Coming to Headingley for the third day of the third Ashes Test match was as much an act of hope (if you are English, that is) as optimism. A clear determination to enjoy the game, regardless of the outcome – a heavy and embarrassing defeat for England a couple of days short of the five-day limit or a miracle – was what characterised historian Tom Holland‘s Twitterfeed all day yesterday.

This attitude is one that runs through his writings and is best exemplified in his new book Dominion, to be published in a week or two. I have been reading a proof copy.

Holland tackles a huge task: not to describe the theology of Western Christianity since year zero, but to describe with breathtaking clarity and zest how the development of theology (and the people shaped by theology – i.e. everyone) has shaped the way western people see the world, understand history, assume morality and regard the rule of law and human rights. The ambition is great and he pulls it off. Like his other books, in my experience, it is very hard to put down once started as the narrative drives the reader on for more.

Yet, it isn’t just the content of the book that thrills (not a word I use often). The writing never fails to add colour to the description of ideas and movements. One example regarding Gerrard Winstanley in 1649 (page 350):

His foes might dismiss Winstanley as a dreamer; but he was not the only one.The occupation of St George’s Hill was a declaration of hope: that others some day would join the Diggers, and the world would be as one.”

He got John Lennon into a line on a seventeenth century dissenter and it is perfect.

Tom Holland doesn’t need me to review or commend him, but he is unique in his ability to bring history alive, particularly in its sweep and not just its detail. It is the big narrative that occupies the direction of this book. His contention that Christianity has shaped much of what is assumed in western culture and might not survive when Christianity’s roots are severed from the tree (human rights did not descend from nowhere and should not be assumed to be universally held or eternally guaranteed) is one with which I have a huge sympathy (predictably?). However, setting out a narrative rationale in the way Tom Holland does it in Dominion offers a basis for arguing the point and a provocation for those who see history differently. He seems to be asking that prejudices against religion or theology be suspended and the mind opened to what history itself might suggest to us.

I hope and expect that this book will prove to be the opening bat on a fertile wicket and I look forward to the game, which, judging by the plethora of reviews already ahead of publication, should itself prove to be thoroughly stimulating.

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

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon, not wanting to repeat what had already been said and trying to make a contribution (in a five minute speech limit) that others might not.

This House takes note of challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world.

This is an important debate because it invites us to go behind the popular terms of discourse and to identify some of the philosophical dynamics at play in contemporary political developments.

The excellent Library Note makes it clear that language matters – that definition of terms is not incidental. Populism is clearly more than a movement of people who listen only to the facts that support the prejudices they have already nurtured; but, it can exploit assertive language in such a way as to obscure truth.

And this is what I wish to focus on here. Whereas others will discuss the importance of a rules-based international order, I want to say something about language in a post-truth or post-factual world, and pose a couple of questions about the assumptions we make regarding history.

The United Kingdom (as illustrated by the unfortunate reference of the Foreign Secretary yesterday) has defined itself by its share in the defeat of fascism in the twentieth century. Have we moved on? If we assume that our domestic order has been defined for ever by a past victory, we should not be surprised when our complacency finds itself undermined by events that are not trapped in that same narrative. Democracy and the rule of law are not natural and immutable givens, but are goals for which we must struggle in each generation.

This is why the narratives that guide our self-understanding as a nation among nations on a very small planet in a very large universe matter so much. It is why the UK seeing itself through the lens of a long-gone empire is so facile. It is why seeing Germany simply through the lens of Adolf Hitler is ridiculous. It is why illusions of power are dangerous when they shape language and rhetoric that are heard differently by other audiences. We need new narratives for the contemporary world – narratives of hope rooted in an authentic anthropology that takes seriously the destructive elements of human nature (what used to be known as ‘sin’).

Western liberalism has become complacent about its own self-evident superiority. It is arguable that the proper balance between individual rights and concerns for the common good has not been established. I would argue that this complacency has contributed to the sense of alienation and detachment being seen in what is being called political populism. Progress is not inevitable; it is not true that things can only get better; human rights cannot be assumed to be self-evidently right. Battles for peace, order and social cohesion are not won once and for ever. The tendency to entropy is powerful and finds it easier to pull down rather than build up.

