January 2017

"In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world"

(John 16.33)

In his recent book Faith and Wisdom in science*, Tom McLeish endorses very compellingly the first seven words of this Saying. We naturally prefer to have our world orderly, peaceful, and as trouble-free as possible. We don't like it when things go wrong, personally or globally: and when they do, we immediately start to press a variety of human response buttons which may be labelled anger, sorrow, incomprehension, health-care, prayer, blame . . . . the list of our reactions to calamity is very long.

McLeish points out that, in fact, creation is not programmed for our maximum worldly comfort and benefit. His experience as a scientist makes this clear. But to back this assertion, he also calls as biblical witness the book of Genesis and, more specifically, the book of Job. He also reminds us of St Paul writing about creation "groaning and travailing" (Romans 3.22). So the words of Jesus in our Saying simply underline this teaching. In this life, "tribulation" is essentially part of the deal.

By way of balance we have two firmly positive facts. First, that Jesus (the Christ of God) in his living and dying has overcome the world. He could only do this because of his God- connectedness. This relationship (explored in the Father/Son metaphor) gave him to understand the "World" as sub-ordinate to the "Spirit". The physical creation is impermanent and secondary, the "Any Other Business" in God's agenda. This is the attitude of the Old Testament prophets, and also of the Spirit-filled Christian Church of the New Testament. The more we are able ourselves to cultivate this attitude towards the "Cosmos" (St John's word for "World"), the less we need to be bothered with the question "Why" when we come to deal with suffering.

The second positive biblical fact which helps us to adopt this attitude in the face of tribulation is our faith. Again, it is St John who clearly makes this point in his first letter: This is the victory that conquers the world, our faith (1 John 5.4). Faith in this context is not a private and cosy assurance of God's existence, but deeply-held conviction of the reality of God in the face of adversity.

*The book is not easy reading and perhaps should carry the subtitle Towards a theology of science. It is nevertheless a useful and creative contribution towards the discussion of religion and science.