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.”

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

Having lived for nine years in Leicestershire and now living in Yorkshire, I feel like I inhabit the tension around the final burial place of King Richard III.

His bones will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, less than a hundred yards from the hole in the city centre car park that I found myself looking into 2 years ago. Their symbolic journey has of course been much longer.

But, who was he? Was Richard a megalomaniac psychopathic child killer who was as lousy a monarch as he was a warrior? Or was he a sick victim of someone else's arrows of misfortune, caught up in the political intrigues and power plays of his day? Shakespeare hasn't necessarily helped us in his portrayal of the desperate king who, despite not winning very much at all, at least developed a good line in rhetoric.

What interests me in the Richard conundrum is this not insignificant matter of reputation. Once the mud has been thrown, it is difficult to wipe it off. And, 500 years after his violent – and apparently humiliating – death in battle, here we are doing a balancing act between honouring his short-lived status as an English monarch and creating a battleground of judgements on his inability or otherwise to live up to his calling.

Reputations are hard won, but easily lost. And in the culture of blame and scapegoating that we seem to have developed today, it is especially hard for a lost reputation to be regained. Where there is smoke there must be fire – even if the evidence denies this. Just ask people who have been wrongly accused of crimes or dishonourable behaviour.

Shakespeare himself writes in Richard II: “The purest treasure mortal times afford / Is spotless reputation/ … / Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; / Take honour from me, and my life is done.” But, it didn't stop him having a go at the next Richard in such an elegant way that the king has never quite recovered, did it?

A problem for many people is getting trapped in a reputation from which you simply cannot escape. Once a crook, always a crook; one moral failure, always damned. Yet, one of the scandals of Jesus of Nazareth was his anti-social insistence on setting people free from the prisons of their past – offering the possibility of hope, of new life, and of freedom. According to him, redemption is always on offer – even when self-righteous people resent the fact. Remember the prodigal son, the father who waits in hope for him to return, and the elder brother who resents generosity, forgiveness and new life. According to this way of seeing people and their purpose, to fail is not necessarily to be a failure. The story can never be said to have ended.

Perhaps Richard's bones can now rest in peace… and his re-burial invite us to be as merciful to him as we would wish history to be to us.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Caliban retorts to Prospero:

You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is I know how to curse. (Act 1, Scene 2: 437-438)

What is it about us that seems hell-bent on turning anything good into something bad? Words are wonderful, but they can be used to kill. Science progresses with techniques for curing and healing, but the same technology gets diverted into ways of killing ever more efficiently. Why? What is wrong with us?

Well, none of this is new if you are remotely familiar with any Christian theology… or basic human experience. But, in relation to current news stories, I make two rather simply observations: first re the Jimmy Savile horror story, and second re racism in football.

Various churches have had to pay heavily for allowing the systemic abuse of children and vulnerable people over decades. Quite right, too. Yet there has been a hint of a suspicion in some quarters that those doing the gloating about the nasty churches might one day need to defend themselves and their own institutions on similar terms. No schadenfreude here – just a fear that the problems experienced in the churches have less to do with the churches’ theology and more to do with common human propensities.

The BBC is now under scrutiny and certain newspapers scream at the BBC in judgement – seemingly oblivious to the moral questions hanging over their own treatment of vulnerable people. The BBC faces serious scrutiny and it clearly needs it. For Savile to have been able to exploit its culture for so many decades raises serious questions that must be (and will be) addressed.

But, those pointing the fingers now might need to be a little cautious in their judgements. They might be next. For the basic truth about all this stuff is that human beings have a tendency to turn goodness into badness, to exploit weakness and power, to put self-preservation before truth, and to pervert what began beautiful.

This applies to the banks, businesses that pay no taxes, media organs that treat people like commodities for the entertainment of others, clergy who abuse trust and abase the ‘good news’ they are supposed to represent. As we keep having to remind those who uncritically (and sometimes mindlessly) accuse religion for all the world’s ills, the worst abuses of human life in the twentieth century came from anti-religionists such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. These are human problems, not just problems to be nailed to people we don’t like.

In other words, this stuff goes right back to being human and not just part way to what humans say motivates them.

This is another reason why people like me get fed up with accusations that Christians are escapists, whilst humanists are people who ‘take responsibility’ for themselves. Christianity is rooted firmly in this world, in facing reality and taking direct responsibility for the whole shebang. The cross of calvary involves God and us looking the sad reality of the human condition in the eye and naming it for what it is. No romantic escapism; no fantasising that if we just tried harder everything would be OK; no wishful thinking about ‘myths of progress’ that seem somehow to end up lying in pools of other people’s blood dripping from the altar of someone else’s tribal ego.

