Wednesday, 20 November 2013


To the angel of the church at Laodicea write, ‘ … I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish you were either hot or cold! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.’  Revelation ch 3, vv 14-16

One way of dividing people up is according to their religious allegiances – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Atheist, and so on. Another is to divide them according to the way they approach their religious allegiances: nominal, cultural, secular, dissident, practising, liberal, orthodox, fundamentalist, militant for example. Encouraged by religious leaders, we tend to assume that it is the allegiances that really matter; if you are a Christian of any style, we assume, you must be closer to all other Christians than to any Muslims or Hindus. Along with this there often goes a suspicion among non-fundamentalists of any religious allegiance that their fundamentalist co-religionists are somehow more committed to the religion than they are themselves – that their own faith is somehow just a watered down version of the full strength religion of the fundamentalists. They may feel distinctly uncomfortable about some of the more extreme expressions of fundamentalism, yet be unable to say clearly, even to themselves, that they reject fundamentalism when it is the fundamentalism of their co-religionists. It’s almost always the fundamentalist wing of other people’s religions that frighten us, not that of our own. But maybe this is exactly wrong; maybe the greatest threat to any group’s own religious tradition comes not from outside but from their own fundamentalists.
And certainly fundamentalists of every allegiance think less of their non-fundamentalist co-religionists for what they would characterise as their lukewarmness. They see them as making unacceptable compromises with the world of unbelievers merely for the sake of a quiet life here-and-now. Yet such lukewarm co-religionists are not quite so far outside the fundamentalists’ pale as those who belong to a different religion; maybe it would be a much greater leap from one religion to another than from lukewarmness to fundamentalism; surely it wouldn’t take all that much to turn a lukewarm Christian into a fundamentalist one. But maybe this too is exactly the wrong way of looking at the matter; maybe, for example, dissident Christians have more in common with dissident Muslims than they have with fundamentalist Christians, who in turn may have more in common with fundamentalist Muslims than with their formal co-religionists. Maybe it’s objectively easier to make the leap from, say, being fundamentalist Christian to being fundamentalist Muslim, or from liberal Hindu to liberal Christian, than to change your style of religion, from liberal to fundamentalist for example.
Perhaps we are talking here about individual psychology as much as about cultural and social influences; perhaps what unites fundamentalists of every kind is a lack of understanding, an apprehension or even an outright fear of how the world is changing. Fundamentalists are keen to get back to the foundations of their religion, and two words there ought to give us pause: ‘back’ and ‘foundations’. As a pilgrim people, we can go only forward from where we really are now; back there is where we have come from, not where we are going. To want to stay where we are, let alone to want to go back, shows a lack of courage, a lack of faith. We might not agree about what direction we ought to take from here, but that’s a different discussion. And ‘foundations’ gives us the wrong picture, of a building whose shape and stability once established must owe little or nothing to the inspiration or creativity or changed circumstances of later builders. If this is right, we need, first to reject decisively Christian fundamentalism, and then to learn far more than we generally do about our fellow non-fundamentalists in non-Christian religions, about their religious customs and their ways-of-speaking about spiritual matters.
It has sometimes been observed that converts to any religion are often ‘more Catholic than the Pope’. Unlike most birthright members of a religion, they know – or think they know – exactly why they have converted. They can’t help seeing their pre-conversion views as wrong and perhaps evil rather than merely different and maybe misguided or just underdeveloped. They also have to show their new co-religionists how keen they are in their new religion. For all these reasons, converts have a marked tendency towards fundamentalism. That may be in itself a good reason not to encourage conversion – the making of an abrupt change of religious allegiance – but rather to encourage ‘developmentalism’. I’d rather see Muslims developing their understanding of Islam to take account of what they learn from other religions and ways-of-thinking, including the scientific method, and still praying in the mosque, than see them converting to Christianity. For the same reason, I’d prefer to see birthright Christians being encouraged by the churches to develop their inherited religion to take account of new understanding and new circumstances rather than being driven by church inertia and stubbornness towards a possibly ‘fundamentalist’ Atheism. And in both cases, ‘developing’ will mean discarding old ideas as well as adopting new ones – exactly what fundamentalist cannot bring themselves to do.
We might ask which approach might be favoured by the Jesus who could see past the Good Samaritan’s bastardised Jewish religion to his human kindness; the Jesus who quarrelled with his extremely observant, one might say ‘fundamentalist’, fellow Jews, the Pharisees; the Jesus for whom the Sabbath had to have human utility. And also the Jesus who carefully showed how his approach to faith built on, but crucially went beyond, his inherited Judaism. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would find himself in the ‘developmentalist’ rather than the ‘fundamentalist’ camp. If you think you take notice of what Jesus said – as distinct from what St Paul said he was – I don’t think you can be a fundamentalist. The real Jesus demands your attention, not your worship. 


I am astonished to find that you are … following a different gospel. Not that there is in fact another gospel; only there are persons who unsettle your minds by trying to distort the gospel of Christ.  Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, ch1  vv6,7

The lives of Jesus of Nazareth and Socrates have often been compared. Both stood in and carried forward a long tradition of thinking about life within their own culture. Both gathered followers who were keen to hear what they had to say. Their teaching methods, if not absolute innovations, were refreshingly stimulating. Both accepted execution by the authorities of their city as the consistent with their teaching. But not the least suggestive similarity is that neither of them seems to have written down his teaching; both were content to leave whether or not they would be known beyond their own here-and-now to chance and other people. And inevitably in writing down their heroes’ ideas and teaching, their followers refracted them through their own preoccupations and even their own agendas. Paul of Tarsus, who was principally responsible for causing Jesus to be known to history, naturally founded a religion because he came from a devoutly religious background; by contrast Socrates’ publicist, Plato, was from the academy not the temple and equally naturally founded a school of thought.
                After so many centuries during which Jesus has been the central figure in a major religion and whose sayings have consequently been interpreted in an essentially religious fashion, it’s hard to uncouple him and his teaching from what we understand as conventional religion. But suppose for a moment that the person who had brought Jesus to our notice had, like Plato but unlike Paul, actually not only heard his hero teaching but had also not been any more than conventionally devout. There might be a bit of a paradox here: if Jesus’s teaching was all that interesting to non-religious listeners, why didn’t one of them write it down? It’s possible that some of Jesus’s sayings were indeed collected by people uninfluenced by Paul’s religious view of Jesus and that bits of those collections found their way into the synoptic gospels, but it’s certainly true that the records we have of his life and teaching were written in a church created by Paul and permeated by Pauline thought. But then, there have surely been great and original teachers of whom we know nothing because no-one wrote up their teaching. Of course in both cases we have to try to make allowances for the preoccupations and agendas of those who wrote up the teacher’s ideas, Plato on the one hand and Paul’s Christian followers on the other. This is hazardous and to some extent speculative. As it’s Jesus I’m principally interested in, let me outline the main assumptions that guide me in doing this for his teaching. Paul knew nothing of Jesus’s teaching, so when they agree on something surprising that wasn’t part of common culture, it’s pretty certain that Jesus is being made to say something that originated in Paul’s thinking and beliefs. When Jesus is quoted as saying something that was distinctively religious that contrasts with something innovative that he says elsewhere, I prefer the innovative saying to the religious one. When explanations for Jesus’s parables are offered, I reject them on the grounds that the point of telling parables was to encourage people to develop their understanding – and surely not to bamboozle them, as some gospel accounts suggest.
                And when all these allowances have been made, what does the Jesus teaching look like as it might have been passed on to us by a Plato rather than by Pauline Christians? Religious certainly, to the extent that a concept of divinity is integral to it; but the way that divinity is re-pictured as father is full of important implications, including that misfortune is not a divine punishment. Jesus clearly had some serious reservations about religion and its effect on religiously observant people, which is one reason he addresses his fellow Jews rather than humanity generally. You certainly wouldn’t call him conventionally pious. He was well aware of the richness and value of many ordinary, not-particularly-religious lives.  He thought that people should aim to become makarios, happy, and that the means of achieving this is not to follow rules or to be hell-bent on getting rich, but to shape our dispositions so that we could live imaginatively and creatively in our relationships with other people. Care and commitment trump shared religion and tribal identity as the basis for relationships. We would be foolish to allow these relationships to break down over injuries and slights, if that is at all avoidable. We should not be censorious about other people’s lives because that poisons relationships. For the good of society, we should respond to good turns done to us by doing good turns to others, and not just those to whom we are indebted. The natural and social world around us is worth observing for the suggestive, practical insights it offers into how life works. There is no need to give up on our lives, however pear-shaped they may have gone; it’s always possible to turn your life around by developing dispositions that support positive living. The worst thing anyone can do is to set children off on a path that will limit their flourishing.
There’s more of course but that’s a fair summary of the thrust of Jesus’s teaching, and it all seems very commonplace, you might think. You’d be right. But it’s worth thinking about why it’s all very commonplace, because it didn’t have to be; societies as well as individuals have existed and do exist that question at least some of these principles. These principles are commonplace because they have been preached and been found to work in the sense of shaping a society that humans generally find it desirable to live in. That preaching has been spearheaded by the church, despite its many faults and its overlay of Pauline theology. But what really matters is not who keeps insisting on the Jesus principles: it is rather that they continue to be promulgated as a firm basis for flourishing human life. On the evidence of his life, I doubt if Jesus would care whether or not you attributed them to him.


