I have spent most of today chairing or participating in Zoom meetings. Each one was efficient, disciplined and we did the necessary business. Digital media are seriously wonderful, enabling audio-visual contact with individuals or groups in ways that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.

But, they are no substitute for the real thing. I noticed today that in one of the meetings we got the job done (in a non-Brexitty way, of course), but we lacked the incidental chat, the in-between keeping up with people, spotting the indexical signals that sometimes belie or qualify the words we use.

The truly face-to-face will one day return and, no doubt, will quickly be taken for granted again. But, for now the loss is real. The waiting for its return is not dead time; rather, it is the time for learning to value what we cannot have … in order to re-value it when we get it back.

The original draft of the Barmen Declaration by Karl Barth

I also had a chat on the phone with a friend for whom the particular preoccupations of the bishops are not high on the human priority list. (Which keeps reasonably honest my own calibration of what matters and how the church might be seen – or not – from the outside.) We talked about faith and where it ‘lives’, especially for those who claim simply not to have it. And it led me back to another chunk of Terry Eagleton (from his book ‘Materialism’, p.49):

Faith is not a solitary mental state but a conviction which springs from sharing in the practical, communal life-form known as the Church… It consists primarily in a commitment to the death, not in a set of theoretical propositions. Even Friedrich Nietzsche … thought that to reduce it ‘to a holding of something to be true, to a mere phenomenality of consciousness, was to travesty it.”

In one sense we don’t need a reminder of this. Faith can never be merely spiritual; it can never be other than visible in how individuals live their common life. This is probably why Jesus never offered a three-line definition of the Kingdom of God, but, rather, told stories and gave images that teased the imagination. Faith is not non-propositional; but, if it is merely trust in a set of propositions, then it won’t last long in the face of the world’s reality.

So, the common life of people of faith will demonstrate the integrity of that faith. Not just it’s efficacy or attractiveness, but also it’s reality and credibility. We can argue apologetics and explore the rationality of faith – but, do stop there and disembody it in communal life is to miss the point entirely. Ultimately, faith is to be exercised and lived and not just for its own sake; it is therefore entirely reasonable in the sense that Eagleton uses it when he writes (p.56):

To be reasonable is to strive to view a situation as it really is, a strenuous enterprise which involves lifting our gaze above our endemic narcissism and self-interest. It also requires patience, persistence, resourcefulness, honesty, humility, the courage to confess that one is mistaken, a readiness to trust others, a refusal of anodyne fantasies and self-serving illusions, an acceptance of what may run counter to our own interests and so on.

I know. I nicked the title from the late great Terry Pratchett. But, I also used it in the book I published last year for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Freedom is Coming. The phrase just summed up a chunk of what lies behind the musings of that great prophet of the eighth century BC, Isaiah. People, he suggests, have such small ambitions – they serve such small gods.

You have to read the text to get the point, but, basically, the story goes like this. The people know themselves to be God’s people, called to a particular vocation in the world. The problem is, that – just as they had been warned before they entered the land of promise – when things go well for us, we forget who we are and where we have come from. In the case of the Israelites, they forgot that once they had been slaves and that they had begun with nothing to their name. And now they thought the world belonged to them.

The prophets – who clearly knew their history, politics and economics three thousand years ago – saw through this. They also saw where this sort of living would inevitably lead. Injustice has a way of catching itself by the tail; inequalities sow the seeds of inequities, and this leads to conflict. A society in which particular people see their life’s work as holding onto power and accumulating stuff eventually find that it is all a bit disappointing. It is not what human beings are made for … even when we try hard to convince ourselves that it matters.

So, Isaiah mocks the small gods, the tribal deities, the idols made of wood and stone. He asks why the creator of the cosmos is ditched in favour of a bit of fluff. And the question that this framing of experience, from so long ago, hangs over us today is this: why do we settle for ‘death by entertainment’ (just look at what’s on telly) or anaesthetising by endless activity when a bit of space might just open up new possibilities? Isaiah is clear that the God who brings order out of chaos, but never exempts even himself from all the world can throw at him, made us for more than this.

