One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.


Isn't it a crying shame that the Guide Movement didn't read Lord Sacks' Spectator piece on the (not-so) new atheistm before evacuating the Girl Guide Promise of meaning and filling it with vacuous nonsense?

Mention of God has gone, replaced by “be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. Which, no doubt, will please anyone who thinks there is such a thing as a 'neutral', content-free or assumptionless language or worldview. It beggars belief.

Does it really mean that any belief will do – á la Joseph's 'any dream will do' nonsense? Really any belief? Or only those deemed acceptable… by whom… and on what basis?

Content-free language does not create neutral self-consciousness; it merely empties all language of meaning. And that does not create safe little altruistic models of moderation; it opens the door to little Hitlers as well as Snow Whites.

Even those who are glad to see God go must be embarrassed by what has replaced him.


Following Morning prayer and breakfast, the College of Bishops meeting then breaks down into small groups for Lectio Divina – which is simply a way of engaging everyone in a reading of and reflection on a passage from the Bible. It is always fascinating and surprising to see who focuses on what in the same text. I always see differently because I am compelled to look through someone else’s eyes and listen to their perspective.

This morning’s reading was from John 12 and concluded with Jesus saying something that looks obviously intelligible until you dig into it. The particular bit says this:

“Jesus said to them, The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

I thought it interesting that Jesus says ‘walk’ and not ‘sit’. Time marches on, day follows night, and darkness has a habit of overtaking us when we simply sit still and enjoy where we are. But, that isn’t the point that really got to me.

What did Jesus mean by inviting us to ‘believe’ in the light. How do you ‘believe’ in the light? Either it is light or it isn’t. How do you not believe in what you can see?

Well, I think this simply fails to understand what is meant by the word ‘believe’.

Jesus’s mission statement summary in Mark 1:14-15 has four elements: (a) ‘The time is fulfilled’ – now is the time when God is among us again; (b) ‘the kingdom of God has come near’ – the presence and rule of God for which you have been praying for centuries is here now; (c) ‘repent’ – if you are to recognise the presence of God among you, you are going to have to change the way you look; (d) ‘believe in the good news’ – now commit yourself body, mind and spirit to what you now see.

Jesus’s audience could only see God’s return evidenced by the expulsion of the Romans and the resolution of their ‘problems’. Jesus asks them to see the presence of God in the midst of their problems, not just when everything is sorted out to their satisfaction. Jesus then says that those who can dare to look differently should now live accordingly. And that is what ‘believing in’ means: commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see… which is the transforming presence of Jesus himself, shedding different light on where we are and where we are heading.

Thus, ‘believing’ is not about girding up your loins and summoning up all your credulity. ‘Faith’ is not (as one little girl is said to have said) about ‘believing what you know isn’t true’. It is not about giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It is not about pretending to see what we don’t see – on the grounds that we feel we ought to do so. It is about seeing the world as Jesus does – in the light he sheds – and then throwing ourselves into it.

Seen this way, believing has more to do with curiosity and a sense of adventure, and less to do with nailing down all the details. it is the starting point, not the destination.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


My grandson is almost seven months old. He lives with his mum and dad in Liverpool. On the notice board in my office I have a big photo of him. He’s laughing all over his face… wearing his first Liverpool kit. No wonder he’s happy.

Does dressing him in a Liverpool kit mean that he is being brainwashed or indoctrinated by narrow-minded parents and grandparents? Well, if one line of argument is right, we should probably all be in court for ‘shaping’ the little lad and not allowing him to grow up and make up his own mind.

One of the bizarre things clergy often get told is that parents want their baby baptised, but that they don’t want the child to be brought up in the life of the Church because ‘we want him/her to make his/her own mind up’. Apparently, this applies to religion, but not to any other aspect of a child’s life. So, we can play a particular type of music, provide any nurture framework shaped by any worldview or set of values, dress the kiddies according to our taste and… and pretend that this is all neutral territory and value-free in any ‘indoctrination’ sense. But, when it comes to shaping a child’s world view (which issues in practice and habit), anything is OK provided it isn’t religious.

How have we got to a position where some people think (uncritically assume?) that there is some ‘neutral’ ground – which they occupy – over against the ‘loaded’ ground occupied by, for example, religious people?

There is no neutral, value-free territory. Every child is brought up according to some world view or value framework which is often not argued for.

What has brought this to mind is the rather odd view I heard on the radio this afternoon in the context of the latest fostering controversy. It was to the effect that people are free to believe whatever they want, provided they don’t do anything with it. In other words, ‘belief’ is a private opinion which can only be acted upon if it conforms to someone else’s assumed norms.

So, if you ‘believe’ that living according to the precepts of Jesus Christ is good or essential, you are supposed to keep your ‘belief’ in the realms of opinion. But, if you ‘believe’ that no negative  judgement should ever be made about any other practice or lifestyle, that is a ‘belief’ that can be given free rein. Is that not weird?

This is the real question behind some of the noisy debates occupying both airwaves and the digital world. Who decides what is ‘neutral’? And when did ‘belief’ get reduced to mere private opinion when inconvenient to those who consider themselves to be ‘neutral’?

These aren’t the only questions, but it seems to me that they are the ones most ignored.