… he [your Father who is in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew ch5 v45
In my college, the grace we used before meals was ‘Benedic nos, Domine, haec donum tuum, Per Jesum Christum, Dominum nostrum. Amen’: ‘O Lord, bless this your gift to us’. This could suggest that if you don’t believe in a God-out-there, there is no need to think of the good things that have come your way as having a gift-like character. You could then take them for granted instead, and maybe come to believe that you deserved the good things in your life, that you were entitled to them, that they are in some absolute sense ‘yours’. Greed, pride, arrogance, wastefulness, luxury, overweening ambition – most of the traditional ‘deadly sins’ in fact – arise from this one cause. Of course resolving to devote our time, energy and ability to trying to succeed in some endeavour makes it more likely that we will succeed and to that extent deserve to succeed. But the fact that we had the resolution, time, energy and ability in the first place is undeserved; these things, like life itself, come to us undeserved, like a gracious gift. In absolute terms, we deserve nothing. Understanding this is a personally and socially important corrective to the idea that what we get, we deserved.
But there is no need to believe in a God-out-there to understand that in an absolute sense none of us deserves what we get in life. What we most obviously don’t deserve is what we inherit from our ancestors or predecessors, including but not limited to life itself. And if the good things that come our way have a gift-like character, our first response to receiving them should surely have a gratitude-like character. In our everyday lives, saying Thank-you can be a handy way of encouraging a giver to give again, and more; but such cynicism, as well as implying a giver we can manipulate, misses the subjective value of gratitude: expressing gratitude makes us more aware of how fortunate we are and how wonderful are the things we have received, and that in itself enhances the value of those things. Whatever we take for granted is thereby devalued for us, which is only one reason why the old suggestion that we ‘Count our blessings’ is such good advice. The challenge is to find ways of counting our blessings that does not imply beliefs we do not have: systematically reviewing each day’s satisfactions at the day’s end might be one way; another might be to note down the good things in our lives as they come to us.
Our proper response to this understanding is to feel that the good things that have come our way are to be shared as well as enjoyed, to be employed in the service of others as well as of ourselves. We have no absolute right to withhold our gifts from others – hence Jesus’s encouragement to ‘go the second mile’. But the Jesus teaching does not say we have a duty to not enjoy what we have been given. Sometimes people who understand that they do not deserve what they have, come to think that they ought to give it all up. This is a mistake, not least because, short of suicide, we cannot give up everything that we do not deserve. It’s also a mistake because it suggests the idea of a duty to obey a rule, and so comes dangerously close to a surrender to a legalistic outlook. Maybe Jesus’s challenge to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that he had (presumably) inherited and give the proceeds to the poor was a way of reminding him that he no more deserved his great wealth than the poor deserved their poverty, and reminding him too that that understanding had implications he needed to think about rather than just ask for instructions.
Religion is sometimes accused of promoting pious quiescence among society’s have-nots: be grateful for what you have and don’t try to get more from the rich and powerful. Certainly religion has sometimes done that, whether deliberately or accidentally. But to recall that the good things that have come our way are in essence gracious gifts not just our desserts is implicitly to claim that the wealth and power of the rich and powerful have the same character. To demand a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth and power is simply to demand that the rich and powerful acknowledge the same truth. But it can turn out to be an awkward truth: any successful demand for a more equitable distribution on these grounds must, if it is not to look like a tawdry excuse for simple envy, be followed by a continuing commitment to distribution that takes account of the gracious-gift character of the good things we enjoy. It has to be said that in practice political revolutionaries often forget this.
You might say that the Jesus teaching asks us to strike a balance between using the gifts that have come our way for our own benefit and using them for the benefit of others, but that’s not quite right. We can enjoy what we have been given, and enjoy it all the more if we remember, or, even better, want, to share it with others. So it’s not a zero-sum game or even a 50:50 deal. If we invest what we have been given in our relationships with other people, particularly those with whom we interact directly, the reward will be greater than the investment. Taking this completely seriously takes a lot of faith; most of us, I guess, hedge our bets to a greater or lesser extent. But to the extent that we can dare, and can be bothered, to make this investment we do in fact benefit from doing so on the only scale that in the end really matters: we become more makarios, more blessed, happier.


