No Fate

Everyone seems to have something which sets their teeth on edge. Not just stuff like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard, either; for some people it’s bigotry, for others it’s legalism, for others it’s greed or corruption or something else. Those mindsets some people seem to have that we just find intensely bothersome when we meet them in other people. The stuff it takes an effort of will not to confront immediately.

I seem to have several. Deliberate wilful stupidity is probably the chief among them, but fatalism might be second.

Fatalism, of course, is the idea that everything is preset and that human free will is an illusion. We do not, actually, have the ability to make choices, nor the responsibility that goes along with it. We are all just puppets or robots, carrying out our predetermined destinies with no more power to change them than a rock has to stay in the air when you let go of it.

Fatalism has a long pedigree; it appears to be one of the mindsets into which human beings naturally tend to fall. We’ve changed our ideas about the causative mechanisms over time, but the idea is remarkably persistent. Where once we spoke of the Three Spinners, the Greek goddesses of Fate that spun the threads of people’s lives with blind indifference, or of the influences of the stars, today we’re more likely to point to genetics as our deterministic cause. “I have no choice, the Fates have spun it” became “I have no choice; it’s in my stars” and now seems to be “I have no choice; it’s in my genes”.

Is it just me, or is this the same idea in play?

I think the attraction is that it rather wonderfully and thoroughly absolves us of all responsibility. If it’s all predetermined, then nothing we do is our fault. I couldn’t help it.

But human responsibility is one of the cornerstones of Biblical moral teaching; starting from God’s goodness expressed in His attribute of Justice, one of the corresponding truths of human nature is that we are moral free agents; that is, we have the right, responsibility and ability to make real choices and decisions.

Theologically, of course, one of the big questions is how human moral agency can coexist with Divine Sovereignty and omniscience. If God knows everything, so the logic chain goes, then everything must be already determined in some fashion, otherwise human free choices would screw up God’s foreknowledge. So either human free will must be to some extent an illusion of perspective (hyper-Calvinism) or God’s omniscience must be somehow limited (the Open Theist heresy).

Me, I take comfort from the fact that God’s ways are higher than man’s ways. This may be a bit of a cop-out, but logically, why should a finite and temporal mind be expected to fully comprehend an infinite and eternal One? It’s like the old adage that if the human brain was simple enough to understand, humans would still be too stupid to understand it.

We can’t even properly comprehend what infinite is. For instance, if the entire observable universe were shrunk to the size of a single atom of Hydrogen, “infinite” is still bigger than the entire observable universe by comparison. And you, who cannot even hold that truth in your feeble human mind, want the mysteries of the Divine nature to conform to the limits of your understanding? God is infinite and eternal. We are finite and temporal – we are born, we live, we die. He goes on forever, both forward and back through time.

In the secular world, we’re more likely to encounter fatalism in the form of genetic determinism or a fatalistic understanding of the influence of nurture than an oversimplified understanding of the sovereign Will of God. “I can’t help it; it’s my genes” or “I can’t help it; it’s my upbringing”.

In my understanding, which as I have said above is limited, genetics does not work that way for complex behavioural traits. Blood type and hair colour may be reasonably straightforward switching on or off of various proteins and enzymes in the body, but that’s a different kettle of fish to more complex things like behaviour and propensity to develop certain cancers and so on.

Using the example of certain cancers that they tell us are “genetically linked”, what having the “cancer gene” does is not to create a certainty that you will inevitably contract that cancer, but an increase in the probability that you might. In genetic terms, it creates a predisposition toward the development of a particular cancer, not a deterministic certainty. Whether or not you actually do is dependent on numerous other factors including your lifestyle, behavioural choices and other risk factors. But we are in the realm of probability, or speaking more commonly, of possibility, not of certainty. The genetics of complex, multi-factor things like cancers and behavioural traits are not fatalism, despite how we’ve popularised the science.

The influence of nurture is even more poorly understood. Few would deny that one’s environment and upbringing do influence one’s choices and behaviour, but to lay the responsibility for all of our actions squarely at its door would seem to be overstating the case. It boggled my mind that in a recent Texas drunk driving incident, the perpetrator successfully used an “affluenza” defence that amounted to “It wasn’t my fault because my parents are rich and I was not raised to have a sense of right and wrong”. Being self-centred and amoral is now apparently someone else’s fault.

Yeah, that’s justice being done.

Even the Hindu idea of Karma and the Western pagan notion of luck are to an extent fatalistic. The doctrine of Karma states that what happens to you is determined not by your choices in the here and now, but by what you did long ago, perhaps even in a previous life. Perhaps not classic fatalism in the sense that everything, including our decisions, is preset, but certainly deterministic in its outworking. You can’t escape Karma.

The Western notion of luck is more opaque, but certainly we get the idea sometimes that certain people are “just lucky”, or “just unlucky”, and that there’s little you can do to fight that. So in the mindset of luck we try to increase our store of luck points by such means as horseshoes, rabbit’s feet, charms and “lucky” this, that and the other, rather than taking ownership of our lives and responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.

It’s all very antithetical to the teaching of Scripture, in which human beings bear responsibility as free moral agents for our choices, but in which God is just and merciful to create a way out of the blind law of choice and consequences by dying in the Person of Jesus to take the just consequences of our bad moral decisions on Himself.

There is no Fate. We are responsible, and we are free. As Rich Mullins put it, “we are responsible to be free”.

