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.”

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address at the Leeds Diocesan Synod:

The fifth of November. The day we remember how we used to burn Roman Catholics in this country.

Last Monday I preached in the church where Martin Luther became and served as a monk. The Augustinerkloster in Erfurt looks today much like it did when Luther prostrated himself before the altar and took his vows. I was there with a group from this diocese, having been invited to preach on the 499th anniversary of Luther (allegedly) nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg. Last Monday kicked off the year of celebration and commemoration of the Reformation and will conclude on 31 October 2017.

The Reformation divided Europe and changed the world for ever. Yet, when the German monk decided to challenge what he saw as ecclesiastical perversions of the gospel and church order he did not intend to create a new church. He wanted to heal the church and return it to its proper form and role. Yet, he discovered quickly that it is easier to set off destructive events than it is to stop or control them. The Law of Unintended Consequences led to civil uprisings, religiously-inspired violence, civil war and political settlements that exist to this day in Germany. The Reformation marks the recovery of the primacy of God’s grace as revealed in Scripture; yet, it also calls to memory some dreadful passions, all-too-human rejections of grace, and Christians who could no longer see each other as belonging to the same church.

The legacy was the rise of the Enlightenment partly as a reaction against religious power and the violence of the Thirty Years War. It is significant that in Germany the Reformation Jubilee is being marked by a huge degree of ecumenical partnership, with the Pope even launching the year in Sweden last weekend. It has taken 500 years and we are not there yet. It is easy to divide – hard to reconcile. And yet we are a church fired by a gospel of reconciliation, committed to a ministry of reconciliation, needing to be very careful that the decisions we make do not deny that gospel or ministry itself.

I mention this this morning for several reasons. First, because our diocesan link with Erfurt is one we wish to strengthen. In the light of Brexit, our European links take on an even greater importance. Secondly, and as I said in my sermon in Erfurt, we need to learn our history and learn from it. If we do not know where we have come from, then we cannot know who we are. Thirdly, our reading of Reformation history should provoke in us a humility that comes from recognising that we are firmly placed in this world while being fired by a vision of another world, but that our this-worldliness can easily lead us to behave in ways that deny the nature of the Christ we are called (by the Apostle Paul) to imitate.

However, my other reason for starting with the Reformation and last week’s Erfurt visit is that every generation faces its unique challenges and choices. One of the challenges we face in the UK in 2016 is the slow corruption of our public and political discourse. It is not coincidental that the former Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, a committed Roman Catholic now running media in New York, has just published a book titled ‘Enough Said’ in which he – correctly and possibly prophetically in my view – names the currents of bile, destructiveness and dehumanising contempt that colours the public discourse in Britain, across Europe and in the United States. I offer you Brexit, migration and the US Presidential election.

Like charity, let’s start at home. Whether you voted in the June Referendum to remain in or leave the European Union, the fact is that the vote went the way of Brexit. Not overwhelmingly – we now live in a very divided country. The referendum, however, was advisory and did not legally or constitutionally bind the government (or Parliament) to deliver on the decision – this in contrast to the AV referendum that was binding. Hence, the legal clarification sought this week in the High Court was entirely reasonable and, it could be argued, entirely necessary. The question of who, in a representative parliamentary democracy and following a non-binding referendum, has the right to trigger negotiations that then lead inexorably to a radically different constitutional settlement, is a very important one.

The courts ruled this week, and immediately allowed an appeal by the government to the Supreme Court. That is how the rule of law, based on an independent judiciary, is supposed to work in the sort of parliamentary democracy we rightly celebrate and value in this country. The rule of law should never be taken for granted. It is hard won and can be very easily lost.

So, even if you think Brexit is the right move for Britain and you want to see it happen quickly, you should be very alarmed at newspapers referring to judges as “enemies of the people”. Several newspapers suggested yesterday that we should get rid of judges who don’t do what certain politicians want and replace them with ones they do. Now, does that sound familiar? And do you spot the serious risk to the rule of law. And isn’t this precisely the sort of sovereignty that Brexit was supposed to guarantee to the UK in the first place?

