Sunday, 26 May 2013

God, the universe and everything

So the Higgs boson goes to church, and the priest says, “Thank goodness you’re here. We can’t have mass without you.”

Boom, boom! (which might be to emphasise the punchline or it might be the distant echo of a big bang)

Marathon road closures thwarted my efforts to attend a city centre church this morning. I was similarly thwarted a few weeks ago by the half marathon—note to self: don’t just put those circulars from the council straight in the bin—but on that occasion I managed to make it to New Restalrig, which happens to be on my side of the barricades. Not so this morning. Eleven o’clock came and went and still I was stuck in a contraflow.

So in lieu of a church review, I thought I’d set down a few observations about creationism, which is all over the religious TV channels like a rash but hasn’t actually cropped up in any of the churches I’ve visited in the past six months. Odd that, and I’m not sure why. I’m also quite disappointed, because I’d be up for a good tussle with a creationist one of these Sundays. Maybe I haven’t been to enough independent evangelical churches, or maybe they keep the really loopy stuff back for a while and impose the requirement to believe what is scientifically disprovable only once their initiates are warmed up a bit.

The thing that puzzles me about creationism is why it’s become such a touchstone for faith in our times. It didn’t used to be a problem for people to believe both in God and in science, but now religion and science are presented as two competing and incompatible paradigms, not only by the evangelicals but by the Dawkinsian atheists too.

Was it ever thus? Well, the paradigms clearly don’t align, but thoughtful people who concerned themselves with this misalignment used to find ways to reconcile scripture with observable evidence. I’m thinking, for example, of Hugh Miller’s suggestion that the six “days” of creation were geological eras long enough to have formed the rocks he studied; his scientific enquiries didn’t dent his faith any more than his faith dissuaded him from pursuing geology. These days, Hugh wouldn’t get a look-in with the creationist hardliners, and many of today’s “bible-believing” Christians would laugh that founding father of the Free Church out of town if he didn’t toe the party line.

If any readers are unfamiliar with the central tenet, it’s basically this: the bible is 100 per cent true and Genesis describes exactly how God created the universe and all that it contains in six literal 24-hour days, and the theory of evolution is untrue and evolution does not take place and never has. Then, in response to questions from incredulous rationalists, or to pre-empt them, there’s a further layer of theory about Noah’s flood, dinosaurs, fossils, carbon dating, etc, etc.

The entirely joyless “Dr” Grady McMurtry gives some especially snoozetastic lectures on carbon dating, oft repeated on Revelation TV. He uses lots of scientific terms and claims a comprehensive knowledge of a range of scientific disciplines, but I hae ma doubts. I’ve linked before to his credentials, courtesy of Gordon Hudson’s blog, a must-read for every recovering evangelical out there. I'd like to say the man's a buffoon – Grady, I mean, not Gordon – but, alas, he's an intelligent man peddling a corrupt philosophy, all the while assuming an air of authority, which makes him all the more despicable. If he were simply a fool, I might be able to pity him.

Dr Richard Kent makes similar polymathic claims. Now he really is a doctor, albeit a medical one, but he’s no more a physicist, biologist or chemist than McMurtry is. He isn't pretending to be, of course, but it’s got to make you suspicious when a lecturer jumps from subject to disparate subject, claiming expertise in all of them … now let’s look at the human eye (created, not evolved) … now let’s consider the dust on the surface of the moon (evidence of a young universe) … now let's measure the beak length of Galapagos finches (Darwin was lying or wrong) ... now let’s switch disciplines again while I give you yet another example of how science gets it wrong and I, armed with my trusty bible, get it right. It’s laughable, and what I can’t work out is how the faithful don’t see through him.

But if you want the proper baying-at-the-moon crazy stuff, you should check out Ken Ham and Kent and Eric Hovind. The most worrying thing about Hovind senior, apart from his criminal record, is that he seems always to be preaching to a crowd of primary school children who are being taught that humans and dinosaurs co-existed before the flood. What? Yes, really! And this has got to be with their parents’ knowledge and blessing.

This kind of thing makes you see why the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is performing such a vital public service, as well as giving us all a good laugh. After all, you have to take this stuff with a big pinch of salt, or a ladleful of carbonara. Oh yes, and they call their followers “pastafarians”. Classic!

