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

Who’d have thought that the Summer Silly Season would begin with a social media debate about Latin?

The Education Secretary’s announcement that Latin will once again be taught in 40 more state schools ignited an explosion of opinions about its value. The cynics see it as a nod to conservative nostalgia, others see it as utterly pointless – teaching children a dead language. I have to confess, my first reaction was: if Latin can make you as happy as Mary Beard and Tom Holland, why not make everyone do it?

But, there is a serious argument to be had about learning ancient languages – and I speak as a former professional linguist who didn’t learn Latin or Greek at school and regrets it.

Yes, it’s understandable that some people think it a waste of time to learn something that has no economic development potential (unless, of course, you happen to have invented the Asterix franchise – to which I say hic, haec, hoc). But, despite current assumptions, economic value is not the ultimate goal of civilisation or the acme of human meaning. Character cannot be cashed out.

Educating a person is not the same thing as training her for a job. And isn’t it strange that the term ‘vocational courses’ – from the Latin vocare, of course – now usually refers to technical qualifications? Are our children really destined only to be cogs in an economic wheel – commodities in a competitive market? Or are they people whose mind and imagination need essentially to be teased and stretched and ignited and kindled – because, in Christian terms, they are made in the image of God … to be creative?

I well remember my first day at university – studying French and German, but not very good at either.  The professor told us bluntly that there is no point speaking a foreign language if you have nothing to say in it.

This goes to the heart of what is known as the Wisdom Literature in the Bible. The book of Proverbs nails it in its opening words when the writer extols “learning about wisdom and instruction, … understanding words of insight, … gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity…” So, when his contemporaries marvel at the wisdom of the young Jesus, this is the tradition that explains what they meant.

So, the learning of Latin is, in and of itself, not a useful end. But, it is a means to an end – opening up the mind and imagination; giving access to the wisdom and follies of past civilisations; reminding us what education is really for.

Producat illum, I say: bring it on.

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

The Power of Words

“Actions speak louder than words”. I hear that quite a lot; but, although I know what is meant, I think it is wrong. To speak is to act. Language is performative – it does something, changes something. For example, it is the speaking of the vows in a wedding that makes the marriage.

The story goes that St Francis of Assisi told his friars to “Go out and preach the Gospel; use words, if you have to.” Well… if he did actually say it, was he right? We use words all the time to think and speak and make sense of the world; so, language matters – words matter. They do something. The fourth Gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the word…”. Go back to Genesis and the word is: “Let there be.”

A few weeks ago I convened an online conference led by scientists for a couple of hundred clergy about the current pandemic. We started off asking why we use particular metaphors as a lens through which to see or think about what is happening. In brief, why is it that in the UK we use language of conflict and combat – fighting, struggling, defeating, cowering, bravery, and so on – whereas in Germany, for example, they seem to have used imagery of “damming a flood” – particularly pertinent at the moment? An enemy is personalised, a flood isn’t.

We normally just accept the language presented as the frame through which we then interpret what is going on. But, like cancer and serious illness, words of combat and fight might not be the best. If your loved one dies, have they been defeated? Were they not up to it? You see what I mean? Words are never neutral and always carry consequences – think of the impact of blessing or cursing. They also have limits.

One of the metaphors I take from my reading of the Bible is that of “running the race that is before you” – and not just because the Olympics are on in Japan. This image insists on agency, seeing value in how I live and behave in whatever circumstances I find myself. Yet, racing conjures up different notions: a sprint is pure competition; a relay involves both competitiveness and cooperation.

At the heart of all this is an appreciation that we cannot control – or win – everything. Coming full circle, words matter because they unconsciously shape how we see and look and think and act. The question I am left with is: do I pay enough attention to the words and metaphors I use – and the way they shape the world?

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

One personal casualty of current travel restrictions is a long-planned trip to Germany in May where I was booked to preach in Eisenach in the church where Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised and where Martin Luther preached. Looming on the hill above the town is the Wartburg – the castle where Luther was held for his own protection.

Today is the 500th anniversary of the event that led him there. He was summoned to the city of Worms where the Emperor, accompanied by the princes, listened to Luther’s defence against accusations of heresy. The Diet of Worms was not, as many children assume, a bad food day; rather, it was more of an inquisitorial court which had the power to condemn a man completely.

The story goes that Luther concluded his defence against the charges with the bold statement: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Even though there is no evidence that he did actually say this, it sums up his position well and justifies the pair of socks I was given in His home town of Wittenberg that has it imprinted on the sole.

What I find interesting about this episode is that it was Luther’s courage that gave credibility to his position as a reformer rather than purely the content of his theology. People so admired the personal bravery of a man who was willing to deliver himself into the hands of the authorities that they then paid attention to what he was saying.

