This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, following yesterday’s debate in the House of the Lords on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill:

Current debates in Parliament and beyond about the nature of the UK’s relationship with Europe go beyond the technical detail of Bills and amendments. Clearly, many people are just fed up with what they see as the trading of insults and misrepresentations that have come to characterise this process, rendering it almost impossible to distinguish what is true and what is fact from what is mere assertion or wishful thinking.

But, underlying all this sound and fury is a much more important question – one that has always been around, but often gets forgotten in the storm of the moment: what is it all for? Or, to put it differently: what sort of a society do we wish to construct and what sort of character do we want our common life to exhibit?

These are not exactly new questions. Even the Ten Commandments form not a string of miserable demands to keep people in their place, but a contour for a mutually respectful, honourable and humble society – one in which people respect each other, care for the poor, honour integrity and work at building relationships of trust and accountability.

I wonder if these existential questions – about what and whom a society is for – too easily get lost when the headlines and the fog of social media just bang away at demonising anyone who dares to differ from one’s own position.

I have just read a paper by a Russian military and political analyst who dares to pose a different question. Aleksandr Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, suggests that whereas Russians will still fight and die for the Motherland, their western equivalents are too soft to die for anything. Harsh? Maybe.

But, I wonder if this is worth pursuing, if not as a model of idealism, then at least as a matter of practical reality. Russians are almost defined by suffering – think of 20 million dead in the Second World War … a million starved or killed in the siege of Stalingrad alone.

It was Martin Luther King who proposed that if we have nothing worth dying for, then we have nothing worth living for.

So, when we have done our trade deals and dealt with the technical and practical challenges of Brexit – however it might turn out in the end, what will we have gained or lost? What is the end to which we aspire? What is the vision of a society for which we will sacrifice anything or everything? What are the moral goods which shape our ambitions and discipline our passions?

These are not vapid questions. The Old Testament prophet was not joking when he wrote that “without a vision the people perish”. Nor was Jesus when he said there is a danger in gaining the world and losing our soul.

It is a challenge, but, somehow, I need to poke through the fog of debate and not lose sight of the ultimate questions: for what? And for whom?

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This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords during the Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill:

My Lords, many speakers will attend to the technical and legal details of this Bill, and they will be better equipped than I am to do so. I want to use my time, therefore, to pay attention to a question that lies behind the nature of this Bill and the choices we are required to make in scrutinising and attempting to improve it. This question applies to all sides of the argument, whether we think leaving the European Union is an unmitigated disaster or the best thing since Winston Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

The question goes beyond economics and trade deals, haunts constitutional matters, and refuses to be submerged by ideologically-driven assertions that promise what can’t be promised and ridicule arguments that are inconvenient. Brexit has unleashed the normalisation of lies, and rendered too easily acceptable the demonising of people who, with integrity and intelligence, venture to hold a contrary view. We are in danger of securing an economic platform at the expense of a culture of respect and intelligent democratic argument.

The question I allude to is simply this: at the end of this process what sort of Britain – and Europe – do we want to inhabit? I accept that this is almost an existential question – challenge, even – but as we debate the legislative detail, we must not lose sight of the point of it all. Existential questions can’t be determined by statute, but the shape of statute speaks loudly of what we think our society should be for, and for whom. This is why debate about discretionary powers of ministers to make laws with equivalent force to primary legislation is of such importance. When such powers are so wide that this House is asked to leave to the judgement of ministers the meaning of such terms as “appropriate”, it is only right to ask for definition. After all, history is riddled with the unintended consequences of what might be termed “enabling legislation”.

But, let’s be honest. Brexit is technically so demanding and complex that, if I were Prime Minister, I would want the authority to deal flexibly with anomalies and technical weaknesses as quickly and smoothly as possible as the consequences of Brexit become known. I understand the technical element of this; but, this Bill goes beyond legislative technicalities and impacts strongly on constitutional arrangements and the balance of power. Surely, if “taking back control” by Parliament is to mean anything, it must mean refraining from bypassing the essential scrutiny that Parliament is privileged and required to provide. Hard parliamentary scrutiny might be inconvenient, but the long-term consequences of granting ministers unprecedented powers (as set out in this Bill) must be considered as they will shape the deeper culture of our state and change our assumptions about democracy.

I think this suggests that, although any sane person will recognise the government’s need to have significant powers to ensure that process (and legal certainty post-Brexit) is as smooth as possible, there must be limits to the use of such powers – or, as a colleague of mine put it succinctly and colourfully, we must avoid Brexit Britain turning into Tudor Britain.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck here. I do not believe that this Bill, as currently formulated, achieves that balance; nor does it demonstrate that the genuine fears of constitutional experts and lawyers have been properly heard.

I have two concerns about the culture in which this debate is being conducted in this country – looked on with incredulity by those looking at us from beyond these islands.

