The headline doesn't sound too promising, does it? But, it brings together the last couple of days before I return to Bradford tomorrow for a week of work before having a scheduled holiday the following week.

Having finished Ben Quash's excellent Found Theology, I intended to just spend the last couple of days reading German frivolous stuff. But, I started on Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison instead and got hooked. Serendipitously, it hangs together very well with the Quash book, although written from a different perspective and toward a different end.

Imaginative Apologetics recognises that the current irrational obsession of the New Atheists with what they think of as 'pure reason' (as if it wasn't mediated by a person who brings to the task a tradition and unargued-for presuppositions about the world, the way it is, and why it is the way it is) and 'pure science' (see above) does not need to be responded to on its own redundant terms, but that the premises of the argument can be questioned. And, to cut a long argument short, people need to be appealed to at the level of imagination and emotion – finding a consistency with real lived experience … which is more (but never less than) than 'rational' – and the Christian tradition has a huge amount to offer in this respect.

In fact, Davison himself makes the case right at the outset for Christian confidence when he writes:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything. (p.xxv)

He also cursorily quotes Yale's Denys Turner's observation that “the best way to be an atheist is to avoid asking certain questions”. The purpose of this is not to dismiss atheism or atheists, but to ask robust questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that lie before and behind assertions about reality and the absence of God. There is material here for good debate, if the theistic case is accorded some credibility and not simply dismissed prior to consideration. As Alison Milbank puts it, the apologetic task of the Christian is not to appeal to pure reason (as if there could be such a thing), but “to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth”. (p.33)

Each essay is worth reading in itself and I don't intend to go through the whole book here. However, the appeal to art, literature and the imaginative life of a human person (as well as communities) chimes in very well with the case being argued theologically by Ben Quash in his book. In other words, take culture seriously; explore and appeal to the imagination that takes reason seriously; be confident about the role of the imagination in comprehending reality.

Having read this stuff in a cafe in Basel yesterday, I then moved on to the Kunstmuseum Basel. I particularly wanted to see the Hans Holbein painting of the dead Christ (referred to by Ben Quash in his book) and the impressive Impressionist collection. There is nothing quite like an art gallery to make me feel ignorant and illiterate. I look at paintings and know that I don't know how to read them – I don't know the language. I had intended to scan the bulk of the collections and stay for longer with the stuff I knew a little about from my reading, but I found I had paid to see the special exhibition of James Ensor: The Surprised Masks.

I had never heard of James Ensor. I realised I had come across several of his works (The Fall of the Rebel Angels and The Entry of Christ into Brussels on Mardi Gras, for example) but I knew nothing about him or his art. It was stunning. The paintings were interesting, but it was the ink drawings that grabbed me. They explore death, dying, mortality and humanity – but with the sort of humour that had me laughing as I looked at them. It reminded me a little of how I felt when I read Robert Crumb's cartoon version of The Book of Genesis.

The point here is that art goes beyond pure reason (but entirely reasonably) into the imagination in a way that digs at 'truth' and pushes our perceptions of what we assume to be 'reality'.

And this, bizarrely, is what takes me on to immigration. If coming to Switzerland helped me escape some of the sterile immigration debates in England, I quickly got plunged back into them. Recently a referendum narrowly backed the view that restrictions should be imposed on immigration into Switzerland. This caused a huge storm both here and in the wider European Union: decisions have consequences. The political fall-out has been interesting to read whilst actually here in Switzerland. And 'imagination' – in the perverse, but common sense of 'fantasy' – has come powerfully into play in the rhetoric around the issue.

The friend I am staying with is employed by the Swiss Reformed Church to engage in industrial and economic matters (Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft). He was invited by the local newspaper, the bz Basel, to attend last week's opening night of a performance of Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter and to be interviewed by the newspaper afterwards. You really have to know the play, but the performance had a twist in that the stories – in their own words – of immigrants to Switzerland were told to a surprised audience. The interview appeared today and Martin (Dürr) has been getting very supportive messages all day. In the interview – which is amusing as well as intelligent – he sharply calls into question the rhetoric propagated by the right wing that mass immigration is threatening the Swiss way of life. The right wing press (in some cases owned by the leader of the right wing party, the SVP) fan the flames of fear whilst simultaneously offering themselves as the saviours of the nation. Martin put it like this (my translation):

We have to draw a line. For many years the SVP has succeeded in building fears and resentments. The play exposes the mechanisms behind this. I believe there are some very respectable people in the SVP. But, the element that has the say has managed for years to present itself as both victim and saviour. This is a fascinating achievement… They present themselves as victims of the foreign masters in Brussels and of the Left and the Greens and even the remaining left wing press. These are doing terrible things to us and our Swiss identity is being destroyed – say the SVP. At the same time they get up and announce: “Comrades, don't be afraid! We offer you the antidote to this. We are the only ones to really fight to keep the Switzerland that has existed since 1291.”