The relevance to now is simple. I don’t know about you, but having to spend every day in the house would not have sounded like my idea of fun a week ago. But, now, thrust upon us by the worst of circumstances, the forced isolation could become an opportunity – to not run away from the challenge to live with the exile, the emptiness, but to stick with it, live through it, and contemplate what my life is for.

Isaiah suddenly seems to sound very contemporary. His questions are for every age, not just his in Babylon. On the other hand, I could just watch telly and keep my horizons close, my ambitions manageable, my gods small.

The silence outside the house is a little unnerving. The birds clearly haven’t spotted the problem yet – they just keep tweeting. But, otherwise, here in Headingley, the skies are empty, the roads still and the stillness remarkable.

This morning I called a number of people to see how they are doing. All are in good spirits. But, we are only at the start of this mass experiment in dispersed togetherness. All the signs are that the lockdown will soon get tighter, but this means that we will all need to get more creative with how we relate and communicate.

Already there are some brilliant examples of how to do this – and the ability of people to find (or make) the funnies amid the misery is simply stunning. Twitter has come into its own.

The challenge for many people unused to limited company and social restriction will be how to establish some shape to each day – a routine that offers some order to an indeterminate future. For me this forced purdah means I shall spend longer in Morning and Evening Prayer each day. I will walk for exercise each day (without touching anyone out there, of course). I will study more, read more, and watch more films. I’ll also be on the phone and social media more, checking that vulnerable people and colleagues are OK.

I also intend to resume more regular posting on this blog than has been possible for several years. Radio scripts and journalism will still go up, but I’ll be offering more – possibly daily. We will be streaming some action/reflection stuff in Holy Week and Easter and I will also write. Provided there is something worth hearing, that is.

Christians read the Bible every day and some of us try to dig under the words to work out how these would have been heard by those to whom they were addressed. One of the themes that emerges time and again, but is easily missed when things are calm, is that of time. We cannot always control – and are never exempted from – what the world can throw at us; but we can learn to live faithfully through it all. Deserts, exiles, strangeness, loss, disorder and chaos: they are the experiences that gave rise to our scriptures as people tried to work out who God is, what life is for, and why we matter.

So, I guess we now enter an uninvited and unwelcome time of exile in which we have an opportunity to dig deep into ourselves and ask hard questions about life, the universe and everything. It might become a time of reorientation – like a hard retreat that compels is to face ourselves and the society we shape. As so many people suffer loss of loved ones, we will ask into which activities or relationships we invest our time and money; as so many lose jobs, homes or livelihood, we can decide if the economy exists for people or people for the economy.

Hard times, maybe; but, possibly times for renewal, too.

This is the basic text of a lecture given at Bradford Cathedral on Sunday 16 February 2020, followed by a Q&A and a sermon (at Choral Evensong) on Revelation 4.

Introductory survey

”The world isn’t working. Things are unravelling, and most of us know it.” So begins the Introduction to Jim Wallis’s book The Soul of Politics. He goes on: “Our intuition tells us the depth of the crisis we face demands more than politics as usual.” He then cites Gandhi’s seven social sins: politics without principle; wealth without work; commerce without morality; pleasure without conscience; education without character; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice.

When did Wallis write this? 1994 – twenty six years ago when Bill Clinton was US President, John Major was Prime Minister, Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor, Mandela was elected as President of South Africa and, while the world was horrified by the Rwandan massacre, the Balkans reminded us that ethnic wipe-outs were not just the stuff of European history. The blurb on the back of the book helpfully says: “As the acquisitive eighties are left behind and we bask in the idea of the more ‘caring’ nineties, Jim Wallis’ book is both a sharp reminder of cold reality and an encouraging manifesto for change.” Remember the ‘caring’ nineties? They came before the nervous noughties and austerity teens, leading us into the world of Trump and Johnson, fake news and unaccountable demagoguery, brazen lying and morality-free manipulation of people and facts.