As racism, intolerance and violence increase across Europe, it is probably just as well we can look to the Land of the Free to keep us sane and safe, isn’t it? Oh. So, even there we see the final throes of a presidential election that has been reduced to an abusive slanging match that is hardly going to commend ‘democracy’ to those countries and people we so often think should be compelled to enjoy it.

But, it is the threat to the public conversation that is so dangerous and potentially poisonous. How we speak to, with and about one another matters far more than we might wish to think. Christians must speak differently, refuse to collude with or be corrupted by what is swilling around in the media and on social media, and hold to account those who threaten the nature of our discourse by what they choose to say or print.

When we accept our judges being labelled “enemies of the people” for doing their job, then we will be inviting the Law of Unintended Consequences to apply – where civil society is corrupted bit by bit by bit because we can’t be bothered to contest it. Europe has been here before.

Now, you might be feeling a little morose at this point. You should be. However, as someone once said, “don’t shout at the darkness – light a candle”. How might we respond positively to this challenge?

Since this synod last met the clergy of the diocese – 400 of them – convened at Liverpool Hope University for the first clergy conference since we were created at Easter 2014. One of the highlights of the three-day event was a presentation and dialogue between Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on the theme Science, the Cosmos and Human Meaning. After each had presented – and boggled most of us with stuff we didn't always understand (but still tried to look as if we did) – I moderated a dialogue between them. Brian needs no introduction: an agnostic with a huge media as well as academic presence. David, a Methodist minister with experience of inner-city ministry in Liverpool and a gift for Radio 4's Thought for the Day, has doctorates in astrophysics and theology (which is a bit greedy) and is Principal of St John's College, Durham.

After lunch – which was dominated by students wanting selfies … not with me – clergy asked questions of both guests and the conversation continued. It was interesting, intelligent, informed, generous and completely riveting.

But, why did we do it?

One of the things Brian Cox is concerned about is how to bring public institutions and disciplines together to model how to have substantial conversations about things that matter and to offer an alternative to the appalling public – mainly political – discourse we are subjected to during these difficult and uncertain times. In fact, that is why I invited the two professors to come in the first place. Clergy, lay people, bishops, the church need to be engaged in cleaning up the nature of public debate, and one way to help do this is to model it. David Wilkinson and Brian Cox did this in relation to science, but in a way that took us beyond the sort of nonsense prejudicing and name-calling we see between fundamentalist religious people and fundamentalist atheists. Brian and David explored the differences between the ‘how’ questions and the ‘why’ questions of human existence.

We are now looking at how to take this forward. If you can get to any of Brian Cox’s live shows (currently touring the UK), do enjoy what this looks and sounds like. Here we see an agnostic and a Christian both begin in the same place: looking at the enormous beauty and complexity of the multiverse and wondering what matters in the life of it. It is not unusual to have a common existential or intellectual starting point.

(We are now looking at a Lay Conference one day in early 2018 – it has not proved possible to get a suitable day at a suitably large venue in 2017.)

So, today we as a synod continue to work at shaping the nature and mechanics of our internal discourse as a church. Standing Orders might not be words that float everybody’s boat, but they provide the parameters in which we can then conduct our internal synodical conversations and decision-making. How we speak with one another will say something about whether how we speak outside the church will have any credibility. We will discuss deaneries and deanery synods – again, not words that inspire martyrdom in the minds of many people. Yet, the purpose of deaneries and their synods is not simply to order the life of the church, but to set us free to pay attention to our mission of reconciliation in the world and how we go about it. Structures are there for a purpose, and the purpose is not simply to perpetuate a structure as an end in itself. We will look at the vital matter of education and what sort of people we want our children and young people to grow up to be. Education is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: nurturing good and godly human beings, neighbours, citizens, who live and work for the common good. Safeguarding is a vital part of our common duty to ensure that our churches are safe places for all people, especially children and vulnerable adults.

