This the script of a radio Thought for the Day which I didn’t broadcast yesterday:

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.” So wrote Jean Kerr in 1957 in her introduction to Please don’t eat the Daisies. Well, it’s one way of looking at a crisis, I suppose.

Of course, one of the most used words these days is just that: crisis. And it appears usually to describe a very negative state of affairs – one full of challenge and despair.

However, the word seems to derive from the latinised form of the Greek ‘krisis’ which indicates ‘judgement’. The verb ‘krinein’ means “to separate, judge or decide”. Which all sheds a different light not only on the word, but also on the situation in which we find ourselves.

“Never waste a crisis!” we hear – often, I suspect, from people who don’t have to endure one. But, if ‘crisis’ refers to a point of decision or judgement, then it might be worth dwelling on it for a moment.

In the New Testament Jesus speaks of judgement in terms of the need for a decision which will impact on the whole of life. Whether or not to follow him and see the world through his eyes was more than a lifestyle choice. It wasn’t that his disciples were offered a range of fulfilment options from which they could choose the most appealing. Rather, they were offered something rather sharp: follow me – in this uncertain world which you can’t actually control – and you will probably end up, like me, on a cross.

Or, in the words of that epic speech in Trainspotting, “choose life” by facing up to what you decide really matters when all is stripped away and, faced with your own mortality, you have to choose which way to go. Or whom to follow.

I find this particularly poignant this month because it is 75 years since the execution of the young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His theological ethics told him he shouldn’t kill; but he was implicated in the failed bomb plot to kill Hitler. He had to choose. And he faced the cost of that choice before making it.

In the current pandemic crisis the choices might seem less stark. But, they still have to do with life and death – not least whose death might be acceptable; they have to do with that fundamental question about whether the economy serves society or people the economy; they have to do with choosing how to take responsibility for re-ordering society in the future on the basis of a better and more humane vision for the world.

I think one place to start might be to consider the impact of this pandemic on people in countries where they do not have the resources to do what we can choose to do in the UK. Our choice will indicate whether we love our neighbour or not.

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

I live not far from Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters. The youngest, Anne, was born two hundred years ago today. One line from her writing stands out for me: “He who does not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” – which is a bit more poetic than “Get stuck in, whatever the cost.”

This is the sort of notion that hit me when I was out in Sudan last year, speaking at a diplomatic conference on freedom of religion and belief at a time of protest and instability there. Meeting with protesters, academics and lawyers, it became clear that they held a variety of views on how a future Sudanese society should be shaped. They were united in wanting freedom and justice, but that unity got thorny when conversation got onto detail and process.

Of course, the other thing they had in common was a willingness to put their body and life where their opinions and convictions lay. So many of the Sudanese people I knew there shared this understanding: that opinion has to be backed up with action, and action might incur a cost.

After this week in Khartoum I went to Jena in Germany. On arrival I was asked to take part in the dedication of a memorial to the young German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. Bonhoeffer was hanged a month before the end of the war. For him, theology was not a matter of an internal world of vague spirituality; rather, it involved discerning the character and call of God in the real world of the Third Reich and then committing himself to its consequences. Put crudely, if human beings are made in the image of God, then destroying them is not on.

It is this element of commitment that appears to be absent from much of what passes for debate in the ‘any dream will do’ generation. The vision I have for people and society must demand of me the sort of action and commitment that must in turn cost something.

When I read the gospels, this screams out of every text. It’s why the child Jesus argues with the theologians in the Temple; why he stands silently in front of Pontius Pilate, questioning who is actually being judged and where power really lies; why he never sweetens the vocational pill, but tells people that if they do choose to come and walk with him, then they’ll probably share his fate. No illusion, fantasy or seduction – just reality. Don’t crave the rose if you aren’t prepared first to grasp the thorn.

It seems to me that today every opinion is valid. But, I suggest, the only ones worth taking seriously are those that cost.

