrock of the judgement process is emotion.
So what he argues is that emotions, our emotional reactions are in themselves, cognitive. In other words, they form part of our mind, our mental understanding OK? This is the bedrock of it, and our emotions are ways in which we evaluate information. Compare for example, your wife is a teacher, or your husband, doesn’t matter, or your wife/husband is an adulterer. The reaction to those items of information is significantly different. And that just brings out if you like the way in which our emotional engagement with information is different. Does that make sense?
So you have different types of knowledge, different forms of knowledge, OK and some are more value laden than others, in other words, some are more important. OK? So in terms of deciding what is most important in life, our reasoning can’t give us answers on its own. We have to involve our whole bodies, our whole souls, heart and soul. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul.
Now two analogies, just to really bring out something here. First is imagine a map, imagine our understanding of the world, we formed a picture of the world and you can think of it like a map, this is our map of the world, and this is the map of the world of someone who really likes castles. OK? So imagine a normal map and now imagine that someone who really, really interested in castles is forming their map and I was trying very hard with Photo Shop to make this even better, but this is the best I could do. Some areas are blocked up because here is a really good castle. OK? And here’s a really good castle in Colchester. Here’s a really good castle. So that is if you like a clear or true map, and this is a map which has got some areas blown up in importance. So what I’m trying to get at here is that an understanding of the world with some bits that are emphasised beyond how they actually truly are. Does that make sense? OK. I’m sure you can think of examples, but this is just one example off the top of my head.
A second example, a spider’s web. Think of the spider’s web as the map of an area. This is a normal spider’s web, don’t know if any of you have read this series of experiments where they fed spiders certain substances and they saw what difference it made to the web they spun. OK. So you can start to guess which is which. But my point is here is a pretty good spider’s web, it’s pretty uniform, pretty regular and it covers pretty much all the area. So that’s if you like, that’s a true spider’s web. It’s a sensible, realistic, non-idolatrous spider’s web. And these ones all have various things wrong with them. So this one’s missing various parts, this one again is a bit erratic, and this one is just all over the place. Can you guess what the substances were? This one is LSD, which is in some ways more perfect but there are some things wrong, this one is Marijuana, Hash. Do you know what this one is? Caffeine. The thing that really makes your spider webs wrong is caffeine. Quite interesting.
Anyhow, to continue. You can think of our reasoning ability our logical processing ability as being a bit like a blanket spread over our emotional understandings. So if the emotional understandings change, OK then the reasons follow it. The shape of the reason will follow it. It’s not what our emotions are built upon, our logical reason. Our emotional life is the bedrock and our reason simply flows over the top. There is a wonderful book by Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, I think she’s at Chicago, called “Upheavals of Thought,” where she goes through great classical literature describing how this happens, but it’s about this thick. So I won’t try and summarise all of it, but this is something which is very much a current interest of contemporary philosophy and neuroscience. But it’s not a new insight.
This is Hume – “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So reason, the point I’m trying to make is that reason is a tool, our logic, our reason is a tool. And it rests upon our emotional makeup and our emotional makeup is very much concerned with values, with what is perceived as important. Some things are perceived as more important than others, that’s you know, we emotionally react differently. Hence that example, your wife is a teacher, your wife is an adulterer. Some things are more emotionally weighted.
So what is idolatry? Idolatry is making something more important than it really is. Simple as that. Make sense? Now this phrase making the penultimate, ultimate – mid twentieth century theologian called Paul Tillich, that was the academic insight which I grasped when I was an atheist, I am sure it was one of the major reasons why I moved away from atheism because once you realise what idolatry is, then of course you don’t want to make things more important than they really are and logically, once you have accepted that you can’t get away from the reality of God. That’s in a sense, that’s the whole theme of this talk this morning. We’ll come back to that. But that’s a phrase – making something which is penultimate, ultimate, making something which is important but not the most important, into the most important thing. It’s getting our priorities wrong. Simple as that, that’s what idolatry is. It’s getting our priorities wrong.
God is the single most important thing in life and if God is at the centre everything else falls into its proper place. You can think of that as a definition of God in so far as it’s possible to define God, that’s a useful definition. God is the most important thing, and as long as we keep God central, everything else will then fall into it’s proper place. This is not an insight restricted to Christianity, or even restricted to Judaism and Islam as well. The beginning of the Tao De Ching “The tao that can be spoken is not the eternal tao.” If it can be named or described it is not the ultimate. Anything which we can specify in words, anything that we can point to is not the ultimate. We cannot capture God. God always eludes us. Our brains can’t capture Him.