Then Jesus gave them a parable in these words, “Once upon a time a rich man’s farmland produced heavy crops. So he said to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have no room to store this harvest of mine?’ Then he said, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll pull down my barns and build bigger ones where I can store all my grain and my goods and I can say to my soul, Soul, you have plenty of good things stored up there for years to come. Relax! Eat, drink and have a good time!’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this very night you will be asked for your soul! Then, who is going to possess all that you have prepared?’” Luke ch 12, vv16-20

‘You can’t take it with you’ is a commonplace reminder of an obvious and important fact albeit one that it’s all-too-easy to forget in the press and excitement of life. But it’s sometimes nothing more than an incitement to spend recklessly, whereas this parable makes a rather different point. Christian teaching naturally connects the parable with the idea of a life after death, and asks what the naked soul will have to say by way of justifying itself when it arrives in heaven with nothing to show for having lived on earth except the memory of wealth that has been left behind. That’s well and good if you believe in life after death; the danger is that it you don’t, such teaching would seem to licence exactly the kind of life that the parable warns against. If you aren’t going to have to justify yourself in a Last Judgement scene after you’re dead, why not just ‘eat, drink and be merry’ or dedicate your life to the pursuit of wealth? The answer I think lies in the words in the parable: ‘Tonight your life will be required of you’. This envisages someone who on their deathbed – and we can’t always be sure when we’re on our deathbed – who is challenged to see what their life amounts to. This is not a parable about life after death: it’s a parable about the meaning of our lives before we die.
                In trying to grasp the meaning of our lives, we might usefully audit them now by asking three questions. The first is, ‘How have I contributed to the life of the world?’ But, you may ask, why contribute anything? Well, part of being human is that we can feel and respond to the awesomeness of our environment, and of our human life and society; not to respond appropriately is therefore in a sense to deny our humanity. So this is not about what we ‘should’ do, or about our ‘duties’; it is about what it is to be optimally human. Nor of course is it about making contributions that make us honoured or famous or rich, though they might; it is about making contributions that genuinely engage us in life, whether through our jobs, our voluntary work, our family life, our art or whatever. And the judgement as to whether we have been genuinely engaged in life is not one that is made outside of ourselves; it is a judgement that no-one but ourselves is qualified to make.
                The second question is, ‘What quality of love have my relationships attained?’ Or: Who will miss me, and who would I miss, if death intervened between us? If the answer is ‘No-one’, not only will our deathbed be unhappy, but we’ll be living an unfulfilling life just now. But this is less about the quantity as about the quality of our human relationships; a few deep, long-lasting relationships are worth more than many more superficial ones. Being able to have such loving relationships is a key human characteristic, quite as important as speech or tool-making; despite our human ancestry, we wouldn’t be living a characteristically human life if we didn’t talk or make and use tools, and the same applies to loving relationships.
                The last deathbed question is, ‘What have I learned in the course of my life?’ I don’t mean school-learning, though sometimes that may help. Nor do I necessarily mean consciously learned, though again we may sometimes find it helpful to bring to consciousness what we have learned. I mean principally, ‘To what extent have I been able to absorb the many lessons that life has offered me and allowed that to influence my life – my private and public behaviour, my talk, my views, my art?’ To put it yet another way, ‘What truths about how to live well as a human being would I want to pass on to the next generation?’ Human beings don’t live blindly, guided purely by unconscious instincts; we look beyond the here and the now to the wider world, and to the past and the future; we learn what works and what doesn’t work; we observe patterns; we may try to find better ways of doing things. We haven’t stopped having animal instincts, and we’d no longer be human if we had, but we can to some extent understand, use and even control them to serve our conscious purposes, including our desire to make a contribution to human life and to have close, loving relationships. What we learn about life thus helps to make us more vividly human.
Note that all this is about responding – to awesomeness, to love and to truth. It’s not about something that originates within ourselves. Our response is our own; the stimulus is not. Maybe this is part of what religious people mean by saying that ‘God’ is outside of us, even if they also try to remember that ‘God’ is also within us, where among other things judgement happens. This is the last judgement we all face, before a judge who knows all about what we have been and done. That is not necessarily our conscious mind. We can try to delude ourselves about the answers to these deathbed questions, and we may to some extent succeed; but whatever we might like to tell ourselves, somewhere in our hearts the truth is always known. An easy death is not just a pain-free death; it is the death of someone whose heart, and maybe also whose mind, knows there are positive answers to the deathbed questions.


Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’ Matthew ch 8 v22

Over the years and decades, Remembrance Day inevitably changes because what participants remember changes. When it was first held back in 1920, everyone remembered relations, friends and comrades who had died in the Great War; until about 2010, there were still quite a lot of people who could use those two silent minutes to remember people who had mattered to them and who had died in the Second World War. But both those wars and their one-and-a-quarter million combatant deaths are rapidly ceasing to be things that people can actually ‘remember’; already in 2013 you have to be about 80 at least to have any personal memories of even the Korean footnote to the Second World War. In the seven decades since 1945, Britain has lost about 6000 service personnel in action, and never in a war that directly threatened the UK; the acute sense of personal loss occasioned by those deaths is inevitably a matter essentially of private rather than community reflection. Consequently, as a community event, Remembrance Day is in danger of becoming Armed Forces Day with hymns. But ‘remembrance’ is not only about people we can personally remember; it is also, and must increasingly be, about important things that the two world wars taught us that we must not forget.
                The British community that marked that first Remembrance Day in 1920 was in a communal state of shock, as indeed was much of Europe. Over the previous six years they had discovered to their surprise and horror what modern industrialised warfare was like. In the summer of 1914, there had been real enthusiasm for the war; young men had rushed to join up before Christmas, when it was all supposed to be over. For practical purposes, everyone had forgotten the several million Europeans who died as a result of the long French Wars a century earlier; there had been no institution to keep that memory alive. The Great War lasted over four years, and saw over 17 million killed or missing, mostly in horrific circumstances in indecisive combat. And all for very little, apparently: no great principles were at stake, and neither side had won anything remotely worth the price that had been paid in blood and treasure. The community that gathered to remember in 1920 was chastened, shocked, and grieving. They had learned things we must remember on Remembrance Day: that you have to be careful over where your blithe enthusiasms and shaky assumptions can lead you; that the bolder the initiative, the more unpredictable the outcome; that seemingly inevitable decisions can cause catastrophic damage that no-one would have wanted; that industrialised war can produce casualties on an industrial scale.
Only twenty years later, many of those same people faced with their children the possibility of another war with, first, denial, then with horror, and finally with stoicism. They knew pretty well what was in store for them; they believed that ‘the bomber will always get through’; they understood the unpredictability of war. Yet they also knew that sooner or later the totalitarian regimes that had been created by the previous war and the failed settlement that followed it would have to be confronted. They – or at least their leaders – decided that the overtly racist and openly expansionist Nazi regime had to be confronted first, and the German invasion of Poland was the line in the sand. For well over a year, they faced defeat alone – yet they soldiered on. And in the end, as it happened, they were victorious: it was Nazism and its allies that were defeated, though the Cold War with Communism stretched decades into the future. Not only that: they applied the lessons of the 1920s in their treatment of their defeated enemies, partly no doubt on the prudential grounds that allies were needed against Communism, but partly too because they knew where the stringency of the Versailles Treaty had led. In the 1950s and 60s, I grew up with Remembrance Days when people around me not only remembered their war dead, but also quietly celebrated the part they had played in the defeat of a real and terrible evil. Their war had been a war worth fighting, even a war it was worth risking losing. They too had learned things we must remember today: that some evils are so appalling and so contagious that they have to be confronted at all costs, even if that means war with all its horror, slaughter and uncertainty; that perseverance in the darkest days really is a virtue; that magnanimity in victory is prudent as well as morally attractive; that democracy is the least-worst form of government available.
                As a community, we cannot today share the shock, the loss or the pride of the years after 1920 and 1945 except in imagination. Not that the exercise of the imagination is futile; being able to empathise with the experiences and feelings of other people, even dead other people, is a characteristic of humanity. But it would be all-too-easy for that exercise in empathy to drain away into uselessly empty sentimentality, or – worse – political manipulation. We need to allow the sombre mood of Remembrance Day to affect our dispositions so that we don’t have to try very hard to apply the lessons so dearly learned through the two World Wars.
                There will no doubt come a time when we have to re-think Remembrance Day. It could be around the 2020 centenary of the first one, or maybe when the last survivors of the generation that were children in 1945 have passed away. ‘Re-think’, note: not, ‘abandon’. We will still be able to make good use of an annual event when we encourage each other to reflect with penitence, sorrow and gratitude on the causes, processes and outcomes of wars, particularly of the major wars of yesterday that created the environment in which today’s society developed. And, having looked back, to reflect on the many lessons that those upheavals ought to entrench in our minds as we deal with the issues of today and tomorrow. It is of those reflections that we will always need to say, ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them’. We must remember them. 