Well, in my own lifetime I have seen the colour of politics change. The ravages of the Second World War were even to be seen in the buildings and bombsites of Liverpool in the sixties when I went to school. The seventies saw battles for the economic life of this country, leading eventually to Thatcherism and the radical reordering – some would call it destruction – of many communities in the wake of social and economic engineering. And all this was going on while the bipolar world threatened nuclear war and global extinction – the Cold War turning into a very Hot War, as it were. Proxy wars were fought around the world as Right and Left, Capitalism and Communism, fought their corner in places where weapons were the most powerful currency. The eighties ended with the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, leaving a supposedly monopolar world in which liberal free-market Capitalism led an uncontested procession through financial deregulation, globalism and optimism (unless, of course, you lived somewhere that paid the price for all these marvellous benefits to the wealthy West).

The ‘caring’ nineties ended in Blairite optimism, facing a new millennium in which the planet could see only growth, peace and liberal ascendancy. 9/11 put an end to all that. The Twin Towers, almost a visual symbol of the dollar sign itself, collapsed under attack from a form of Islamism of which the world was largely ignorant (despite Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and other riven countries) and for which the world was unprepared. Assumptions about the inevitability of liberal domination bled into the dust of New York, provoking an awakening awareness of what was going on in the shadows. Economic globalism opened the windows to globalised terrorism and experiences of brutality that most civilised people thought had gone out with the Romans – or, at least, with the horrors of the twentieth century and its Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots. Extremist politics began to breathe the fresh air of societies unprepared for the challenges of a brave new world in which migration, once seen in Europe as an economic necessity, turned into a mass movement of people driven by fear to escape oppression, bloody conflict and violence.

At the beginning of the new decade we see the Far Right rising in both west and east, re-running Weimar in an age desperate for nostalgic certainties, but forgetful of how democracies were undermined less than a century ago by demagogues who loved power more than truth, morality or integrity. Brexit has exposed much that we might have preferred to keep hidden beneath the complacent skin of a Europe that assumed its liberal credentials without ever really checking them. Nationalisms are growing, language is being corrupted, lies are deemed acceptable, and, in the USA, people who would have damned Obama for kissing the wrong woman excuse the amorality, stupidity, recklessness and incompetence of Donald Trump (who will probably get re-elected in November). I have said enough elsewhere about Brexit, Boris Johnson, the public discourse and the triumph of slogan over truth.

Where we are now

But, contemporary politics in the UK and wider western world face other challenges. The legitimacy of electoral systems, assumed until very recently to guarantee security and democratic accountability, is now being questioned. A referendum seemed a reasonable mechanism to use in gauging the mood of a nation until, too late, we realised that it has little or no place in a system of parliamentary democracy in which representatives (not delegates) are elected to make decisions together on our behalf. The stability of German political life is currently strained by the presence in both the Bundestag and state parliaments of the Far Right pro-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland – now evoking memories of Weimar: they are getting into power by electoral means, but their manifesto is one that, once in power, will undermine the very democracy that allowed them to be there in the first place. (As I discussed in a sermon in autumn 2019 at Manchester Cathedral for the start of the new legal year, democracy depends not on the rule of law, but the rule of good law.)

The 2019 general election in the UK made clear that, for now at least, old tribal identities and loyalties have been replaced by new alliances around eclectic identities and affections, often based on false associations. As I have said more than once in the House of Lords, the surgery of Brexit will not address the disease that ostensibly caused people to vote for it: most complaints about the EU had little or nothing to do with membership of the EU, but everything to do with Westminster, austerity (a choice of the UK government without any interference by Brussels) and metropolitical complacency. Wealthy Old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated professionals, immune from any economic consequences of a bad Brexit, persuaded the rest of us that other people were the ‘elite’ ‘establishment’. How did that happen?

Behind this lies a feature of political life that certainly isn’t new. Those profiting now from the reordering of political life and discourse are those who know how to disrupt, cause chaos, kick the furniture around. While everyone else is either distracted or disorientated the disruptors exploit the chaos, capitalise on the collapse, and then proclaim themselves as the saviours from the chaos they caused, but for which they take no responsibility. Trump, Cummings, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Orban: I could go on.

Well, that’s all pretty miserable, isn’t it? And that is only a rather selective thumbnail sketch of where we are and how we got here. Others will see it differently and describe where we have got to as progress. And that is a debate for another time and another place. For today, however, I want to pose questions about the nature of good politics, healthy discourse, and accountable power.

