Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Cosmological mind blowing

Last night's Horizon on BBC2 looked at the current state of cosmological theory. How refreshing to have a prime time TV prog that managed to deal with real science of the most mind-boggling sort without either dumbing down or being unintelligible. Mind you, it would have been better as a radio programme. How do you portray a Big Bang lasting a quadrillionth of a second followed by a ballooning of the universe over billions of years.

One thing you shouldn't do is make the Big Bang go 'bang!' - since it would happen in total silence. Sound does not travel in the vacuum of space. This always irritates me in spacey-type films; especially since vast power being released in total silence would be a far more powerful image.

The mind-bending concepts of 'dark matter' (we can't detect >75% of the matter in our universe), 'dark energy' and, even more creepily, 'dark flow' (suggesting that our universe is not the only one) fill me with awe. Like the Psalmist said "When I look up at your heavens, the work of your fingers, at the moon and the stars you have set in place, what is a frail mortal, that you should be mindful of him, a human being, that you should take notice of him?" (Psalm 8 : 3 - 4). The truth of the universe, majestic and incomprehensible to the 5th Century BC poet is actually far more wonderful than s/he could remotely begin to imagine.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Israel : Privilege without Responsibility?

Radio 4's Start the Week this morning gave some time to discussing a new book by Anthony Julius - Trials of the Diaspora : a history of anti-semitism in England. The panellists discussed the difference between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism.

There is little doubt that the creation of the state of Israel was bound to set up conflict for generations. One tragedy emerging from another, if the word 'tragedy' can be used without letting human decision-makers off the hook. There is little doubt of the reality of anti-semitism. Although it is many years since I myself have been aware of it, I'm sure it remains under the surface. Whether the sort of (anti-)Jewish jokes that were common at my secondary school still do the rounds in the playgrounds I don't know. And that anti-semitism still exists in the world of the far-right and of fundamentalist Islam is obvious. The imam of Oxford's central mosque (long since sacked by the mosque committee), with whom East Oxford's church leaders met regularly in the months after September 11th 2001, had no hesitation in informing us that the New York atrocity was organised by Jews to bring down the US's wrath on Muslims. ("No Jews went into work in the World Trade Centre that day," he informed us with a straight face.)

And yet the government of Israel has behaved brutally - under provocation, of course - meting out injustice and humiliation on the Palestinian people and ignoring the resolutions of the so-called 'international community'. The settlers have sequestered Palestinian farms and olive groves, distorting legal process to do it, rendering Arab Israelis third-class citizens in their own country. How strange that Tony Blair, in the latter days of his reign when he was most seduced by power, didn't call for an invasion of Israel (as he suggested to the Chilcott inquiry we should now be considering against Iran).

There is a very nasty and dangerous dynamic operating here. When the State of Israel is criticised for its abuses and atrocities, the criticism is rebuffed as anti-semitism. Anti-semitism - which is real - is used as a shield to defend the indefensible. This is a highly risky strategy, because it is so exasperating and offensive that it reinforces the impression of the Jewish leadership as irrational, aggressive and paranoid - even more dangerous.

I have to recognise, of course, that maybe I am anti-semitic and unwilling to admit it. But many professing Christians are in a different place from where we were a century ago - partly as a result of deep reflection on Christian complicity in the holocaust :

a) Jesus, our Lord, was a Jew and never ceased being one. He never rejected the Torah, although not all teachers of the period shared the same interpretation of Moses' law. He was probably a claimant to the High Priesthood - at least, much of what he is reported as saying and doing makes most sense if this is how he understood his calling.

b) The first Church was deeply Jewish, worshipping regularly in the Temple and holding strictly to Torah observance. The first leader of the Church, James the Lord's brother, was widely respected in Jerusalem at a time when the religious and political Judaean leadership was compromised and in disarray.

c) In our Bible Study we are studying the book of Revelation : and it is a revelation to read its writer condemning 'Balaam'and his 'synagogue of Satan' : 'Balaam' is, I am sure, the apostle Paul, and 'Jezebel' his convert Lydia.

d) Paul's mission was widely rejected for compromising Jewish standards of observance in order to draw Gentiles into the Jewish covenant. Certainly, down the centuries his message has been understood to imply that the Jewish law was now superseded by a more 'spiritual' encounter with God in Christ. Certainly, when under attack from the majority Jewish Christians, he gives as good as he gets (see his letter to the Galatians). But the whole thrust of his message is that the Jews are God's chosen people, and now by an act of sheer grace, Gentiles have been brought into that covenant.

I fully understand why a Jew might not accept me, a Christian, as such - but in my own understanding I am a Jew-by-grace. A Messianic Jew, I suppose, under the high priesthood-to-end-all-priesthood of Jesus. Up to the year 100 or so, the Jewish scriptures are my faith history. As a Jew-by-grace, I belong to a people chosen by God for a very particular witness. We are called to be the 'priestly nation' among the nations.

That does not mean special privileges or superiority; it can mean being the lightning-conductor for the wrath of the nations and the evil in the world - as Jesus himself was. But what it most certainly does mean is being called to be the people who are most ruthlessly honest with themselves, most humble before the face of God, most able to admit their faults and best equipped to correct them.

The Church has failed spectacularly in this calling in the past - especially when it has allied itself with power. But the State of Israel, too, is failing in this regard. Unwilling to admit the abuses, lashing out when criticised, self-righteous, and turning a deaf ear to its own internal 'prophets'. The prophets and the 'Deuteronomist' perpetually reminded Israel that if it failed to 'act justly, seek mercy and walk humbly with her God' that one way or another it would be deposed. 'I chastise those whom I love' says God. The privilege of 'chosenness' is a privilege that gives Israel a particular and demanding vocation amongst the nations. If Israeli governments (in unholy alliance with extremist religious movements) continue the way they are it can only be a matter of time before the Jewish people once again find themselves finding their 'chosenness' a bitter cup. Anti-semitism is the other side of the coin from 'chosenness', and I don't dispute the chosenness - I dare to believe I share it in Christ.

The Bible invites us to expect much of Israel. Isaiah offers the image of the nations streaming up to Mount Zion because 'here is a people that have got it right'. Present-day Israeli governments are demanding special privilege without accepting the responsibility that goes with it.