Uniting the Tribes

It occurs to me in these days of independence referenda and questions over the future shape and nature of the United Kingdom that we might possibly learn a few things from the example of Biblical Israel. Be aware that I’m not necessarily talking about the modern State of Israel; the two obviously overlap, but there are inevitable differences of structure between a modern nation-state and a Bronze Age/Iron Age tribal kingdom, to say the least.

The ancient Israel of the Bible was a collection of twelve individual tribes that made up a single nation. Initially ruled by Divinely-appointed military-political-spiritual leaders that we have traditionally referred to as “judges”, power was later centralised and formalised into a unitary kingdom, first under Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, and then under David of the tribe of Judah.

This kingdom later divided into a northern kingdom containing ten tribes, known as Israel, or poetically as Ephraim after its most powerful tribe, and a southern kingdom that was centred on and named after the tribe of Judah. But I particularly want to focus on that earlier single kingdom.

It seems to me that there are some fairly obvious parallels. Any ancient Israelite had both a tribal identity and a national identity as an Israelite, and these, at least at the height of the single kingdom, were not in conflict with one another. And that was in an Iron Age context where tribalism was the rule, and if you weren’t one of us you were one of them: an outsider and foreigner. You might ally with them briefly against a larger and more powerful enemy, but they were still foreigners and rivals.

A lot of modern politics seems to inherit this tribal mindset. Our tribes may be a bit larger or more esoteric than those of the Iron Age – nation-states or political parties rather than actual tribes – but a lot of the mentality is the same. It makes a frightening amount of sense of current American politics to view the Republican and Democratic Parties as two rival tribes vying for power, and UK politics is often similar. People sometimes inherit their political allegiances from those of their family or neighbours, and we can identify whole families that all tend to vote the same way.

Alongside our political tribes, we have regional ones, and in the UK, the overlay of the old class tribalism as well. America has its Northern and Southern identities – witness the fact that in certain parts of Virginia, “Yankee” is never said without an expletive in front – and inter-state rivalries like that between Texas and California. Britain has the same sort of thing, not only between its constituent countries, with #ngland seemingly isolated on one side and the Scots, Welsh and Irish on the other, but regionally on down the chain: North and South in England, Lancashire still fighting the Wars of the Roses with Yorkshire, Manchester being the chief rival of Liverpool, Cavaliers and Roundheads, the new immigrants against the old (and if you go back far enough, the English and even the Celtic nations came to the British Isles from elsewhere), and among the various dates of immigrants, Pakistanis and Indians and Jamaicans and Polish and all the rest.

Now, tribalism is not something that’s inherently bad. Common identities are part of who we are as human beings; we are designed and intended to live together in communities, and part of what holds a community together is a sense of that shared identity. In the Bible, God put His people together not solely as individuals in one nation, but in tribes, in clans, in families. Evidently, He’s prepared not only to use it when there’s no other alternative, but even to purposefully use it for His glory.

Reading the book of Judges as a unit gives the distinct impression that the tribes didn’t always get on completely swimmingly. The whole mess with the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 12(?) is the worst example, but you get glimpses throughout. Each tribe more or less does its own thing; in the time of Deborah it’s the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun that do the fighting; the prophetic victory song of Deborah and Barak seems to unveil a certain degree of intertribal rivalry, with the Naphtalites more or less saying “we did it all. Why did none of you other tribes help?”.

And when David becomes king, he does so in stages: first he’s crowned king of his own tribe of Judah, and only later, after more fighting against the other tribes still loyal to the house of Saul, does he become king of all Israel.

After this, their common national identity as Israelites seems to be in the ascendent, and you hear much less about the tribes doing their own thing and fighting one another.

This ancient example seems to say it’s possible to overcome these tribal rivalries. If even a people famous for disputing with one another like the Jewish nation (some of my Jewish friends characterise their people as “two Jews, three opinions”) can manage it, then surely prideful English and fierce Scots can do the same.

In ancient Israel, each tribe had their own identity and blessings that went with it, a character jointly wrought through the meaning of their ancestor’s name (even today, in most of the world names are far more immediately meaningful and significant than the abstruse handles we use in the English-speaking world), the blessings of Jacob and the blessings of Moses.

It might be fun to look at each of these. Tribal identities in turn, but for now, I will just point out that some of these identities seem far more different from one another than our modern ones of Scots and Welsh and Irish and English. So even though the name “United Kingdom seems like a bad joke sometimes, perhaps it’s in the nature of a prophetic name: a God-given identity that we may only see glimpses and shadows of in the here and now, but which paints our true identity in the brush-strokes of Divine purpose.

Some, evidently, are going to view the United Kingdom as a creation of men’s ambition and temporal political accident. It’s not going to be easy to reconcile those viewpoints, yet the alternative is worse – the multigenerational running sore of a Disunited Kingdom held together by political Sellotape and inertia, enough people wanting to preserve a semblance of union to force the whole thing to lurch on, but enough people wanting out to stop it being anything like a success.

That’s not going to be cured by any eventual full independence for Scotland and the rest, either; it just inverts the problem. What do you, as an independent Scotland, do about all of the people who honestly don’t want to be a part of your glorious new nation, because it comes only as a result of the death of the old nation they loved?

Like the adoption of the national identity of the Kingdom of Israel did not eclipse the tribal identities as Reuben and Gad and Simeon and Issachar and the rest, Scotland has never ceased to be Scottish merely because it’s a part of a larger United Kingdom.

As I write this, I’m realising that the same logic holds true of Britain as a whole in the European Union, and I may perhaps have to modify my personal opposition to that would-be nation. At least, the opposition to what I see as “my” country being swallowed by a transnational entity ought to give me some understanding of the pro-independence Scots.