Sound familiar? Create the spectre – regardless of facts and reality – and then offer a solution to the fear that you have created. It is an interesting and powerful example of political apologetics. It works on the imagination by conjuring a fantasy and then calling it reality.

We are not alone…



Following on from Thursday's visit to Karl Barth's house and my sight of Barth's original handwritten draft of the 1934 Barmen Declaration, I wonder if such a document would be possible in a culture of privatised spirituality such as that assumed by many today to be both desirable and normal.

This isn't a disconnected question. I have spent the last couple of days – on and off – reading the lectures that form the first part of Rowan Williams' Faith in the Public Square. In these pieces he addresses questions of secularism (essentially instrumental/functional, one-dimensional and totalising). Seriously interesting, challenging and written with great lucidity, he goes to the heart of the matter in attesting that the 'public space' of contemporary culture is not in any meaningful sense neutral or free – a a point I keep labouring with less patience and less erudite articulacy than Rowan:

[Telling and enacting a story that is different from that propagated by the modern state] of course involves exposing the fact that the modern state does in fact tell a story: that is, that it is not the embodiment of a timeless rationality. … The main task [of the Church] is to create 'spaces' for an alternative story – to challenge the self-evidence of the narrative of secular modernity. (p.43)

In speaking of the 'market state' – the successor to the 'nation state' – he comes up with the marvellously succinct description of the consumer's role of the last thirty years as “isolated choosing machines in a market-shaped wilderness”. (p.74)

This cannot do justice to the arguments Rowan develops. I do wonder if the leader writers of the Independent newspaper (as well as others) have read these texts and formed any response to the arguments therein. I further wonder if any serious response has been made to Rowan's analysis since the book was published in 2012.

The final lecture in this section addresses the tendency nowadays for people to prefer 'spirituality' to 'religion', but questions the individualism and privatisation under the state that such language assumes. I remember reading a paper in which the writer urged the disbanding of organised churches and the assembling of like-minded 'liberals' who could associate together in the development of a new form of spirituality. I asked how such an atomised peer group would take responsibility for (and on what basis) caring for the poor, the unlovely and those who do not share their premises, and what power such a group would have to challenge injustice on grounds other than convenience or mere opinion/preference. I didn't get an answer.

Journalists used to tell me that Rowan Williams was to obtuse and difficult to read. I used to respond that they were just too lazy to persist – some things are complex and resist simplification. Reading these lectures, I have not changed my mind.

(And the question of the valid/essential role of religion in the public square is not one that Barth would have wasted a moment on, given the choices that had to be made in the face of the rise of Hitler and the criminal nature of 'public truth' in the Germany of the 1930s and '40s.)

Dr Peter Zocher & Prof Dr Martin Wallraff at Karl Barth's house in Basel


Today, apart from taking time to start on Rowan Williams's excellent and demanding Faith in the Public Square, I met an academic friend at the University of Basel and then we went to visit Karl Barth's house and archive.

Barth's house is not marked in any way and I wouldn't have found it by myself. The archivist, Dr Peter Zocher, was very welcoming – and is clearly an expert on the great man. I know this is really cringy, but I found it moving to hold in my hand Karl Barth's copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf and read the margin notes, underlinings, question marks and exclamation marks he had written in pencil. Having replaced that, Peter then opened up a document file and showed me the original handwritten draft of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 – probably one of the most important political and theological documents of the twentieth century.

I have to keep reminding myself that Barth didn't know how the story would end. As Hitler consolidated his power, it took great courage and clarity of mind to challenge him and the violent worldview he was soon to inflict on the whole world. All Barth and his friends had to go on was what they saw and heard at that point, and yet they recognised the evil that was being grown among them. (Barth himself refused to swear the personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, resigned his professorial chair at Bonn, and moved back to Basel.)