Thursday, 25 July 2013


To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers…   Luke ch18 vv9-11

The Pharisee in this story has fallen into a trap that beckons many religious folk. He knows he keeps the rules pretty well; certainly he doesn’t commit the more flagrant offences against the Ten Commandments – theft, murder, adultery, lying. This leads him to think that he is ‘not like other men’ – thieves, murderers, adulterers, liars. It’s not just that he behaves differently; it’s that he is different, existentially different, from other men. The real source of such a sense of being different may often be racial or religious, and in the case of this first century Jew was probably both. But whatever its source it usually brings with it a feeling that you have to stay different, by obeying the rules that go along with your sense of being different. It can work the other way too: by learning to be obedient to the rules, you can come to feel an existential superiority over other people. Of course it doesn’t need to be expressed, and usually isn’t expressed, with quite such brutal frankness as the story attributes to this Pharisee, obviously for the sake of making the point.
Such an attitude of superiority, however well hidden, causes real difficulties for those who hold it. In the first place, it makes it very hard for the rule-keeper to break the rules, whatever the circumstances, because to do so would be to become a different person, not just the same person behaving differently in different circumstances. There are many occasions – and we won’t always agree about what they are – when it might be appropriate for a person to break one of the cardinal rules. But the existentially superior rule keeper can’t recognise any of them, because if he did he would cease to recognise himself. This leads to his second difficulty: if, acting under some wild impulse that he can’t control, he does break one of the cardinal rules and thus ceases to recognise himself, he may not then be able to see any reason why, now that he is not the man he was, he should not systematically break every rule in the book. After all, he has now become like other men, a Sinner; that’s his new existential identity. What he may not be able to see is what the Jesus teaching often hints at: occasional rule-breakers are not in fact comprehensive, principled rule-breakers: they are just ordinary people, doing their best to find a way through the complexities of human desires, human relationships and social pressures.
                The rule-keeper may be very aware of social pressures, but he’s often a good deal less alert to human desires and relationships. The purpose of social rules is to try to keep human desires in check so that they don’t cause social chaos; if the desires weren’t there, there wouldn’t be any need for the rules. This all gets obscured for the principled rule-keeper: for him, the rules aren’t just social tools that lack any higher status; they are rather God-given orders that need no social utility to justify them. Seeing the rules in that light makes it possible for the principled rule-keeper to overlook the fact that he, like ‘other men’, has lots of desires that need rules to keep them in check; he can pretend to himself that he is ‘pure’ not merely in his actions but in his desires. That is presumably Jesus’s point in saying that when a man looks lustfully at a woman – and which of us has not? – has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (I apologise for the sexism inherent in the language I’m using here; ancient Thinkers, Jesus included, were men who rarely showed much interest in or insight into the crucial differences between women and men.) Paradoxically therefore this rule-keeper who can’t break rules for fear of no longer recognising himself in fact has very limited insight into who he is: he thinks he’s really pure in heart, and therefore not at all like other men.
                Now if there’s a guaranteed way of damaging your relationships with other people, it is to think that those other people are existentially inferior to you, and have impure desires you don’t have, as is proved by their willingness, even if only occasionally, to break those God-given rules. This may be obscured. Rule-keepers can be really very nice people; after all, the rules they are keeping with such religious zeal were originally intended to keep society running smoothly, so of course such people are unlikely to upset their neighbours. But being really very nice and not troubling your neighbours is not a definition of having good, rich human relationships characterised by love. That requires that people meet as existential equals and take an interest in the differences between them. Thinking you are existentially superior gets in the way of accepting equality; being unaware of your own motivations gets in the way of a closeness that investigates and relishes differences. Those who think of others as does the Pharisee in the story make it practically impossible for themselves to have close, respectful human relationships. And since, as Jesus rightly implies, it is such relationships that lead to happiness, they are stuck in a state of unhappiness.
                Before asking what may to be done to help them, it’s worth saying that we all need to be very careful not to let children in our care grow up with a sense of existential superiority over their peers, backed up with strict rule-keeping. They need to be brought up to know they are ordinary kids who may sometimes break the rules and perhaps as a result of doing so develop a greater capacity for loving relationships and therefore real happiness. To give a child any other sense of him- or her-self is to deserve the millstone treatment. Fine: but what about the adults that children that were not given a sense of being ordinary kids grow into? To what extent is it possible to save them? The gospels do not record any example of a thorough-going Pharisee being helped by Jesus to get off his pedestal, and Paul succeeds only by embracing a set of beliefs that seem unavailable to us. Maybe the best start is the wonderful line that John attributes to Jesus: the truth will make you free. And the truth is that not one of us is existentially different from the rest of us, whoever they are and whatever they do.