In my mind, there’s a difference between the European Union’s apparent desire to do away with national identities and the desire of the United Kingdom to join without destroying, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that about 45% of the Scots don’t see it that way. After all, we English have always been the dominant partner, and we have our own shameful legacy of attempts to destroy the Scottishness of Scotland and the Welshness of Wales and the Irishness of Ireland.

If we as a United Kingdom are going to reconcile and move forward, we English might have to own our sin as a nation. But equally, our Celtic partners may have to grant that time may change a nation, and that there may even be a way for God to change the contrary and arrogant English.

The book of Revelation paints a picture of heaven in which people from “every tribe and nation and people and language” are gathered together before God to praise Him with one voice.

I’ve had Americans tell me that this means that all of our human tribalisms will melt away and we will no longer be Scots and English and Americans and Russians and Chinese, but all citizens of Heaven.

If you’ll forgive me, this is a very American view of the matter, and not one I’m comfortable with. I don’t want to no longer be an Englishman. And it appears to me that the Bible isn’t saying that. Why call them tribes and nations and peoples and languages plural if they are all one and the same?

I don’t cease to be an Englishman when I follow Jesus; the two are separate identities but don’t necessarily oppose one another. What I see the Bible saying is that all of our tribalistic hatreds and rivalries will melt away. I would continue to be English, and gloriously so, and Alex Salmond would continue to be Scottish, and gloriously so, and there will be no more strife between those identities or domination of the one by the other. Unity without loss of identity.  This is what I see in the Biblical description of heaven, not some strange melting-away of earthly identity but an earthly identity transmuted and hallowed by being caught up in a higher heavenly one.

Similarly, but on a far more mundane and temporal level, perhaps the UK can truly attempt to be like this.  One national identity as Brits, and four national identities as Welsh and Scots and Irish and English, both informing and helping to create one another.  It’s a big dream. But we have to attempt it. It just might be our national calling as the United Kingdom.

“Doubting” Thomas

I’ve always felt that the reputation history has bestowed on St. Thomas was more than a little undeserved. We call him “doubting” Thomas and see in him an object lesson about faith and unbelief. We take the risen Christ’s gentle rebuke to “stop doubting and believe” as being indicative not of a momentary lapse in the face of apparent death but an ongoing character flaw.

I’ve always felt that this was unfair to the man who was one of Jesus’ inner circle for three years and whom early church tradition records as having taken the Gospel as far as India.

For all that he’s one of the Twelve with whom I’ve long felt a personal connection, he doesn’t get a lot of face time in the Bible.

He shows up first as an already-established follower of Jesus as the Messiah is naming the Twelve who will be His Apostles. Along with most of the others, we’re not told of his calling; just that he had already become one of Jesus’ followers.

Matthew’s account pairs the Twelve as it lists them: Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector…”. It’s an interesting pairing, but doesn’t necessarily tell us much.

Mark and Luke just list them off as individual names; Mark not even bothering to note Peter and Andrew’s fraternal relationship, and John never gives a list of the Twelve at all. In all three lists, Thomas shares the same seventh place in the list.

Seven is a deeply symbolic number in the Bible, standing for God Himself, for holiness, and for completion and rest. Ironic that the one that we so ften portray as an arch-sceptic and with a besetting sin of unbelief has this place, though I’m cautious about reading too much into it.

Apart from that, he’s in the background a lot. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, seeing as how whenever one of the disciples is mentioned it often seems to be because they are missing the point and getting it wrong somehow. Not being mentioned by name almost seems like the jokey epitaph of a successful civil servant: “He never did anything to get his name in the paper.”

John is the Gospel-writer who mentions him, both in his famous “doubting” incident and one other time which I want to look at first, because it’s chronologically first and because I want us to have it in mind when we look at the more famous chapter of his life.

Thomas’ sole mention prior to the resurrection is in John 11:16. Right in the middle of the account of the raising of Lazarus, Thomas makes a statement which shows both a surprising amount of commitment to Jesus and a shocking level of missing the point.

Jesus has just given up speaking obliquely about Lazarus’ death and told the Twelve bluntly that “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

He follows that with “But come, let us go to him.”

There’s two ways of understanding that statement, and Thomas, true to form as one of the Twelve, gets the wrong one. Jesus, it seems obvious to us, was merely meaning “let us go to Bethany to his corpse”. What Thomas, and perhaps the other disciples too, hears is “let us go to him in the nether world”.

It’s not quite as outlandish as it sounds to our ears. When King David’s son with Bathsheba dies, David says that “I will go to him, but he will not come to me”. Obviously this is a fairly normal and astablished way of euphemistically talking about death.

Thomas’ response impresses me, though. Rather than pulling a Peter and taking the Lord aside to rebuke Him or fleeing from the thought of the Master’s apparent imminent demise, he seems to sort of shrug his shoulders and say “let’s get on with it, then!”

“Let us also go, so that we may die with Him”. He says.

Here is a man who is prepared to go to death along with Jesus, if that’s what Jesus is doing. I don’t know whether he thinks Jesus is contemplating suicide or what, but his answer seems to me to show a level of commitment to following Jesus that you don’t find every day. Live or die, it’s all the same. Just let me be with Jesus.

This, then, is the same disciple who has come down in history as “doubting” Thomas.

John gives him another name, saying that he was “called Didymus”. Didymus, so I’m told, means “the twin”. We don’t know anything about his family beyond that; we don’t know his brother’s name or whether he too was a follower of Jesus. But Jesus saw something in this Thomas the Twin that evidently He did not find in his brother, and called Thomas, not his brother, to be one of the Twelve.