First, almost every paper, every debate, every statement about Brexit is clothed in purely economic terms. It is almost as if the economy were everything and economics the only Good. Yet, the economy – one might add the word ‘trade’ – is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end … which is about human flourishing and the Common Good. The economy – trade – exists for the building of society, but society is more than the economy. It is not enough for us uncritically to assume that a market society (as opposed to a social market) is a given or an ultimate good. Culture is more than money and things.

Secondly, the referendum tore off the veneer of civilised discourse in this country and unleashed – gave permission for, perhaps – an undisguised language of suspicion, denigration, hatred and vilification. To be a Leaver is to be narrow-mindedly stupid; to be a Remainer is to be a traitor. Our media – and not just the ill-disciplined bear pit of social media – have not helped in challenging this appalling rhetoric or the easy acceptance of such destructive language.

Yet, beneath this lurks an uncomfortable charge articulated in a recent Carnegie report on tensions between Russia and the West by the deputy director of the Russian Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow: if Russians would still die for the Motherland, what would we die for? Or, as Martin Luther King suggested: if we don’t know what we would die for, we have no idea what we would live for. Once we have ‘done’ Brexit, then what? What was it for? Who do we think we are?

If this debate on Britain’s future is to have any lasting value, and not just undermine long-term relationships of respect and trust, then attention must be paid to the corruption of this public discourse. Politicians could begin by moderating their language and engaging in intelligent, informed and respectful argument that chooses to eschew personalised or generalised vindictiveness or violence. My Lords, we must not allow our body politic to be defined by Brexit; rather, we will need to transcend the divisions currently being forced by the terms of discussion. Peers have an opportunity to model good ways of disagreeing well that might encourage others that there is an alternative to a political culture that appears sometimes to have been reduced to an unbridled tribalism where the first casualty is too often the dignity of the other.

My Lords, please let us not lose sight of the deeper question that lies behind the technical detail of this Bill.

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

News, by definition, is unpredictable. But, I guess one thing none of us saw coming even a couple of weeks ago was the prospect of North and South Korea competing in the Winter Olympics under one flag. We seemed to have moved with astonishing speed from mutual nuking to cooperative skiing. So, what’s that all about?

I think it’s hard to read. Is this a case of two opponents pushed together by the erratic behaviour of the USA, leading erstwhile enemies to find in each other a greater security than in their apparent allies? Or is it merely a short-term expedient aimed at distracting energy, attention and resources from more dangerous political and military challenges and provoking a collective sigh of relief that might yet prove to be premature?

It’s hard to read. The new film about Winston Churchill, ‘Darkest Hour’, illustrates brilliantly the rather obvious fact that we always make decisions with little or no idea of their likely consequences … given that none of us actually knows the future. In Churchill’s case, do we keep the peace or go to war? Or will keeping the peace now simply make a later war even worse? Do we avoid the conflict or go through it?

Of course, it’s always easy with hindsight to spot the miscalculations and errors, where powerful desire for one thing blinds us to the reality before us. Prophets are not in plentiful supply, after all, are they?

Well, I guess that depends on what you think a prophet is. When the prophets of the Old Testament warned their people against entering short-term military and political alliances with the overbearing powerful empires of their day, they didn’t just dream up nightmare scenarios aimed at creating fear; rather, they studied and thought and wrestled with their imagination – that is, asking hard questions about the potential consequences of different choices. Being prophets, of course, they were ignored, and the short-term security they bought led later to longer-term subjugation and exile.

I think this applies not only at a national or political level, but also for us as individuals. When we feel insecure we reach for those solutions that offer fast relief, however romantic. Driven by fear, feeling that I am in a desert of uncertainty or insecurity, the temptation is to look for the quick way out. Against this reflex, however, Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama urges (in his book ‘Three Mile an Hour God’), that the thing to do in the desert is not to run away, but to slow down. Slowing down in our judgements means we become slower to make false connections or to attribute causality where it doesn’t belong. Ask any immigrant what it feels like to be blamed for all the supposed ills of the world.

I’ll be watching North and South Korea with intrigue – waiting to see what the flags of the future might tell us about the choices of today.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I was on the train down from Leeds yesterday – at some unearthly hour – and caught a glimpse of someone else’s newspaper. The story facing me was that Manchester Town Hall is going to close for six years for massive refurbishment. A similar fate awaits the Houses of Parliament in London, but the details of that one haven’t been nailed yet.

Anyway, the bit that I saw about Manchester that grabbed my attention is that the Town Hall clockface has inscribed on it the words: “Teach us to number our days.”
Now, how miserable is that? You’re off to the pub or to do your shopping, happy as Larry, and you look up to check you’re not late, and staring back at you is a warning to dampen your enthusiasm! Good grief. Or, is there another way of looking at it?

“Teach us to number our days” wasn’t plucked from just anywhere. In fact, it comes straight out of the Bible – Psalm 90 verse 12 – and the full version says: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

I think what this is saying is: come to terms with the fact that you are not going to live for ever! Despite all the self-help courses and ointments aimed at keeping us eternally youthful, you only get free once you face your mortality. And that, believe it or not, is very cheerful … because it sets us free from anxiety and let’s us live every day to the full. Which is not bad, is it?