In the middle of one session before I think I said, “God is never the member of a class.” We can think of a class of objects, a class of things which are green, a class of things which are wonderful, a class of things which exist. God is never the member of a class. So in strict terms, God does not exist. Remember me saying this in one of my other sessions, simply because we have got a very good idea of what it means to exist? They are objects within the universe. God is not an object within the universe. God’s existence underlies everything else, but to say strictly philosophically speaking that God exists is to go beyond what we can actually say. Very important, God is always beyond us.
One of the spin-offs from this, this is my phrasing, only the holy can see truly, it’s only the saints who can see the world clearly. In so far as our hearts are set on God then we see the truth. If we are not, if we don’t have our hearts set on God and God alone, our vision of the world is more or less distorted. Now I had thought that was an original way of saying things, but of course it’s not. It’s just this, it’s not original to me at all: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” That’s what I’m describing. Make sense? With me so far?
Alright a hierarchy of values, of different ways of not worshipping God. Monolatry, in other words you worship one thing, and that one thing then becomes the most important thing in your world. And everything else has to shift around it. You might be an absolutely dedicated football fan and you have to go to every match that your team plays, and everything else in your life has to shuffle around it. OK. Once you have grasped what this is you can see it everywhere. It’s quite disturbing. Anyway the golden calf is a wonderful image for that. But of course for most people, it’s not as clear and you have polytheism, many gods. And it might be – Oh, my family has this much importance, my work has this much importance, my friendships have this much importance, my pleasures in life, you know, going for a drink in the pub, this has this much importance and there is nothing beyond them. And this is where I think most people actually live. You know, navigating between different competing interests, and they muddle along, but there is nothing which integrates them. There is nothing which puts them all in their proper place and actually allows them to flourish fully.
Of course, another option is simply chaos. Which is the position in fact that Phineas Gage and Elliot end up in. They are driven by the momentary impulse. It’s almost it becomes a biological thing. Oh, catch a scent, follow the scent. You know imagine a dog walking on the beach (an example close to my heart). The dog will just pursue, just run after whatever the impulse is. Again, there are many people who function like that. Everyone worships something. It’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others, everyone builds their life around something. Now it could be that they build their life around various things, like polytheism, but everyone has a sense of what’s important. So everyone actually has a religion. And some religions are not as helpful, as holy as others. To quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”
Forms of idolatry. You can often see it in terms of an addiction, you know clear example is an heroin addict, that’s Renton from Trainspotting from any of you who have seen the film, he’s an heroin addict and you can just see him going through all sorts of very gruelling experiences. But think of the process of being addicted to something where the life, the wider richness of life gets drained out and all that the junkie can do is think about their next fix. And all they gear their life around is getting the money to get their next fix, their next high. That is a very good image of what idolatry is. OK?
But it doesn’t have to be a physical addiction, it can be mental addictions as well. And the thing about idols is that idols give what they promise. If an idol is worshipped, the idol will grant the worshippers’ requests. Heroin, to take that example, gives a tremendous high. It gives what it promises. But it takes away life in exchange. This is what an idol is. Mammon, the god of money or wealth, which is an idol which Jesus talks about which is still very prevalent in our society. If you worship mammon, if you structure your life around mammon, you will gain wealth. That is if you like, a spiritual, practical law, if you worship wealth, you will become wealthy, but you will lose your life in the process. Your life will be drained away.
Quote from Jeremiah, “Everyone is senseless and without knowledge, every goldsmith is shamed by his idols, his images are flawed they have no breath in them, they are worthless, the objects of mockery and when their judgement comes, they will perish. But he who is the portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the maker of all things including Israel the tribe of his inheritance, the Lord Almighty is His name.” In other words, if you worship the living God you gain life. Life in all its fullness. This is what Jesus came to grant us. To reveal the living God and to give us that life, life in abundance, which is His intention for us. But if you worship any other God, you will get what those gods can provide, and they will take your life in exchange, they will destroy life. It is only the living God who grants life, that is why the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Does this make sense? This is how it all does link in.
OK, let’s move on to the second part. The idolatry of science. There are two ways in which science can become a idol. One is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that’s called positivism, it really took its codified shape in the nineteenth century but it’s implicit in much that goes on for a hundred or two hundred years before then. OK. To say that scientific truth is the only truth. So only things which can be established by reason or by imperical proof and investigation, those are the, that’s the only valid knowledge. Anything else gets kicked out. Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says, “Look upon your bookshelf, see what comes from reason, so maths and logic, see what comes from emperical investigation, and that’s science, everything else on your bookshelf should be kicked off because it’s worthless.” That’s the attitude of positivism. So that’s one way in which science can be made into an idol.
