I am preaching in the Berliner Dom this evening in a Lent series of sermons under the general theme of 'Reformation and Politics'. I was given the theme: 'To whom does the city belong?' and prepared the text (in German) before being given the biblical text on whcih to base it. So, it will possibly be a little tangential…

Sitting in the Dom this morning I was struck again by the text engraved above the chancel steps: “Lasset Euch versöhnen mit Gott” – “Be reconciled to God”.

This – along with all other texts inside and outside the building – was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I wonder what he understood reconciliation with God to mean. What did he expect people to do when they read this text above a crucifix on the altar of this grand cathedral church?

I ask the question because the answer simply isn't obvious. We always filter our understandings (and the assumptions that generate them) through the worldview we inhabit and the experiences we enjoy or endure at a particular time, as part of a particular culture in the context of the particular period of history in which we live. In other words, the practical outworking of reconciliation with God – it can never be simply an individual pietistic act of the spirit – involves real other people in real places and at real times. It can never be disembodied.

So, as Germany found itself heading towards war in 1914, how was this text read by those who worshipped in the Dom? Or, again, during the Weimar Republic? Or, again, between 1933-45 when the Third Reich adopted a particular view of religion and Christian identity? Or, again, during the Communist dictatorship of the GDR between 1949-89? Was 'reconciliation with God' an act of conformity to a private piety, or an invitation to political and ethical rebellion… at inevitable personal cost?

When I stand in the pulpit this evening I will do so with the humility that comes from recognising the complexity of history and context. Even though I will preach in German, I cannot know how I will be 'heard' by a congregation whose historical associations and personal, social or familial memories are different from those such as mine that have been shaped by an island existence.

In other words, things aren't simple.

I am writing this with the Archbishop of Canterbury's references to gay marriage and the suffering of Christians in Africa in the background. Some ethical questions look clear and simple when seen from one clear perspective. However, look through different eyes and the clarity gets dulled by complexity. Some of us need not worry too much about what happens to Christians in Africa if the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses support for gay marriage (let's drop the 'equal' word as it isn't); the Archbishop has to worry. When there is a direct link between what one says and what happens to other people, words have to be chosen carefully and with a very big pause.

The problem here is that there are two evils: oppression of homosexuals (particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East) and oppression of Christians by those who will use gay identity or approval as sanction for brutality. Working out the ethics here is not simple: if one has an equal obligation to both – and a responsibility not to contribute to the victimisation of either – then how does one decide what to say to whom and when?

I am not writing this to defend the Archbishop or his critics. But, I am defending the complexity of his position. It is a heavy burden to bear knowing that if you say something in England it can lead directly (in practical terms, not in terms of moral causation) to the murder of innocent people in Pakistan or Nigeria. And simply saying that we should abandon the Anglican Communion does not address the dilemma.

Yesterday I got the tram out to Hohenschönhausen to visit the former Stasi prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and abused – first by the Soviet occupying forces from 1945, then from 1950 by the security ministry of the German Democratic Republic. It finally closed in 1990 and is now preserved as a national memorial to those who suffered under the Communist dictatorship.

There are too many stories to tell. And it feels somehow cheap to stand as a tourist in a cell where people were once interrogated or held in terrible conditions, often not knowing their crime and usually not knowing where they were or for how long they would be there.

The brilliant film The Lives of Others illustrates the soullessness of this oppressive GDR culture. Life was cheap. And just as the film brings home the power of oppression by relating the personal stories of individuals, so it is the stories that impress when you stand one of the interrogation cells at Hohenschönhausen. We can generalise about politics and the cruelties of governments. We can academically abstract from places like this a penetrating critique of Marxist-Leninist dehumanisation and corruption. We can make clever points about resistance – from a place where to do so costs me nothing. But, it is the stories that haunt.

For each individual incarcerated, humiliated and abused here, there were families, friends, lovers, communities affected, torn apart, corrupted and dehumanised. Relationships were distorted, trust was compromised and identity questioned. And for each individual damaged here, others were responsible by what they did or didn't say, by what they did or didn't do.

