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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
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The other end of the telescope
January 2009

Among the Christmas debris I am glad to deposit in the wheelie bin is the unwanted gift of the Power Ballad. I'm generally fond of Christmas songs, sacred or profane, and passers-by will detect a breezy
par-ruppa-pum-pum on my lips throughout the season. What I object to are the kind of cod-spiritual tunes that sneak in under the snowy hem of Santa's garment. Lyrically, by far the most heinous of these is a song called From a Distance, popularised by formidable foghorn Bette Midler.

The thrust of the song is the myopic observation that, viewed from afar, all our problems and divisions are smaller and, furthermore, that "God is watching us from a distance". As such it reprises the folksy theme of that 70s howler
Melting Pot, which envisaged a kind of grim cultural apocalypse where all of our differences would be boiled away like impurities in pig-iron.

These dark sentiments may have their heart in the right place, but, alas, their eyes are dim. For a start, there is the obvious fact that, whatever God's perspective may be, we do not see our lives from a distance, but in fearful and wonderful close-up. Our peculiar detail and difference are what make us human: melt them away or blur them by distance and we cease to be. As every infant poet knows, the people may look like ants from up high, but they are not actually ants. And if we are surveyed on a green hill far away by an aloof God – a whiskery general well behind the front line – then count me as one of his conscientious objectors.

The belief in a remote deity, known as Deism, emerged during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, essentially to allow for the growing faith in human rationality. There being no room for him in the Inn of Reason, God – eternally accommodating – was agreed to have withdrawn to a kind of divine potting shed at the bottom of the garden, leaving the young ones to their clever arguments. Philosophy hadn't buried God yet, just moved him into a granny flat.

To imagine that God is thus semi-detached is, I suppose, one way to cope with the troubles of a world which the Almighty may not appear to do anything about. It's the way plenty chose amidst the unbearable wave of grief that overtook the British people after 1918, when folk religion offered a powerful anaesthetic, removing both God and man from the horrific reality. Canon Scott-Holland's desperately popular poem, "Death is nothing at all", applies the ether perfectly.

As an outlook, though, it makes for a bleak midwinter. Yet despite being pretty much the polar opposite of the Christmas message, it is surprising how often a kind of Deism appears in everyday Christianity, when congregations are offered the cold comfort that, if they could only see life from God's perspective, they would understand that Everything is Really Alright.

In order to point my howitzers directly at this tendency, here is a light and radio-friendly Thought for the Day, which might be served up on the airwaves just as Ms Midler is mercifully faded down...


"Hello. A wise man once said, 'If you want to give God a laugh, tell him your plans.' I like to think it is the same when we tell him of our troubles.

You see, to us, the problems of life seem immense, but we forget that this isn't how they appear to God. To God, they are no problem! We spend so much of our time painfully aware of our concerns, but rarely do we remember that they are not a concern for him. And by simply learning to see things with a God's-eye view, it's amazing how much smaller our problems become.

Imagine this a bit like a telescope: look through it the usual way and everything seems much closer and more threatening than it really is. But if you just look through the other end, suddenly it all shrinks down to size! Wouldn't it be enlightening to try this for real: to find an old telescope or pair of binoculars and walk around for an hour or two looking through the other end. What a difference it would make to everyday experiences like eating or crossing the road – things wouldn't loom quite so large then!

Most of us long just to forget our worries for a while. My friends, thankfully God has done this for us. And all we need to do is to learn to see things through God's eyes: to hear through God's ears, to stand firm with God's, er, legs. Think for a minute: we can be completely mistaken, but not God; we can be utterly bewildered, but not God; we can be greatly bothered – but not God. He cannot be bothered in the least.

You know, God has a great sense of humour. I often imagine how amused he must be by our silly little schemes and muddles. Take a moment to imagine God laughing at your struggles, putting them all into proportion. How does that make you feel? It's particularly effective to do when things get too much and we are at our lowest ebb. In the silent solitude of your bedroom tonight, why not bring to mind whatever troubles you most and, if helpful, picture God laughing about it – not just with an indulgent smile, but really laughing himself silly at all you have to cope with. Doesn't that put a different complexion on it?

In pastoral ministry I have always endeavoured to take people's heavy burdens and
make light of them. It is immensely rewarding to see the effect – sometimes quite visibly – on people's faces as I nod, smile and chuckle gently at this or that personal crisis. For whatever is a crisis for them certainly isn't for God. It may be their problem, but it is not his problem – or mine! Do you see? So, next time you fall flat on your face, try to see yourself as God must: not from under a puddle! But from a distance."


Now, Deism's bias towards an abstract God (which, in fairness, doesn't include him chuckling at our misfortunes – that bit was my own modest contribution to the tradition) has always been a tendency in Christianity, ever since the early church quaffed large draughts of Platonism in the first centuries after Christ.

Platonic thought generally tried to keep anything eternal (truth, beauty, disputes with the Inland Revenue, etc) at arm's length from the material world and – thanks largely to the far-reaching influence of St Augustine – Western Christianity has never quite managed to bridge the divide.

This is despite the fact that the wise designers of the Nicene Creed allowed us no such option. Picking up the thread from the prologue to John's Gospel – they insisted that, in Jesus Christ, both divinity and humanity exist in equal measure. In other words, God's presence is not isolated from the ordinary stuff of life, but mysteriously woven into it.

Which is why we sing at Christmas. And, as far as I can see, why we sing at all.
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
also see
crow's nest
Stephen Tomkins' regular column of tales of religious lunacy from the far reaches of the Net
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
loose canons
Also by Stephen Tomkins... a regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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