Last month I asked for questions that readers might have about life, the universe and everything and below are some answers to the questions I’ve received and others that many of us have. I hope you will find them helpful.. or at least thought provoking! If anything below touches a raw nerve, or provokes you to want to talk in more depth, please feel free to contact me.
Right, wrong and meaning. Before tackling such questions, it is important to think about why we ask questions about right, wrong and meaning. As human beings we don’t just accept the way things are in the world around us, and we don’t just trust everyone we meet, or believe everything we are told. We want to understand. Or at least we should!
So, here’s the key conundrum: why do we feel there is something wrong with the way things are in this world? It has always been like this! There have always been disasters, dangers, sickness, wars and death. So why do we feel there is something wrong with them? And why do we feel it’s wrong that we can’t trust everyone we meet? Why do we feel it’s wrong that we can’t believe everything we are told? Since human life began it has always been the case that people cheat, and steal, and deceive, and abuse other people.
The feeling that something is wrong, although it’s always been like that, is one of the conundrums of human life. How do we know how the world should be, when in reality it has never been like that? How do we know how people should be – when in reality everyone has not lived up to it? The reality is that our world has always been dangerous, and human beings have always acted badly. But we don’t just accept it – we know that things shouldn’t be like this! So we want to build a better world: we want to care for the environment, we want justice and equality; we want peace; we want everyone to have homes that can stand up to earthquakes and storms; we want better hygiene and medicines for all; we want to build loving families and communities; and we want generous support people who are poor and homeless… (but do we want to pay for all that)?
That conundrum is the source of many people’s questions about Life, God and Everything, such as:
Why does God permit so much suffering? Because the only way to get rid of suffering would be to get rid of this world… and us! We couldn’t live in a perfect world, because we ourselves aren’t perfect (if we were in that world it would be imperfect)!
So what is God doing about all the suffering? God’s response wasn’t to try to make this world perfect and take away our free will, but to get personally involved in the mess, difficulties and suffering of this world! As we remember at Christmas, when Jesus came into this world He wasn’t born into a perfect world. He was born to a young working class couple, in a smelly stable, and laid in a manger. The local King tried to have him killed, so His family had to flee and eventually move back to a safer part of the country. His mother was widowed young. During the three years Jesus taught and ministered to the sick and needy, the civil and religious authorities treated Jesus with suspicion and hostility. And, of course, He was eventually persecuted, prosecuted, beaten and nailed to a cross.
Yet a few days later He was alive again. His followers spoke and ate with Him. And after He went back to heaven, His Spirit came to live in His followers’ hearts and lives. Heaven was in their hearts, and they were so inspired that they took His presence, and taught His Way, from country to country – despite being denounced, persecuted and punished. He was alive; death is not the end; we can be forgiven and accepted by God; God is with us! And He still wants to be involved in our lives – with us through the highs and lows of life on planet earth. This world isn’t heaven, and we aren’t angels, but His response is forgiveness, presence and help. He will be with us now, and after this life we will be with Him forever, if we will come to Him and follow Him.
Why do we need to be forgiven? Because to make us fit for that perfect world (aka heaven) we need to be made perfect. Our past has to be forgiven and forgotten, and we have to be changed.
Aren’t all religions the same really? Hardly. That was a rather naïve assertion that became popular in the 1960’s when most people knew very little about other religions. It’s not the same God behind every religion! After all, each religion has it’s own worldview, and different understandings of the human condition, of God (or gods) and of how we can live a good life at peace with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with the world we live in. I used to be involved in interfaith work in Manchester and it quickly became evident that we all wanted to respect each other, and to build up good relationships and mutual understanding, but it was also evident that it meant understanding and working with real differences which had serious implications (eg What can we eat together: anything? not pork? not beef? nothing?! Is converting to another religion a serious betrayal of your family? Should men and women talk together, or not?)
So what does God look like? The universe we are part of was created by God. He isn’t part of it, so we can’t possibly ‘see’ God physically. But we do know what God is like: loving, joyful, peaceable, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. That is what Jesus was like, and that is what God wants us to become like too.
Hasn’t Science made Christianity irrelevant? No! They answer different problems. Science is about how life and the universe function, whereas Christianity is about the meaning of life and the universe. Some of the world’s top scientists are followers of Jesus. For instance Professor Sir Colin Humphreys, CBE, FREng, FRS (a Director of Research into semiconductors among other things, at Cambridge University), Professor R J Berry, FRSE (a geneticist), Professor D C Burke, CBE, HonLLD, DL (who worked on interferon, is an adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology), and Professor J C Lennox PhD (Cantab) DPhil (Oxon) who is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, and a specialist in Bioethics.
Is following Jesus relevant in the 21st century? Yes, because His Way is the right way to live! When we live the wrong way we are actually contributing to the problems of this world and the problems of people around us. What’s more, as many of us have discovered, Jesus can actually help us to live life better. Life in this world will never be perfect (though my experience is that He has improved my life a lot)… but even in the horrible times of life on planet earth, God is with us in it.
What’s the point of going to church? Jesus-with-us is the key to Christian living. However, in this imperfect world we need each other for encouragement and support. Meeting other followers helps us to strengthen our trust in Jesus, and to keep up our commitment to living the right way. That is what church should be for; but sadly, like this world, and us, no church is perfect!