The excellent Bishop of Hannover, Ralf Meister, delivered a brief ‘greeting’ on behalf of the Evangelischer Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) and ecumenical guests at the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in York. The bishop is also the newly-appointed German co-chair of the Meissen Commission, so I look forward hugely to working with him (as the English co-chair) in the next few years. The text of his address, coming in the light of the decision by the UK to leave the European Union, follows:


It is a great honour to attend this General Synod of the Church of England and to convey to you today the cordial greetings of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

I bring to you the greetings of the Council of the EKD, by the chairman of the council Bishop Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm,

the greetings of the plenary church conference and the presidium of the Synod, personally from the chair of the presidium Mrs. Schwätzer.

When I give you my regards as the Bishop of Hannover, there is a common bond between us. Because King Georg I. was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Kingdom of Hanover).

You come together in turbulent times. I’m aware that the decision in Great Britain for the Brexit is a national democratic decision, but with due respect for that, it has an enormous impact on the international, especially the European Situation and for Germany as well.

Please allow me to make short remarks about the new fragile European situation and our responsibility as Christians.

First: I was irritated, that the main reaction in Germany about the Brexit was a discussion about the financial and economic consequences of this referendum. The European dream is a dream of humanity and justice and not the question whether the stock-exchange is placed in London or in Frankfurt or about the future of the single market. But most important: The idea of Europe is based on shared values and peace.

Recently we remembered the Battle of Somme in 1916.

When we look for some voices, which proclaim a European perspective rooted in Christian values, we find this voice in words and music from your nation: in the War Requiem from Benjamin Britten with the poetry from Wilfred Owen. Owen fought in the war zone of Somme and died in 1918: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. […] All a poet can do today is warn.” Owen spoke as a Christian. What a strong sign of hope and reconciliation it was, when the War Requiem was first performed in the cathedral of Coventry in 1962. It will be the Christian charge, to warn of a separated Europe – in all the tendencies for a new nationalism and the modern attraction of political populists. A Europe split in gated national communities will undermine a common period of social, economic, cultural and peaceful welfare in Europe.

But the duty for the churches in Europe is not only to warn, but to give our people the hope, that the liberation in God’s grace will be the condition for a profound understanding of freedom, justice and peace.


We in the EKD are on the way to celebrate the Jubilee of the Reformation in 2017. It will be the first jubilee in 500 years, which we celebrate in a deep ecumenical understanding with other denominations parallel to a fruitful interreligious dialog with Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others. So we realise, that “the reformation is a world citizen”. It interconnects us in a strong line with Christians all over the world.

The Meissen-Agreement states: „We will take steps to closer fellowship in as many areas as possible, so that all our members together may advance on the way to full visible unity.“

This is an ecumenical sentence, first for us and our churches. This is a sentence of faith and of hope. But this is also a strong political proclamation for our worldwide responsibility as Christians; a responsibility to take the challenges of the modern, complex and anxious world as an invitation from God himself to work for his creation.

In this world, “right” answers are not easily found. But we have the task to witness our belief in God to practice tolerance and to engage in difficult dialogues.

Christianity has a history of interdenominational persecutions, discriminations, violence and war. We know, that it took centuries to come from “conflict to communion” and live in “reconciled difference”. May we owe our countries the story of the long way to the house of our neighbours? We owe our people the story of tolerance and acceptance, of respect and dialogue, of reconciliation and peace in the light of the gospel.

We need a strong common narration of Europe in which our Christian experiences are still decisive.

Christians are resilient and resistant people. We are strengthened in the hope from the creator of heaven and earth.

The liberating message of the gospel was in the midst of the reformation. We listen to that message in different contexts and exciting times, like these troubling days in Europe.

The reformation was a catalyst for a new understanding of the church’s role in society. In that tradition we stand. In England as well as in Germany, in the Anglican Church as well as in the Evangelical Church in Germany.

Let me end with a word from the protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his “Letters and Papers from Prison”:

“Choose and do what is right, not what fancy takes,

Not weighing the possibilities, but bravely grasping the real,
Not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there freedom.
Come away from your anxious hesitations into the storm of events,
Carried by God’s command and your faith alone.
Then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.”

(Widerstand und Ergebung, DBW, Bd 8, S.571)

God bless your synod.

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.