And the other way is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation, this is more important that anything else. OK? Now this is actually the idolatry of fundamentalism, and many of you will have been here when I did my session of fundamentalism, and it springs from the scientific revolution, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens. You know, you put the Bible through a meat grinder because what you want out the end is a sausage. You want particular forms of knowledge from the Bible and therefore you manipulate the Bible in order to extract scientific truth and that’s what fundamentalism is, that’s how it functions. OK. But as I say I did a whole session on that so maybe I’ll come back to that in the questions.
However, what I think is much more crucial to life, my favourite philosopher, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.” All that is most important in our lives is separate from scientific investigation. Go back to that contrast I drew, your wife is a teacher, your wife is an adulterer. What makes a difference between those two statements is not a matter of science, all the things that we are emotionally engaged with are not science as such. I’ll go on to explore this.
But this is a consistent theme in literature and there are lots and lots of examples, but just, almost at a time when the scientific revolution was taking off, the legend/mythology of Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles, sells his soul to the devil, in order to gain some scientific knowledge, or the the legend of Frankenstein, you know, any film or story when you have got this white-coated mad scientist, “Aha, I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. And of course, the Matrix, which is one of the ones I’m using. But there are myriad examples where someone has given over all their life to science the pursuit of knowledge and terrible things follow. They are all describing consequences of an idolatry, where science is given more value, more importance than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed in consequence. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this, it’s such a trope, such a cliché almost. As I say the Matrix is quite a good one.
Now having had a real go at science, there is something quite important to bear in mind, that’s something which I call the holiness of science, didn’t have this in my notes, another good quote from my favourite author – “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc, to give them pleasure, the idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, scientific knowledge and awareness, compared to the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, one form of knowing is vastly more important than the other. And in fact narrative is the most important. I think narrative, our way of telling stories to each other, is actually the means by which our emotional bedrock is most formed. This is why the Old Testament says to the people of Israel you must tell your children this story about the Lord leading you out of Eygpt, why Passover, why is this night greater than any other night, and they tell the story. And this is why we have the Bible as it is, because the Bible is a story. It’s not because we can extract scientific facts from it, it is because this story governs our story. That is why the Bible is inspired. This is the story of God’s actions in the world, within which we fit. OK, so that is why the Bible is if you like, the supreme text.
Now, holiness of science. Because science does have something very important to it and I want to just spin this out because it is really quite crucial. It rests upon setting the emotional desires of the investigator to one side. That Greek word is apatheia. Think of the word apathy, which is what that word has now come down to us as. It means totally uncommitted. Not involved. But apatheia strictly speaking means an emotional distancing. OK. And this happens because the scientist is pursuing the truth about the world. And what they are after, they are trying to attend to what is in the world, not what they want the world to be like, so they are putting their desires to one side, they are getting distance from their desires in order to pursue the truth.
Now this is a spiritual discipline. It is actually one of the core spiritual disciplines about keeping our own emotions and desires in check. Now that is a Buddhist phrase. You know, if you like, the spiritual techniques of Buddhism, make this point much clearer most of the time, than Christian teachings. Because the Buddhists are concerned with the elimination of desire, they see desire as the root of all suffering. In Christian teaching it’s something slightly different, but the Buddhist’s aim is to become completely unattached to the world and when you gain this state of being unattached to the world, you see the world clearly. Can you see how there is this parallel going on? This insight is not something restricted to Christianity. Just by way of a side track, Christianity is about the formation of desire, it is not about the elimination of desire. I’ll come back to that at the end. And so science in order to be practised is a discipline, it is a training. You have to be trained in the attitudes of science. In order to become a scientist you have to be trained in how to investigate. I remember my ‘O’ Level Physics and Chemistry. The scientific method was spelt out, this is what you did in order to ensure that your own biases, your own emotional desires were put to one side. There was a particular method, a process in order to investigate things. Science is an analysis, it’s a discipline. But science goes a little bit wrong, this quotation those of you who saw the film “An Inconvenient Truth”, Al Gore’s one on global warming, he quotes this, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That’s what science is trying to move away from, OK?