The story of someone who has suffered innocently is hard to hear, even if a hard ethical choice had to be made which led to that person's suffering. The phenomenon is as important as the ethical content.

Abuse of individuals and groups is absolutely wrong always. Oppression of minorities is always wrong – whatever the context. But the complexity of balancing rights and obligations in matters of life and death is not to be rendered simplistic by turning such conflicts of obligation into a form of competitive ethics.

Those who say that the Archbishop should be opposing all forms of oppression and proclaiming 'love for all' – as if he were doing the opposite – are right. But, how? If we can't agree with him, at least understand the dilemma (as I think Andrew Brown does here).

Now, for the Dom…

 

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 in the presence of actors Emma Thompson, Celia Imrie, Paul McGann, Sean Pertwee and musician Billy Ocean.

I've just been on holiday for a week of culture-free sitting in the sun and reading. It was brilliant. I packed a pile of novels, but in the end spent several days reading a history book called 'Sleepwalkers' – about the origins of the First World War.

Now, I can't read this sort of stuff without being haunted in my imagination by the words of the World War One poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon as they shaped horror with sounds of beauty. Someone once sang, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” but in the trenches it seems that when the going got tough, the tough wrote poetry.

It sounds a bit weird, doesn't it? We think of the violence of war – especially that war – and feel ourselves bombarded with the power of destructiveness. Yet, amid all that sound and fury, some of these guys refused – in words that echo and linger in the memory – to let the inhumanity of conflict stop the heart of what it means to be human.

I'm not being naive about this stuff. But I am being dead serious about the poetry. The great Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn once suggested that “maybe the poet… shows you new ways to see”. It is the poets who open our imagination and fire the spirit. Put the poet's words to music and the darkness of your heart gets broken open by the surprise of light.

I'll be reading the poets again as we approach the centenary of the slide into war in 1914. And I fear I will want to defy the destruction and misery as the poets themselves did by daring to believe that love is more powerful than death and toughness is to be seen in a refusal to collude with the idea that might is inevitably right.

Two thousand years ago a Middle Eastern writer quoted a poem: “So, these three remain: faith, hope and love. But, the greatest of these is love.” There you have it. What is really tough? It's love actually.

 

The headline doesn't sound too promising, does it? But, it brings together the last couple of days before I return to Bradford tomorrow for a week of work before having a scheduled holiday the following week.

Having finished Ben Quash's excellent Found Theology, I intended to just spend the last couple of days reading German frivolous stuff. But, I started on Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison instead and got hooked. Serendipitously, it hangs together very well with the Quash book, although written from a different perspective and toward a different end.

Imaginative Apologetics recognises that the current irrational obsession of the New Atheists with what they think of as 'pure reason' (as if it wasn't mediated by a person who brings to the task a tradition and unargued-for presuppositions about the world, the way it is, and why it is the way it is) and 'pure science' (see above) does not need to be responded to on its own redundant terms, but that the premises of the argument can be questioned. And, to cut a long argument short, people need to be appealed to at the level of imagination and emotion – finding a consistency with real lived experience … which is more (but never less than) than 'rational' – and the Christian tradition has a huge amount to offer in this respect.

In fact, Davison himself makes the case right at the outset for Christian confidence when he writes:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything. (p.xxv)

He also cursorily quotes Yale's Denys Turner's observation that “the best way to be an atheist is to avoid asking certain questions”. The purpose of this is not to dismiss atheism or atheists, but to ask robust questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that lie before and behind assertions about reality and the absence of God. There is material here for good debate, if the theistic case is accorded some credibility and not simply dismissed prior to consideration. As Alison Milbank puts it, the apologetic task of the Christian is not to appeal to pure reason (as if there could be such a thing), but “to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth”. (p.33)

Each essay is worth reading in itself and I don't intend to go through the whole book here. However, the appeal to art, literature and the imaginative life of a human person (as well as communities) chimes in very well with the case being argued theologically by Ben Quash in his book. In other words, take culture seriously; explore and appeal to the imagination that takes reason seriously; be confident about the role of the imagination in comprehending reality.