Friday, 28 June 2013


You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Matthew ch5 v13

It’s impossible to overestimate either the awfulness of the Black Death in the late fourteenth century or its impact on European life. At least a third of the European population died in a few short years, and died quickly, within days of contracting an illness that was entirely mysterious. The disaster transformed the economy of Europe and, in time, its art and its politics, but what troubled religious people was that the desperate prayers of faithful Mother Church to a loving Father God had failed to avert the disaster. This proved to many of them that the church’s effectiveness was crippled by its corruption and that society had developed in ways that deserved God’s punishment; they felt that both church and society had to be changed radically. It took more than a century for the implications to fully sink in, but when they did, religious revolution was all but inevitable: we call it ‘the Reformation’.
                The western church of the middle ages was not in fact as hopeless as the reformers thought. There was indeed corruption, idleness and greed, but priests, monks and nuns had sometimes selflessly ministered to the victims of the Black Death, and there was plenty of theological creativity. Reform was needed, but what came was revolution which tried to sweep away even the most positive aspects of the medieval church. There are always those who are suspicious of theological creativity, and indeed it often takes some questionable forms, but without it theology has less and less to say to a constantly changing society, and eventually it serves no purpose at all. Whatever one thinks of for example the ideas of Peter Abelard or Thomas Aquinas, or the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary, it has to be said that these witnessed to a confident, even daring, liveliness in medieval church thinking. But this creativity as much as the corruption, idleness and greed were aspects of the church that had failed to avert the Black Death. The reformers therefore sought to go back to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as found in the New Testament in St Paul’s writings – writings, remember, that owed nothing directly to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and a quite a lot to Old Testament ideas that Jesus had overtaken. Moreover, they saw politics as the way to ensure that people could be saved from the errors that came with change, and indeed saved from change itself.  Seizing the political levers meant displacing the monarchs and aristocrats who had hitherto pulled them, and replacing them with ‘new men’. Consequently, the Reformation, like all fundamentalist revolutions, was simultaneously reactionary in theology but revolutionary in politics. The Province of Massachusetts Bay, Cromwell’s Protectorate in England and the Islamic Republic of Iran have much in common.
                The legacy of this fundamentalist revolution in western Christianity is still with us, which is one reason it’s important as well as interesting to understand it. The Reformation heritage of the USA continues to inform its domestic and foreign policies. The Catholic Church still struggles to get over the Counter-Reformation that was its inevitable reactionary response to the Reformation. Closer to home, the contribution of church people to British political debate about social issues frequently invokes religious doctrines that are two thousand or more years old and were developed in conditions that were unimaginably different from those of today. Perhaps what was most disastrous about the Reformation was not that it split the western church and in doing so started half a millennium of social and military strife, but rather that it stopped theological creativity and development and progress in their tracks. It’s an intriguing thought: if the Black Death had never happened, maybe we’d have long ago accepted that abortion, same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia could be accommodated within religious thinking as proper responses to changing understanding and circumstances – though of course the understanding and circumstances might have been very different from what they are.
                Over the last century or so great efforts have been made to promote the reunification of churches. I’m not sure that these efforts have not missed the point. Engineering institutional reunification, showing respect for each other’s differing histories and points-of-view and working together on social projects are neither the most necessary nor the most difficult things that need doing to correct the calamity of five hundred years ago. If the most valuable thing that the sixteenth century split put an end to was a theological creativity that placed theology in the vanguard of intellectual life and held open the possibility that the rise of science and the growth of European empires might inform and be informed by theological reflection, then clearly what we should be doing is to reintegrate theology into the wider cultural life, not now just of Europe, but of the planet. That means being as bold as some of the most theologically daring personalities of the medieval western church. And we have a great deal of lost time to make up for – almost five hundred years during which catholic and reformed branches of the western church have found themselves permanently dragging along the dead weight of Pauline or medieval theology through the mire of sixteenth century controversies. 
                It’s not that the church has nothing useful to say to the world; it is that so long as the church’s core thinking has not progressed beyond the sixteenth century anything useful is permanently compromised in the minds of the general public. Maybe the worry is that a church that abandoned positions taken up five hundred years ago in favour of ‘modernisation’ would then not be distinctive, would be just like everyone else of good will. It’s worth remembering that that’s very much like the thinking of the Jewish authorities who had Jesus executed. Followers of Jesus are not supposed to be in the business of being distinctive, any more than they are in the business of taking over the world; they are supposed to be in the business of being useful to the world. Like salt.

Thursday, 27 June 2013


Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,
in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Paul’s Letter to the Roman Church ch 8 vv 1-4

Early civilisations in the Middle East invented strict law as a means of dealing with social difficulties and disputes. It was often quite crude – ‘an eye for an eye’ and all that –, rarely showed much respect for women, and sometimes conflated ritual law with secular law. It was about order, not justice; actions, not motives; rules, not human fulfilment. In due course, most of the societies that created these law codes, like Hammurabi’s Babylon, sank beneath the tide of history; the descendants of the people who had created and lived under these strict codes learnt new and better ways of dealing with issues, and the old codes were forgotten. One society in particular resisted this trend: the Jews did not sink beneath the tide of history, and in surviving retained and even enhanced their reverence for the old law, which came to play a major role preserving Jewish identity when political independence had been lost. In the first century of the Common Era, the Pharisees were a notable group among those Jews whose reverence for the law only increased. At the same time though, some Jews were becoming aware of the obsolescence of the old reliance on strict law. They saw that, in the first place, the old approach did not serve human happiness, and in the second, it was humanly impossible to fully obey all the detailed provisions of the old law.
                So it is not wholly surprising that, although neither knew anything about the other’s teaching, Jesus and Paul agree on the central issue: there has to be a better way of living than trying to obey the ancient Law. Paul had been brought up as a Pharisee and was only too aware of the difficulty of keeping the law in every detail. While he remained a Pharisee, he could never relax, was always worried that he might be breaking some rule or other, and always felt guilty for the infractions he could hardly help committing. Jesus seems not to have had such an over-strict upbringing, and a large part of his ministry involved challenging the Pharisees and their backward-looking legalism. He made a habit of associating with people whose lifestyles implied that they had simply given up on trying to observe the old law, and he was aware that in many cases this had, if anything, made their lives more straightforward and happier. No doubt this difference in experience between Jesus and Paul helps to account for the contrasting ways they deal with law in their teaching.
                Paul’s key idea is ‘justification by faith’. This is his answer to what was for him the burning question: ‘How are we sinners to regain our good standing before God?’ That of course is very much the question of an ex-Pharisee. It assumes that nothing is more important than to be in good standing with God-out-there, that God’s ancient law really applies to us, that we haven’t kept the law (because, being human, we couldn’t), that we are consequently not in good standing with God, and that there is nothing we can do about that by ourselves. What however we can do is to have faith in Jesus, whose resurrection has revealed him to be God’s anointed, the ‘Christ’; we simply have to accept that Jesus’s death can somehow expunge our bad record and restore us to the good standing before God that we crave. Now we might demythologise this as Paul saying that it does no good feeling bad about ourselves because of our constant failings; we have to put them behind us and get on with life. But that would not accurately represent Paul’s view: for him, this was not a myth but a literal description of the situation.
                Jesus does not have a tagline like ‘justification by faith’, but perhaps we can compose one for him: how about ‘happiness through love’? This seems to be a reasonable distillation of a good deal of his teaching, from the beatitudes to his summary of the law. ‘Happiness’ here has to be understood as something much richer, deeper and longer-lasting, than what is often meant by the word; ‘happy’ in this rich sense is sometimes used instead of ‘blessed’ for the Greek word makarios in the Beatitudes. Maybe ‘joyful’ would be better: ‘joyful through love’. For Jesus, the difficulty is not so much that we can’t keep the old law, but more that trying to do so, quite as much as allowing primitive instincts free rein in our lives, gets in the way of our finding happiness, or joy. What he suggests we focus on is how we manage and improve our relationships with each other. This teaching needs no demythologisation, and it does not address itself only to those who are slaves to the old law or who believe literally in stories about the unseen world. It is just a statement of fact: look around you and you will see that the people who are truly happy are those who prioritise their loving relationships with other people, and who find the strength and the faith to do this by nurturing their spiritual – not necessarily their religious – life. 
                Truly, this is gospel – good news. Maybe it shouldn’t be news, because it has been repeated often enough down the centuries. But we find it all-too-easy to prioritise other, less emotionally demanding if also ultimately less rewarding things in our lives, or alternatively to try to manage our lives by living by acting according to conventions and rules, the modern versions of ancient Law: That’s why we need the good news.


