This is the text of this morning's Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It's perhaps indicative of the original trauma itself that yesterday I got the shivers when I heard the A Level results were being published. I remember well – when I went with my dad to my old comprehensive school in Liverpool to get my results nearly forty years ago – the feeling of dread … the sense that the whole of the rest of my life depended on what would be revealed in the next ten minutes. Melodramatic? Maybe. But, I've never forgotten the experience.

Looking back, I think I saw education in rather narrow terms. Qualifications were a means of advancement – allowing me to move on to the next thing I wanted to do in life, which was to go to university. There was something functional about the whole thing: get qualifications in order to get the place in order to get the degree in order to get the job, and so on. And there are plenty of commentators today who would observe that this functionalism has become the be all and end all of education. Perhaps we should recover the German distinction between 'education' and 'training'.

Well, the whole process surely must be more than creating incarnated CVs. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two thousand years ago he stressed that we need to be transformed “by the renewing of our minds” – that is, to allow our world view, our assumptions about who we are and why we are here, about what matters and why, to be re-shaped over time. But, Paul refused to accept that this can be done apart from consideration of how we use our bodies and spirits – what we choose to worship and how we do our ethics.

Funnily enough, this is the understanding that gave rise to universities in the first place. Education was seen as the development of the character of a person in community, and not just a means of getting jobs to earn money. Not surprisingly, it was primarily about expanding the world of a student into a freedom to live universally – an opening up and not a closing down of perception and experience. And, contrary to some of today's dominant cultural worship of 'success', this approach assumes we have something to learn. It is rooted in the humility that knows how little we know, and how hard it is to change our minds.

Essentially, then, this suggests that we need to recover – at the heart of our assumptions about education – that education is a means to an end and not an end in itself: the end is the formation of character, and qualifications simply help us to measure how far that character is being shaped.

There are many homes in England today that burst with celebration or are quiet with uncertainty. It can only be hoped that all students will see their value going beyond results that only measure a little of what matters … and possibly say nothing about who they are as persons.

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. I wanted, within the constraints of length, to shine a different light on some of what is going on in the world.

I really don't feel old enough for this, but my grandson is about to start school in September. But, the prospect fills me with a mixture of pleasure and dread. At some point in the next ten years we will have to sit though a school production of 'Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat'. Apparently, there's no escape.

Believe it or not, this is a deeply subversive musical … but not because of its biblical origins or its frequent replaying: it is because one song in particular is very dangerous.

To put it bluntly: it is just not true that “any dream will do”. Look around at the world outside and this becomes blindingly obvious. The 'dream' that drives ISIS (Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq is one most of us would claim will not do. It gives the lie to that other oft-repeated mantra: “It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” That sort of thinking would cheer the heart of a Pol Pot or his newly-jailed henchmen.

The problem here is that in our liberal culture we have divided the dream (or, what we think and believe about the world and why people matter) from consequent behaviour. In other words, we have allowed a disconnect between idea and action – one that is being reconnected by all sorts of ideologically driven groups around the world, often with bad results. Our problem, however, is that we don't understand any longer the legitimacy of action or commitment following idea or belief.

In fact, it is worse than this. We often speak as if any world view will do as long as it is liberal-western (and, therefore deemed to be neutral), but then insist that any religious world view – regardless of its integrity – is to be kept private in case it might make a difference. Which, I always thought, was the whole point.

At the root of all this is the uncomfortable fact that human beings act out of deeply-rooted assumptions about why the world is the way it is. The task, then, is to question the dream that drives the action and see if it is a dream that really will do.

This is what drives the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The prophets of the Old Testament constantly hold up a vision of what human society ought to look like and hold the people to it. As Amos says, don't dare to worship a God of mercy, but then go out and trample on the heads of the poor. Don't praise a God of justice, but then institutionalise corruption in the legal systems that allow the rich and powerful to buy advantage. In the Gospels Jesus uses story and image to plant ear worms in the imagination of his friends and enemies – words that scratch away at mind and conscience, making us restless for the fulfilment of a different vision.