Having read this stuff in a cafe in Basel yesterday, I then moved on to the Kunstmuseum Basel. I particularly wanted to see the Hans Holbein painting of the dead Christ (referred to by Ben Quash in his book) and the impressive Impressionist collection. There is nothing quite like an art gallery to make me feel ignorant and illiterate. I look at paintings and know that I don't know how to read them – I don't know the language. I had intended to scan the bulk of the collections and stay for longer with the stuff I knew a little about from my reading, but I found I had paid to see the special exhibition of James Ensor: The Surprised Masks.

I had never heard of James Ensor. I realised I had come across several of his works (The Fall of the Rebel Angels and The Entry of Christ into Brussels on Mardi Gras, for example) but I knew nothing about him or his art. It was stunning. The paintings were interesting, but it was the ink drawings that grabbed me. They explore death, dying, mortality and humanity – but with the sort of humour that had me laughing as I looked at them. It reminded me a little of how I felt when I read Robert Crumb's cartoon version of The Book of Genesis.

The point here is that art goes beyond pure reason (but entirely reasonably) into the imagination in a way that digs at 'truth' and pushes our perceptions of what we assume to be 'reality'.

And this, bizarrely, is what takes me on to immigration. If coming to Switzerland helped me escape some of the sterile immigration debates in England, I quickly got plunged back into them. Recently a referendum narrowly backed the view that restrictions should be imposed on immigration into Switzerland. This caused a huge storm both here and in the wider European Union: decisions have consequences. The political fall-out has been interesting to read whilst actually here in Switzerland. And 'imagination' – in the perverse, but common sense of 'fantasy' – has come powerfully into play in the rhetoric around the issue.

The friend I am staying with is employed by the Swiss Reformed Church to engage in industrial and economic matters (Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft). He was invited by the local newspaper, the bz Basel, to attend last week's opening night of a performance of Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter and to be interviewed by the newspaper afterwards. You really have to know the play, but the performance had a twist in that the stories – in their own words – of immigrants to Switzerland were told to a surprised audience. The interview appeared today and Martin (Dürr) has been getting very supportive messages all day. In the interview – which is amusing as well as intelligent – he sharply calls into question the rhetoric propagated by the right wing that mass immigration is threatening the Swiss way of life. The right wing press (in some cases owned by the leader of the right wing party, the SVP) fan the flames of fear whilst simultaneously offering themselves as the saviours of the nation. Martin put it like this (my translation):

We have to draw a line. For many years the SVP has succeeded in building fears and resentments. The play exposes the mechanisms behind this. I believe there are some very respectable people in the SVP. But, the element that has the say has managed for years to present itself as both victim and saviour. This is a fascinating achievement… They present themselves as victims of the foreign masters in Brussels and of the Left and the Greens and even the remaining left wing press. These are doing terrible things to us and our Swiss identity is being destroyed – say the SVP. At the same time they get up and announce: “Comrades, don't be afraid! We offer you the antidote to this. We are the only ones to really fight to keep the Switzerland that has existed since 1291.”

Sound familiar? Create the spectre – regardless of facts and reality – and then offer a solution to the fear that you have created. It is an interesting and powerful example of political apologetics. It works on the imagination by conjuring a fantasy and then calling it reality.

We are not alone…

 

A great lunch with the Bundestagspräsident, a former Ministerpräsident of Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (Bernhard Vogel), a French theologian and a Jewish academic – we discussed the NSA revelations, spying on Merkel, the Holocaust and other things – and then back to work.

Wo Sprache endet: Das Verhältnis von Literatur, Transzendenz und Politik was a paper delivered by Professor Dr Lydia Koelle (Bonn). I expected some sort of treatment similar to that by Rowan Williams in his book on 'Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction', but what we got didn't seem to address the theme of the title. However, it led to a good question about the transference of 'trauma' from a generation of Germans who did not 'live' the Holocaust, but reads 'trauma' back into an experience that was not actually lived as a trauma by those who actually went through it. (I might be doing this session an injustice, but it was the post-lunch slot and we had wine with lunch…)

Zwischen Medialisierung, Religionskonflikt und Rückkehr der Figuration: Religion in der Kunst am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts saw Dr Johannes Rauchenberger (Graz, Austria) illustrate how contemporary morally-challenging events are handled in art – for example, Razoume (?) on the recent Lampedusa migration deaths.