And so we come to the only story about Thomas that anyone remembers. He wasn’t with the other disciples the first time Jesus appears to them. We don’t know where he was, either. As someone to whom this sort of thing has happened, it’s tempting to paint a picture of Thomas just stepping out to go and use the latrine when Jesus shows up, and Thomas completely misses it. But we’re simply not told. Had he gone home, like Peter’s sudden decision to go back to fishing? Had he been out of town on some other errand? We simply don’t know.

We often think that we would have done better if we were in Thomas’ shoes, though; that we would have believed when all the other disciples started saying they’d seen Him.

Given the incredulous reaction of them all to the account of the women who went to the tomb only a few days before and claimed to have seen Him, his scepticism is understandable. Here were the ten people apar from Jesus to whom you’d been closest over the last 3 yearas, and you know that two days ago they were incredulous and scornful at the testimony of the women who claimed to have seen Him. You’d all just gone through the incredibly stressful events of the trial and crucifixion, and you were all grieving the loss of your beloved Rabbi. You’re really going to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead (something no-one has ever done before without being recalled to the land of the living by a prophet or holy man of God) rather than the more probable situation, that grief and despair had overthrown your friends’ wits to the point of group hallucination? Yeah, sure.

“Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe it.”

I’m right there with you, Thomas. Too good to be true normally means it isn’t, in my experience.

My American wife would say that Thomas was from Missouri. For my non-American audience, Missouri is known as the “Show Me State” after a former president made the comment that “I’m from Missouri. You have to show me.”

I’m a bit like that. I’m a very visual learner, and if you want me to really get something, don’t read it to me, let me see it.

And so here is Thomas, standing in for all of us visual learners, sceptics and Missourians: Unless I see it with these eyes and put my hands on Him so I know He’s no ghost or doppelgänger, you are just mouthing words. Show Me.

And the wonderful thing is that Jesus isn’t about to let Thomas get left out or left behind.

He didn’t have to show up, subject His risen body to Thomas’ poking and prodding. He had ten who had already seen and believed. Would one more really make that much difference?

Jesus evidently thought so. He had a plan for Thomas, and a mission for him on the other side of Pentecost. According to early church tradition, after the scattering of the first church the apostle Thomas went further than any of the other twelve apostles in preaching the Good News: all the way to India, where through his bold proclamation an Indian king by the name of Gundaphar came to faith in Jesus the Messiah. To this day in India there are ancient churches that trace their origins to the apostle Thomas.

So Jesus makes a special point of appearing to Thomas. Here I am, Thomas. Put your fingers in my nail-prints. Put your hand in my side, so that no-one can claim I’m an hallucination.

Even his rebuke, “stop your doubting and believe” is remarkably gentle. Compare His words to the two on the Emmaus road: “How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have written!”. Or “get behind me, Satan!”, directed at Simon Peter for trying to stop Him going to the Cross.

Thomas, by contrast, gets not a word of blame, just a gentle “stop doubting and believe”. I undersand your difficulty, Thomas. You want to be shown. I can work with that. But now that you have seen, it’s time to stop your doubting, lest it become unbelief. Doubts I can work with; unbelief is something else entirely.

Thomas’ faith rises to the challenge, though Jesus points him beyond. “You believe now that you’ve seen Me. But there will come those who will never get this opportunity; these are the truly blessed ones.”

And he gets it. There’s little reason to suppose that Thomas didn’t in fact get to India and preach there; certainly the Indian “Thomas churches” are very ancient and sent bishops to some of the early church councils. Imbued by the Spirit who descended at Pentecost to bring power and boldness to the church, Thomas is able to make headway in the Indian subcontinent, in whose culture the material world is shadow and illusory and seeing isn’t necessarily believing.

“Die With Jesus” Thomas. The One That Jesus Wouldn’t Leave Out. Faithful Thomas. Missourian Thomas, if you insist. Seeing Thomas. Fallen For A Moment Into Honest Doubt Thomas, if you like. But “doubting” Thomas seems unfair.

The Wisdom of Slow

Apparently I have a thing for misunderstood creatures.

Whereas in popular culture “weasel” has become synonymous with dishonesty and is seen as almost without virtue, I actually like them. The combination of lithe grace and almost unparalleled fierceness appeals to me.

Similarly, the sloths are some of my favourite animals of all God’s creatures, despite their reputation.

A Three-Toed Sloth. Source: The Guardian

Sloths have a bad press. Not as completely evil as the weasel, but a byword for lazy, viewed even by some naturalists as primitive, ungainly, ugly and stupid. The Ice Age trilogy had as its most completely annoying character Sid the Sloth. Admittedly, Sid is supposed to be a ground sloth, but that actually makes it worse. Ground sloths are even cooler than their modern descendents.

What virtue can I possibly find in this creature that moves at just over one mile an hour when going flat out and doesn’t even have enamel on its teeth?

There are three species of sloth remaining in the world: the two-toed sloths of the genus Chololepus and the three-toed sloths of the genus Bradypus.

This is all that remains of one of the most successful animal groups ever to come out of South America. A group which included Megatherium, a ground sloth that weighed about the same as an African elephant, stood on its back legs as tall as a giraffe and had strong enough arms to roll over a VW Beetle. A group that included Thalassocnus, an animal that pushed the limits of bizarrity even for sloths, being a marine animal adapted to swim out to sea and graze on seaweed.