Politics

Politics is simply the discourse of our public life – our common life. Bring two human beings together and you have politics: potentially two different perspectives, two understandings of what matters and what should be done, two parties to a power relationship, and so on. The negotiation of a common life and ordering of how we live is the stuff and raison d’etre of politics. It has to do with people, priorities and principles, praxis, personalities and power. (So many ‘p’s.) Rowan Williams puts it like this in his introduction to an excellent book edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin and entitled ‘God and Government’ (SPCK, 2009): “… if God’s purpose for humanity is a common purpose, not just a set of individual blueprints for escape from a disaster area, we have a duty to ask how the organising of society makes this purpose harder or easier, more or less attainable.”

This is why the rather tedious protestations that religious leaders should keep out of politics is so absurd as to defy rational discussion. (The establishment by law of the Church of England and the place of bishops in the House of Lords are up for debate, but in a completely different category: that of political ordering and democratic accountability.) Speaking for myself, Christian commitment is about human flourishing (the kingdom of God) rooted in a theological anthropology that holds sacred the infinite value of every human being and the need for mutual sacrifice in costly love in the interest of the common good for all in a particular society. Good politics, in this sense, places people and their essential dignity at the heart of the discourse. Made in the image of God. If politics is about people, it is hard to see how religion can have nothing to do with it. If religion is about people, it is hard to see how it can have nothing to do with politics.

You might be wondering where the title of this lecture came from. ‘Waiting for a Miracle‘ is the title of a 1987 song and album by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It recognises that people keep plugging away at making the world more just and more generous, but all the while waiting for a miracle. The task seems both endless and unachievable. The powermongers keep winning out. Like the lament of the Psalmists and the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, we long for heaven while being chained to earth where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, the weak under the boot of the powerful, the meek in the shadow of the self-interested. But, waiting for a miracle – or someone else to ‘do something’ is an abdication of responsibility on the part of a citizen whose citizenship brings both privilege and obligation.

I remember a number of conversations with Zimbabweans during a visit to that beautiful country over a decade ago. Inflation was around 10,000%, the secret police were everywhere, there was no water in the city of Gweru (all four pumps into the city had broken beyond repair), food was scarce, and social infrastructure was in a state of collapse. And there was real fear. In addition to those who wanted me to give them a job in London (where I was serving as the Bishop of Croydon), others also suggested that “someone must shoot the President”. “We hope there will be change.” I would ask how this hope might be realised and received the same reply: “We pray that God will do something.” I would ask how they might be the answer to their own prayer – not in shooting the President, but in organising and acting to get him out. Somehow. No answer.

Now, I would never be critical of those who live in constant danger and for whom opposition can be hugely costly. My point is simply that hoping and praying should accompany action, not replace it. Citizenship brings responsibility and accountability and that inevitably has political expression because it involves the ordering of society, shaping it for the common good, and the promotion and defence of human flourishing. So, create the miracle, by all means, but don’t just hang around waiting for it. Work at it and for it, but with the patience of waiting.

Wisdom and faith

So, why speak of wisdom and faith in the same sentence as politics?

Well, as I touched on earlier, there is an oft-repeated expression in our society and media of the charge that Christians should stay out of politics – as if neutrality was ever a possibility. I have rehearsed this argument too many times before, so I am not going to flog it again now. But, there is no such thing as a neutral voice and there is no neutral space. Everyone comes at life and politics from a particular perspective, with a particular world view and associated values, and with particular interests at heart. A secular world view is no more neutral than a religious one. (This is something tackled head on, among others, by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga as far back as the 1960s.)

Wisdom is something we derive from history and from experience. It comes from deep learning and the humility to admit the provisionality of knowledge. Wisdom depersonalises politics, seeks to understand both the polis and the populace, identifies where (and upon which values) integrity lies, discerns which moral framework cannot be negotiated away amid the pragmatic claims of political debate, and informs the reflective conscience that keeps hubris in check.