The sorts of populism we see now (and I am trying not to load the term beyond the observation that certain demagogues claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’) are destructive precisely because they evidently collude in destruction without a compelling vision for what should be constructed. Hence, we have seen a referendum campaign fuelled by lies, misrepresentation and an easy readiness to abuse language.

Who are the elites? Especially when they are being condemned or ridiculed by public school and Oxbridge-educated journalist-politicians who command six-figure incomes above and beyond their basic salary, and who will, whatever the outcome of Brexit, not suffer greatly? Why does it not matter that promises can be made in a referendum campaign that simply get dismissed within hours of that campaign ending? Can liberal order survive the corruption of language and the reduction of truth or fact to mere political convenience or expediency? It is not a game.

Tomorrow sees the inauguration of a US President for whom truth is a commodity to be traded. Direct contradiction of what is proven fact is loudly asserted without shame or embarrassment. I make no comment or judgement about his ability to govern the United States or contribute intelligently and wisely to the establishment of a just international order; I simply observe that the corruption of language and truth is in itself dangerous for everyone.

This debate is about the challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world. The liberal international order is not a natural given or an inevitable right. It begs as many questions (of inherent legitimacy) as it addresses. Populism and nationalism are not new phenomena, and their development is a constant in societies that feel uncertain or have lost the security found in a clear sense of common or mutual identity. The particular danger of today’s developments around the world is that instability is far easier to create than stability; that order is fragile and chaos a tempting attraction; that the spectre haunting Europe and the world has little to do with ‘what the people – whoever they are – want’ and much to do with how they can be manipulated into thinking that what they are told they want is in fact what is good for them. The anti-elitist anti-establishmentarians are perpetrating a fraud in their elitist and self-promoting rhetorics. But, they will not be the people to pay the price.

I suspect that the order of the past is being challenged by the threat or promise of a new order. It is essential that we articulate a compelling vision for an order that serves the common good, shapes a good society and resists the claims of a post-truth rhetoric which tells us lying is acceptable as a means to an end.

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

I went into a bookshop last week to get a book I'd seen reviewed and, on a first look around the ground floor, couldn't find it. So, I went to the assistant and asked if they had the new biography of Martin Luther by Oxford academic Lyndal Roper. The conversation went something like this:

“You mean Martin Luther King?”

“No, I mean Martin Luther.”

“I've never heard of him. Who is he?”

“He was a German monk who set off the Reformation in Europe.”

“A German monk? He's probably in 'Religion'.

Eventually I went upstairs anyway and found it myself under 'German History'.

Well, I was a little alarmed about this. Not so much because of the religious illiteracy it demonstrated, but the historical ignorance. When I tweeted this exchange, a friend reminded me of the occasion when someone went into a bookshop and asked where he could find Oscar Wilde. The answer? “He's not in today.” Other funny comments followed.

Call me old-fashioned, but it is impossible to have any understanding of the modern world – especially modern Europe – without some reference to the German monk. And for me this is personal: I will be speaking in Luther's Erfurt at the end of October this year to kick off the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Europe.

The challenge this presents is this: which histories need to be known if we are to know who we are and what got us to where we are? I lived and worked in the Cold War, so inhabited a divided Europe: my kids did not, and for them the Soviet Union is as remote as the Boer War. Yet, some histories shouldn't be ignored.

Luther was a complicated man: intense, argumentative and bad-tempered. He said some terrible things about Jews (which in turn had terrible consequences even four centuries later) and wasn't exactly a proto-feminist. He challenged one political power only to find himself colluding with others. He was brave, disciplined and sharp as a knife. He changed the German language for ever, and shaped what became the modern world by following up on an idea: that God loves us anyway.

In other words, Luther was a complex human being – just like the rest of us. We don't have to ignore his faults or take him out of his times in order to make him palatable to twenty-first century sensibilities. Praise him or damn him, we still have to take seriously what he did at the time he did it.

