Kierkegaard’s God, in the Pandemic

My column in the Christian Courier for November 2020.

Do you have an author you regularly return for insight and wisdom? A voice you’ve come to trust, with a gift for making sense of our lives, our world, and perhaps also for making sense of God? The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has become such an author for me. When I go back to his writings, I am rarely disappointed. This is particularly true in terms of his written prayers.

In this pandemic context, a particular prayer of Kierkegaard has helped me rediscover an important dimension of God’s life and God’s relationship to me. This prayer explores the concept of God’s unchangeable nature. In more theological terms we sometimes refer to this as God’s immutability.

There can be deep assurance in knowing that God doesn’t change. As we pass through waves of the pandemic, or work through relational upheavals, or perceive the instability of the world, there is comfort in the realization that God is a certain and fixed point of reference to whom we may return. We can pile on the metaphors here: God is stable, unwavering, consistent, persistent and faithfully present. Continue reading


The God of Silence – reflections on Endo’s novel, Scorsese’s film

My latest column for the Christian Courier, can be found here, or below.

How is it possible for the ocean to be silent? Can the sea lose its voice? On the face of it this seems impossible. The waves come rolling in with rhythmic constancy – breaking and pounding against the shoreline. Even on those days when the wind is perfectly still the water slaps gently against the rocks and our ears will pick up the sound of the water’s gurgle and swirl. So how can the sea lose its voice, be silent?

Of course, the ocean cannot finally be silent. Yet it is the nature of human language, of our attempt to understand and communicate ourselves, that we often hold seemingly disparate realities together in speech or written word. To stay with the idea of silence, we sometimes describe it as palpable or heavy, as if we can feel its pressure against our bodies, as if silence were subject to gravity, as we are. But in the strictest sense, silence is simply the absence of soundwaves striking our ears – silence is absence, rather than presence. It is not some thing, but the absence of something.

The capacity of human language to hold contradictory realities together, however, is a kind of gift, since it enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life. Shusaku Endo deploys such a lexical disjunction in his novel Silence when he describes the ocean precisely as silent. The central character of the novel is a 17th century Portuguese, Jesuit missionary named Sebastien Rodrigues who wrestles with the desperate poverty and violent persecution of Japanese Christians, many of whom are tortured and killed in the sea itself. In the face of their suffering and persecution, Rodrigues encounters what he refers to as the depressing silence of the sea. When he prayed for his sisters and brothers, “the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence.” Continue reading

Kierkegaard – God – Movement

The second of two reflections I offered on the prayers of Kierkegaard at the retreat of The Presbyterian College this year. Like everything, Kierkegaard looks “slant” at the idea of God’s immutability.

If there is anything that gives the impression of unchangeableness, it is perhaps the towering and intimidating mountains that populate the face of the earth. Whether it is the Rocky Mountains here in Canada, the Himalayas of South Asia, or the Alps of central Europe, mountains represent the notion of the unchangeable. They have been and they will be. img_9315This summer I had the chance to see the Alps for the first time, and the ideas of durability and unchangeableness strike me as more than apt.

When we transfer these notions of the unchangeable into the realm of theology, it is the term “immutable” that might come to mind – we speak of the immutability of God. And there are theologically and spiritually adjacent terms that might also come to mind; ideas around the omnipotence and steadfastness and infinity and power of God.

In one of his prayers, Kierkegaard picks up on this longstanding emphasis of the Christian tradition concerning the immutability or unchangeableness of God. He affirms this idea about God, among other places, in the prayer that is included at the bottom of this blog post. He speaks to God in this way: “O thou who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes.”

And transferring this theological idea into the realm of human need and wellbeing, Kierkegaard also speaks to God with these words: “For our welfare, not submitting to any change.” After all, who would seek God if there was no assurance it was the same God who could be sought each new day – and not a God who had decided to change character and identity while you slept?

In his prayer Kierkegaard also speaks curiously of our need to “submit ourselves to the discipline of thy unchangeableness.” As if this characteristic of God is a reality we need to keep in heart and mind, intentionally, if we are to find rest and peace in our life and faith.

But again, as with so many things he turns his thoughts toward, Kierkegaard swings the whole prayerful conversation about immutability in an unexpected direction. Continue reading

what we wear – who we are

Clothing has always been a significant part of human identity. Historically human clothing has been particularly significant in terms of our shared or our collective identities. In particular cultures there was always a similarity of dress; our clothing marked us out as belonging to a particular culture or community. So there has been a style of clothing typical among the Scottish, or typical among the Dutch, or typical among Cameroonians – and then even within those larger groups, there have been narrower styles that marked out smaller groups or peoples. If you were an anthropologist travelling around the world two hundred years ago, you would have inevitably identified particular cultures or peoples according to the clothing they wore. Particular peoples just were peoples that wore this type of clothing. Your clothes made you part of a group.

Today that collective dimension remains a part of human culture in some respects. But today there is also something much more individualistic about our clothing. Our culture in the west today gives especially high priority to our creation of an individual identity. In our culture, everything around us is seen as raw material from which we can create or build or project our personal identity. We have been taught to resist the idea that our identity is in any way given to us or dictated from outside of ourselves – modern culture teaches us above all that our individual identity must be created, must be fabricated, must be cobbled together by us out of the raw material of life. You create yourself. You establish your own identity.

So I choose this set of experiences to define me.

I alter my body in this way to mark myself as this distinct person. Continue reading

Atheism and Morality – Can they meet?

If you want to infuriate an atheist, here’s a quick and easy solution: offer the opinion that atheists can’t be morally good. Even more, if you want to lead an atheist right up to the edge of apoplectic infuriation, tell him or her: “You can’t be good without God.”