I think Joseph's technicolour dream is worth revisiting. It replaced vengeance and injustice with mercy and love. It allowed those who had betrayed him to be free to live again.

 

 

This the script for this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the eve of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day:

A rabbi once spoke about how, when memory becomes history, the history becomes a commodity over which people can fight. Memory is held by those people who witnessed or participated in the events themselves. But, as the generations of those who fought in the world wars of the twentieth century now begin to die out, the need to remember well becomes acute.

Well, seventy years ago this morning thousands of soldiers were marching towards the South Coast of England. The plans for the invasion of France had been developed in secret and the time for action had arrived. It is evident from many of the stories told by people involved that the day before the invasion was tense.

Soldiers walking towards the coast knew that something big was about to happen and the locals along the way sensed that this wasn’t just yet another exercise. Clearly, some soldiers suspected that they were going to their death and emptied their pockets of money and cigarettes, handing them to civilians with words such as, “I won’t have any use for these in the future.”

This is where real courage lies. Not just in the fighting when you get there and there is nothing else to do but go for it. The day before, as you walk towards the coast, knowing you might be walking to your death, and your imagination is running riot – that is courage. Picturing the people you might be leaving behind, yet keeping on going – that is courage.

At the root of this is a confrontation with mortality. If ever there were a group of people who were – in the words of the German philosopher Heidegger – ‘beings towards death’ – it was surely these men. Heidegger was making the point that the way we face our dying shapes the way we live our lives – being confronted with our mortality is actually the key that unlocks our freedom to live.

I guess that the soldiers marching south seven decades ago today had mixed feelings. Some would be recklessly longing for action, others would be filled with fear. Some would be looking ahead to what might come, others looking back to what might be lost for ever. But, the common experience was clearly the awareness of mortality.

At the root of Christian faith is this – I would say counter-cultural – starting recognition that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Everything else springs from that. Whether in our bed or in battle – not the only options, clearly – we shall one day die, and we need to come to terms with that reality.

Today we could do worse than imagine ourselves in the shoes of those soldiers. Thousands died on D-Day. But, the dust to which they returned still speaks of the life they lived – and why it was worth losing it.

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Yesterday a conference on Inclusive Capitalism was held at the Mansion House in London with eminent speakers such as Bill Clinton, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde and the Prince of Wales debating how capitalism needs to be re-imagined for a changing world. One of the questions being addressed was which type of capitalism works best to build economic and social value?

Now, I am not an economist, and I get a bit weary of listening to economic language that seems to assume that economic questions have purely economic answers. So, I am encouraged that at the heart of yesterday's international conference lay a fundamental question that puts economics in its rightful place: who and what is the economic system there for? In other words, you can't look at economics without querying social value and human interest.

This is obvious, really, isn't it? A strong economy cannot be an end in itself, but, rather, must be a means to an end. But, what that end should be – and how it should be achieved – is a matter of considerable and often aggressive debate. Yet, it asks of us what we think society is about, and uncomfortably focuses our attention on our anthropology: that is, who we think people are and why they matter. 'Inclusive Capitalism' sounds good, but is it possible to have an economic system that doesn't exclude?

One of the phrases quoted a good deal in relation to this conference – including on this programme yesterday – was Jesus's remark in what we often call 'The Sermon on the Mount': “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” But, it seems to me that Jesus is polarising to make a point. In fact, he precedes this statement with: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

This is a very powerful way of putting the question raised earlier: who is money for? If you love people – and not just in a generic way, but in the detail of the real people who come uninvited across your path (think Good Samaritan, for example) – then money is a means of enabling people to thrive … or, maybe in the short term, just survive. But, what if you assume that money and wealth exist for their own sake – and for the sole good of the person who accumulates both? It is not hard to see what sort of an economist Jesus might have been…

Undoubtedly, the system we have grown in the last century has brought massive benefits. But, we are now responsible for how we hand this on to our grandchildren. So, we are still left with the question that the conference began with yesterday: does the economy serve people or do people serve the economy? The answer will tell us what sort of people we have chosen to be.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio4's Today programme.