In other words, character was as important as content when it came to the credibility of his case – what we today call virtue ethics. Luther would not recognise the term, but he exemplified it. He was a complex man who demonstrated the resilience and determination to stand up for the truth (as he saw it in the Bible), but he was also rude, obstinate and difficult. While he was being protected in the Wartburg – and translating the New Testament into German, a work of historical and cultural significance – his colleague Andreas Karlstadt took up the Reformation mantle; but, when Luther emerged a year later, he reversed many of the changes Karlstadt had made.

Luther is recognisable as, fundamentally, a disciple of Jesus. I wonder if, when he was translating the gospels in the Wartburg, he saw in the first followers of Jesus a similar complexity to his own. For the early apostles and Saints were just as complicated, obdurate and contradictory as he was.

Luther stood before the emperor on this day in 1521 not knowing if he would see tomorrow. What his courage demonstrates is that nothing is inevitable in history – that the world is changed by people who embody integrity today – who love truth, even when they have their own limited relationship to it.

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

Back in 2010 in Munich I attended a remarkable public conversation about the nature of the Church between two elderly academic theologians from Tübingen: the Protestant Jürgen Moltmann and Roman Catholic priest Hans Küng.

Küng died a few days ago at the age of 93, leaving behind him a long legacy of intellectual and spiritual enquiry. He wrote prolifically, always unafraid of truth and undaunted by the opposition he engendered within the Church hierarchy. His approach is probably best summed up when he realised as a child that he could swim “because the water’s supporting me”. What he called “the venture of faith” could not be proved theoretically by doing a course on dry land. In other words, commending or deriding the exercise of faith could not be done from any place of security, distant or removed from the experience of actually living it.

And this is where Küng found his courage and clarity. He not only dug deeply into theological themes, but also pursued, in conjunction with the world faiths, what a “global ethic” for the religions might look like. In 1993 he famously declared that there could be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

This is where Küng was remarkable. He refused to separate intellectual curiosity from the search for truth – both rooted in his passionate commitment to Jesus Christ. Although his persistent challenges led to his licence to teach in the Roman Catholic faculty in Tübingen being removed, he continued in academia and in exercising his ministry as a priest. He once remarked to an interviewer that “I do not have many prejudices before starting, as I do not fear the outcome.”

This was evident in the conversation in Munich. Apart from teasing each other about things they had said in the past, they also agreed that Christians should be like human beings: eat and drink together first, then discuss theology afterwards. It is a nonsense to do it the other way round, they said.

And it is this that goes to the heart of Küng’s often controversial views. Mutual hospitality creates the context in which committed, curious, honest and intelligent conversation can emerge. Our common humanity is the starting point, rather than the evident points of difference.

Some people assume that religious people must live in two worlds: what their ‘church’ tells them to believe, and what they actually believe. Küng took Jesus seriously in denying the split. In 2009 he published ‘What I Believe’, demonstrating that nobody need fear the outcome of such rigorous and honest exploration. But, believing meant commitment, not just intellectual assent to a set of ideas.

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

Winston Churchill is famous for many things and renowned for his way with words. It is a little ironic, then, that what I always associate him with is a brick wall.

If you go around the back of his house at Chartwell in Kent, there is a walled garden. One wall was built entirely by him as he tried to cope with the black dog, his deep depression. The first time I saw this wall I wondered: why a wall?

Well, it struck me eventually that if you are building a wall in solitude – and remember there would have been silence rather than the ubiquitous noise and talk and music we carry around with us today – you have to stop thinking about other things, focus on one point, and pay attention to detail. It slows you down, narrows the focus for a time, shuts out the distractions that can debilitate a fragile mind. You have to look and stare and coordinate hand with eye and material stuff.

Silence and paying attention to one thing.

Around the world today, Good Friday, Christians will contemplate the events and meaning of the day when Jesus, having celebrated a final meal with his friends – a meal, ironically, heralding liberation – is brought to trial before an imperial governor. It is clear where power lies in such an encounter. Yet, Jesus remains silent in the face of questioning and, subsequently, goes to his execution.

Betrayed, denied and deserted by his close friends, he suffers in silence. Today many Christians will sit in front of a wooden cross and, in unhurried silence, look at the wood, recall the events of the first Good Friday, and let their imagination run while the questions are fed by the mystery of meaning.

But, this is no idle staring at some material idol. Rather, it is the quiet space in which we refuse to fill the gaps with noise or words, decline to run away from the agonising reality of human suffering, resist the powerful urge to avoid the pain. Contemplation of the cross is no empty escapism; in fact, it is the opposite.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas, in his poem The Letter, writes: “I gaze myself into accepting that to pray true is to say nothing.” This is the same poet who once wrote: “History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

Today’s gazing and silence creates a unique space in which, coloured by the story in the gospel books, I can face the realities of a fragile world, own the undeserved suffering of too many people, and refuse to give in to easy answers.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning after the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris:

Why is it that the same words spoken by two different people can have such a different effect.