So, I can’t gain wisdom – or wise up – until I face up to reality – that every day counts. Which, of course, works in a variety of ways, because it also says to me: don’t waste your time! Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (to quote the Bible again), but sort out your relationships now, while there’s still time. If you get the chance, learn how to play and not just work: do I work to live or live to work? Why let trivia divide us and break us up when time is relatively short.

You probably get the point. Let’s learn to number our days and we might even become wise!

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

Earlier this morning India launched a rocket to deliver a satellite to join a constellation of seven satellites which will take high-resolution full colour video of the earth from space. Which means that it won’t be long before we get to see some remarkable film of the tiny globe on which we live.

I well remember staring at the first photographs of the earth taken from the moon. I was a child and hadn’t fully registered the fact that human beings had never before been able to look at the whole globe from a distance and see it against the backdrop of the universe.

The initial pictures were stunning and had a long-lasting impact on those who saw them. Having seen ourselves as the centre of the universe and had our perspectives shaped by the intimate dramas of our particular habitat, it came as a shock to see the beautiful, tiny, fragile orb spinning almost insignificantly in the vast ocean of star-studded blackness. Are we really that small?

Well, the sense of mystery that these photographs evoked was not unique. Nearly three millennia ago a peasant looked up at a Middle Eastern sky and wrote: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” OK, the poet wasn’t looking back on earth, but from earth looking up – and this had the effect of causing him to wonder what life is all about and why we matter anyway.

And it is this perspective that puts in context both the global and local struggles that consume human energy, aspiration and fear – from the future of the NHS to North Korean nuclear missiles and a post-Brexit UK.

Science explores the shape and mechanics of the universe, sparking the imagination and causing us to face reality based on observable facts. What science can’t do, however, is attribute to what is seen any inherent meaning, however inspiring the observation itself might be. What is seen has to be mediated, interpreted or apprehended, but it cannot of itself impute particular meaning other than to say that it is what it is.

But, this is where science and faith can be seen to play on the same field. The old so-called ‘conflict metaphor’ – in my view – needs to be consigned to the intellectual bin. George Lemaitre was a Belgian priest and professor of physics in the last century. It was he who proposed the theory of the expansion of the universe in what became known as Hubble’s Law. Praised by Albert Einstein in 1933, Lemaitre went on to say: ”There are two paths to truth; and I decided to follow both of them.”

So, science and faith are not enemies in the search for truth.

Or, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

This morning the BBC is publishing a review of its engagement as a public service broadcaster with religion. I warmly welcome the report and the way the review was conducted, but also have one or two questions – I will return to these later.

The key to understanding the thrust of the report lies in the introduction by Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC:

We believe that the plans we have set out will build on this to deliver an even more profound approach. They will ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world, and the role that religion plays in everyday life. They will also raise understanding of the impact religion has on decisions made at home and abroad.

This goes to the heart of the matter. Religious broadcasting is not about proselytism or evangelism. It is about enabling people to understand the world and why it is the way it is. As the report notes, almost 85% of the world’s population has a religious faith, worldview or culture – and they derive their motivations, comprehensions and assumptions about human beings, human behaviour, place in the world, and social order from the lens through which they look.

I like the quotation now engraved in the wall of New Broadcasting House behind the statue of George Orwell:

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

And that goes for all of us.

My questions are the usual ones: who, when, how and how much. In other words, when will we see the plan that clarifies who is responsible for establishing clear means to achieve these important aims, what are the timelines for delivery, and how much resource will be committed to making sure the promises are realised?

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

A few years ago I found myself in the Foreign Ministry of a Middle Eastern country having what we would probably call a robust conversation with the deputy foreign minister of that state. At one point he stood up, banged the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there – it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

I have never forgotten that. I admit that when I mentioned this recently someone responded by saying that the light in the tunnel might actually be the oncoming train. But, taking a more positive view, I think it is helpful to recognise that sometimes life is pretty complicated and messy, and that the present darkness isn’t the end of the story.

This month of all months this should be clear. Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah, and they do so with candles and lights. Christians are living through Advent – which, even in the word itself, is about waiting and not running out of the darkness in order merely to escape it.

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song called ‘Closer to the light’ which actually focuses on the dark stuff. In a different song he says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” I think as I get older I understand this more and more. Rather than look for instant escapes from difficulty or challenge, I try to stay with the reality, trusting that even though the tunnel is not straight, … the light will come and, in the words of John’s gospel that will be read at Christmas, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A different way of putting this was told to me by a guy who said: “When you’re in the desert, look for the flowers that grow only in the desert.” What he meant was: if you spend your time in the desert looking for daffodils, not only will you be disappointed, but, you will also miss out on what could be experienced or learned only in the desert.

This isn’t easy or romantic, is it? But, I do think it’s powerful.