I also looked through Barth's personal copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's first books – including Nachfolge (translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship). Again, he had marked the text with questions and comments I couldn't decipher.

There is something powerful about holding and reading books that had belonged to, been read by and marked by a giant of twentieth century theology.

However, what I found haunting – and very difficult to put out of my mind – was the discrepancy between the theological sharpness of Barth and his domestic arrangements. Charlotte von Kirschbaum had moved in to the Barth home in Germany and moved with the family (his wife, Nelly, and their five children) to Basel. They lived, effectively, as a ménage-à-trois until von Kirschbaum was elderly and ill. Karl died in 1968, Charlotte in 1975 (after suffering from Alzheimer's for many years), and Nelly was the last to pass away in 1976. All three are buried in the same grave in Basel's main cemetery.

Barth's social skills were not great. Those still alive who remember him relate how difficult it was to know how to handle him. If you wanted to invite him for dinner, who did you invite come with him – Nelly, Charlotte or both? When Barth was away he would write letters to Charlotte, but never to his wife.

One of my abiding questions is how we judge theology in the light of the experience of those who propagate a particular theology. For example, does the fact that Heidegger supported Hitler (which Barth condemned) influence the credibility of his theological perspectives or his philosophical project? Is there a relationship between the nature of Rudolf Bultmann's theology and the fact that he was able to retain his professorial chair under Hitler when other Christians were paying a very high price for their discipleship of Jesus? And, if we are to take this seriously, how does the reality of Barth's domestic relationships impinge on his theology – especially the clarity of his ethical writings?

Or doesn't it matter?

Correction: I had misunderstood a point about Barth's letters. He wrote many letters to his wife, too, but these have not been published. Barth put in his last will and testament that his private correspondence with his wife should not be published.

Every three years the churches around what is called the Rhein-Knie (Rhine knee) get together for a day of worship, celebration, consultation and serious discussion of current issues. They come from Switzerland, Germany and France – thousands of them. This time it’s in Basel and it’s boiling in the sun.

The Münster was full to overflowing for the opening service (done in French and Gerrman) this morning and the seminars began after lunch. The session I was in wasn’t brilliantly attended, but began with some music. We got to hear singing in five different languages – the songs of people from other parts of the world. By singing their songs in their languages we enter a (very) little into their experience of God and the world. We also get a reminder that some things cannot be translated – you have to ‘feel the depth’ of the untranslatable language – and this at least generates a bit of humility, if not humiliation. To sing the songs of others in their language reminds us also that God is not monochrome, monolingual or monocultural.

But where else other than in church would people get this experience today – a unique opportunity for many people? A similar question that bugs me about young people and some ‘fresh expressions of church’ (the ones that are really ‘peer’ churches) is how in today’s world it might be possible for children and young people to have generous relationships with elderly people outside of their family. Where can children listen to and learn from the experiences of adults whose lives and wisdom might just have something to teach us that can’t be learned from a computer or telly? Children need good relationships with adults outside the family if they are to mature.

Here again, the church must regain it’s confidence in being probably the only institution that regularly brings together in a single community of relationships people of all ages. That’s why I am suspicious of the limitations of some forms of church which simply bring together people who like each other and are like each other. It might be more interesting and less frustrating, but I am not sure it is what church is meant to be.

Anyway (!), this Basel Kirchentag brings together people of most ages (haven’t seen too many younger people yet) and they come from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Free churches and other odds and sods of church genres. And the main theme of the multiplicity of seminars? Not churchy stuff. Not ecumenical relations. Not mere spirituality to feed the individual (there are other places for that). No, here the question has to do with the role of the churches in addressing the aftermath of the financial crises of the last three years, the impact of these on relationships and families, and how to get a Christian voice/perspective heard in the shaping of the future.

They bring perspectives and proposals from three countries, three cultures and three languages to the common task of building a good society for all. And it is notable for not only repeating the imperative of standing alongside those who suffer, but also that of helping build something positive and new for the future.

What I need to think through as I prepare to go to Dresden on Wednesday for the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag (150,000 people) is how the church in England can find a way not only of standing with those who suffer, but inspiring those who will use both their gifts and their wealth – however understood – to build the society our children will soon see as ‘normal’. Standing with the suffering is vital, but it isn’t the only responsibility we have.

Basel has seen some religious battles and controversies in past centuries. Today the only scrap is around the Cup Final which is taking place in Basel, but doesn’t involve FC Basel.