"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "God's Messiah." Luke ch 9 v20

In the New Testament, there are three quite distinct ideas about the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and God. The earliest is St Paul’s, explained in his letter to the Roman church. The background to this is that Paul knew nothing – nothing at all – about what Jesus had taught. He was not interested in knowing about this, as he makes clear in Galatians; all he was interested in was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Their total belief in this astonishing event had overwhelmed Jesus’s disciples and driven them to become an embryonic heretical sect within Judaism – pretty much what the Jewish authorities had been trying to prevent by having Jesus killed. For the loyalist Saul who was to become Paul the authorities had been right to silence Jesus, and he felt called to continue their efforts by persecuting the followers of the disappeared Jesus. What little reliable evidence there is in Acts of the Apostles does not suggest that the disciples were repeating Jesus’s own teaching; they were just talking about his resurrection and how they thought it might be fitted into Jewish traditions. This, not the teaching of Jesus, was for Paul what their embryonic religion was about, and it was this religion that he joined and came to define. To this Paul added an account of Jesus’s last supper with his friends – but never anything of his actual teaching.
                For Paul, this Jesus whom he had never met and about whom he knew next to nothing, was either a dangerous misleader of the Jewish people or – what? If it had really happened, the resurrection would seem to have marked him out as something more than a mere prophet in the long Jewish tradition of prophecy, for there was no earlier account of a Jewish prophet being killed and rising from the dead. Clearly, if Jesus had been raised from the dead, there was something unique about him, and that uniqueness Paul spoke of in terms of God having made him his son, rather as Roman emperors sometimes made unrelated young men their official sons to give themselves heirs. Paul is quite clear in Romans that there had been nothing unusual about Jesus’s birth. It was the resurrection and only the resurrection that entitled him to be called the Son of God. If during his lifetime Jesus had gone around claiming to be the son of God, Paul would have disapproved of that as snatching at equality with God.
                Writing a quarter of a century or so later than Paul, Matthew and Luke push Jesus’s divine sonship back to his conception. Like the earlier Synoptic writer, Mark, one of their principal purposes was to give an account of Jesus’s actual teaching. Clearly they had accepted the idea that Jesus was God’s son, along with a lot of Paul’s theology, but they wanted that sonship to have begun earlier so that it could lend authority to Jesus’s teaching during his lifetime. They or their sources adapted the familiar Hellenistic idea of a hero being the child of a divine father, from whom the hero derived his characteristics, and a human mother. From the human point of view, this made it at least possible for Jesus’s mother to be a virgin, which would make his birth even more amazing. It’s not only Paul who shows no trace of this idea; neither does Mark.
And neither, later still, does John, though for very different reasons. For him, Jesus’s special relationship with God had not begun after the resurrection or even at his conception. John sees Jesus as the divine Word or Logos. In Hellenistic philosophy, the Logos had existed before, and had caused, the creation of the universe. So he had always been God, had appeared on earth as Jesus, and after his crucifixion and resurrection had returned to heaven. In this interpretation, it is not so much the resurrection as the crucifixion of Jesus that reveals his divine glory as the Logos. What interests John is not Jesus’s teaching but his status. What John presents as Jesus’s teaching is clearly a series of meditations about his status, as the Good Shepherd, as the vine and so on.
I’m not going to delve into the ancient and fruitless debates about the precise nature of Jesus’s divine sonship, or exactly what the Logos was or in what sense it was uniquely incarnated in Jesus. For two millennia, it has been the business of Christian theologians to try to weave these independent and to my mind irreconcilable accounts of Jesus’s unique relationship with God into a single coherent account. I don’t believe that that can be convincingly done, and I think the lamentable effect of all this effort has been to divert attention from what is most helpful and most significant about Jesus of Nazareth: his teaching. This is not a Pauline or a Johannine view; for Paul and John it is always and only who Jesus was or became – his status – and the death and resurrection that revealed, or confirmed, or promoted him to, that status. This is what the Christian religion is about, and to be frank, being centrally interested in Jesus’s teaching rather than his status prevents one from being in any strict, historic sense a Christian. 
Accepting the presence in the New Testament of three distinct strands of ‘Christological’ thinking and resisting the temptation to attempt the hopeless task of weaving them together is immensely freeing. For a start, it removes any sense that one ought to accept the New Testament view of Jesus, because there isn’t one single such view; at most one might feel bound to choose between the views of Paul, the Synoptics and John. But, more radically, one might be prompted by their differences of view to do what they did: make up one’s own mind about whether and why Jesus is worth taking seriously and to express any conclusions as best one can in contemporary language and imagery. The question we face is, ‘What is Jesus of Nazareth to you?’ Peter’s answer is not the one that matters to you: it’s yours.


The Pharisees asked him, ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He said, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes … For in fact the kingdom of God is among [or within] you.’ Luke ch17 vv20,21

The first century Mediterranean world was infested with religious teachers who undertook to give their followers secret knowledge that was not obtainable elsewhere; it was of course unverifiable and had little to do with the world around them. It was about the princedoms and principalities of the unseen world, about what lay behind creation, about when the world would end and what would happen after that, about mysterious causes behind events in the world. These teachers are referred to as ‘Gnostics’ but of course knowledge, gnosis, was the last thing they offered. Sometimes their stories had the quality of myths, attempts to express in stories truths about human life that are hard to express or to grasp less concretely, but often they were personal obsessions played out to impress the credulous and attract a following of people needing to believe in something, anything. We are familiar with a similar phenomenon today, in the form of various sects. We’re familiar with the phenomenon in the New Testament too: some of Paul’s theology is not terribly far removed from the kinds of ideas the Gnostics peddled, though it is more anchored in ancient Jewish traditions.
                In one sense, believing such teaching is easy: unless you include belief in predictions of an early end of the world, you can be sure that you will never in your lifetime discover that your beliefs were misplaced. And if in your lifetime you find that believing such teaching gives you a confidence you would lack without it, one might say that it was pretty harmless and even positively helpful. But it is not grounded in life as we know it in our daily lives, and nor does it take its cues from what we can find out about life through careful observation and thought. So while belief in Gnostic-like teaching is easy, it is also fragile. Like a house built on sand, it may not withstand the more serious of life’s tempests – and then the once-believer has nothing to give himself the confidence he lacked. This is why credulity – the willingness to believe any old stories about the unseen world – is different from a faith that, while it is not explained or proved by our experience of life, is nevertheless grounded on the firm rock of what we know of life and can survive the challenges that life sets before us.
                The approach of the Gnostics and of Paul stands in marked contrast to what we know about the approach of Jesus of Nazareth. Occasionally we find attributed to him descriptions of the unseen world, much of a muchness with his contemporaries’ Gnostic teaching. But mostly, and more strikingly and therefore so much the more reliably, his teaching repeatedly draws his followers’ attention to what they can see for themselves in the world around them if only they will do so. His parables ask them to look and see how the world works and prompts them to draw conclusions from that. His beatitudes ask them to notice what kinds of people can be called makarios, happy, blessed, so that they can shape their dispositions appropriately. His famous prayer to Our Father is wonderfully earth-bound. He explicitly rejects the idea that anyone might know when the end of the world is coming.
In this important sense Jesus’s teaching is not a revelation at all. His teaching is focussed on drawing his hearers’ attention to what they could have seen – and many perhaps did see – in the world they knew. We have heard of Jesus of Nazareth only because St Paul seized on his disciples’ emotional accounts of his resurrection to be the basis of his new, Christian, religion. For all we know there might have been other teachers with a similar approach to Jesus’s, who made no more effort than did Jesus himself to commit their ideas to writing, and who have been lost to history. And if we had had our attention focussed by someone else on the same things that Jesus drew attention to, perhaps we would have taken just as much notice and given that person just as much honour. (Incidentally, it’s not only Jesus who would have been lost to history save for the happy chance that someone felt he wanted to write down his ideas; without the testimony of Plato, Socrates too would be forgotten. Both Jesus and Socrates saw it as their business, not to tell people what was what, but rather in their different ways to lead people to their own conclusions. It is the Pauls and Platos of the world who have a harder-nosed approach to working out, writing down and passing on a clear, coherent philosophy who usually get remembered, rather than those who are content to make and share their discoveries about life as they go along, like Jesus and Socrates.)
What might have been revelatory to Jesus’s hearers is the assurance that you can get along just fine without the kind of other-worldliness that religion always seems to generate, provided you pay proper attention to how this world is and how people can be truly happy in it. That’s an important proviso. The Jesus approach is not simply to try to undermine the beliefs of the credulous or mock the pretensions of the religious, though examples of both can be found in his teaching. To do that without offering, and indeed putting the emphasis on offering, an alternative and stronger basis for living well would be cruel for individuals and unhelpful for society. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sometimes carefully links what he has to say with the religious traditions of his hearers, showing how those traditions have provided the basis for the progress that his teaching represents. It must be said that this caring and careful approach is not always shared by teachers who are powerfully aware of the shortcomings of religion but either cannot or will not balance their attacks upon it with something better upon which their readers can base their approach to life. Yet in the end it is the alternative that matters; if that is clearly understood perhaps religious other-worldliness may be left to die naturally away.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013