Essentially Luther was empowered by one simple discovery: we can never be perfect, but we can be liberated by knowing we are freely loved by God. 'Grace' it was called. It changed him, and he changed the world.

We see around us plenty of anger, strife and disputation. Surely it wouldn't be a bad thing to re-discover grace. And also to re-discover history.

 

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

I have just got back from the reading of fat books on holiday. The one that grabbed me this time was Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar'. It all sounded so contemporary. The voice in my head kept repeating the plaintive phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Power, violence, subterfuge, ego, leadership struggles, populism and politics – it's all there. It always is.

I also kept hearing the line from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The problem with vision is that it emerges from memory. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this week that Judaism is a religion of memory. So, I would argue, is Christianity. Both remind us, for example, that empires come and go, that hubris is ultimately embarrassing, and that history sadly repeats itself. Christianity makes no sense at all without rituals that are there to compel compulsive amnesiacs to re-member their story: in this case that by recalling that we were once slaves, we will refrain from treating other people like slaves; that we are set free to serve; that we are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (and one another). For Jews the Passover goes to the heart of this memory; for Christians the Eucharist re-tells the story into which we fit ourselves and shape our future.

We can only know who we are if we know from where and from whom we have come. The problems emerge when either we think we have been born into the ultimate 'now' – that nothing valuable went before us – or we choose the bits of memory that are convenient to our present or future self-justifications.

And that is as dangerous for nations, continents and communities as it is for individuals or religions.

With this in mind, and having read about the Caesars, I wonder if every government should appoint a Cabinet Historian to remind it of the past and challenge policy for the longer-term future in the light of experience.

Of course, all readings of history are partial, and memories are always susceptible to selectivity. But, some of the challenges we face (for example, in the light of Brexit) would be informed by a sober re-membering. Memories are short, but how will anyone born in this millennium understand Russia and Ukraine when they have no experience of the Cold War – and a world divided not just by affluence but by starkly competing ideologies? Memory is not quite the same as history, but both can become commodities in struggles for power, as the biblical narrative reminds us.

Well, I won't hold my breath, but without a memory the people cannot form a vision. And without a vision the people perish.

The Reimagining Europe blog continues to provide space for a different sort of conversation about the future of Europe ahead of the UK referendum in 2017.

2017 is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg). And, of course, you can't understand the shape of Europe or its history without understanding the Reformation.

So, I have posted a piece about the need to remember well, even when this might offend our prejudices or ideological interests. All in the interests of promoting the debate.

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (following last night's Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace):

If truth be told, I'm a bit on the tired side this morning. Last night I was presenting awards for excellence in religious broadcasting and my head is full of great stories. We had some brilliant examples of radio and telly that got under the skin of how people live – and why they live the way they do. After all, religion is about life, not a niche for weirdos.

And perhaps that's why when we get to anniversaries of momentous events, some sort of religious celebration stands at the heart of the remembering. This week is particularly poignant as it ends on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day – a day of triumph, but a day of blood.

But, this week also sees a musical anniversary. Today is the thirtieth birthday of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. I can't believe it is thirty years since the Boss attacked my ears and got me hooked on music that gave words to memories and took seriously the importance of place for human beings. We need to know where we belong – that we belong somewhere.

I wasn't born in the USA – surprisingly. I was born in Liverpool when the Beatles were getting together and Merseybeat ruled the airwaves. I know where my cultural roots are and they partly tell me who I am. And what Springsteen did was to open up to everyone – wherever they come from – the need to remember. As a rabbi once pointed out, when a generation dies out, memory becomes history – and when that happens – inevitably – history becomes a commodity over which people fight.

The point is we need to know who we are. Way back in the Old Testament the people had to divide the year into rituals that compelled them to remember where they had come from – that when they prospered, they recalled that once they were slaves and had nothing. This was supposed to root within their consciousness a sense of humility and generosity that shaped their politics and economics as well as their culture.