Which is why faith and wisdom cannot be separated in a consideration of the political task. Because faith is what every individual and society places on certain assumptions about, for example, why people matter, what actually constitutes a good society, what integrity looks like – what I call a ‘theological anthropology’.

Let’s begin to apply some of this to the politics of today. We can start at home, especially in the light of the political behaviour emanating from Downing Street this week. I will be categorical in my language, but you might choose to differ.

Our current Prime Minister is a man who has made a living out of lying. His personal as well as political/professional life betray a set of utilitarian values that revolve around and are oriented towards his own personal ambition, power and hubris. I refer to his admitted invention of stories aimed at misrepresenting and ridiculing the European Union in the Daily Telegraph; his behaviour towards two wives and an uncertain number of children; his deliberate use of misleading language during the 2016 referendum campaign and subsequently; the breaking of too many promises (playing the hero before the DUP, then agreeing a border down the Irish Sea, for example); and his willing subjugation to the strategic will of his Chief-of-Staff, Dominic Cummings.

“Get Brexit Done” was always a slogan disconnected from reality, as the UK will soon find out. “Unleash the potential” assumed that potential had been leashed – and saw the new Chancellor of the Exchequer state only a week or two ago that the UK would now be able to establish freeports for the first time, ignoring the fact that we could already do so and have done so as members of the EU (until we opted out in 2012). I am not arguing here that this is a reason for not leaving the EU; just that the electorate has been repeatedly misled.

Now, why might I be singling him out? Well, basically because the political discourse, so corrupted by the whole Brexit process, has diminished the importance of truth, reality and integrity in our public life. The reshuffle saw the sacking of the one man who has actually achieved anything and who commands the respect of all sides in a deeply divided Northern Ireland – Julian Smith. Threatened by competence? Needing to surround himself with sycophants who will not challenge him? Unwilling to hear what he does not want to hear? Afraid of anyone who might be honest about the costs of policy or who does detail? Fearful of being challenged by the junior prefects? I guess we will eventually find out. But, the point here is that big words and huge ambitions do not compensate for weak character, lack of attention to detail, or the re-discovery of some magic money tree that was absent for the poorest in UK society for a decade. Promises are reneged upon; commitments are laughed off; contradictions are ignored; in a previous age, any one of these would have seen outrage across the political spectrum, action within the party, and a campaign in the media to secure a resignation.

Not any longer. We have now sold the pass by accepting that amoral, immoral and hubristic language and behaviour are acceptable if they promise to deliver on a pragmatic solution to a different problem – whatever the cost, especially to our moral or political culture. It is easy to look across the Pond and mock the Toddler in the White House, marvelling at how, for the Republicans, love of power allows them to dismiss all those things that they would have railed against in a Democratic President. Imagine if Obama had had an affair or told a lie. Remember Clinton’s impeachment. Imagine the response by evangelicals if Clinton or Obama had said something misogynistic or deliberately and openly contradicted reality? But, Trump knows he can get away with anything because morality is selective and power trumps everything else.

The point here is that these guys get away with it because we collude in it. Someone recently complained to me about a ‘culture of deference’ in the Church. I don’t buy this; I think it is a cop-out. When we resort to blaming a ‘culture’ it can only be because we are denying our responsibility as agents who create that culture. A culture is constituted by the behaviour of those involved, and their behaviour is shaped by the choices they make as to how to act – or not act – within it. Not speaking up is a decision; you can’t blame ‘the culture’.

And so it is with politics. If we still value wisdom and accept the claims to responsible action that faith both assumes and imposes, then we must take responsibility for the culture we create. So, when we are told deliberate lies by those in public office (not to be mistaken for errors of information or interpretation), we either allow it to pass – shrugging our shoulders and saying that “this is just how things are” – or we call it out and refuse to bow at this altar of shame.

This is why it is so important for a critical scrutiny to be applied to current political developments. This week’s Church Times carries a commissioned article by me on the danger to democracy and its institutions when a government with a big majority decides to control its own narrative, declining to justify or explain its policies, absenting itself from interrogation by external experts on behalf of the public. In other words, prioritising propaganda over accountability. This is a slippery slope and, if the BBC becomes a casualty of this cultural slide, it will not be for reasons of economics or the vital-but-difficult role of a publicly-funded public service broadcaster, but for reasons of political vindictiveness and a dangerous tendency by the powerful to bypass scrutiny.

