10 July 2020

Nicholas of Cusa invented a game which he called ‘The Game of Spheres’. He  wrote  a book about it in the form of a conversation with two young people. It  is both playful and creative.

The game consists of nine concentric circles and a wooden ball which is concave in the centre. The object of the game is to throw the ball so that it makes a path round these concentric circles and hopefully into the centre.

This game …  represents the movement of our soul from its kingdom to the kingdom of life in which is peace and eternal happiness.’ explains Cusa. Jesus, the king and giver of life, is in the centre. If the player gets to the centre, he will gain the maximum number of points – the years of Christ’s life.

Each player makes his own unique path as he journeys towards the centre of life. Playing the game gives Cusa the opportunity to instruct the young men about God, the Creation, Christ, the body and soul. The dialogue format is in keeping with the spontaneity and improvisational nature of a game. There’s much laughter.

Cusa never loses sight of the value inherent in the game nor the value  of life itself. The book concludes with the assertion that everything has value. The cause of all value is hidden in the centre of all the circles. This is God and he is the one who gives everything its proper value.

9 July 2020

Towards the end of his life, Nicholas of Cusa was invited by the Pope  to examine the Qur’an to assist him in writing a letter to the Sultan Mehmet II. In ‘Sifting the Qur’an’ (1461), Cusanus is sympathetic to Islam and  shows  that the Qur’an ‘contains the Christian message of salvation, albeit unclearly and incompletely’.

Some have considered that a late fifteenth century painting in Sassoferrato, Italy was inspired by this quest for unity. Three robed men are sitting together with a book  on a bench. They  each represent a different religion – Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Judaism looks towards the other two with book slightly opened. Christianity is in the middle teaching Islam about the Trinity. Whereas Islam’s book is locked shut, Christianity’s book is open wide. An animal lingers in the shadows beside Islam.

Surprisingly, all three figures have haloes. They are all imbued with holiness. They are all seated on the same level and share this level of equality. The beast shadowing Islam is a challenge to the overall harmony celebrated in the painting.

For Cusa both the Qur’an and Mohammed possess two faces, just as in the painting the demonic tempter is juxtaposed with the halo’s saintly light.’ writes Walter Andreas Euler. Later, he suggests that ‘Cusa considers the Qur’an to present a sort of hidden gospel’. This was a singular position to adopt in the middle of the fifteenth century eight years after the Ottomans seized Constantinople!

8 July 2020

Nicholas of Cusa was a German cardinal in the pre-Reformation Church. He wrote extensively on theology and also mathematics. Sometimes he used mathematical images to illustrate what he was writing about. This is one of his favourites.

Consider a circle with a polygon inscribed within it, he suggests. The more angles the polygon has, the greater its resemblance to the circle and the more it grows into it. However, no matter how great the number of angles, it will never equal the circle.

‘So the intellect, which is not truth, never comprehends truth so precisely but that it could always be comprehended with infinitely more precision.’ he writes. ‘The intellect is related to truth as a polygon to a circle.’

And so it’s clear that the one thing we know about the truth is that ‘it cannot be comprehended precisely as it is’. As Christians, we know this for Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.’ There is no way in which finite human beings can comprehend fully that which is infinite!

7 July 2020

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prolific nineteenth century poet famously remembered more for her marriage to the poet, Robert Browning than her own prodigious output. Not only was it vast and celebrated but it put her in the running for Poet Laureate after Wordsworth died. As it happens, Tennyson was awarded the post.

Her ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ are among her best poems. They include, ‘How do I love thee?’ In the poem, she counts the ways – to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, freely, purely, with passion and in conclusion,  ‘I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears, of all my life; and if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death.’

Throughout her life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was concerned about injustice and wrote poems about child labour in Victorian society and lent her support to the abolitionists in America. She wrote them a poem entitled, ‘A Curse for a Nation’.

An angel comes to her and asks the poet to write about the injustice of slavery. She is reluctant and makes excuses not least that she is a woman and has only known, ‘How the heart melts and the tears run down’. But that’s precisely the perspective that the angel wants! And so she writes:

Because yourselves are standing straight
In the state
Of Freedom’s foremost acolyte,
Yet keep calm footing all the time
On writhing bond-slaves, — for this crime
This is the curse. Write.