In other words, our agenda might look a little inward-focused at first glance. It isn’t. It is part of the work we still need to do in order to enable us to be the church our region needs us to be for the sake of God and his kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, I trust we will speak with one another in love, and speak of the church in love – offering mercy and generosity in the place of suspicion and mistrust. Together we can continue to shape a diocese – and its communication by word and deed – that reflects the nature of the Christ we serve and serves the world for whom we are called. Together we might pay attention to how our discourse might offer a different model to that which we see in parts of our media and our political world.

And let us remember that, as Martin Luther discovered in such a revolutionary way, in the end it is all about grace.

Here are video interviews with Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson during the first Diocese of Leeds clergy conference in Liverpool earlier this week.

https://youtu.be/9-eG-xDPXS8 and https://youtu.be/gaK3lyiNKtc

 

It is purely coincidental that our clergy conference discussion between Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson took place just before the announcement of more funding for parishes to engage in scientific exploration. Brian and David both told me they didn't hesitate to come to the conference to present and discuss 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning' (although the request from Eric Idle that Brian should get a photo of him amongst 400 clergy and post it on Twitter as 'The Life of Brian' got an obvious 'yes' from me) as this is precisely the sort of conversation and engagement we need to see more often.

Anyway, the Church of England is taking this seriously, as is the University of Durham and the Templeton Foundation. You can read about the “Take Your Vicar to the Lab” and “Scientists in Congregations” initiatives here.

I'd like to put up more – and do a resume of the dialogue between Brian and David, but, as is the way of things, I am in a school this morning and in meetings all afternoon and evening. There will be interviews with both Brian and David on our website soon.

 

I have just got back from the first ever clergy conference in the Diocese of Leeds. We met at Liverpool Hope University – a place to which I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. I grew up half a mile away.

It went remarkably well. The last few years have not been easy as we dissolved three dioceses at Easter 2014 and worked to keep everything going while creating something new. This conference was a turning point and felt like a celebration.

However, it wasn't just the atmosphere that did it. The speakers excelled. The particular highlight for most of us was yesterday's presentations and conversations by Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning'. Their presentations were superb, clear, stretching and totally engaging. The enthusiasm for science was palpable, but also held in a rooted sense of curiosity and wonder. I am not sure we all understood all the equations, but we were able to span the enormity of the universe (and multiverses) whilst earthing the whole thing in questions of meaning, existence, faith and the possibilities of God.

What was great was the mutual respect and serious engagement between Brian Cox and David Wilkinson as I moderated a conversation between them following their presentations. After lunch (and a million requests for selfies and autographs – not mine, obviously) we had an hour of questions, observations and conversation that ranged widely and really intelligently. The standing ovation for our guests was richly deserved.

This offered a model for how serious engagement can take place where difference is respected. Our public discourse – especially our political and media discourse – in the UK is not great at the moment. See the whole Brexit business, if you don't believe me. There is clearly a need for more attention to be paid to modelling good conversation on contentious issues… and, especially, where prejudices about the conflict between science and religion too often polarise positions before arguments have even been articulated, let alone listened to or heard.

Brian Cox is doing a tour. Book now.

 

I am currently at Hope University, Liverpool, for the first clergy conference of the Diocese of Leeds. Nearly 400 clergy have crossed the Pennines, beginning yesterday with input from me (setting the scene: a theology of hope, an anthropology of hope, a hopeful ecclesiology, and a hopeful missiology) and the Dean of Salisbury, June Osborne. Ignore the 'ologies' – we were basically looking at what it is (or should be) that fires and shapes us as a church. June did a brilliant job of opening up challenging thoughts about how the church negotiates its own missional agenda in a world that is going through a serious and far-reaching paradigm shift.

Today we have the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, leading us in a Bible study – tomorrow we have the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool doing similar.

