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.