But, this is my red or blue pill moment. How many of you have seen “The Matrix”? A handful. So this will probably mean absolutely nothing to the rest of you. Anyhow, basic plot of “The Matrix” is that the heroes are kept within a machine world which is a world of illusion. They have essentially electrodes implanted in their brain which give them the illusion of living in a real world and our hero, Keanu Reeves, Neo, breaks out from this. But in order to break out from it, because he realises that something is wrong, he goes to see Morpheus who is the terrorist, who the authorities are trying to correct and suppress. And he has this conversation with Morpheus, and Morpheus says this, “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You have felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you know what I’m talking about?”
We know that there is something profoundly wrong with our world, but we can’t put our finger on it. What’s wrong with our world is that it is profoundly idolatrous, it is not built upon the love of the living God. And our society, the things which our society values and esteems and rewards, these are all idols. None of them in themselves are intrinsically wrong, mammon, for example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with material wealth. God promises the Israelites the Promised Land which is a land flowing with milk and honey – it’s a vision of material wealth. But what goes wrong it when that is elevated above God. When it is given too much importance. Now society gives everything too much importance, because it has forgotten God, it has turned it’s back on God. Therefore in so far as we live and share in society, we are sharing in a distorted life, and deep down we know that it’s wrong, and do you recognise what I’m describing? Does that make sense. And that’s all this episode of “The Matrix” is describing really.
Now, my phrase the apathistic stance. Remember where I began emotions are cognitive. In other words we learn things about the world through our emotional reactions, and our emotional reactions can teach us. But this process of apatheia, hence the apathistic stance, is a way of learning more about the world, of learning in particular more about the physical and natural world. Because the physical and natural world doesn’t really depend upon our emotional reaction to it. Our emotional reactions do not actually govern the truth. But as with all tools, we need to be taught how to use it. This process of emotionally disengaging from what we are trying to discover in order to discern more truth, you know, learning how to put our own desires to one side, this discipline is a tool, and we need to learn how to use the tool, how to if you like, put it into a broader framework, a broader vision. We are not here to worship the tool. That’s what the idolatry of science is. Positivism is profoundly idolatrous. When it says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, they are worshipping the tool. You know it’s a bit like they walk around with a hammer, “Oh, this hammer’s going to save me, this hammer’s going to save me.” That’s what’s going on. When you hear an example like that, it’s obviously ridiculous behaviour.
The use of a tool is power over a tool and the ancient language which talks about how to gain power over a tool is the language of virtue. Virtue simply means power. Virtue – I think it’s Latin rather than Greek. Virtues are what’s been missed, another quote from my favourite philosopher, “what makes a subject hard to understand, if it is something significant and important, it’s not that before you can understand it, you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters. But the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious, may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect.” We need to change our desires, our will. We need to will the love of God.
Now one of the major formative influences on me is this book, called “After Virtue” by Alistair MacIntyre, and he begins with a fable. And the fable goes like this – imagine that there is a great crisis and catastrope. [Funny that] And a hundred years down the line as a result of this catastrope, as a result of hostility to science, all the institutions which have kept science going in our civilisation for the last two or three hundred years, have been destroyed, there has been a jihad if you like against science. OK? But a hundred years down the line people have if you like, people have got over their fit of rage at the scientists and some monks start trying to gather together this understanding of the world which had existed before all the riots and rebellions, and so what happens is they get together fragments. And here is a fragment about “Phlogiston Theory”. (Phlogiston Theory is the precurser to the understanding of oxygen. It was all about how flames use up material, Phlogiston is a scientific theory that got rejected.) And they you have got say Newton’s theories about absolute space and time. You have got Einstein’s theories, but all you have are fragments, OK? And what he says is “Imagine these monks trying to fit these fragments together, but without any overarching sense of how they fit.” You know imagine that you have got a jigsaw puzzle, you’ve lost the box, you’ve only got a third of the pieces, and you are trying to form a picture. That’s what he’s describing.
Now MacIntyre’s argument in this book is that this is exactly what has happened to our understanding of virtues – courage, prudence, temperance, self control, OK? That these were the values governing western civilisation from before the time of the Greeks, all the way through to say about fifteen hundred, sixteen hundred, before science became so dominant. And his argument is that because we have started to worship science as a society, all the forms of knowledge and understanding which are embedded in virtue theory, in other words how virtues are important, has been lost. And we still have this language, this moral language, but because we have lost the overarching vision, we don’t know what to do with the language. And so slowly the language breaks down. We still talk about things being good and bad, we still think it’s good to be courageous, it’s bad to be wicked, but the vision if you like of human life which that language was designed to support and describe, has been lost. And so we are now living in a time after virtue.