Political language, assumptions about the political task, and changes to our political culture all need to be taken more seriously than they are. It is not enough for leaders to ignore challenge in these areas with either hubristic ridicule or sweeping and patronising dismissal. Passivity on the part of the governed brings its own culpability. Visit the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin if you want to revisit how civil society is so easily corrupted by a gradual ceding of territory in language, culture and courage.

Reflections

So, before concluding these provocative reflections, I want to point the way a little further into what a good, ethical politics might look like, and what the place in it of faith and wisdom might be. And I want to do this by commending three books in particular: Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’ – a series of lectures, writings and addresses, some of them easier than others; Luke Bretherton, ‘Christ and the Common Life’ – a recently-published treatment of the theme by a British theologian living and working in the United States; and, briefly, Tom Holland, ‘Dominion’.

The Christian Church has since its beginning held claims against the power of the state. Caesar was not Lord; Jesus is. What Rowan Williams calls ‘procedural secularism’ “was born because Christians insisted that a distinction must be drawn between communities that understand themselves to be faithful to a sacred power and political communities whose task is to sustain the arguments necessary to balance and manage the inevitable differences that constitute our lives.” He goes on to say, effectively that Jesus did not come announcing that the Big Society was at hand.

In other words, the Christian Church – and, particularly, the Church of England established by law – has a responsibility in a democratic society to hold on with both theological and rational confidence to its narrative of the Kingdom of God, being clear how this shapes our understanding of what is either permissible or destructive in and of our particular society. If the narrative told by those in power – that lying is acceptable, that people can be patronised and corrupted by meaningless slogans, that revenge can be taken against judges because the rule of law is to be subjugated to the rule of power, for example – clashes with the narrative of justice, mercy, integrity and accountability, then a stand must be taken.

Hence the role of the Lords Spiritual in the UK Parliament: whether welcome or not, to shine a possibly unique light on matters of our common life and, without fear or favour, to hold power to account. Not with any sense of entitlement or moral superiority, but, rather, with the confident humility that light must be shone.

(I am always struck when in the chamber of the House of Lords that I ’inhabit’ there a remarkable constitution. When (in the Queen’s Speech) the Monarch reads her Government’s legislative agenda before the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – the three legs of a stable parliamentary democracy – she does so in the name of God. The three legs do their work in the name of the monarch who recognises her accountability to God. But, if she looks up, she will see the statues of the twelve barons who drafted the Magna Carta and held King John to account at Runnymede in 1215. That is the political space we inhabit, even if it is difficult to explain.)

So, for example, when we hear language or policies that reduce human beings to economic cogs in someone else’s machine, we need to pay attention and more. When we hear the world spoken of in terms that assume domination instead of dominion, exploitative control instead of accountable stewardship (especially accountability to those generations not yet born), then our voices must be raised in questioning challenge. As John Gray has pointed out (from an atheistic perspective), “The distinctive contribution of Christianity to morality – which is reflected in liberalism now – is that if you think back to the ancient Roman world, then one feature that came in with Christianity was the idea that human beings, reflecting the nature of a Christian god, had some responsibility for not being cruel or not even tolerating cruelty… So this aspect of modern liberal morality – don’t be cruel to people – is hardly found in pre-Christian morality. It’s a gift of Jewish inheritance that Christianity continued.”

Remember who said: “Politics have no relation to morals”? It was Machiavelli. Enough said.

Tom Holland, whose brilliant book ‘Dominion’ describes how the morality of the western world and beyond was uniquely shaped by Christianity, despite the many devastating failures by Christians to live out their distinctive theology, quotes Zhivago’s uncle in Dr Zhivago: “You have to remember that until the dawn of the Christian era, the Mediterranean world was a world of slave empires.” As the new Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, implied in his maiden speech in the House of Commons earlier this month, the sort of wisdom that informs and shapes good politics might well be found in the past and not just in the pragmatic present. Good politics needs a good answer to a good question: what is a human being and why do we matter?