It was a courageous stance to take. Both her maternal and paternal families had earned great wealth from their slave-owning interests in the sugar-plantations of Jamaica. By the time she wrote the poem, she did not fear her father’s wrath. She had already been disinherited by him when she married Browning – and so was not stained by the family blood money!

6 July 2020

The Church Times reported the results of a survey done across the membership of the Church of England re the coronavirus and the effects of the lockdown on its members. Much ground was covered including the use of technology.

Most people welcomed the way the Church had embraced the digital age, recognising that online worship was ‘a great tool’ and social media was useful both as a pastoral and evangelical tool. However, further analysis looked at those who made these positive responses.

Apparently, support for the virtual Church was stronger among women rather than men, lay ministers rather than clergy and laity  and Evangelicals rather than Anglo-Catholics. But the biggest surprise was that greater support for the virtual Church came from people in their forties and fifties.

I would have expected the older age group not to be so supportive and this was true of the over sixties. However, it was also true of the under forties! Perhaps the pool of people responding in this category was smaller and less significant or perhaps there was an aspect of the virtual Church which alienated people perhaps families with young children?

Not with standing these results, there was little enthusiasm for online worship replacing offline worship. ‘Just  2% of clergy and 3% of laity considered that virtual contact was as good as meeting face-to-face.’ In fact, 90% thought that face-to-face contact would  be valued even more after the lockdown. And I agree.

The lockdown has created a very unreal world. Sometimes it is difficult to discern what is real in the world presented to us by the politicians. Social media clearly assists in the production of fake news and helps  promote unreal views and perspectives.

The Church should be celebrating what is real not least in its worship. All that is essential is the Book, the basin, the Table, water, bread and wine. They are all real. We can touch, taste, smell, hear and see them. And, above all, the flesh and blood of its people.

According to the writer to the Hebrews, we are instructed not to be neglectful about meeting together. And for good reason.  It’s in the place where the Church is made visible  that we exercise a ministry of encouragement and celebrate the flesh and blood which was embodied by the baby laid in the manger, the King killed on a cross.

5 July 2020

Last week, I was asked to prepare a sermon for  the website worship for Tayport. It is based on the Gospel to be found in today’s lectionary readings – St. Matthew 11;16-19, 25-30.  The film was made using my i-phone attached to a stand belonging to my younger son, sitting on top of a ladder and supported by three assorted books to stabilise and square off the picture!


4 July 2020

Pamela, our daughter-in-law, has just appeared on the front pages of the Dundee Courier. She is wearing a face mask which has been produced by the City Council. It has a twofold purpose. The first is to welcome people back into the city centre where face coverings are becoming mandatory. The other is as a charity initiative.

The fancy masks are going to be sold for £6 each. The proceeds will be used to fund the production of face masks for local community groups and food banks. Already Dundee based businesses have bought into this community initiative.

We were excited by the photograph because Pamela designed the face mask for this Council venture. She has tied the design into the Sunny Dundee initiative. Two years ago, yellow rimmed sun glasses were distributed as an encouragement to revitalise the city centre.

Apparently, Dundee is the sunniest city in Scotland and it’s holding  on to this reputation in Pamela’s design. The mask is yellow with a series of faces sporting the ‘Sunny Dundee’ sunglasses. There are many faces – and some of them are  upside down!

You have to admire a Council which is looking at innovative but practical ways to generate a more vital community and to do that in such a fun, charitable and artistic way. For this has brought an innovative commission to one of the city’s artists.

The arts have  suffered as much if not more than other parts of our national life. On the other hand, those endowed with creativity are best placed to think of new ways to be artistic, enrich the life of others and  become  a more understanding  community. Artists have the potential to lead our nation. Through imagination and innovation, they help us see what is  beyond the horizon of the lockdown and even Sunny Dundee!