For example, listen to me read Shakespeare … and then listen to an actor use the same words. It’s the same with liturgy: one person grabs the attention of a congregation and they go through the words to a different place; someone else does it and it’s like having the telephone directory read out.

I say this because yesterday’s inauguration ceremony in Washington was pregnant with resonant language. For example, that we should be judged not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. A truism? Maybe. But, the words create a space, suggesting a first word and not the final nail in a dogma. There is room to explore – as my own imagination did during the ceremony.

“Here we stand”, said the President. And I thought of Martin Luther, standing in front of the emperor five hundred years ago and articulating that all-too-human predicament: I hold to this conviction, but with vulnerability before the potential cost. We heard of St Augustine, often maligned as the original sinner when it comes to sex, but who couldn’t escape the depths of love and grace and mercy. We heard Amazing Grace – a familiar hymn which is dragged from the depths of a complex and conflicted man (John Newton) who knew that when all is stripped away, we are left with a human fragility that knows its need of unmerited generosity and mercy. As Jesus told his friends prior to his own death: if you are to live and give grace, you need first to recognise your own need of it and receive it.

The thing about yesterday was that, whether spoken or accompanied by music, words have the power to transcend mere pragmatism – policies and how to enact them in legislation, for instance; they inspire the imagination. This is language that resonates, that is spacious, that lifts our eyes and hearts to perceive an experience that might hitherto have eluded us.

I think this is what was being addressed yesterday. Not the language of settling scores. Not an articulation of pride or self-consciousness. Not an expression of dry dogma. But, as Amanda Gorman illustrated, a poetry that clears a way for hope.

Surely it’s the poets who penetrate the jungle of defended argument and debate. For the poet uses words to shine light from a different angle, surprising the imagination, subverting expectation, and opening our eyes to a new possibility.

In silent vigil for those who have died of Covid, Joe Biden said: “To heal, we must remember.” I would add: “ To heal, we must be surprised by subversive words of love.”

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

Before the latest lockdown I watched a man painting white lines in a park. The reason I stopped was simply that I was curious to know what game the white lines were going to frame. Before working out where to put them on the grass, you first have to know what game you want to play.

Now, this sounds obvious, I know. But, in the current climate it perhaps suggests something useful as the whole country tries to work out how to behave, which rules to follow and what guidance is most important. Repeated mantras of “it is absolutely clear” fail to recognise that clarity is defined by the hearer and not primarily the speaker. Hence, the first rule of communication: it’s not what you say that matters, but what is heard.

I am used to this. The gospels are full of Jesus telling a story or offering an image after which he asks the audience: “Do you know what I mean? Have you got the ears to hear?” Clearly, some couldn’t hear, didn’t want to hear, or refused to hear.

This is pertinent at a time when many people are clearly struggling to know how to behave best – within the white lines of rules and guidance. Does ‘best’ mean ‘in a way that makes me comfortable’ or ‘in a way that protects me and other people’? The point about white lines on a pitch is that everyone in the game knows where the ball can be played, can choose where to run, and is free to be creative within the parameters.

Debates in the last week about compliance with government rules come down to this. If I am to choose well, I need to understand not only where the white lines are, but also what game I think I’m playing. Mature citizenship can be exercised where people know why they are being expected to behave in particular ways – what the game is and how to play it.

For example, if I think the most important thing in the world is my individual freedom, unconstrained by the security of other people in a common and interdependent society, I will filter out guidance that infringes that freedom to do as I like. If, on the other hand, I take seriously that inherent interdependence, I might be ready to sacrifice my individual freedom on the altar of the common good.

To reprise the white lines theme, I might sacrifice my moment of glory by letting someone else score the goal that gives the team a victory. In my terms, this means, in the words of St Paul: “Do nothing from selfish ambition, … but look to the interests of others”.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as the uncertainty over the US presidential election continues.

A few years ago, while staying with friends near Philadelphia, we visited the place where the Constitution of the United States was signed on 17 September 1787. Famously, the Constitution opens with the words: “We the people…”. I remember standing in the chamber itself and wondering who the Founders had in mind when they used that phrase.

Well, in a sort of odd symmetry, tomorrow is the anniversary of the election of probably America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. And it was this simple-but-problematic phrase that posed Lincoln with his biggest challenge: does ‘the people’ include black people and slaves? The next few years saw civil war and the tearing apart of a country over precisely this question.