It is a funny feeling for me being back where I grew up, where my parents and other family members still live, and on a site where I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. The university is excellent and we could not have chosen a better conference venue.

This morning we have two presentations on the theme of 'Science, the Cosmos and Human Meaning'. Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson will then follow up their presentations with a conversation mediated by me. After lunch there will be a question and answer session with the two scientists.

Why do this? I want us to model how to have a serious and respectful conversation, listening to the generous clarity of Brian Cox as he engages with theologian and astrophysicist David Wilkinson. I want us as clergy to step out from our territory and catch a glimpse of some of the debates going on around us – perhaps even prompting us to re-think how we engage as clergy and churches with the agendas set by the world beyond our walls and our own preoccupations.

We'll see. A report will emerge on the diocesan website (and, depending on time) maybe here later.

 

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Brian Cox, John Lloyd, Rebecca Front and Nerina Pallot in the studio.

We have lots of foreign visitors to stay with us. Last night we had some friends from Switzerland and it was great to see them. Last week we had a family from the United States and I took them to Liverpool for a day so they could get some culture. It was funny to see them standing outside the barber shop at Penny Lane and know the soundtrack that was running through their heads. (I used to get my hair cut in that shop when I was a kid.)

What was great was that their curiosity grew as we saw the sights of my home city and wandered round the museum of curios peculiar to Liverpool. When you are actually there, questions arise that weren't anticipated from seventy miles away. It's as if you have to get on the move for curiosity to get awoken and imagination to be teased.

I think this is how children live and learn: constant undisciplined questioning and unbridled wondering about the world and taste and smell and touch and sight and sounds. They don't need telling that the world is full not only of sound and fury, but also of still small voices that penetrate the noise and tickle the soul. Sometimes, when you are in the thick of it, the fires of imagination burn only dimly; but they can't be extinguished.

This might sound odd, but I think curiosity is the key to enjoying and understanding the world. When Jesus told his bemused mates that they'd have to become like children if they were to live in his world, I think this is what he was on about. Children never stop asking questions, pointing out embarrassing truths, wanting to know “why” all the time. It does your head in, but it is in enjoying the wondering that curiosity wakes up and we go on a journey of imagination. In fact, this is what drives science.

Well, knowing me and possibly knowing you, I guess this might just ring a bell. If, as Christians believe, we are made in the image of a curious and questioning God, then we'd better make the most of it. I'd rather be a curious questioner than a frustrated superstar who thinks he's got it all nailed.

 

 

Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).

 

According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.

 

Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.

 

Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.

 

As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?

 

Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.

 

I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.

 

This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.

 

Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.

Tomorrow I go to Oxford for the annual meeting of the College of Bishops. Before it finishes I will head off to Wittenberg for the annual joint meeting of the Meissen Commission. (See last post for more.) So, I am interviewing ordinands, clearing the correspondence and catching up on ‘loose’ reading. (I am also speaking this evening on the great, late German lay theologian, preacher and politician, Johannes Rau.)

Catching up on unread back copies of Third Way (subscribe to it today – it’s the best Christian magazine on the market), I stumbled across Charles Foster’s wonderful account of some Christians’ reaction to his latest book, Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience. I say ‘wonderful’, but it is also sad. What are some Christians afraid of? He asks perfectly good and reasonable questions and finds himself accused of ‘heresy’, ‘blasphemy’, ‘poor scholarship’, ‘literary treason at its worst’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘worthless’. And all this because he takes Augustine‘s dictum seriously and follows it through: “Nature is what God does.”

Now, anyone who sticks their head above the parapet knows what it is to get it shot at. The certainty of ignorance certainly fires the venom of people who, I am sure, are normally quite pleasant, but become nasty when their little worldview is challenged.

Foster goes on to ask what it is that motivates such people:

There are many possible answers. I would like to believe that the main motivation is charitable: that they genuinely think that people like me endanger eternal destiny, and that my opponents pick up their verbal swords reluctantly, more in sorrow than anger, to protect the weaker brethren. But it doesn’t read that way. There is one absolutely unmistakable smell about the responses: it’s the stink of fear.