Aha! I see a thread developing here.

I am on sabbatical (study leave) and in Basel for a couple of weeks. Staying with good friends, I can't spend all day every day reading my books – so, I have managed one film (documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), two football matches, lots of walking, browsing in bookshops, reading in cafes, meeting people, chatting with friends, visiting a radio studio (Basilisk), sleeping, and so on. I can hardly believe it.

I have already posted on three of the books I have read in my first few days: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Wright on Virtue Reborn and Miroslav Volf on A Public Faith. Yesterday and today – in the margins of fun stuff – I read Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian. Like the others, he ranges through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and … er … Bonhoeffer, but also has a good go at Roman Catholic Social Teaching, Methodist theological ethics and other stuff en route.

Now, it is in an interesting collection of essays and sermons on broadly ethical themes. But, it is a little inconsistent in dynamic. Anyway, I don't want here to go deep into a critique or exploration of his views – I would have to be clever to do that; instead, I want to point to four things that struck me while reading the text today. And, I'm not joking, it isn't deep.

1. If I pay £25 for a paperback, I expect that a proofreader will have added punctuation, removed typos and questioned syntax. OK, I expect to have to translate from American into English (both in language, style and context), but, like reading Walter Brueggemann, I had to read half the sentences twice before I understood them. Apart from an odd use of words and phrasing, some sentences are just unnecessarily complicated. Where was the editor?

2. Constant references to Wittgenstein were helpful – especially where they explained Wittgenstein. But, every time I see or hear his name, I also see that photograph of him in the same primary school class as Adolf Hitler. Same education, different outcomes. Maybe education can't – in and of itself – save the world, after all.

3. Bonhoeffer, Wright, Volf and Hauerwas all have something to say about liturgy and the worship language/performance of the church. What struck me, however, was a question arising from a statement: the worship of the church asserts in the world a reality that the world does not see as being real – that the church will live now according to the way of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated; and every act of worship is, in one sense a defiant affirmation of humanity as it should be, of the world now as it one day shall be, of life itself as it should be. What would happen if every clergyperson/worship leader prepared for and led every liturgy with this sense of ultimate hope and defiance, deliberately conscious of doing something powerfully prophetic in the here and now of people's lives?

4. In one sense unrelated to the above, but in the fuss going on in England about bishops banging on about foodbanks and poverty (how dare they?), it has been pointed out that many or most people in the churches agree strongly with the need for welfare reform. Two questions: (a) who said they didn't – and who said that the complaining bishops don't agree with the need for reform (as opposed to noting the real effects of the particular reforms being made just now)? and (b) since when was it the job of bishops to 'reflect' the views of church members? Having just read about Bonhoeffer (again), where would this put Bishop George Bell? Or Bonhoeffer himself, for that matter, even though he wasn't a bishop? The German bishops largely colluded with the views and preferences of their 'members' during the 1920-40s. So, provide us with opinion polls, if you like, but they will not and should not mean that bishops simply go with the flow of popular opinion – even Christian popular opinion.

I conclude this insubstantial ramble with Hauerwas's comment on Catholic Social Teaching and Humanae Vitae in particular:

… the modern political state and economics reduce human activity to choices … that are best for 'me' but do not also lay bare the fact that these choices already subsume us into a worldview in which we must reject some of what makes us human. (p.249)


Having read Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I then read Tom Wright's Virtue Reborn yesterday and Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith today. Given that I might now move on to Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian next, I thought I would draw just a few threads briefly here. (This is not to inform the wider world, who probably know all this stuff anyway, but in order that I have a record not only of what I am reading, but also of the trains of thought that the reading set off in my not-very-sharp mind. I do, of course, realise that these writers might find my brief comments do not begin to do justice to their writings.)

Ethics can never be merely theoretical. Bonhoeffer wrestled with what it means to be human, good and Christian in the face of a massive personal dilemma: whether it was legitimate to kill Adolf Hitler. Tom Wright wants to get us away from a preoccupation with rules and back on to paying attention to the development of character – the purpose and end of virtue. Miroslav Volf explores the place of faith in the contemporary, pluralist world and echoes the emphasis of Wright that a developed Christian character would be unafraid of the modern world and be open to all that the world offers.