It’s not a question that has since gone away. What was remarkable about Lincoln, though, was the way he treated his political opponents. As Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates in her exceptional book A Team of Rivals, Lincoln brought into his close cabinet the very people who had run against him for the presidency and who variously undermined him, fought against him and tried to compromise his leadership. He knew that a country for all the people included his opponents and not just his supporters.

Lincoln summed up this approach when he said: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” In another context he said of an opponent: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Some would say this is politically naive. I think Lincoln understood something vital to a good society – that ‘the people’ has to include all the people and not just the winners in an election. And in this understanding Lincoln drew from a biblical tradition that explored how societies are built from mutual obligations, common commitments and the privileges of belonging.

In the Old Testament the liberated people of Israel take forty years in a desert learning not only the need for social order based on freedom and responsibility, but also for establishing common rituals that re-frame their story, remind them why people matter, and impose boundaries of value and behaviour within which their newly-found freedom can be enjoyed.

Lincoln also draws on Jesus seeing his enemies as people to be loved and not rejected or despised. Naive? In a world that worships power and glory and glamour? Maybe. Both Jesus and Lincoln paid a heavy price.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the US election, Lincoln’s courage might have something to offer.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in 1966.

Some things we see or hear in the news stick in the mind for ever. I was a small child when JFK was assassinated and I remember the fear in my home about what it might mean for the world. But, one of the images that has haunted me since this day in 1966 is the destroyed town of Aberfan in Wales when a coal tip slid over houses and a school and killed a generation of children. The images of that day – and since – evoke a terrible empty pain.

I now live in Yorkshire where evidence of the pits that mostly closed in the 1980s has disappeared. Hills of black stuff have long been landscaped and children in those communities now see fields and hills and playgrounds where a previous generation saw their life and livelihood.

Beautifying a landscape does nothing to wipe out the past and all it represented. Memory of community life and belonging goes along with the tragedies and losses of an industry that was dangerous and costly for many people. Lives lost and society built are, literally, buried in the seeds that grow the grass on the redeemed hills.

What these communities and their landscapes demonstrate, however, is that brokenness can be transformed by beauty. Ugliness and tragedy need not have the final word. Time moves on and we transform the landscape in order not to wipe out the past or de-value previous generations. Scars bear witness to both the wound and the healing. New life can come.

This is particularly pertinent as we live through a time of uncertainty when we have little or no idea what the future might hold or what it might look like for the generation of children who are at school or university now. Yet, it is essential, surely, that we hold out images of hope, of re-creation and future beauty that will see some healing of the scars of the current brutality.

For a personal image on which to hook my hope, I turn to the encounter of Thomas with the risen Jesus. Propaganda would have had the body of the risen Jesus looking beautiful and clean, with all traces of horror or suffering removed. What we get, however, is not some opiate for the people. Jesus is the same, but different. Remarkably, he still bears the wound marks of crucifixion in his hands and feet and side. And he isn’t squeamish about inviting Thomas to touch the wounds.

Like the landscaped scars of Yorkshire and Aberfan, the past cannot be romanticised. But, our children need to know it can be healed.

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

What does it feel like when the shape of your world changes overnight and everything you take to be normal disappears – a familiar experience in the pandemic?

I ask the question because we are now marking two connected anniversaries: the formal creation of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949 … and German reunification on 3 October 1990. The GDR only existed for half a century, but, for some people, it was their lifetime … and then it was gone.

For many people in the east of Germany reunification was a takeover that valued little from the GDR and sowed seeds of resentments that are being watered today. Ostalgie is a hankering for value.

This is not new. In these times of uncertainty I’ve been re-reading one of the foundational stories of the Bible: the exodus. Moses, the reluctant liberator, led his oppressed people out of slavery in Egypt towards a life of freedom. Yet, they now found themselves not in some instant shangri-la, but in an empty desert. And gratitude did not last long.

Almost immediately the people started complaining. And moaning about the current shapelessness of their life soon led to romanticism about the past and a form of nostalgia that quickly forgot recent reality. And while this was going on, poor old Moses had to pay attention to how to shape a future in an uncertain world. Freedom from does not lead inevitably to freedom for. How to create a good society depends on more than a dislike or selective remembering of an old bad one.

Well, according to the story, a whole generation of nostalgics had to die off before the next generation could disempower nostalgia and look to creating a different future.

Which brings me back to the German question. Was the GDR a desert experience between National Socialism and Merkel’s land? Or is the current arrangement also a transitory journey towards another land – for good or ill? No society knows what will come next. The present is always transitory – we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’.

Moses’ people had to unlearn the dependencies of captivity and take responsibility for their common life. This involved the hard stuff of enshrining justice and mercy in community, polity and law – protecting poor and marginalised people, ensuring that justice could not be bought and that powerful people can be held to account.

Past glories – imagined or real – do not shape a good future. Only a humble commitment to justice can do that – however often we might fall short.