Ulrich Khuon, Intendant of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, was really interesting about theatre and film as he addressed the theme Glaube, Welt und die Kunst des Spiels: Kino und Theater als Seismographen der Gegenwart. He began with Pasolini observing Jesus from a distance in his 'Gospel of St Matthew', then ranged widely around Friedrich Schiller, Mallick and Julian Barnes in relation to death, suffering and the human condition.

Zwischen Skandal und neuer Kunstreligion: Das zwiespältige Verhältnis von Künsten und Religion in der Öffentlichkeit, an exploration of how art provokes and challenges, saw Professor Dr Wolfgang Ullrich (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe) tackle public responses to (a) Gerhard Richter's east window in Cologne Cathedral, and (b) Martin Kippenberger's 'Crucified Frog'. Both caused huge controversy: the former because it subverts both the architctural form and the received nature/purpose of stained-glass windows in churches, and the latter for obvious reasons. The window substitutes traditional biblical images with 11,500 four-inch 'pixels' cut from original antique glass in a total of 72 colours, dividing opinion between those (like the bishop) who hate it and those who say that “all the saints, all the parables, every thought, every idea, transcendence itself are all here in these windows”. Richter observed that the critical bishop had actually understood it: [it is] “gar nicht katholisch.”

Interestingly (and pertinently), the symposium has heard no reference in today's papers to music – a surprising omission. Mind you, there isn't time to cover everything…

I need dinner…

 

Yesterday's overarching theme was: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne (Religion and secularism in the modern world). The theme of the second day of the symposium in Cadenabbia is: Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit. The contributions are very academic and intense – inevitable, given that the contributors are university academics.

The first paper this morning was given in English by Professor Gabriel Motzkin, Director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on the theme of Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen Fundamentalismus und Säkularismus. His starting point was that fundamentalism is possible only where there are texts – text-based communities then use other texts to discuss (and understand) the base text. Fundamentalism replaces the world/nature with a text, this differentiating it from secularism. Therefore, the conflict between fundamentalism and secularism has essentially to do with the possibility or admissability of authoritative texts. Motzkin went on to discuss how human beings “create God”, but concluded that secularists end up with more problems here than the fundamentalists who go beyond mere human agency in the world. This was fast and furious and the ensuing discussion was rich, but it rested on a contentious assumption about terminology and (as I questioned) a confusion between 'secularism'/'atheism' and 'fundamentalism'/'theism'.

The second paper, by Dr Ahmad Milad Karimi (lecturer at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster), addressed the theme: Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen westlichem und islamischen Denken. This one was in German and I didn't follow some of the complexity of terminology or argument – again, I need the text. However, the key discussion was around problems of transcendence and immanence in a context in which there is a contested assumption about revelation and/or experience.

We then moved on to Gott als Chiffre in der modernen Welt (Professor Dr Traugott Jähnichen from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum). He basically addressed the problems and legitimacy of 'God language' in political discourse, ranging from John Locke through the (failed) preamble Lisbon Treaty to the statement that we still haven't found a form of discourse that will compensate adequately for that represented by God-talk. Speech about God (which the church must not give away) (a) imposes limits to hubris, (b) owns up to fallibility and leads to the taking of responsibility, and (c) engenders humility.

Spiritualität ohne Gott saw Professor Dr Thomas Schärtl (Universität Augsburg) define – from a philosophical perspective – both 'spirituality' (“the way in which an individual sees/commits himself to the totality of existence within the framework of meaning”) and 'religion' (“how the finite stands in relation to eternity”). He went on to offer diagnostic elements for understanding what shapes spirituality, citing such phenomena as emancipation, immanentism, expansion of choices/options, and consumerism, before looking at Christian concepts such as sin, grace and salvation.

