Sacred and profane and secular
There is an increase in the practice of spiritualism in this country at this time. Spiritualists are organising themselves together and are seeking the status of a ‘religion’ as far as the state and the law are concerned. This will give them certain protections and allow them to claim tax exemptions and privileges. The BBC newsreader Jackie Bird presented a radio programme this week in which she talked about members of her family who claimed to meet and speak to their departed grandmother. Locally, 'The Courier' carries advertisements of spiritualist meetings alongside Christian Services. Indeed, they are given priority of space.
Most of you have heard of Stephen Jobs I expect. He was the computer genius who jointly founded the Apple company which makes home computers and smart internet access mobile phones. He was born in 1955. He is an American icon on a par with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie (Scots of course) and Paul Getty. He was a very strange person. Some of you may have seen the film about Howard Hughes the aviation pioneer who became a recluse and quite mentally unhinged. Stephen Jobs was a similar sort of character. Driven from earliest years to high achievement in the business world, he was not a nice or perhaps even a good person. He was an unfaithful husband and an absent father to three children. He was a control freak who could treat employees very badly, personally humiliate them and sack them summarily. He trained himself to stare at people without blinking. He would sit in meetings in silence and then suddenly erupt into fast talking - very unnerving for the others present. He experimented for many years with compulsive dieting. He became a billionaire. But unlike Bill Gates the owner of Microsoft, Stephen Jobs did not do charity. He closed his company’s modest charitable foundation early on. He had many legal battles with Microsoft and other companies over the years. He was brutal and autocratic, single minded and obsessed. So difficult was he to deal with that his own company actually sacked him in 1985. He returned in 2000 to help the ailing company recover which it did. In 2004 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He turned to spiritualists for help and delayed medical and surgical treatment. In 2009 he had a liver transplant. He died on October 5th 2011. Stephen Jobs was a brilliant intellect, inventor, marketer and businessman. Yet he turned to spiritualism.
There’s nothing unusual about that. The Roman Empire at the time of Jesus was underpinned by spiritualism. African traditional religion in spiritualistic and so is that of the pre-European races and tribes of north and south America. Throughout all humanity there is a residual sense of some form of continuity with the lives of the departed. There is a strong urge and temptation in many to try to contact the other world. In Britain, there is a multi million pound industry of mediums, clairvoyants and healers. For some it has become a way of life. They meet regularly, they claim to have been in contact with other people’s departed loved ones. They try to offer ‘proofs’ of life after death. Some even call their meetings ‘churches’ and some go as far as to describe themselves as ‘Christian Spiritualist Churches’.
The Old Testament has the clearest possible teaching on these practices and we heard it read earlier.
'When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritualist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God'.
The People of God who were called to keep The Ten Commandments were also commanded not to touch spiritualism. That is remarkable - because - everybody did it and even now in Europe in 2011 many people still do. The Covenanted People were not to deal in these occult practices. Why? Because that world is real and it is harmful and dangerous. Today, the internet offers unlimited access to all sorts of things. But it may be that behind some of them seemingly innocuous enough, there are spiritualistic forces employed. There is a burgeoning alternative medicine industry and there are many alternative therapies. Some are underpinned by a spiritualistic view of the world and so, people may open themselves out unwittingly perhaps, to harmful influences beyond their own power to control.
In the New Testament Gospels, we see in the life of Jesus the struggle and confrontation between His Lordship and authority and powerful spiritual forces in human lives and in the universe. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have the means and power of deliverance and salvation from any evil power and any harmful influence associated with or part of the spiritualistic world. No other religious or spiritual claimant, no philosopher or scientist offers that redemption. Jesus is unique in His victory over sin and evil. To what extent there is an organised realm of evil with a head and leader, I cannot say. Jesus believed the devil was a real entity. He knew more about it all than any of us so he must be right. One thing can be seen in this bare human existence of ours - too much happens that cannot be explained by mere coincidence - that brings danger, harm and trauma to us humans. We, all of us, have fallen at sometime or another. We all of us have been foolish and mistaken. We have made wrong choices and taken wrong paths. But why? Something enticed us, led us, falsely reassured us, tempted us, spoke to us, tested us, failed us, disappointed us. Shakespeare in a few words encapsulates this human problem.
'The instruments of darkness, tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray is in deepest consequence'.