A lot of sloths’ poor reputation stems from the attitudes of the early European naturalists who first described them. Here was an animal that was so different to anything that was already known from Europe, Africa or Asia that it was difficult to know what to make of it. It looked lumpy, hung upside down all the time and moved at a ridiculously slow rate. Its teeth lacked enamel. It actually had algae that grew on its fur. Its metabolic rate was so slow that it rivalled that of a sleeping bear. It wasn’t even all that good to eat.

And European naturalists being European naturalists and in love with the pseudo-Darwinian idea that there were “superior” and “inferior” creatures (and “superior” and “inferior” races of people), they dismissed the sloth as “primitive”. After all, wasn’t it self-evident that the European races were inherently superior, and those of Northern Europe most superior of all? In like manner, the creatures of Europe and its environs were automatically assumed to be superior to anything else, and the more unlike anything European something was, the further down the evolutionary totem pole it belonged.

Personally, I question the assumptions that led to this.

Sloths are perfectly designed for their environment and lifestyle. Everything we tend to think is primitive or just plain dumb is actually another adaptation to its way of life. It’s just adapted very differently to anything European.

Sloths are browsers; they feed on leaves. This is the central defining truth of the sloth, and explains almost every aspect of their oddity.

Leaves, you see, are a particularly low-calorie food. Anyone on a diet will be able to vouch for the fact that 8oz’ worth of lettuce leaves contains dramatically fewer calories than an 8oz steak. And since calories are a measure of energy, what this amounts to is that leaf-eaters don’t get as much energy per ounce of food. Leaves are difficult for animals to break down, and most animals that graze or browse have huge guts that are effectively chains of vats full of the microorganisms that can break the stuff down.

Old-World, European-type grazers and browsers are adapted to the low-energy nature of their food by spending almost all of their waking hours engaged in eating. A field of cows do practically little else; deer are the same, except with tree leaves rather than grass. They maintain a high-energy lifestyle – running and jumping and so on – by continually replenishing that energy by eating.

Sloths have a completely dfferent approach to the realities of their diet. Rather than try to maintain a high-energy, highly-active lifestyle, the sloths slow down so as not to expend any more energy than they absolutely have to.

Their metabolism is slower than any other vertebrate on the planet. Their body temperature is several degrees cooler than most mammals’, because running the furnace of an ectothermic (“warm-blooded”) metabolism at the rate of most mammals takes an awful lot of energy. By comparison, sloths are practically cold-blooded.

They hang upside-down because with their hook-shaped claws, it takes far less energy and muscle than supporting oneself on one’s limbs.

They move at the fantastic speed of 1.2 mph at what for a sloth is a flat sprint because they don’t have much muscle. Muscle takes energy to make and maintain, and energy to operate, and sloths have one simple rule: minimise energy expenditure.

Their unenamelled dentine teeth are another adaptation for their leaf-eating lifestyle. Mammals only get a maximum of two sets of teeth in their lives. This is a consequence of the way mammalian teeth have different designs depending on where in the mouth they are, and the way they interlock with each other. Mammals have some of the most complex teeth of any creature. In addition, like most other vertebrates, the teeth of all other mammals are covered in enamel. Tooth enamel is the hardest substance produced by the body; far harder than bone. It forms a thin layer over the outer surface of the tooth; under this is the dentine; a substance very similar to the bone in the rest of the skeleton.

Forming all of these complicated teeth, shedding them and growing a new set takes, you’ve guessed it, energy. Energy a sloth doesn’t have. Enamel is difficult to grow, mostly because of its hardness, and leaves are particularly tough on vertebrate teeth. It’s this more than anything else that contributes to mammals’ two tooth set limit.

Most animals than eat plants don’t have fully-enamelled grinding teeth. An elephant’s teeth, for instance, are a complex set of enamel ridges with dentine in between. Beavers and other rodents have incisors that keep growing all their lives, but those teeth are only enamelled on the front side.

Sloths have taken the process a step further. Their teeth don’t have any enamel at all. In addition, they are designed so that their continually-growing dentine teeth self-sharpen as they bite and chew their food. If you look at it from the sloth’s point of view, the feature that more than any other gets dismissed as a “primitive” trait is actually one of their most advanced adaptations.

Perhaps surprisingly, sloths can swim, and do so pretty well. There are whole sections of the Amazon basin that have such intense seasonal floods that whole areas of forest get submerged, becoming the eerie “drowned forest”. In this season, sloths actually belie their name and exhibit a pretty respectable turn of speed through the water. At least, for an animal famous for being slow. The sloth in the water isn’t going to be winning any races against penguins or seals, but he can move much faster in water than hecan on land.

The sloths’ extinct cousins the ground sloths were even more amazing. Including over 27 species in 19 genera, they were one of the few types of animal to successfully colonise North America from South America. When the last ice age ended and they became extinct, they were poised to cross the Bering land bridge into Asia. Their low metabolic rate gave them an advantage over other similarly-sized creatures, because they needed less food. They were large and strong, and it’s thought that some of the larger varieties might have supplemented their plant diet with occasional scavenging of carcasses, or even hunting. Certain Glyptodon (extinct giant armadillo weighing about the same as a VW Beetle) skeletons have been found inexplicably belly-up, and the giant ground sloth is the only thing we know about with the strength and leverage to roll one.

So sloths are awesome.

But what lessons might we get from our new knowledge of the true nature of sloths?

They’ve been dismissed for years as an object lesson on not being lazy. Their very common name is taken from the Seven Deadly Sins’ version of laziness. But if we’ve established that most of what we thought we knew about sloths is either wrong or prejudiced, what moral lesson might we draw instead?

The most obvious and timely one is simply to slow down.