When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day… In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.  Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II:13

Back in the eighth century, the Venerable Bede likened a human life to the flight of a sparrow across a banqueting hall, in through one door and out through another; the sparrow had an existence outside the hall even though we could see it only within. It’s a powerful metaphor because it neatly expresses the existential mystery of being human. Even though we understand the physiology both of reproduction and birth, and of death, the appearance and disappearance of a human life retains its existential mysteriousness. It feels too marvellous to be true that an act of copulation should really create a human life with its unique identity and vast potential; surely – we feel – it must have a less animal origin than that? And similarly it feels too monstrous to be true that such a life should absolutely cease to exist on death; where has all that love, all that understanding, all that potential gone? These are not questions of a kind that can be answered by ever-more-detailed descriptions of physiological or evolutionary processes; they are existential questions – indeed, perhaps they are not really questions at all, but ways of expressing a proper sense of awe at our own existence and nature. We would not be better off if we could simply accept ‘No’ and ‘Nowhere’ as adequate answers to these questions, true as they are, because that would suggest that our human existence had ceased to amaze and mystify us – and then perhaps we would be well on the way to regarding it as insignificant and wasteable. 
                That is partly why the Christian tradition makes so much of the birth and death of Jesus, and why the seasons of the church’s year that mark them have such appeal well beyond the circle of Christian believers. This has nothing to do with the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth or even with the Pauline account of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, though of course the tradition has woven them all together. The story of Jesus’s mysteriously un-physiological conception and the theological accounts of his hidden pre-existence with God before birth offer us the opportunity to reflect on the mysteriousness of the coming into being of every human life. Hence not only the popularity of Christmas observance but also our habit of sacralising the arrival of a baby, in baptism. The story of Jesus’s messily human death and the theological account of how it was not really the end of his life offer us the opportunity to reflect on the mysteriousness of the meaning of every human life as it comes to its end. Hence not only the place of Good Friday and Easter in our culture, but also our habit of sacralising the disposal of a dead body, by holding a funeral service.
                Other cultures than ours also find ways of giving people the opportunity to meditate on these matters, even if they sometimes lay the emphasis in slightly different places. Always, though, these myths and rituals are associated with religion, as they are with us. There’s a risk here. Religion suffers these days from literalism and antiquarianism, which makes it vulnerable on the one hand to fananticism and on the other to indifference. The risk is that the significance and richness of human life will find nowhere where it can be celebrated, and what is not celebrated can be forgotten. I don’t know for how much longer than 100,000 years humanity has been fascinated and mystified by the existential questions, but the evidence suggests that it hasn’t been for long enough for it to become hard wired in our brains. Being richly human may be natural to us, but it’s second nature, an overlay on the nature we share with other animals. We could forget it. Indeed as a society we may well forget it if we don’t keep talking about it and celebrating it and encouraging succeeding generations to discover just how enriching it is. So long as inherited myths and rituals can be used in this way and have not been wholly superseded by new and better techniques they are worth nurturing and passing on. But it must always be the meaning and the richness that really matter, not the myth or the ritual.
                The power of Bede’s metaphor may help to explain part of the horror, as distinct from the disapproval, that religious people often feel about contraception and abortion on one hand and suicide on the other. If there are disembodied souls out there in the cold waiting to fly into the mead hall through a door, there is a particular awfulness about suddenly slamming that door shut, so to speak, so that a soul on its way in is left outside with a broken neck. Similarly, if souls will continue to live out there in the cold when they have left the banqueting hall, there seems little to be gained in deliberately hurrying out of the nearest door; better to stay as long as possible in the warm, because it has to be better than the alternative. This is an example of how religious images that were intended to express some important idea about the human condition can take on a life of their own. Neither abortion nor suicide is to be taken lightly, weighed down as they both are with implications. But to approach them with a horror that is powerfully informed by a myth that is taken literally, and consequently to come to think that they are never, ever, conscionable is to make a serious mistake. It’s a kind of mistake that is all too common in the world’s religions, the kind that  an lead believers to feel justified in subjecting to mean, offensive or vicious treatment other people whose existential wonderfulness somehow gets forgotten along the way.

Monday, 29 April 2013


[Jesus said,] Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.  … You have heard that it was said to people long ago …  But I tell you … Matthew 5 (The Sermon on the Mount)