Francis Spufford calls this “the human propensity to fuck things up” (HPtFtU). The Bible calls it ‘sin’. Take your pick, but the former spells out what the latter means after we have drained it of all the negative associations piled onto it as the shorthand that means all Christians are miserable self-haters. No, we are lovers whose experience cries out for some explanation, if not excuse. Read Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic to see how he deals with this universal feature of human being. (And read Stephen Cherry for a reflection on the book.)

This is where the racism stuff comes in. I am writing this while Liverpool are giving away a two-goal lead against Everton – football being the game that houses racism (leaving match fixing to cricket, doping to cycling and competitive-dadness to Monopoly). Yes, we must do all we can to expose racism wherever it comes to light. Yes, we must legislate against behaviours and language that represent a curse within our society, blighting lives and scarring all of us with sheer nastiness. But, no, we shouldn’t be surprised that these things go on and will not be eradicated by all our best efforts.

As I once said to a neighbour in a General Synod debate on something or other: it is easy to win a vote – but winning the vote does not mean we have won the hearts and minds.

Unless HPtFtU is taken seriously – and the alternative is escapism, romanticism, fantasy, wishful thinking, etc – we will continue to bow at the altar of the sort of relativism that we see in our press: assuming that the best guide to moral goodness is merely that we know we are better than [insert chosen ‘monsters’]. (Which, of course, means that we might be well down the moral pecking order, but at least we are not as low as…)

Ferdinand (not Rio or Anton) bleats to Prospero in The Tempest:

I warrant you sir;
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardour of my liver.

Says it all, really.

(And, Christianity doesn’t stop at realism or diagnosing the problem of the human condition; it offers a response that takes the human condition seriously. Start with Easter…)

Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech yesterday in which he praised the impact of the King James Bible, stamped all over the nonsense assumption of secular neutrality, and called for Christians to be confident about their faith, the Bible and their right (nay, responsibility) to speak into public life. Not surprisingly, it has caused a bit of a stir amongst the commentariat whose assumptions got a bit of a kicking.

Cameron was speaking in an Anglican cathedral, so was duly confident in his laudatory observations on the impact of the King James Bible. He also used the occasion to give the Church of England a bit of a kick in relation to its wrangles over women and sexuality. Fair game, I say. And it was good to hear a British politician ‘do God’ without embarrassment, hesitation or self-exonerating caveat.

But, having praised the phenomenon and some of the content, I am still left with a cautious hesitation myself. And I think I know why this is.

He managed to talk up the language of the Bible without really referring to the content of it. Yes, the KJV has powerfully influenced our language and, proclaimed by the Church, has shaped our culture and law as well as our worship. But, we can’t just leave it there.

It reminds me of a rude remark I made recently at an interfaith gathering. I said that many of the global interfaith conferences I attend are a bit like a glorified BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk’… provided we don’t actually talk about anything. Yet, avoiding ‘content’ is a sure way to waste time and money on non-engagement and the fostering of a false sense of coherence when all we have done is avoid speaking about ‘content’ that might prove contentious. Of course, this is a caricature, but it made the point: we have to move beyond talking about talking to talking about something.

Well, Cameron lauded the language and spoke eloquently about the need for moral codes and ethical foundations in private as well as public life. He argued for a thought-through moral and spiritual basis for our ethics – rather than just assuming one.

But, the problem with the Bible is that as soon as you get beyond the language to what it says, you begin to find it challenging – on lots of fronts. Beautiful language is a means to comprehension, not an end in itself. And it’s taking a bit of a risk challenging the Church of England on its ethical conflicts when those conflicts arise precisely from going through the language and on to conflicted ways of reading the text in its integrity. So, it is alright for the Prime Minister to “recognise the impact of a translation that is, I believe, one of this country’s greatest achievements” and to claim that “the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history” as long as we don’t delve too deeply into what it says. He goes on:

One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”. They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.”

I take the point (and basically agree with him), but the Bible isn’t meant to dazzle us with poetic magic; it is meant to open us to the mind of God… which tends to be a little bit challenging.

Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.

Again, point taken. But, resonance isn’t enough. It isn’t a performance prop. Like with Shakespeare, it is possible to enjoy the spectacle and experience of a play while going home oblivious to the point of it all. It won’t kill you, but you are missing out on rather a lot.