These are the matters with which Luke Bretherton wrestles in his book ‘Christ and the Common Life’. I concur with his important observation about secularism and its assumptions: “It is traditions with a cosmic imagery that have the resources to foster the plurality and sense of contingency that is necessary for a faithfully secular, democratic, common-life politics. Without them the state and market have no epistemic, social or institutional limits.”

As Bretherton says: “Sustaining a common life requires commitment to a vision of human flourishing.” Christians – Anglicans in particular – must not be shy in helping to shape that common life by conscious and deliberate engagement in political life as citizens of this world who are drawn by the demands, freedoms and obligations of their citizenship of God’s Kingdom.

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

Remember this? “Humpty Dumpty to Alice in ‘Through the Looking Glass: ‘When I use a word,’ he said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” It’s no wonder Humpty ended up having a great fall.

The point of language is to allow for a common comprehension – mutual understanding between different parties. If we all, individually, get to choose what meaning we attribute to particular words, it is not only communication and comprehension that break down – so do relationship and society. Language matters.

Now, the reason that quote comes so readily to mind is that we now seem to live in a world in which comment is king, perception is everything, and meaning has become subject to individual whim. In his response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Donald Trump said this: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Set alleged culpability aside for a moment and what is noticeable here is this novel understanding of what facts are. A fact is a fact, even if, as Mark Twain wryly observed: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”. What can it mean to “agree with the facts”? To disagree with facts is deliberately to choose to ignore reality – and that would prioritise ideological prejudice over reality. As Aldous Huxley put it: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Yes, facts have to be interpreted, but that’s a different question.

Facing reality, however inconvenient, is essential to honest living and the functioning of a reasonable society. The Old Testament prophets told the truth about the danger of short-termist thinking when establishing military and political alliances – and were roundly ignored until their people went into some miserable exile. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but kept talking about carrying crosses and the dangers of gaining the world and losing your soul. I don’t understand how people who think the earth is flat or that a theory of evolution is some satanic conspiracy manage to integrate all this.

There is no alternative but to live in the real world and face the challenges that throws up. Religious faith that has to be kept in some sealed compartment lest reality intrude is, in my view, not a faith worth having. If God can’t cope with the real world as we know and experience it, then what is the point?

As Christians now approach Holy Week we need no reminding about harsh reality. Fantasies of political liberation will soon bleed into the dust beneath a cross. And the disciples will find their world turned upside down as they are confronted by the power of death – an inescapable fact of life, but one which will prove not to have the final word.

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

I was getting off a bus in London late last night when a bloke standing outside a shop asked me the time. I told him. And he said: “That’s funny. I’ve been asking the same question all day and I keep getting different answers.”

I walked on quickly.

But, it did scratch away at the back of my head. It’s simple, really, isn’t it? The answer you get depends on the question you ask. Put the right answer to the wrong question and you get a mess.

I’ve had to live with this for years. Christians often get caricatured as naive people living in alternative universes. As a TV presenter commented just this week in response to an accusation of religious stupidity: “Of course I believe in dinosaurs. I am a Christian, not a Creationist.”

Well, both the Christian and the Creationist have to live in the real world.
Faith is not the same as fantasy. Fantasy avoids reality; faith inhabits the real world in all its complexity.

For example, the problem many people have with the book of Genesis and the creation stories is that they ask of it the wrong question. The early chapters of Genesis don’t pretend to ask the question “How did the universe come to be? – in terms of mechanics. Rather, the Hebrew poetry sets up really interesting questions about why life is as it is – why human beings get so messed up and, consequently, mess the world up. Now that’s a question of how to read, not a problem between science and religion.

And for me it’s a much more interesting question. Why am I the way I am? Why is the world the way it is? What is it at the heart of our humanity that is capable of cosmic beauty and generosity on the one hand and utterly corrupt cruelty on the other?

As Billy Ocean didn’t say: “When the going gets tough the tough write poetry.” But the job of the poet or the songwriter is to go beyond facts and play around with the ‘whys’ of life. As the Psalmist famously put it: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, who are we that you are mindful of us?”

Good question.

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.”