One of the oldest books in the Old Testament, Leviticus, lays down rules about many aspects of everyday life. For instance: ‘You shall not put on a garment woven with two kinds of yarn.’ (Lev 18:19). Or ‘You shall not shave the edge of your beards.’ (Lev 19:22). Or ‘You shall not eat … the pig, because it has a parted foot and a cloven hoof but does not chew the cud; you shall regard it as unclean.’ (Lev 11:7) These ancient laws, and many more equally unfamiliar, are still accepted as binding by truly orthodox Jews. Other Jews, and Christians of course, do not feel bound by them. So why do I quote these strange laws, laws which we find bizarre or even unacceptable? It’s certainly not to pour scorn on the people who wrote them. They and their contemporaries were struggling to find their place and manage their affairs in a changing world which they barely understood. Many of the laws are about how to make distinctions between things, and the ability to classify is basic to our understanding of the world. When Leviticus was written, people were just beginning to do this; it’s not surprising they got the classifications wrong and were over-keen to give classification and therefore separation a pre-eminence we would deny them. The roughly simultaneous change from nomadic, pastoral living to settled, agricultural society was enormous; the story of Cain and Abel illustrates how fraught it was. Settled, agricultural society brought with it surplus wealth and therefore the emergence of a ruling class and life in large villages and towns. In this new situation, accepted customs and the decisions of a headman were no longer enough; a new means of keeping order was needed: clear, easy-to-enforce Law.
                Perhaps it was because he instinctively sensed the reasons behind the old laws that Jesus could confidently say that many of them had been superseded. It wasn’t that they had been wrong; it was simply that their time had passed; humanity had moved, or at any rate could move, beyond them. Some people still struggle with this idea. They want to say either that the old rules were wrong all the time and should never have been made, or that if they were right once, they must be right now. What we cannot know is whether we could have reached our modern understandings without having passed through stages of over-zealous classification and over-reliance on strict liability law – or, to use the language of journeying, whether we could have arrived where we are today via a different route. Perhaps we could have, but we didn’t; the Leviticus route was the one our predecessors took, and we’re not really in a position to say whether they were right or wrong to do so. This thought might make us extra-careful about the rules and conventions by which we live or which we seek to develop, both because we will be judged by them and more importantly because they will bring our successors to where they will find themselves. You’ll have your own ideas as to which of our current rules and conventions are likely to go the way of Leviticus’s ban on weaving mixed-fibre cloth; my prime candidates would be those about drugs and assisted suicide.
                It’s important to remember that Jesus’s attack was not simply on the old rules themselves but on the approach they enshrined. He saw that trying to regulate and improve life principally by making and enforcing rules was an approach that had had its day, and that something different could be just as effective, less constricting and more enriching. It was necessary to get behind the behavioural rules to see whether underlying them were admirable dispositions that were to be encouraged. If there weren’t, the rule could be abandoned, at least as a moral rule as distinct from a civil law; if there were, it would be the disposition not the rule that needed to be nurtured. It’s clear from the earliest accounts of the post-Jesus church that its members quickly agreed to abandon circumcision and the kosher food rules, no doubt acting on the logic of Jesus’s teaching. By contrast, they would not have had any problem with a Leviticus rule such as ‘You shall not treat the deaf with contempt, nor put an obstruction in the way of the blind.’ (Lev 19:14), though they would probably have realised that it is the loving impulse behind such a rule that matters, not the rule itself.
                Jesus was boldly clear that some of the old laws and the approach they enshrined had to be abandoned, and with them, by implication, a particular conception of what it was to be a Jew. That the clearest statement of this view appears repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount in the deeply Jewish gospel of Matthew is surprising and therefore reliable. Less reliable, because not so unexpected, is Matthew’s attribution to Jesus of the statement that no detail of the old law could be changed, and the claim the he had come to ‘fulfil’ the Law and the Prophets. No doubt this is Matthew trying to reassure himself and his fellow Jews, because it clearly does not reflect the thrust of the Jesus teaching – at least, not unless ‘fulfil’ is taken to mean ‘continue to develop and where appropriate abandon’. The Jewish authorities would have had no interest in executing a Jesus who had demonstrated a deep loyalty and reverence for the ancient texts that kept Jewish identity intact; they wanted him dead precisely because he did not show such unquestioning loyalty and reverence.
                One of the lessons we might draw from Jesus’s attack on the tyranny of the old rules of Leviticus is that it’s important to beware of the human tendency to imagine that the latest invention for helping us deal with life is a panacea. Maybe we can’t help this; it’s certainly a recurrent feature of human history. Perhaps we just have to live through these periods of over-enthusiasm, hoping that a Jesus figure will emerge to courageously suggest that the time has come to move on – and that enough of us will have the sense to listen.


Then Nathan said to David, "… Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon.' " 2 Samuel 12 vv7-9

The ancient kings and emperors who became the image for God as King were regarded as all-powerful; their will was to be obeyed, their desires were to be satisfied. They didn’t like being told that their desires didn’t define rightness, which is what Nathan boldly told King David when he used his power to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle so he could have her himself. What Nathan was telling David was that it was wrong for rulers to use their power to satisfy their private desires, which you might think is a fairly obvious requirement of good government. For well over 2500 years, most religion in Eurasia has insisted that government is divinely appointed in order to benefit ordinary people; in saying this religious teachers have had to challenge the majority of rulers, who have tended to take a very different approach. There have of course been episodes when religious leaders have confused their own interests with those of the people, when secular rulers have manipulated religion for their own ends, and when the interests of different peoples have conflicted. We have to be careful not to allow such episodes, however common, to blind us to the thrust of religious teaching down the centuries: government is meant to benefit ordinary people, to make it possible for their lives to flourish.
                Over the last century it has become increasingly common to rely on voting as the means of ensuring that government does benefit ordinary people. And by and large voting hasn’t done a bad job; it certainly hasn’t produced worse results than other systems we’ve tried. In fact, so successful has voting become that we tend to think of it not as a means to an end but an end in itself. We tend to think that having a majority voting in favour of some policy or other makes it right. In other words we have come perilously close to the position Nathan had to criticise: we have come to think that the ruler’s desires – now meaning by that a majority of the people – define what is right.
But while democracy may be the least-bad way of deciding what is going to be done, it is not a way of deciding that what is going to be done is right. Like the rulers of old, we seem to have come to think that we can properly use our power, meaning these days our votes, to satisfy our private desires; the largely value-free appeals of competing political parties at election time suggest that they at least assume that voters – we – take heed mostly of exactly those self-centred considerations that motivated the less savoury non-democratic rulers. The coming of democracy, valuable as it is, does not free us, the new rulers, from the ancient requirement that Nathan insisted on: power must not be used to satisfy private desires. So it is that in a democracy, the tradition lays on all of us responsibilities that most members of earlier generations escaped, for we too are now rulers, and the requirement for rulers not to use their power to satisfy their private desires is one we all need to consider whenever we take part in the political process, even just by voting. The tradition does not smile on those who decide how to vote principally on the basis of how they personally would benefit if this or that party took power.
            And like ancient rulers we electors won’t always find the admonition of Nathan’s successors easy to accept – which is why it’s so important that they keep insisting on the need to pay attention to the common good and high standards in public life. Their insistence will face resistance. They will be told that we need to debate what the common good really is; fair enough, but such discussions can be cleverly used as an effective way of avoiding the issue. They will be told that they should keep religion out of politics, that politics is no business of theirs because religion is really just about personal morality; but notice that Nathan was admonishing David as an unscrupulous ruler who abused his power, not as a private man of faulty morals. They will be told to be realistic and admit that what the powerful want, they will get, be they ancient kings or a democratic majority, and there’s not much point in going along with Nathan’s denunciation of them; but real progress – of any kind but especially moral and spiritual progress – is achieved by people who dare to challenge the powers that be, not by those who go along with what those powers want. They will be told that making a nuisance of yourself by demanding that those in power do what’s right will not succeed; but Jesus’s story of the widow who pestered the judge until he unwillingly did the right thing reminds us that making a fuss is often the only way to achieve justice.
                Challenging ourselves and other electors to support the common good with our votes involves asking us all to understand that democracy can only thrive if we do. If as electors we don’t prioritise the long term common good over our own short term private interests, the governments we elect will inevitably take systematically wrong decisions – wrong not only for the common good but wrong even for our own long term interests. In the end we might even welcome dictatorship in the hope that a dictator, not in hock to an electorate that votes only on short term self interest, might take a longer view of the common good. But the most desired of dictatorships eventually goes sour; the temptation for even the best of us to use absolute power to satisfy our own private desires is practically impossible to withstand in the long run: in the story, David was not a bad man, just an ordinarily good man who had been given despotic powers. Far better, therefore, for us to mature as electors and not demand that our politicians pander to our cupidity – in other words to hear the admonition of Nathan as being addressed to us.