The frenetic pace of life is one of the things that draws more contemporary ire than anything else. People work flat-out all the time, particularly here in the States where hard work is considered perhaps the chief of virtues. Even when we take a day off, we’re rushing off to the beach or spending the day mowing the lawn and repairing the car and the house. Our free time is something many of us claim to treasure, even while we don’t actually engage in it when we have the opportunity. I know a man who has “retired” three or four times and then come back to work, not because of financial necessity but because he just couldn’t keep away.

We are a generation of instant communications, fast internet and high-speed data sharing. We want results instantly and get impatient or frustrated when we can’t get them. As evidence, look at your driving habits. If you’re anything like me, about the worst possible situation on the road is to run into a delay caused by an accident, a traffic light misbehaving, or simply some idiot being an idiot on the piece of road you want to use.

I have to remind myself that really, it’s ok. I’m a follower of Jesus, so I’m actually going to live forever. What’s the rush?

Patience is probably the least practiced and most sought-after virtue in the modern world. The ability to set aside worry and activity and just wait.

It’s an area where, metaphorically, the sloth excels. In fact, if we were to have named the sloth after its virtues rather than its vices, it would undoubtedly be called a Patience.

We might also learn other lessons, though. Wisdom, for example. As with the sloth’s self-sharpening teeth, it’s a wise and learned individual who can in all humility sharpen themselves. We are told in the Proverbs about one man sharpening another, but to self-sharpen? It takes both the wisdom and learning to be able to use what one has to get sharper, and the humility to know exactly when you are self-sharpening and when you are fooling yourself.

Or perhaps just an appreciation for the despised. If a sloth were judged by its ability to run, it would be believed worthless. Sometimes we believe this of ourselves, or of other people. Maybe we’re just like the sloth: so uniquely different that people have a hard time understanding us.

Maybe the ability to swim in the flood of God’s presence. In the water, the sloth doesn’t need to use its weak muscles to support itself, only to gain forward motion. Or as the Scripture puts it: “He chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong”.

This peculiar wisdom of the slow comes naturally to the sloth, but is anything but natural to us in our busy, fast-paced lives.

Perhaps we could do with rehabilitating the sloth’s reputation and learning from the master of slow wisdom.

The State of the (Other) Union

So Scotland voted to preserve the Union that has served us well since 1707. With 55% voting “no” to independence and 45% “yes” with almost 87% turnout, it has to count as a victory for democracy no matter what your views are on actual independence.

I’m pleased with the result, but I recognise that as an Englishman living in the USA I don’t precisely have any vested interest in the outcome. Still, I have English family that live in Scotland, so I am affected by it, even if only at one remove.

And now the question becomes “where do we go from here?”

The fact that almost half of Scotland’s population voted to separate from the United Kingdom doesn’t exactly speak well of the health of this Union of ours, though the results broken up by locality look more favourable, with only 3 of 32 local councils being carried by the Yes campaign. Personally I’m a little surprised that it wasn’t closer, though the last time I was actually living in Scotland was over a decade ago and close to Glasgow, which was one of the strongest supporters of the independence campaign last night. It’s possible that may be skewing my perceptions.

Watching the campaign from a distance has been quite odd, with most people around me barely even registering the event. Here’s my country possibly on the verge of tearing itself apart (in a wonderfully restrained, peaceable and thoroughly British manner – no violence and no real nastiness), and it barely makes the international segment of the news until there’s an actual result.

I’m pleased with the result, as I said. The Union Jack would look bizarre and unnatural without the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland, and I honestly believe that the result is best for Scotland too.

But with the additional devolved powers promised to the subordinate Scottish Parliament if they would stay in the Union, the lid is off the pot of constitutional change.

What of the Welsh and the Northern Irish that have their own Assemblies with more limited powers than the Scottish Parliament? Devolution of greater powers to the Scots ought to take place in a context of wider devolution of powers to the Welsh and Irish, otherwise it’s hardly fair. And what of England, which has no national Assembly or Parliament beyond that of the entire UK, and thus has Scottish and Welsh and Irish MPs voting on matters English but with English MPs having no say in Scottish affairs (the so-called “West Lothian question”)?

I’ve wondered for a while whether Britain wouldn’t make more sense as a sort of federation, but it’s always seemed unthinkable. But then, for a long while the idea of a truly independent Scotland seemed unthinkable too, at least as far as Westminster was concerned.

These days, however, we seem to be thinking the unthinkable, with the very real possibility that the Scots could have decided against remaining in the United Kingdom, promised devolution of powers that would have been anathema a mere decade ago, a similar promise to resolve the West Lothian question and the real possibility of dramatic constitutional reform in the United Kingdom as a whole.

We are living in interesting times, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse. If the several main parties of the UK can’t agree on what should be done, it could turn into the worst political quagmire we’ve seen in Britain, but somehow I can’t quite believe that having so recently dodged the bullet of the dissolution of the United Kingdom that we will stumble at the gate.

I have to say that I think this whole referendum has been good for the United Kingdom as a whole. So much that we didn’t want to talk about in case it triggered something like a Scottish independence referendum has been brought into the open where we can actually talk about it. It’s made is really think about our identity as one nation and as four: as British, but also as Scots and Irish and Welsh and English.

As an Englishman, from the constituent country of the United Kingdom in which we were all carefully brought up to think and speak of ourselves as “British”, not “English” (because English was an exclusive term and we wanted to include the Scots and Welsh and Irish), engendering a manifest confusion over what we really meant by either, I see this as unmitigatedly positive. It took moving abroad for me to personally discover the difference; I’m glad it didn’t take the end of the United Kingdom to produce the same result in England as a whole.