In our time there is a disappearance of boundaries of right and wrong in many aspects of life. Distinguishing the sacred and the profane is one of them. Nothing much in our time is held to be sacred. Nothing is held to be profane. The secular has overwhelmed the sacred and yet - it is a huge irony indeed - the profane is multiplying.
Richard Dawkins is today’s great self-promoter of atheism and secularism. He has recently refused to debate with American theologian William Lane Craig. Dawkins was accused of cowardice. Last Thursday, he gave an excuse for his refusal to 'The Guardian' newspaper. Tim Stanley, the journalist has written thus.
'It seems that Dawkins has been doing a little internet trolling. He has dug up an online debate in which William Lane Craig apparently defends the massacre of a city of heathen Canaanites ordered by God in Deuteronomy 20:13-15. .Listen to Craig', Dawkins writes, as if imagining Craig were a demon sitting on his shoulder. 'He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered. He then notices the plight of the Canaanite children [and concludes] … ‘We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.’ Dawkins writes that he is so disgusted with Craig's thesis that he cannot possibly agree to meet him in person. 'Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context', he adds. 'What context could possibly justify them?'
Craig begins thus: 'These stories offend our moral sensibilities. Ironically, however, our moral sensibilities in the West have been largely and for many people unconsciously shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us the intrinsic value of human beings, the importance of dealing justly rather than capriciously, and the necessity of the punishment’s fitting the crime. The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate'. So, Craig’s purpose in writing this piece is to unravel the paradox of a moral Bible that also includes lashings of apparently random violence. Craig stresses that these passages of the Bible are difficult for us to read because we are not of the age in which they are written. That’s because Christian society has been shaped by the rules of life outlined in the New Testament, not in the section of The Bible in which this massacre occurs. Far from using this passage to celebrate the slaughter of heathen, Craig is making the point that the revelation of God’s justice has changed over time. The horrors of the Old Testament have been rendered unnecessary by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.
Dawkins takes the crudest equations of faith (total submission to an angry sky god) and assumes that they apply to all its believers at all times equally. That most Christians living in the 21st century don’t know who the Canaanites were and only go to church because it brings them an intangible inner peace, totally escapes these atheist pedants. Dawkins is a coward. He likes to pick fights either with dunces or with Christians with no fire in their belly (like Rowan Williams). Dawkins has gotten away with his illiterate, angry rubbish for so many years because his opponents have been so woolly. This is a damning indictment not only of him, but of the clerical establishment of Great Britain. But this time, he understood that he was up against a pro. In America, evangelicals have to compete in a vibrant, competitive marketplace of different denominations. That breeds the very guile and theatricality that are so sorely lacking among the Anglican clergy. In Craig, Dawkins met his match. Like Jonah, he was confronted by the truth and he ran away.
So we have much atheism and much secularism. However, it is confounded by the explosion of the profane in our culture at this time. What is left of the sacred? In the passage from Hebrews which was read to us, we are encouraged and inspired to continue as Christians. we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. These are all our Christian forebears including those in the Bible itself. We are to run with perseverance the race marked out for us. We are to 'fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood'.
The sacred is very special. When people want to express the deepest and highest of human thoughts it is to the realm of the sacred that we go. The desecration of war memorials brings disgust to nearly everyone. The trashing and robbery of Churches appals people. I have tried to hold the line on the sacredness of this place of worship. I am often asked for pop music to be played at funeral services and so far I have managed to deflect such requests. At the Crematorium I do not have the final say. But I wait for the family to have their music before I enter to conduct the Christian service and I ask to be allowed to leave the sanctuary before any more pop music is played. I make that small distinction. It has not always worked of course. I left to Jimmy Durante's song 'Make someone happy' once and to 'We are the Champions' on another.
Our worship is sacred because it is set apart for God through Jesus Christ. The hymns are sacred because they are dedicated to God the Father, God the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Our prayers are sacred because they are addressed through Jesus Christ. Even the sermon is sacred insofar as it elevates and exalts the living God and the living Saviour. But our walking down the street is sacred also as is all of our life and relationships interests and pursuits if these are all part of our Christian conviction and our Christian living. We are the light of the world - as Jesus asked us to be. In the time of the secular and the profane - Christ’s light within us shines all the more brightly.