A vision to describe this, another quotation from Wittgenstein, “I was walking about in Cambridge and passed a bookshop and in the window were portraits of Russell, Freud and Einstein. A little further on in a music shop I saw portraits of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, comparing these portraits, I felt intensely the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the course of only a hundred years.” And if he went to Cambridge today I am sure he would see books about Paris Hilton. Can you see how our society, our civilisation has in one aspect completely collapsed, the notion of the virtues have been driven out.
Now the most important virtue is phronesis, this is Aristotle, and phronesis is the virtue of judgement. Sometimes translated as prudence, sometimes thought of as practical wisdom. But it is the ability to choose, to choose the wise course of action. To choose what is right. Let’s go back to Phineas Gauge, what was damaged in his brain was his ability to judge. If you like, any capacity he had for phronesis was removed. Same with Elliot this chap who had the brain tumour, any sense of judgement had been removed. That was what was lacking.
Now compare scientia, science, this is the medieval division, the medieval division was scientia, science, understanding of the natural world, reading the book of nature, with sapientia, wisdom, reading the book of God. And prior to the scientific revolution, scientia was not seen as particularly important, sapientia was what gave life. And what’s happened in our society is that’s been flipped over, and if you want, if we have time, we can talk about how and why, because I think there’s a very revealing explanation of why it’s happened and in fact I think the Christian church has a lot to repent of, because it is the Christian church which drove this switch. But we come to that if necessary. But sapientia, wisdom which used to be the aim of contemplation and cultivating an understanding of the world, a fully human life, this has been lost. You could say that we are frenetically anti-phronetic. We have abandoned any notion that judgement is important, and that we can teach judgement, we can teach children for example how to choose between right and wrong, and systematically we have abandoned all the things which used to support the structures of our society.
But sapientia, let’s come back to the first and greatest commandment, the first thing, the most important thing is to love God, love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength; that is the narrow way which leads to life. As I say, only the living God gives life and worshipping the living God allows all the different bits in our life to fit together, it’s like being given – this is your jigsaw, this is the picture of your jigsaw, this is God’s vision for your life and as we look to God’s vision for your life, these are how the bits fit together. If we keep God at the centre, then our lives gain meaning and integrity and purpose.
This is H G Wells, you might recognise the quotation, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” You wouldn’t normally give a four year old child a set of matches to play with. You wouldn’t give him a gun, you wouldn’t give him a flame thrower. But our society is exactly in that state. We’ve got these tremendously destructive toys and we don’t know what to do with them, because we haven’t been taught, we’ve lost our capacity to choose, we have lost the virtue. We have lost the power of control over our toys, hence H G Wells, the choice.
Now this is a spiritual crisis first and foremost. Our culture has turned away from God in a very profound and often unacknowledged way. And the way forward out of all these problems is by returning to God. Now I’ve talked, I’ve quoted Daoism and Buddhism. The living, the major faith traditions all emphasise the process of discipline, of being trained in ways of knowing, ways of living, ways of understanding, and of course in the book of Acts, Christianity is first described as a way. Christianity is simply the way of Christ, and the job of the church is to teach people how to live in the way. In other words it is to instruct, it is to train people in the Christian virtues. You know what are sometimes called the Fruits of the Spirit – joy and peace and gentleness and self control and temperance and so forth. That’s the job of the church. It hasn’t been all that good at it recently.
Finally “The Matrix”. The story in “The Matrix” is that there is a war between humans and machines, and the humans who are losing the war let off all sorts of atomics in order to block out the sun, because the machines are driven by solar power, so they want lots and lots of clouds to shut down the solar power. But what the machines do instead is breed humans and they take the life energy in order to keep their machines running. That’s the basic premise of the plot. But I think that as an image, as a metaphor for what is going on, in our world today, it’s a very good one. That all our lives are devoted to things that aren’t actually from God and don’t actually give us life. So as an image, as a metaphor describing our world, I think it is tremendously accurate. People are batteries for the system, our lives are being used up in ways that don’t give life, western culture is profoundly idolatrous. God doesn’t allow idolatry to continue forever and the crisis which will break it down is coming.
And that took longer than expected. Questions, thoughts – did that make sense?
“I wonder if you could just describe what the precise significance of red pill or blue pill means?”