Try these brief quotes:

The practice and habit of virtue … is all about learning in advance the language of God's new world. (Wright, p.62)

Virtuous character matters more than moral knowledge… Faith idles when character shrivels. (Volf, p.13)

And, a propos of my last couple of posts about current work/welfare/politics/economics debates:

Is the purpose for which I work sufficient to sustain me over time not just as an 'economic animal', but as a human being? (Volf, p.32)

Despite addressing themselves to different specific ends – Schlingensiepen to explain Bonhoeffer's ethical thinking and development in the context of his particular experience, Wright to rescue ethics from mere rules and urge concentration by Christians on the development of Christian character, and Volf to set out how Christians should live faithfully in a pluralist world – all three writers agree that Christians have no alternative but (a) to love God and neighbour, (b) to develop Christian nature by attention over a lifetime to a world-loving discipleship, and (c) to take seriously the common good of all. All further agree that doing this is costly.

The other thing that might hold them together is, perhaps strangely, a notion of 'hope' that calls us from the future (Wolfhart Pannenberg is interesting on this, as is Jürgen Moltmann) and calls us into the future. Volf's observation is probably apt:

Western churches have a past they like to boast about, but a future they seem to dread. (p.77)

All three would seem to say that Christians, truly set free from fear and drawn by hope, have nothing to dread – whatever the future holds and however the world works, we find our true humanity in Christ, and this frees us to love regardless of whether that love is received and regardless of the cost.


I had hoped to finish Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before coming to Basel to begin my study leave proper. I failed. But, I finished it last night.

I have read a lot about Bonhoeffer over the years and never cease to be amazed at how he is appropriated (and interpreted) in support of all sorts of theologies. Schlingensiepen's book is good, but occasionally veers onto the edges of hagiography, interpreting gaps in documentation with the most positive conjecture (“He must have had a conversation about…”).

However, what still stands out from any reading of Bonhoeffer is his lifelong insistence that there are no eternally valid ethical principles, and that Christians “in every historical situation [must] listen anew to God's commandments and … follow Christ.” (p.251) This enabled him to hold together two ethical stances that appear to be contradictory: (a) for the Resistance to kill Hitler whilst (b) rejecting euthanasia on the basis of the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'. Schlingensiepen summarises: “Only a Christian who understands that he or she is free can make the right ethical decisions.”

It looks easy when put like that. But, the story of Bonhoeffer wrestling with the demands of commands (obedience) and decision (freedom) is a painful one to read. He didn't 'do his ethics' abstractly, sitting in a university library or a bishop's study (though he did study in studies and libraries…); he worked out his ethics on the ground, in the furnace of costly choice and agonising personal cost.

He was able to do this because of a fundamental vision: Jesus Christ stands before God (and Pontius Pilate) as “the obedient one and as the free one”, recognising that even the Gestapo can't bind the prisoner who is free to choose and who knows where power really lies.

I am now moving on to Tom Wright's Virtue Reborn for a more recent 'take' on ethics and character. But, the question that still haunts me about Bonhoeffer is how his theology might have developed further if he had not been executed at the age of 39. We round him off as if his theology was complete, but I would love to know how he would now be regarded if he had lived and developed and moved on.


Just a question, but if every country in Europe did what the Swiss have done today – voting in a referendum to limit immigration into their land – what would be the economic and social cost (a) to the countries that need immigration, (b) to the countries that lose their best people to affluent Europe, and (c) to the people who need to emigrate from where they are in order to survive or thrive?

I have just arrived in Germany for a couple of days with friends before moving on to a theological conference near Frankfurt. Before leaving Bradford I finished reading Lucy Hughes-Hallett's award-winning The Pike, and have started on Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What both books evoke is the unnerving question about how possible it is to project ourselves forward in time in order to be able to look back on the impact our current choices, decisions or neglects will have on what is to come.

Silly, I know. But, this 'prophetic' attempt at imagination is vital. Hindsight, as we know, is a wonderful thing; but, is it possible to use appropriate foresight and consider where our priorities today might lead us tomorrow?