Thinking ahead to my paper tomorrow, I am concerned about two matters that impact on how we address these concerns in the world beyond the academic/conceptual: (a) the context in Europe of common philosophical assumptions about 'neutrality' in the public square, and (b) the need for translation in a pluralist society from the language of one worldview/praxis to those of others.

I need lunch…

 

I wonder if the Daily Mail has finally succeeded in opening the eyes of its apathetic readers to the true nature of its anthropology (that is, what they think is the intrinsic value or meaning of human beings in society).

The Miliband saga has intensified, with expressions of anger from some unlikely people.

What interests me most is how this feeds into a more general problem in the public discourse: the conscious and deliberate corruption of language. It is disingenuous of the Deputy Editor of the Mail to say in yesterday's Newsnight debate with Alastair Campbell that “headlines have to be read in conjunction with the text of the article” when the world and his wife knows (a) that headlines often mislead (deliberately?) and (b) that deliberate association goes beyond the literal text or juxtaposition.

Repeated use of simple phrases makes a powerful appeal to the subconscious that goes beyond the specific words. At the Conservative Party Conference this week the word 'hardworking' hung over and behind the stage on which speeches were made. The word dripped into the rhetoric of many speakers and commentators – as if we all understood what was meant by it and who was included in it. Or assumed to be included in it. Poor hardworking people (in multiple part-time and low-paid jobs and who are increasingly using foodbanks) are clearly not included.

Aren't stay-at-home parents 'hardworking'?

To go back to the Daily Mail furore for a moment: why was it illegitimate to recall the Daily Mail's antisemitism, support for fascism and affection for Adolf Hitler at the same time as deeming it (obviously) legitimate to quote from Ralph Miliband's teenage diary?

As I have argued many times on this blog, the corruption of language is deliberate and very dangerous. It is used to suggest and associate – working at a subliminal level and categorising people without always spelling out what is going on here and why. It is something George Orwell understood very well and articulated very clearly.

“Arbeit macht frei” is a simple and 'true' slogan, isn't it?

It has been remarked that my choice of reading material for a holiday is not 'happy'. The American Civil War, a biography of Leonard Cohen, and now a book about the systematic extermination of Jews in Poland in 1941-2. OK, I see the point.

However, that is just for starters. And the reason I am sitting with my books and iPad in a cafe (with wifi) by a lake while my wife and friends do something else is because I have a seriously dodgy shoulder awaiting treatment when I get back to Bradford.

Right, that's the explanations and excuses dealt with.

Anyway, we had a conversation over breakfast this morning about how individuals, communities or entire nations manage to collude in inhuman behaviour while then proving totally incapable of coming to terms with that behaviour later. Austria has never seriously addressed its complicity with Nazism and the Final Solution; Switzerland's neutrality during the Second World War allowed it the freedom to cover both heroism and quiet cruelty; Rwanda sought to blame the Belgians and the French for sowing the seeds of genocide only twenty years ago.

We were discussing how the ground for dreadful collective behaviour and individual complicity in it is laid by years of cultural and linguistic corruption. Turn Jews and Bolsheviks into categories of 'enemies' and it becomes easier to justify getting rid of them. Spend years referring to 'the other tribe' as “cockroaches” and stamping them out becomes reasonable as well as achievable.

This reminded me of something I heard years ago at Greenbelt. I think it was the great and late-lamented Mike Yaconelli who claimed that the most common cause of death of cattle on the great plains of the American mid-west was “being hit by a train”. Trains and railway tracks were hard to find in the vast expanses of empty land. And the cows didn't set out to find them in order to get flattened by the iron horse. They simply put their head down, nibbled the nearest bit of grass… then moved on to the next piece of grass… and then the next bit… until they had moved a very long way and found themselves nibbling grass in front of tons of moving metal.

They nibbled their way to destruction.

People don't set out to collude in genocide. They just keep their head down and their eyes narrowly focused. They attend to the immediate business to hand and don't look up to see the bigger picture. But, one day they find themselves in front of a train.

Which is how and why Ordinary Men end up doing extraordinarily terrible things to other people.