OK, Morpheus, once he has explained to Neo and this is Morpheus in the sunglasses. Morpheus explains to Neo that you are aware that there is something wrong, you know the image of the splinter in your mind is driving you mad, OK, and before Neo gets out of the system, Morpheus gives him a choice. Actually, I want to use this for a baptism class, because the ten minute sequence is a wonderful description of baptism, anyway, it begins with this choice. He says to Neo – “Look you have a choice, you can either choose the truth, which is the red pill and then I will teach you how deep the rabbit hole goes”, reference Alice in Wonderland, “you can either choose the truth which will be painful and difficult, and will take you out of this world, or you can take the blue pill, all the blue pill will do is remove the pain of the splinter. You will go back to your life and you can forget about all the things that you feel are wrong. You just go back into the system.” So this is the basic choice. We can either take the blue pill, think “Oh there’s nothing really wrong, just get on with our lives, keep on in the way that we have been doing, ignore what’s going on in the world”, and actually, there’s all sorts of attractions about that, it is much more pleasant, it is easy, you don’t have to struggle. Or you can take the red pill and all the red pill will do is reveal to you the truth. And the truth sets us free.
Of course the whole plot of “The Matrix” is that Neo takes the red pill and he is then taken out of the system and he is born again into a new community, you know there are profound Christian images throughout “The Matrix.” Throughout “The Matrix” trilogy in fact. That’s hence the red or blue pill, we have the choice between pursuing the truth which sets us free and leads to life or ignoring it all and just getting on with our lives – “It’s alright I don’t want to worry about that. It’s somebody else’s problem.” You know, that’s the choice. The broad way or the narrow way, exactly so.
“I sometimes end up by being vaguely depressed by the lectures, Sam, especially when you end up by saying things like the crisis is coming. What do you foresee the crisis is coming?”
Were you here last week?
Last week I began saying I want your blood to run colder at the end of this talk because I am going to give you the really depressing stuff to set the scene for all the positive stuff which is to come, and really the thing which I want you to take from this is that if you set your hearts on God, God leads you to the Promised Land. But it takes you away from Eygpt, it takes you through the desert and you know, there was a generation in the desert so that people forgot about Eygpt, they do not still have their hearts turned to the fleshpots where the things were good.
I do foresee a calamity of some sort, the details, who knows, but our present system cannot continue. I think this is if you like, the underlying point I want to make. Our present way of life cannot continue, exponential growth within a finite environment cannot continue. But really what I am doing today is coming at it from a different angle, saying it shouldn’t continue, it’s a terrible, terrible thing. And this is probably the first aspect. Our way of life, the western way of life, like excess consumerism, all the things which are held up to be of value, destroy life. And actually the vision of Christian life, of full humanity, hence the overarching theme “Let us be Human”, is something extremely positive. That there is a way of life shown to us by Christ which allows us to be all that God wants us to be, but in order to get to that Promised Land, we need to see and perceive the truth about the present way of the world, in order to reject it, in order to say this is false, this is idolatrous, this destroys life and I choose life.
Coming back to the thing I’ve quoted before about Deuteronomy, which is where I am going to begin in the next session in a fortnight. “I have set before you this day a choice, choose life that you and your descendants may live.” That is what God says through Moses to the Israelites in the desert. And I think we have to hear those words today. Is that an answer?
“I’m a little bit confused about the broad and the narrow path. Which is which?”
Right, the narrow path is choosing the truth, choosing God, rather than choosing pleasure and comfort and an easy life and ignoring the truth.
“You can take that either way.”
Really, go on.
“Well, either things are set out for you and you go down with blinkers on if you like, or you have got everything laid out before you to enjoy.”
Ah, I see what you mean. I think that the point about the narrow way is that it is more that it doesn’t involve blinkers. It is a bit like climbing up a mountain. If you keep your eye on the summit you will keep going higher but if you are in the valley and it is comfortable land you have grass to graze on, don’t worry about the top of the mountain. But the flood’s coming.
“Can I share two scriptures please?”
“Romans 12 v 32, Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, His good, pleasing and perfect will.”
“Philippians 4 v 12b, I am learning the secret of being content in any and every situation whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
Yes, that phrase from Romans especially, the renewing of our minds. That’s an essential part of what being a Christian is, our minds are renewed and therefore we can see the world as it is. You know, all things in the world were created through Christ, so if we set our hearts on Christ, we see the truth and the truth sets us free. You know, it is really quite, it does all make sense, it does all fit together. That might be a good point to end on actually, thank you for that.
Next week I will be looking at wrath – the Wrath of God. Thank you for coming.