Gabriele d'Annunzio (of whom I had never heard before reading The Pike) was the sort of bloke who would have been sneered at by Brits like me. A swaggering Italian poser poet who seduced not only huge numbers of women, but also a whole nation – Italy – into the fascism that would lead to catastrophe, he comes over as a violence-loving nightmare on just about every front. The question that hangs over just about every page is: how did he ever get away with it? Or, as his biographer puts it:

Killing and being killed, pouring out the blood of myriads of young men, only by doing these things could a race demonstrate its right to respect. What d'Annunzio was saying is appalling: what is worse is how few people there were to disagree. (p.364)

Incidentally, the failure of other political parties and groups to coalesce in order to stop fascism in the early 1920s leads Hughes-Hallett to observe:

Keeping their principles unsullied, they open the door to fascist dictatorship.

In other words, a preoccupation with the purity of one's principles (or brand?) leads to the vacuum that the nasties will quickly fill. I think Jesus said something similar about clearing a demon out of a room only to find later that seven have moved in…

This is not trivial. Again, without knowing what might lie ahead – resistance, imprisonment and execution – Dietrich Bonhoeffer realised as a teenager that ethics must be practical and the idolatry of 'purity' questioned. In Paris in 1929 this Protestant saw who attended a solemn high mass at the Sacré Coeur and wrote subsequently:

The people in the church were almost exclusively from Montmartre, prostitutes and their men went to mass, submitted to all the ceremonies; it was an enormously impressive picture, and once again one could see quite clearly how close, precisely through their fate and guilt, these most heavily burdened people are to the heart of the Gospel… It's much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity. (p.40)

It is the last sentence that is unnerving. This is a young man, pushing the dominant theologies of his time – particularly that of Karl Barth – and beginning to shape the convictions and character that would ultimately lead him to resist Hitler, join in a murder conspiracy, and die alone on the gallows. Not much place for vanity.

My reading of the Gospels suggests that Jesus drove a coach and horses through obsessions with 'purity' and a consequent distancing of oneself from people or principles that might sully. He looked beyond the immediate reality – that the person with no moral leg to stand on cannot 'belong' and should not contaminate the rest of us – to the possibility of how people might become if exposed to the transforming power of love. And, yes, he probably knew that those who didn't like this would finally nail him. But, fear of being contaminated was rejected in favour of a desire to contaminate the world with goodness and grace.

Few resisted d'Annunzio and the glamour of his violent rhetoric and exploitation of other people. Bonhoeffer knew that even if no one else did, he would have to decide for himself and tell/live the truth… whatever the cost.

So, where might our decisions today (Syria, immigration, etc.) lead us tomorrow? That's the question hanging over my reading of d'Annunzio yesterday and Bonhoeffer today. And how do we know when we have been seduced by mere vanity?


I can't believe I have just been in Germany and failed to buy a book I want to read. OK, I didn't know it existed until I got back and saw it reviewed in Wednesday's Der Tagesspiegel.

Keine gewöhnlichen Männer, by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi in the resistance to Hitler. Both were executed before the end of the Second World War, the former having got the latter into active resistance and espionage.

One of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I will never forget was having dinner with Klaus von Dohnanyi in Berlin in early 2006. I was invited along to a Meissen Delegation Visit led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams. We stayed on the Wannsee (close to where the Final Solution was firmed up), flew to Wroclaw, Poland, for 24 hours to celebrate the centenary of Bonhoeffer's birth, and came back to Berlin for a couple of lectures at the Humboldt University. Dinner followed at a Berlin restaurant and I found myself at the end of the table with von Dohnanyi, of whom I had read a lot when he was Finance Minister in the Schmidt government. I listened to the long conversation about German politics, negotiations with Margaret Thatcher, and memories of his father and Bonhoeffer.

The review of the book begins by de-linking courage from heroism. This is what it says:

Mut hat nicht unbedingt etwas mit Heldentum zu tun. Eher mit: Zivilcourage und Verantwortung. “Die letzte, verantwortliche Frage ist nicht, wie ich mich heroisch aus der Affäre ziehe, sondern wie eine kommende Generation weiterleben soll”, schrieb Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ende 1942.