I imagine the process has been a little bit like that in reverse for the Scots and Welsh and Irish. They’ve always seemed to have strong senses of their Scottishness and Welshness and Irishness, though with the exception of the Northern Irish, their sense of Britishness has sometimes been weaker.

Maybe now we can truly understand ourselves as a nation, and that can only be a good thing for us all.

The Plumb Line: A study in Law and Grace

My job, as I may have mentioned, is as a grade checker for an excavation company.

What this means is that I follow the earth-moving machines around and use a construction GPS unit to check that they have cut down or filled in the right amount of earth. “Grade”, for construction purposes, means the level the ground is supposed to be at at any given point.

In effect, I’m like a high-tech human plumb line.


A plumb line is another construction tool; one of the simplest and most ancient still in use. Ancestrally a lead weight on a string, it gives a perfect vertical line to check what you are building against. It was certainly in use in ancient Israel, because one of the prophets mentions God “bringing a plumb line against the house of Israel”; in other words, showing for all the world whether or not they measure up to His standard.

This is the function of God’s Law: showing the world what Righteousness looks like. So I suppose in a way, that my job is an embodiment of Law.

It can mould those of us whose work is in this area. I’ve met people in my or a related line of work who will not tolerate the slightest deviation from the absolute, and will fly into a rage at the operator if they get it wrong. Never mind that the bulldozer we’re working with can’t get any closer than plus or minus a couple of inches even with the best operator in history; they want it right!

I recognise, if I’m painfully honest, this tendency in myself. Not so much with my job, but theologically. I don’t have a lot of patience for established Christians who make basic theological errors: witness my ongoing personal war against the muddled theologies of a lot of modern Christian music.

The challenge in being an embodiment of Law is to do so with grace. Not a grace that means you bend the Law or allow it to be broken without consequence, but a grace which helps and makes it possible for someone on the wrong side of Law to be made right.

Construction-wise, this means me being both firm and gentle in bringing needed corrections. I’m not omniscient; I have to assume that the operator isn’t going out of their way to get it wrong. But I have to help them get it right, because (apart from the machines that have their own GPS) they don’t have anything except me to tell them as they do it whether it’s right or wrong.

It reminds me, in fact, of what the Bible says about the Law not being made for the righteous, but sinners. Those who are righteous are those who are in right standing with God, and the way you get there is by trusting in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of rescue. If you’re in that situation, you’re like a bulldozer or motor grader that has its own GPS. The Holy Spirit dwells within you, not only telling you when you’re doing something contrary to the commands and character of God, but enabling you to do right. Most of my job is more like the function of the Law for one not having the Holy Spirit. All I can do is tell them when it’s right and when it still isn’t there.

There are some lessons for us here. Many of us like to grab hold of this idea that the Law is meant for unbelievers and more or less preach Law at them. “You [fill in your particular sin of choice]ers are breaking God’s Law! You need to straighten up and fly right before God brings a judgement against you!”

We would do well to remember that, like me with my construction crew, we’re not omniscient. We have to assume that they aren’t deliberately setting out to do wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are on the same page as us when it comes to what real righteousness and goodness looks like. In this situation (which is very common now as the hold of religious Christianity grows weaker on the wider society), we need to patiently and gently explain and demonstrate what righteousness and goodness looks like. When so many people quite simply don’t understand why such-and-such should be so wrong, we need to come alongside and gently explain rather than leaping to condemn.

We could do with remembering that we do have the internal GPS of the Holy Spirit: God Himself dwelling within to enable us to live lives that reflect His character, and most of those around us do not. Most of the operators I work with aren’t even given a plan showing what is expected; I lay out flags and stakes as signposts, and that helps some, but when I get them down out of their machines and show them the plans and talk them through it, then they understand what’s required. They have to see it.

Our words are all very well. Like my flags and stakes, they are signposts for those who already have some idea of the shape of what is required. But most do not, and it’s not until they see it lived out in our lives that they really get it. What are our lives like? Are we living lives that please God, or are we selfish, lazy, greedy, full of rage, gossip, slander and accusation? Until they see it lived out, how can we expect them to understand?

But in this construction metaphor, I’m noticing another thing.

I’ve likened my job to an embodiment of Law, and said that the challenge was to do so with grace. I do have a model, though. Jesus was the embodiment of the Law, in that He perfectly lived out what it means to be in right standing with God and fully in tune with His character. And yet the Bible’s most common description of Him is that He was “full of grace and truth”.

The embodiment of Law, lived out with grace. Just like my Saviour.

I Will Build…

I Will Build…

Having recently watched The Lego Movie, Lego has been somewhat on my mind of late. Downloading a free Lego CAD program may have something to do with it, but while playing with it, a thought struck me that the Bible talks quite a lot about building, and we might conceivably see what happens when we throw Lego into that conceptual mix.

Something I built with my new Lego CAD program

Something I built with my new Lego CAD program

What might my favourite toy have to say about Christ building His Church, or us being built together into a spiritual house?

Lego bricks are all different

There are, or have been, literally thousands of different Lego bricks over the years. (Side note: the American habit of calling them “Legos” still sounds wrong to me. One Lego brick, two Lego bricks, a whole bucket full of Lego. No “s”). Some, like the old-style fences, doors and wheels, have been superseded and you never see them any more unless you have inherited Lego from a previous generation. Some, like the brick with “LL929” inscribed on it (from the new Benny’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP!!! Set) only exist in a single set and are very specific. Some, like the 2×4 bricks, are as old as Lego itself. Some are brand new.

But there are thousands of different types, and they all have their role.