The science vs. religion debate can generate some pretty animated conversations. And the more specific question of morality seems to generate some of the strongest feelings on both sides – often more heat than light. This particular blog post represents one brief exploration of that contentious question: Can atheists be good?

My answer to the question is, in the first instance, a resounding YES. At one level it’s a simple matter of logic, since what has been done can be done. We all know of good atheists: ipso facto, atheists can be morally good.

Indeed, I don’t doubt that an atheist could live a life that is morally superior to that of religious believer. An atheist may demonstrate a more loving attitude toward her spouse, or a more generous attitude with his money, or greater courage in the face of fear. Without believing in a supernatural source of morality, an atheist can live a life that is morally superior to someone who believes in just such a source. Continue reading

Losing Self? — Faith, Memory, Identity

We’ve all had that feeling of disorientation at some point.

Perhaps you are staying in a hotel somewhere, or visiting family for a few days. You wake up in the middle of the night and don’t know where you are. The room is unfamiliar. You feel lost. You look for points of familiarity to locate yourself. It takes a few moments to happen. Then, clarity! You remember where you are – are able to locate yourself in time and space – the unease passes quickly. You understand what has happened.

I recently had an experience that was both similar to this and different.

It was a weekday evening, and I had gone to bed at around 11:30 pm. – probably a little later than usual. Another variable was that my wife was staying up later than me, working on an assignment for one of her master’s degree courses. That, also, is out of our ordinary routine.

Effect1About an hour after going to bed, around 12:30 a.m., I woke up with a feeling that something was wrong. I had a good sense of where I was, and I registered that Becky was not in bed. But I also had a deep sense that someone was missing. It was late at night and someone who was supposed to be there wasn’t there. My sense was that it was dad who was missing.

As I sat up on the edge of the bed, I wasn’t picturing or thinking about my own father, who lives some 6 hours away. I was just thinking about some “dad” whose identity I didn’t really understand – I was very confused and at a loss, both as to who this missing person was and as to why he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Continue reading

when Facebook dies

facebookWhat happens when Facebook dies?

Of course it isn’t a question of whether Facebook will die – only when. It might happen slowly as users gradually migrate to other social media platforms, or suddenly in the wake of some technological or financial meltdown. Either way, Zuckerberg will probably be safe with his millions (billions?!). But what will happen to the digital acres we have tended with such care.

At one level it’s a basic question of data – are my personal artifacts safe? What will happen to the megabytes that make up that picture of me and my mom at Niagara Falls in 2007, or that conversation with a friend in Vancouver back in 2010? Will it all simply vanish? Be sold off to a social media competitor – an estate sale of framed photos and vintage movie posters and so many bric-a-brac bytes?

What happens when Facebook dies?

But this is also a question of our identity. With the loss of those carefully maintained digital landscapes, do we lose a part of ourselves? And if so, what part of ourselves will disappear? Or perhaps this is a better question: Is there anything of great value on Facebook, whose loss we might or should mourn? Continue reading

So angry he could die #jonah #GodAsksTheQuestions

He is so angry, he could die.

He is so angry, he wants to die.

Last week in our reflections on Jonah we ended on a note of mercy and grace. Jonah had made his declaration: 40 days and Nineveh will be overturned. 40 days and Nineveh will be smashed. But it turned out that Jonah was wrong. Last week we ended our reading in Jonah where our reading for this week has picked up again. With these words: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” A note of mercy and grace.

And now Jonah is so angry, he could die.

He is so angry, he wants to die.

And Jonah prays his anger. Within the Old Testament, we find many instances when God’s people pray their anger. Particularly within the Psalms we have these moments when the God’s people pray their anger in such strong terms. Usually these prayers arise out of situations where God’s people are suffering – usually these prayers arise out of situations where they are oppressed and abused. They wonder where God is. In prayer they express their anger that God has done nothing to relieve their suffering or assuage their pain. In the context of our faith in Christ there is plenty of room to pray one’s anger in this way. Continue reading

tested by God

So we are in the final week of this short sermon series. Over these few Sundays of summer we have been looking at call narratives in the Old Testament – these moments when God draws near to someone – encounters someone – these moments when God comes close to call someone to a particular task.

And one of the reasons we’ve been looking at these call narratives is because we want to reclaim the personal dimension of our faith. We want to develop a spirituality that engages us in a deeply personal way – a spirituality that doesn’t let us hold God at a distance. We want to be drawn into a life with God that implicates every dimension of our being.

So we have looked at the call narratives of Jeremiah and Isaiah and Moses – trying to re-imagine our own lives in terms of their very personal encounters with God. And then last week and this week we are looking at God’s call to Gideon. Last week we were reminded that in every meaningful relationship there is testing that goes on. Whether very intentionally or perhaps unconsciously, in every meaningful relationship we test one another – in friendship, in marriage, in family relationships. We test one another’s love, we test one another’s promises, we test one another’s faithfulness, we test one another’s character. Testing is a part of relationships. Continue reading

in the mind of God

In the Old and New Testament, there are many instances when God draws near and speaks to someone. And very often when God draws near to speak with someone, God does so in order to call that person to a particular task or activity. In the Old Testament, these stories are known as call narratives. Over the next five weeks of this summer we are going to look at 5 of these call narratives – these stories of God encountering and calling someone.

One of the reasons I’d like to explore these call narratives is because within our specific tradition of Christianity we have tended to hold God somewhat at a distance. In our tradition, we have been wary of a too-emotional experience of God. We have been wary of a too-personal spirituality. We have tended to look sideways at people who have an obvious and outer sense of intimacy with God – who talk freely about such encounters and intimacy. Continue reading