This is not the wet, liberal theorising of armchair generals, but the reflected conclusion of a man who chose the path that would lead to the gallows. But, it puts into perspective the overuse of the word 'hero' in popular parlance today. Is everyone who dies in Afghanistan a hero – even though they were doing their job as soldiers? Is everyone who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 automatically a hero – simply because they were there?

The relationship between courage and heroism is an important one. Questioning it is risky.

But, if the publishers want a review from an English perspective, I will, of course, be happy to oblige. (Neither heroic nor courageous; just shameless.)


I was around in Southwark for the 40th anniversary memories of the publication of John Robinson's Honest to God. This year is the 50th anniversary. In this week's Church Times the excellent Mark Vernon runs though the issues again before Richard Harries puts it all in to a personal context.

Honest to God caused a huge debate. Robinson called for a re-think of theology and the purpose of the church. En route he drew on Bonhoeffer's thinking, but didn't quite go where I think Bonhoeffer himself might have been heading. Big headlines didn't help the seriousness of his case, but it did lead to discussions everywhere about God. (In today's world this is the responsibility of the New Atheists who, in trying to diss God and theists end up getting people talking about God and theism – fulfilling the Law of Unintended Consequences, I guess.)

What Richard Harries does is place the phenomenon into the wider cultural and political context of the 1960s, and particularly its idealism. Which, of course, immediately points up the danger of reading history through a contemporary lens. The debates about Margaret Thatcher did the same: it was easy to spot those who hadn't lived through the 1970s and those who had.

The loss of idealism is troubling. Students these days are hardly likely to annoy the hell out of taxpayers by demonstrating; they have to concentrate on minimising and then paying off massive debts before they have even started.

The contrast is acute for me when I go to Kazakhstan and talk with young people who, whilst being realistic about the 'challenges', are immensely proud of their 22 year old country and seriously optimistic about the future. The only way I have been able to think about this is that they are building something and shaping a future – a bit like European countries after 1945. Contrast that with the tired cynicism that characterises Europe and we seem not to be building something, but merely trying half-heatedly on to something we have inherited.

This is also true of European ecumenism. At a round-table discussion with Herman von Rumpoy last year in Brussels, I ventured to suggest that the European narrative derived from two world wars and the shedding of oceans of blood had run its course. Yes, we must learn from our recent history, and, as Bertolt Brecht says in the conclusion of his play The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, recognise that 'the bitch [of fascism] is on heat again. But, I fear that the narrative emerging from mid-20th century Europe does not hold the same power for my children's generation as it does for those of us shaped by the war. We need to create a new narrative that engages the subconscious psyche of a new generation for whom the twentieth century is 'history' and not 'memory'.

OK, it is not exactly a deep observation; but, it is one that haunts me. I think it is a task that is urgent and yet being largely ignored. All efforts go into trying to secure what we have (largely, the institutions that define Europe in terms of administration and process), rather than creating something imaginatively new.

This is on my mind also because I have just finished reading Cees Nooteboom's book Roads to Berlin. It is a strange book. In three parts, the bulk of the text comprises reportage and memoir from immediately before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989/90. It is immediate and has the vivid benefit of recreating the atmosphere in Berlin as the world changed – all seen through the eyes of an outsider (he is Dutch) living through, yet detached from, those epic events. In parts 2 and 3 he reflects back on those events and on Germany and 'Germanness' twenty years later.

It is an uneven book, but better for it. It is unpretentious – although there were many references I didn't get, and this made me feel both uneducated and a bit stupid. But, it is a good read for anyone who wants to think about history, how we live through and reflect on it, how we need to look at ourselves through the eyes of an other if we are to think clearly about who we are and how/why we have become who and what we are.

The trouble with history is that we always think that 'now' is the ultimate – the end – when it is only tomorrow's yesterday and will look different when looked back upon by outsiders.

Oh well. Back to contemplating the future of Luis Suarez…