I think there’s a kind of Christian machismo among the creationist evangelicals, as if believing more and more unbelievable things proves how strong your faith is. It also builds up interdependency, or even codependency (and I use the term advisedly), among the faithful – they would call it “fellowship” – because they are investing so much in membership and solidarity. Asking questions is unacceptable, as I've mentioned before, so if anyone points out that the emperor has no clothes, it serves not to embarrass the emperor but only push the dissenter to the fringes, from whence he or she will eventually detach from the group. 

At some stage in the next six months, I hope I will actually come face to face with a real live creationist. I can think of only one person I know who believes in the young earth theory, or admits to it, but the last time we met it wasn't the time or place for a theological debate. Next time you're in town, N, we'll have that bottle of wine! So if any readers can recommend a church where I'm likely to hear some loopy, or even some well argued, creationist preaching, do let me know. As I said, I'd relish a good old tussle. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Greyfriars Tolbooth & Highland Kirk

Service for Pentecost, Sunday 19th May 2013, 11am
Minister: Rev Dr Richard Frazer

followed by

General Assembly Gaelic Service, 12.30pm
Preacher: Rev Donald A MacSween
Prayer leader: Rev Kenneth D Macleod
Precentors: Alasdair MacLeod & James Taylor
Moderator: Right Rev Lorna Hood

It’s a busy week for the Church of Scotland. The General Assembly began yesterday and they’re all set to tear lumps out of one another tomorrow over gay marriage. More of that anon.

But today was Pentecost, “the birthday of the church”, and Richard Frazer’s sermon kicked off with a frolicking leviathan – always a good start – and the sudden clarity of vision which inspired the psalmist the day he wrote Psalm 104. This same spirit was at work on the day of Pentecost, heralding an awakening and transfiguration, a moment of ecstatic realisation, when the ordinary becomes infused with the extraordinary.

Frazer referred to the holy spirit as “it”, then swiftly corrected this to “she”, which made me plumb the not very deep depths of Hebrew 101 to recall that yes, in fact, רוּחַ is feminine. Not noteworthy in itself, except that during the later Gaelic prayers the Rev Kenneth Macleod used the emphatic masculine pronoun “esan”. “Spiorad” is grammatically masculine, but the contrast seemed somehow more conspicuous than it needed to be. Of course, there’s no neuter gender in either Hebrew or Gaelic, but there is in English, and if Frazer had stuck with “it” and not drawn my attention to the matter in the first place, I probably wouldn’t be boring you with all this now.

So we’ve had a leviathan and a little grammatical detour. Now for Frazer’s stance on gay marriage. In the passage from Acts describing that first Pentecost, Peter is a witness to the new paradigm of the gospel of grace. The law was to be superseded, modified, renewed, revoked where no longer relevant – as, for instance, in the case of dietary restrictions – and remnants of the old Torah were to be replaced by the law of love. There should be no laws that hamper our true attainment of who we are as children of God, said Frazer, and that’s about as clear an endorsement of gay marriage as you’ll hear from a kirk pulpit.

It’s a far cry from the Free Presbyterians of Inverness, that’s for sure.

The music was reasonable. There’s a choir and an organ, but the usual reluctance among many of the congregation to open their mouths. It’s not as if the hymns are difficult. It would have been nice if the spirit had inspired a bit more singing, considering the occasion.

So then there was half an hour to kill while the church officers reset, and I went out for a little walk in the smirr and returned to find them all ready to start again. How many of the English congregation had stayed I couldn’t tell. There were about half as many people now, but many of them would have been newcomers who were attending the Gaelic service only.

The minister and the moderator, bless them, had to sit through an hour of what was no doubt Greek to them, unless by some precedented miracle they were granted the ability to hear what was being said each in his or her own tongue. But they were treated to the vocal delights of Lothian Gaelic Choir, who opened with O Rìgh nan Dùl and closed with O Thì as Àirde, and to the four metrical psalms (tunes: Moravia, Morven, Evan and Kilmarnock) chosen for the congregation to sing.