You can’t build a proper house out of Classic Space Lego robot arms or cruciform Technic axles, but each of these bricks is exactly right when you need it.

There’s an obvious Scriptural parallel here. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of smell be?” Each one of us has gifts. Some are more “unique” than others and considered “special”, yet it’s the “boring” 2×4 and 1×4 bricks that are the staples of almost all construction and often see most use. People aren’t Lego (not even the little mini-figures), but it’s a good lesson. You may be a “generic”, “boring” red 2×4 brick, but God made you just like that for a reason. You’re probably one of the mainstays of His building. Or you may be an esoteric, forgotten piece like an old-style 1×4 red crisscross fence. Be encouraged! He may not be making any more like you, but your very rarity makes you special. You’re not forgotten by Him, and He still has a purpose for you. Or you may be a brand-new Bilbo Baggins minifigure. You feel out of place in a Lego City environment, but you, too, have a purpose, and He may still have yet to reveal all of your uses.

Lego bricks are all the same

Despite their considerable diversity, all Lego bricks fit together. Each stud on the top of each brick is exactly the right size and shape to fit into the hole in the bottom of each other brick and hold the two together. This is what makes Lego such a genius toy. (Yes, some bricks don’t have studs but are flat on the top, and a few are flat on the bottom. But there’s no such thing as a Lego brick with neither studs nor holes nor any other way of connecting).

Even Duplo bricks are compatible with Lego bricks, and vice-versa. A 2×4 Lego brick will fit together with a 1×2 Duplo brick either on top or on the bottom, and one Duplo brick is exactly two Lego bricks high.

This, too, has obvious Scriptural parallels.

The Bible makes it clear that our different gifts are designed to fit together in His Kingdom. Indeed, our different gifts mean that we need each other: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’.”

You can’t build a Lego car without wheels, but neither can you build one with only wheels. You need something to attach the wheels to, and a windscreen, doors, steering wheel, all the other parts, as detailed as you want to go in the scale you’re working in.

In my opinion, sometimes we arrange things almost exactly opposite to this way. Instead of building different “bricks” together to make what the Master Builder is conceiving, we sort ourselves out as if for storage in some particularly anal-retentive kid’s playroom. Wheels go with wheels. All 1xwhatever bricks go together. All slopes go together, sorted by angle and by whether they are a regular or inverted slope. All mercy-oriented people go together over here, and they never impinge on the domain of the leadership types over there, or of the musicians over there.

Sometimes I think we’d do better to scatter the people with evident gifts in amongst others who aren’t of like gifting. A car is not just made of wheels, even a Lego space crawler with 18 axles, nor is the Body of Christ composed of all nerve cells over here, all muscle cells over there, all digestive tract cells over there and all sensory cells in a pile over here.

Lego comes in all different colours

This is especially true in recent years. I remember when you couldn’t find a green Lego brick that wasn’t a tree, flowers or a baseplate. Pink Lego did not exist, and the only brown was minifigure hair. My mother remembers when Lego came in red and white, and that was it.

I could talk about race and the Church here. It’s an interesting conversation to have, but I don’t think I’m the one to address it. Instead I’m going to build on what I’ve already said about Lego being all different.

A white 2×8 plate (flat brick) is manifestly not the same as a blue one or a red one. I was always pretty fanatical about colour matching in my creations; I hated to have to put in odd-coloured bricks just to make it work structurally. But you saw photos every so often of models that looked for all the world as if they were assembled by colourblind kids. For all I know, they might have been.

The point is, they may have offended my childhood sense of aesthetics, but they worked.

Sometimes we do need to change where we are or what we’re doing in order to fulfill your calling in God. But sometimes we need to stop moaning and whining about being a blue brick in amongst a jumble of red, black and yellow ones and knuckle down to using our Divinely-given gifts where He’s put us. Sometimes only one transparent neon orange brick on its own is all that’s needed right there. It can be uncomfortable having to rub shoulders with those so unlike ourselves, but if that’s where He’s put us, sometimes we just need to trust Him.

Lego doesn’t build itself

And my mother would no doubt add that it doesn’t clear itself up, either. Lego doesn’t decide for itself how it’s going to be put together, nor does one brick order another around. There’s typically one builder, and it’s not any of the bricks. The hand of one greater assembles the pieces just where she or he wants them, and the Lego bricks themselves have as much say in the matter as we do in who our parents are.

Playing with Lego with my kids, I’m aware that we are finite in wisdom and knowledge. Even as a child, I’d frequently try something one way, and decide that it wasn’t going to work, and try something else.

God is infinite in wisdom and knowledge. He doesn’t have to go through that process of trial and error. He gets it right, first time.

There are two errors we make in regard to Lego not building itself.

The first is to think that the Master Builder doesn’t know what He’s doing. We complain about the small stuff, we worry, we get afraid. No, He hasn’t abandoned you, and He hasn’t dropped the ball. His way may be dark to us, but that’s not the same as our way being dark to Him. He’s the Light. How can He not be able to see?

The second is to try to build our own model. This can take the form of human kingdom-building in what ought to be God’s One Kingdom, or trying to “help” God or manipulate Him into doing things our way.

Well, God will not be manipulated. He’s going to do what’s best, and He really does know better than we what that is. And He doesn’t share His glory. This, too, is for our good; human beings aren’t built for glorification by ourselves. It’s like trying to attach two Lego bricks together stud-to-stud (incidentally, I wish there was a way to do this, or the other way round). It’s not going to hold together unless you cheat and use glue, and then you can’t get it apart again afterwards.

There’s one Master Builder, and it isn’t you.