Anyway, Bruce Springsteen isn't that old. But, Born in the USA invited us to do the same task: to remember who we are and that all of us were born somewhere.

 

 

I remember reading a paper once in which the writer kept using the word 'insulation' when he meant 'isolation'. And now I wonder if I am seeing the same thing when I listen to Western political leaders claiming that Putin and Russia will be 'isolated' because of the annexation of Crimea.

Will western threats turn out to be, in fact, the very moves that insulate Putin within his own 'bloc' and cement his position? And will such insulation/isolation actually render any possible negotiation or policy amendment impossible?

These are questions more eloquently put by Dr Charles Reed in his good and clear post today.

They are also the sort of questions lurking behind my original post on Ukraine and subsequent linking in to this of reflections on the events behind the sleepwalking into World War One in 1914. Some intended actions turn out to have unintended consequences – but it is not the politicians who pay the price (unless in terms of the loss of a job later).

Running under all this stuff is also the question of memory – and whose narrative is allowed to become 'official'. As this article in today's Observer illustrates tragically and seriously, attempts to rewrite 1990s history in Serbia and Bosnia is not just of academic interest … especially to those who see the physical world around them being shaped to tell a lie.

And where did World War One begin…?

 

Maybe it's because I have just read Ruth Tzeko's excellent A Tale for the Time Being (time, culture, language, philosophy, suicide, Zen, quantum physics, the self, and an intriguing story beautifully written), but watching events unfurl in the Ukraine appears familiar.

Familiar not just because Russian media discussion reflects the rhetoric of the old Soviet years, but also because the impotent moral vacuity of western protestation conjures up spectres of the national trade-offs that were going on in Europe in the run up to what became the First World War. Maybe it's because I am reading Christopher Clark's excellent account of this period in his best-selling The Sleepwalkers

Listening to Russian apologists for Putin's imperial ambitions certainly raises the western hackles, but, getting beyond the intuitive distrust of Russian political integrity, we have to ask why they are doing what they are doing in Ukraine – and why are they doing it now?

The west has just fought two very unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and it is clear that neither politicians nor people have the stomach for further military interventions on our own continent. Secondly, we can't afford another military intervention. Thirdly, we don't have enough conviction to fight for anything anyway. And Putin knows this. European and US exhaustion (both military and economic) mean that we won't stop him taking the Crimea and anywhere else he fancies just now.

Economic sanctions against Russian individuals? Well, they worked in Zimbabwe, didn't they? (that was meant to be ironic.) So, why is it that when I am watching Russians defending Russia's actions in relation to the Ukraine I feel doubly uncomfortable? The answer, I fear, is that, as Clark puts it (in relation to relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in 1913): “There was a clash here not just of interests, but also of policy styles.” (p.288) In other words, we speak different languages.

An interesting exercise to go through, if opportunity ever arises, is to examine the language used by the Soviet Union to justify its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and then the language/rhetoric used by the west to oppose it. Then compare these with the language/rhetoric used by Britain and the USA for their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and then the language of Russian opposition to it. (I had to do this professionally.) It's all a bit Alice in Wonderland.

What characterises the story told by Christopher Clark about the run up to the First World War is the short-termism of political alliances forged for limited ends – trade-offs by the Powers in order to maximise their own security by (a) securing territory and (b) balancing the negatives of multiple alliances. The latter became complex, if not sometimes even contradictory. The issue, however, has to do with political and military powers that lose sight of the big picture and, heads and eyes focused down to the bit of grass in front of their noses, nibble their way to destruction.

Back to the Ukraine, it is easy to see why Putin is not terribly bothered by the west's indignant rhetoric. Perhaps he has a longer view of history than we do – or at least broader one. Perhaps he has come up with a different answer to the question about when does history begin? Maybe. But, what is clear is that twenty five years of post-Soviet humiliation is a powerful motivator in current behaviour – a humiliation welcomed in the west after the collapse of Communism, but without any idea – other than the assumed victorious western free-market capitalist democracy – of what might emerge from the ruins. 'The end of history' indeed!