3 July 2020

Recently, Maddy Fry wrote an article for the Church Times entitled, ‘Anti-racism focus turns on church statues’. The big players like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral have begun to examine their memorials in the light of Black Lives Matter.

Apparently, Westminster Abbey has more than 3,000 tombs and memorials. These include the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I who is described as ‘a patron of the early slave trade’ and Prime Minister Gladstone who defended slavery.

There are two prevailing views. One is the removal of memorials which are considered offensive. The other is the contextualisation of  the offending memorials. The status quo isn’t an option and, I imagine, the Deans will be afraid of vandalism on the one hand and falling visitor numbers on the other.

Education should be a primary focus. History shouldn’t be denied nor airbrushed out of our ken. This is an opportunity to open up discussion and to explore the sins of our forebears and to be reminded of what human beings are capable of doing in the exercise of power and the creation of wealth.

But if education is our first priority, the second should be the acknowledgement that these memorials are located in a House of God for good reason.  It’s not  their philanthropy, leadership or genius that is celebrated now. It is their sinfulness.

They are supreme  exemplars of a common humanity, sinful human beings, representatives of every human heart for whom Christ died and for whom St. Paul would certainly say, if he said  of no other,  ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’

2 July 2020

‘The Long View’ on Radio 4 featured Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University. He was being interviewed about two pandemics which affected England in 1551 and 1558. The former was called ‘The Sweat’ and the latter was a strain of influenza.

Edward VI was on the throne during ‘The Sweat’. Protestantism was in the ascendancy. The land was divided by religion. The Catholics interpreted the pandemic as a judgement on Protestantism. The Protestants thought that they were being judged for not doing enough to establish the new religion.

By the time the flu arrived, Mary Tudor was on the throne. She was a Roman Catholic. During this pandemic, a fifth of the population died. At the start, the future looked Catholic but two things happened. Firstly, Mary died and Elizabeth ascended the throne. She was Protestant.

Secondly, and surprisingly, the flu affected the Catholic ruling class more than the Protestants. This was partially due to the fact that they were in the older age group. They had been in power in 1533 when Henry made his break from Rome. When Mary brought them back into play at her ascension, they were twenty-five years older!

This was a huge gift to Protestantism. And, although Elizabeth was aligned to the new church, she had a much freer run than would have been the case had more powerful Catholics survived. No one is suggesting for a moment that God was involved in the intricate details of this development.

Why should God favour one denomination or intervene to save a minister rather than an archbishop? ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.’ said Job. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Good and bad befall us in unequal measure. The first step to understanding this mystery is humility born of  awe.

1 July 2020

Jim Peebles is the emeritus Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University. Last year, he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics ‘for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos’.

In a recent article in the New Scientist, he summarises his life’s work and the development of what has become known as the standard model of cosmology. His article is entitled, ‘Have we got it Right?’ And his answer is a surprising ‘as far as it goes’.

There are two problems with this theory. The first is the existence of a constant which was incorporated into Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’. Strangely enough, the constant hasn’t remained constant. Einstein  incorporated it to reflect a static universe. When this proved to be wrong, he adjusted it.

Since then, the constant has been adjusted further. What does it mean to have a constant which doesn’t remain constant? And how is it feasible to incorporate a constant to balance up your equations and change it when the theory changes too? Is this using mathematics as a prop rather than a means of discerning the truth?

The second is the assumption that most matter comes in a ‘dark’ form which has yet to be detected. It was Peebles who introduced what he calls ‘the mystery elements of dark matter’ into this understanding of the cosmos.

In his article, he informs us that certain measurements which have been taken do not contradict the existence of dark matter but not every measurement supports it. Some of his initial assumptions have required adjustment. This is to be expected in a theory.

The constant and the dark matter are related to each other. They represent a weakness in the theory. After forty years, one might expect to discover dark matter especially since there is more of it than the matter which we do know. What does this say about the real matter we know and reality itself?

Isn’t it possible that what is lacking in the development of these theories about how the universe and especially the earth was created is the omission of any theological dimension. The Bible talks a lot about truth. ‘I am the Truth.’ says Jesus and reality. ‘Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven’. This is our ‘Theory of Everything’.