He later goes on to muse:

What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of questions. They’re afraid of leaving the ghetto. They’re suffering from a paralysing spiritual agoraphobia… They choose a view of the ghetto wall when they could have a view of the universe.

And, in a final swoop at luddite theology that cannot be challenged by the outside world, he concludes (putting words into their mouths, of course):

We are the faithful remnant, and the more of a remnant we are, the more faithful we must be. If sacience doesn’t help to reassure, cognitive dissonance will.

This evokes two memories for me: (a) growing up knowing church cultures that displayed this security in being a remnant (as opposed to shrinking because they have nothing attractive to offer), and (b) Jacques Ellul‘s The Meaning of the City in which he describes Cain building the city he calls Enoch (Genesis 4) as a way of creating meaningful space in a meaningless universe without God (and alienation from his created purpose). I picked this up in one or two of my books as it vividly illustrates the predicament of human beings seeking to create meaningful space and the choices we face when the universe is opened up to us – full of threat as well as promise.

Foster is right to identify fear as the smell that fires such indignation. What is there to be afraid of in opening up to questions about the world and its ways? As someone once observed, if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity.

Get a life. Get an imagination. Get a bigger vision of God and the enormity of the universe. As Foster concludes:

If you don’t ask [honest] questions,… I might suspect that it’s because you don’t really, truly, in the early hours of the morning, trust God to have the answers.

Below is the text of the article I wrote for the Radio Times recently. Not surprisingly, it provoked a lot of comment and objection, mostly ignoring the central thrust of the article and picking up on the dismissal of Richard Dawkins as a ‘thinker’. The criticisms were fair and it was unwise of me to edit in a shorthand comment that needed more precision, clearer elaboration and a different context – none of which were possible in an 800 word commissioned article.

The deluge of comments (also by mail and email) was a little difficult to keep up with, given that (a) I have a rather busy day job and (b) it was Holy Week. But, apart from the reasonable criticisms levelled at me, there was some interesting discussion. Because it is spread over several threads (readers came in to the blog on different days and at different stages of posting), it is not easy to follow as a single conversation. However, I make the following observations before moving on to other areas of interest – after all, this is a personal blog and not an internet forum on a single theme:

1. I should be more careful before writing throw-aways without explaining them. Fair cop. (Richard Dawkins is obviously not an ‘awful thinker’ when it comes to some things, but is very vulnerable when it comes to religion, philosophy and that sort of thinking.)

2. Atheists derive their atheism from different origins and can’t be lumped together.

3. Some atheists are remarkably sensitive to any criticism of Richard Dawkins et al – and sometimes betray what comes over as a rather uncritical reading of him. This is odd when one of their criticisms of Christians/theists is their uncritical assumptions about the world.

4. Science explores and explains the mechanics of how the world works, but says nothing about ‘human meaning’. This is something that Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury agree on. As ethicists put it, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This is where people like Pullman take over from Dawkins in grappling with morality and meaning, taking a different starting point and proving much more interesting (in my view).

5. ‘Proof’ is a slippery word, often used as if it were monovalent. As I wrote in response to an email yesterday (and this is concisely illustrative, so not intended to be a knock-down argument):

I prove that a table is a table by looking at it, measuring it, testing it (does it do what we expect a table to do?), using it and checking whether or not it conforms to what we usually mean by ‘table’. I prove that Hitler existed by looking at documentary evidence, historical evidence (what has happened to the shape of Europe, for example), literary evidence and personal record. I prove that my children (or friends) love me by the way they behave towards me. But, I don’t write off the existence of Hitler because I can’t do to him what I do to a table or because I have no relationship with him. Nor do I reject my family’s love on the grounds that I might be deceived and cannot provide incontrovertible ‘proof’ that that love is real.