A month or two ago I had a coffee in London with a friend who has her own business coaching high-level executives. Her speciality is resilience – helping business leaders to hang on in there and develop a long-term perspective on decision-making in a competitive and challenging world. I asked her what her basic approach was and she spoke about such things as realism, recognition, forgiveness, resolution, and so on. Listening to her explain this dynamic, I thought the concepts all sounded very familiar. And when I asked where this language came from, she said it was standard HR vocabulary. She seemed a little surprised when I suggested that it was born several thousand years before HR was invented and is profoundly religious.

To speak of a leader facing reality, re-shaping their understanding and view of the world, then moving on in a new light with a clear resolve, is what Christians mean when they use the old-fashioned word 'repentance'.

The Greek word from which it is taken – metanoia – means, literally, 'change of mind'; that is, to use a different metaphor, that we allow the lens behind our eyes – the one through which we filter our experience of the world out there and why it is the way it is – to be re-ground … re-shaped so that we look and see and think and, then, live differently.

Of course, it is social death to use the word repentance unless shouting it out through a megaphone at Oxford Circus – which, I suppose, is evidence of social death, anyway.

But, the word – or, at least, the concept it encapsulates – lies at the heart of a crucial political conundrum that, although it has an immediate application, is as ancient as human life itself. It is the conflict between society's need for long-term political thinking and planning and people's demand for instant gratification. And the Internet has exacerbated this conflict because we have got used to instant information, quick decisions and what might be called 'now-ism'.

I said this isn't new. The prophets of the Old Testament, speaking in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, countered the prevailing longing for the security of quick military and economic alliances with warnings that such short-term thinking can lead to long-term problems. Populism doesn't always represent wisdom.

In a very brave sermon preached in the wake of Kristallnacht in November 1938 in Berlin, Helmut Gollwitzer stated: “Where repentance stops, inhumanity begins.” As relatively few others did, he looked beyond the events of that initial pogrom and saw where short-term compromise might lead. OK, it's a dramatic example. But, it does show that the need to be open to changing our mind and thinking in the long term is vital in every area of life, not just HR or politics.

 

I have just done this morning’s Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show. I probably should have done something on ‘leap year’, but I did it on ‘stories’ instead.

Having been reading the Bible for a very long time now, I often wondered why Jesus chose to talk in images and with stories, rather than making points and telling people to agree with them. I used to think it was just a local cultural preference of his time, but I there’s actually something deeper going on – something that nagged away at me during the last week as we heard about Nelson Mandela and Marie Colvin.

Mandela went into hospital and the world waited to see what would happen. Clearly, there’s nothing unusual about an old man whose health is failing. But this isn’t just any old man. This one has become a global icon of selfless reconciliation – a man who suffered for three decades, but emerged as one of the strongest men in the world, enabling South Africa and other countries to look for radically new ways of behaving. Behind the name of the man is a story that moves us deeply in our hearts and our imaginations.

Then the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Syria whilst trying to tell a story – not of dry political arguments or power struggles, but illustrating these with stories of real women and children, real people being brutalised, defenceless people in an ordinary place being subjected to the merciless power of heavy weaponry… and those who control it.

As I have observed elsewhere, she is a fantastic example of good journalism. Marie Colvin put herself in danger in order that the wider world might see and hear how the decisions of others – the powermongers of this world – impact the lives of people like us. And it is that power of storytelling that gets into our heads and scratches away at our imagination.

Which is why, I think, Jesus taught with stories and parables and pictures. Words and statements just go in and get accepted or rejected. Stories scratch away and tease us until we grapple with what they are all about.

He once told a story about a man wanting to build a tower and asked if he would begin without first counting the cost. Mandela and Colvin certainly counted the cost of their commitment. And their stories just won’t let us go.

So, nothing too deep there. Something that will no doubt be appreciated by the Sunday Times which, pleasingly but surprisingly, highlighted my Lent address on BBC Radio 4 tonight as their ‘Pick of the Day’ for today. The caption praised me with faint damnation – something about the Lent talk showing more theological depth than is evident in my ‘inveterate blogging’. Interesting, then, that nothing in the Lent address has not appeared at some point in blog posts here. Maybe I should start using longer words…

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