Now, as I’ve said before, I love a Gaelic psalm, and I love to sing. But I’d made the assumption that I could just sit anywhere and everyone would be joining in. Wrong! I didn’t realise that all the members of the regular Gaelic congregation were sitting in a clump up at the front, and the people around me were either non-Gaels or non-singers, because I heard not a cheep out of them. But that didn’t stop me, and the precentors did a smashing job between the two of them.

A copy of the sermon was provided, and Rev MacSween deviated not one iota from his script, other than to explain that despite his devotion to Ross County he would not be attending a match this afternoon. His theme was Christian unity and the great need for it at a time when the church faces decisions on potentially divisive matters, not least gay marriage, which he had rendered in Gaelic as “pòsadh feise”. This struck me as an odd turn of phrase, because really what it means isn’t “same-sex marriage”, but merely “sex marriage”.

MacSween, incidentally, is opposed to what others might with more political correctness call “pòsadh co-ionnan” (equal marriage). Still, we’ll let the lexicographers fight over that one.

He also mentioned a race that the ancient Greeks used to have in the Olympics, running with a lighted lantern. The winner was not the one who finished first, but the one who finished with his lantern still lit. We’ll see how much heat and light gets generated this week, and if anyone’s flame is still alight by the end of it or whether they've all blown themselves out.

The final word went to the moderator, attempting what we were told is the most daunting task of any moderator’s year in office, pronouncing the benediction in Gaelic. Agus is math a rinn i.

Today was also the day for Heart & Soul, the Church of Scotland’s open-air, multi-venue festival of faith, and Princess Street Gardens are but a stone's throw from Greyfriars. The avenues were indeed thronged with slow-moving folk who looked as if they might at any minute begin to enjoy themselves, but it was misty-moisty weather and not the best day to be watching mime artists on a bandstand. St Cuthbert’s church promised drier seating, if you could stand the soupy smell from the café and the over-ambitious rendition of Be Thou My Vision, but on the whole it was underwhelming. I didn’t tarry. I’d killed two birds with one stone at Greyfriars, and that was enough for one day.

Postscript (Monday 21st): Trust me to get it wrong. I've been conflating two debates on similar issues. Today the kirk voted on gay clergy. Meanwhile, the UK Parliament debated gay marriage. But everything else reported about yesterday's sermons still stands.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Edinburgh

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Edinburgh
Morning Service, Sunday 12th May 2013, 10.30am
Led by: two woman whose names I didn’t learn

Christian Science is one of the few religions I can think of that's been founded by a woman, Mary Baker Eddy, author of Science and Health, which is the key text of the denomination, alongside the Bible.

I wasn’t sure what to expect … a few more attendees, perhaps? There were only twenty of us all told. I certainly didn’t expect any miraculous healings there and then. I knew that they don’t go in for that kind of throw-away-your-crutches palaver, although they do believe in spiritual healing. In fact, they believe that everything is spiritual, and that the physical, and therefore anything that can go physically wrong, is an illusion which can be transcended.

What surprised me most was how prescriptive the order of service was. The Christian Science Quarterly sets out the texts which are to be read each week, from the Bible and from Science and Health, and these texts (about 35 minutes’ worth of them) comprise the sermon, the leaders taking it turn about to read from each source. So prescriptive is the list of citations that it even specifies which word within a Bible verse the reader should begin at. There doesn’t appear to be any wriggle room, nor any requirement ever to write an original sermon.

Not only were the Bible verses interspersed with Mother Eddy’s interpretations and reflections, but even the Lord’s Prayer was taken line by line with explanations in between. The sermon was preceded by a set-piece statement and the service concluded with the “scientific statement of being” and “its correlative scripture”. Somehow it seems odd that a relatively new religion should have adopted such a strict liturgy.

Listening to the excerpts from Science and Health, I seemed to recall that Mark Twain had described Eddy’s writings as “chloroform in print”. Of course, I had to check, and it turns out I was wrong. That’s how he described the Book of Mormon, but it would have been equally apt for Science and Health. No need for anaesthetic with this lifeless prose to hand.

Thumbs up for the music, though. Very accomplished organ playing for the hymns and voluntaries, and a mezzo solo setting of verses from Revelation, although the singer then disappeared for the rest of the service … perhaps to the Sunday school downstairs.

So that was Christian Science. Pretty dull and badly undersubscribed for the size of building they maintain. It’s another one to add to the list, but not inspiring in any way.