In other words, we accept different ways of experiencing and validating reality. I can’t put God in a box and measure him. I can’t find a birth certificate for him. But I might want to explore the history of humanity, the search for meaning and morality, my/our experience of love (and what makes me think that my life and death matter at all).

6. I am grateful to all those who engaged in this matter and hope it leads to a more mutually respectful conversation along the lines I intended to open up in the article itself – before inserting the notorious distraction.

Here’s the text (which appeared under the title Why I am an E-vangelist – not a title I chose…):

Over a cup of tea, a woman in the garden of a church in Surrey asked me a question that nearly made me choke. Where was my chauffeur? She was clearly surprised to find that the world has moved on, that (most) bishops don’t live in huge palaces and that we usually drive ourselves to wherever we’re going. I dread to think how she would cope with some of the more radical social changes in British society in the past six decades.

For example, the demise of deference. There was a time when bishops and clergy were given automatic respect because of the offices they held. No longer. Respect has to be earned, and people feel free to argue with whatever you dare to say about anything. There are no longer any protective pedestals from which to preach, and dialogue is replacing monologue as the dominant medium of communication. Get out of the safety of the church and it’s a jungle out there. 

Yes, there are still people around who will listen uncritically to whatever they hear from a pulpit – especially if it ticks the “right” boxes and confirms their view of God, the world and us. There are Christians around who mourn the passing of the old world and fear the loss of a privileged place for Christian culture in the public square. I don’t mourn the passing of deference, but I do think that what has taken its place isn’t very impressive. Richard Dawkins isn’t alone in excelling in one field – such as biology – while being awful in another – such as “thinking”. Some commentators have a shockingly misplaced confidence in demolishing religious straw men that even I don’t believe in.

This is evident also in the blogosphere. I have been blogging since the end of 2008 – normally five times a week and I have had more than 5,000 views a day – but I am still amazed that so many people engage online with the things that interest me. When I started blogging, I decided that it was pointless to play it safe or simply propagate the usual stuff to the usual suspects. A number of bishops blog, but mainly for their church audience. I wanted to be “out there”, engaging in public debates about the world, politics, the arts, the media, ethics and theology.

My starting point is an insatiable curiosity about the world and about people, and why both are the way they are. At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that God has opted in to the world and not exempted himself from it: that Christian living means engaging at every level with and for that world. This means I’ve had to grow a thick skin. The glory and agony of blogging – which I see as the first word in a conversation, not the final word of judgement – is that anyone is free to argue with me, question me, ridicule me or be abusive. But what I have found is that my own thinking is changed by the light other contributors throw on a subject. The holes in my own perceptions are exposed as my prejudices and ideologies become open to scrutiny. That has got to be a good thing.

It’s an interesting exercise. I don’t know most of the people who comment on my blog – some I hope never to know, others I might like to befriend. But, whether they are critical or complimentary, they make me think. And I don’t regard it as a bad thing for any leader to think openly, change his mind when appropriate, apologise when he gets it wrong (in substance or in tone), or to be unafraid to be thought inadequate. We live in a culture in which politicians and others feel compelled to appear watertight in their consistency and always incontrovertibly “right”, but I think there is a place for a different model of “learning leadership”. Christian leaders should be unafraid to offer an alternative model of what I often call a “confident humility”.

An area of challenge relates to the atheists in the blogosphere, particularly those who represent perfectly what their prejudices tell them is the preserve of religious people: fundamentalism and an unswayable confidence in their own unargued-for assumptions about the world and human meaning.

This frequently leads to clashes, but the robustness of these is – if not always enlightening – usually entertaining. The blogosphere isn’t for the fainthearted. But what’s the point in simply talking to those who agree with you, when you could be arguing your way to a better understanding of God, the world and people (as well as yourself ) “out there” in the rough new world of instant media?

I think Christian faith is big enough to stand confidently in the public square. The worst they can do is crucify us. But then, Easter tells me even that isn’t the end of the story.