And twenty five years is not a long time in the grand sweep of history. The Crimea was handed by the old USSR to Ukraine just over half a century ago – and now the Russians have decided to restore the ethnic and territorial status quo. And if a popular revolution in Kiev was deemed legitimate to bring down a government, why should a partial referendum in Crimea not be legitimate in giving the democratic majority in this region what they want?

Of course, it is not as simple as this. But, there are some simple questions that are being brushed over in the coverage and interpretation of events in Ukraine. And it is clear that western celebration a quarter of a century ago at the demise of the Soviet Empire has not created a unipolar world – and was certainly premature. Clearly, it is unclear what will happen next and what Putin has in mind for Russia: what we might call expansion he might call restoration.

I don't quite know how to express this, but spending time in Switzerland, France and Germany recently (sabbatical) brought it home to me just how geographical liminality is alien to English experience. We don't cross borders other than Wales and Scotland, which aren't – yet – borders in the sense that Germany and France have them. Living on an island shapes a particular perception of national identity, but it is very different one grown on mainland Europe where borders of land, language, culture, history and ethnicity are so pronounced, delicate, vulnerable and steeped in blood. Reading about the First World War outside of Britain is very different from reading about it in Britain – just as reading about concentration camps in the Second World War feels different depending on whether you are doing the reading in Bristol or Berlin.

Every government needs to read history – although history tells us that each one will read the history that suits them according to the myths they need to reinforce (regardless of whether the myths are backed up by facts). Every teenager in Britain should be required to spend a week in Berlin, walking along 'borders' that introduce them – in curriculum terms – to geography, history, language, religion, theology, politics, philosophy, art, literature, science, economics, culture, etc. That way we might just begin to grow a generation that is able to glimpse (if not see) through the eyes of another culture with another history, and realise that our own – assumed or intuitive – way of 'seeing' is both limited and relative.

Back to The Sleepwalkers

This 'away-from-home-and-reading' bit of my sabbatical is coming to an end. I haven't read as much as I had wanted to, but there is also a life to be lived (and football to be watched).

Before finishing with a couple of funny German satirical books, I spent the last couple of days reading Ben Quash's Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit. I am very glad I did.

Last year I asked Ben to be (Honorary) Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral and he agreed. He is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and was formerly Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Last summer I asked Ben to address my clergy on the subject of 'change' – given all the uncertainties about the future of the diocese in the light of proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for West Yorkshire & the Dales (which, as we know, is soon to be a reality). In the morning he presented some of the material that is now set out in this book. (In the afternoon we had Pastor Sebastian Feydt from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, to talk about radical change and its effects – he had experienced the changes in Germany from GDR to FRG at every level, including how such change affects or shapes your theology.)

If Ben had told me beforehand that he would begin with a brief study of modal auxiliaries in English language, I would probably have advised against it on the grounds that … er … it doesn't sound very … er … likely to enthral the busy clergy mind. It was absolutely riveting. Since then, I have waited for the book and for the time to read it properly – even though some bits made me feel a bit dim and slow.

I am not going to attempt to review it here. Suffice to say that this beautifully written book ranges through language, translation, art, poetry, the naming of cats, Bible, text, hermeneutics, history, philosophy, christology and pneumatology. And, yes, that was 'the naming of cats'. I rarely read a 'theology' from cover to cover, but I did this one. Basically, he wants the reader to see that the Holy Spirit breathes through the space that engages our imagination (in its proper meanings), re-lighting the past and shaping the future. En route he has important things to say or suggest about how the church is to handle new phenomena in the light of a proper reading of and handling of scripture – something pertinent to current ethical debates in and beyond the church.

I quote the opening of the first chapter on 'Historical finding':

The theology advanced in this book understands ongoing history as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to relate us to God in Christ, and it is energetically opposed to models of doctrine that assume for it any sort of ahistorical completeness; that assume it to be a set of securely held propositions from which all necessary implications for Christian belief and practice can then be deduced in any time and place. (p.1)