Cameron (or whoever wrote the basic text) does a good job of exposing assumptions of neutrality, affirming the role of the Bible in the development of British politics and culture, the fundamental power of biblical anthropology in shaping what would now rather weakly be called ‘human rights’, and the importance of biblically informed theological and spiritual motivation in social altruism. He says:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities… these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

I didn’t know we were afraid to acknowledge that. But, we are not told which biblical origins these virtues are derived from… or just how to deal with the fact that some people who read that same Bible will not recognise in the same way Cameron does how those virtues should be worked out in concrete priorities, policies or practices. He is absolutely right to knock on the head the utter nonsense that confident Christianity confounds those of other faiths – usually a patronising and ignorant gesture from secular humanists who think they know better than Muslims what offends them. Christianity has indeed created the space in which all people can freely worship or not.

However, Cameron’s conclusion made me wince a little – not at what he said, but at the unarticulated assumptions behind it:

I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities. But to do so it must keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country. The future of our country is at a pivotal moment. The values we draw from the Bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country
…and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way.

And what might the ‘agenda that speaks to the whole country’ actually be? I suspect it has to do with stuff that some Christians, precisely because of their reading of the Bible – in whatever translation – believe is contentious on moral grounds. I am not saying they are right or wrong; my point is simply that Cameron’s point is itself contentious… as soon as you move beyond vague generalities about ‘values’ and ‘magic’ and into the text itself.

But, maybe he has just opened the door a little to a willingness to take the content of the Bible seriously and invite people to look at the text itself rather than some general or selective bits of nice language. (‘The Word became flesh’… which is when it all got a bit difficult…)

Two cheers for a brave and serious speech. One cheer reserved for the reservations above.

The start of a new year always feels like we’ve got to the top of a dodgy ladder and fallen off, only to have to start climbing again. No guarantees and no foreknowledge of what exactly is to come.

OK, we can assume that 2011 is going to bring huge challenges to many people and life is going to be tough for individuals, families, businesses, institutions and charities:

  • as unemployment shoots up, so there will be huge pressure on marriages (undermining family stability and affecting large numbers of children)
  • history teaches us that this will put additional pressure on the NHS – particularly mental health services (which are already under-resourced and often hidden)
  • radical public service cuts will have a direct effect on local economies which depend more on public services (particularly in the north of England)
  • private businesses will consequently suffer in the wake of the above
  • crime will increase, but the police will have fewer resources to address either the real situation or public perceptions of it.

And that’s just the miserable stuff for starters. You can add in predictions of continuing public unrest, direct protests against the effects of the cuts, and a growing public instinct for ‘doing something’ about it (an expression of human dignity and responsibility?).

So, no cheer then? Well, that depends. It is unclear whether faith communities and charities will be able to plug the gaps left by local or central government funding withdrawals. Asking people to give more to charity, though always desirable, is no answer to the problem of cuts to essential funding of local agencies who meet needy people where they are. Among others, churches may be deemed the appropriate agencies for rising to new challenges; but, so far, no research has been done into either capacity or competence.

In other words, we are walking blind into uncharted territory. I have sympathy with David Cameron’s vision for the Big Society, but I have serious doubts about it being deliverable in the short term – I can see it being undermined in both practice and theory by an over-ambitious and overly-radical programme of immediate (rather than programmed/staggered) cuts.

So, given the potentially overwhelming challenges that colour our view of the prospects for 2011 – internationally as well as nationally and locally – where might we turn for an overarching theme that might shape our approach to whatever lies ahead?

I think the Guardian put it well this morning in its editorial comment:

The cynicism which pervades public life at the dawn of 2011 is … a creed that ascribes the basest motives to everybody, and dismisses the very possibility of moral improvement. … mistrust is paralysing politics. It is evident in marketopian reforms which treat public servants as knaves to be slapped into line by the self-interested whack of the invisible hand. It is evident, too, in fear and loathing between the governing and governed, and – we admit – in newspapers being too gleeful about catching yet another snout in the trough. The great injustices of the day have at times been buried in a blizzard of dodgy receipts for duck islands and patio doors. The dismal worldview reaches its apogee in the rightwing blogosphere, where pundits parade as anarchists but subtly entrench hopelessness by decreeing every call for public virtue to be a cover for private vice. None of this is to deny the praiseworthiness of doubt and sceptical inquiry, preconditions for both good government and clear thought. But it is to hope, however vainly, for a collective resolution to extend a smidgeon more trust in considering what makes people tick.

Trust is essential and central to any constructive or positive approach to what lies ahead of us – which we have the responsibility to shape and not just to decry as if we are helpless victims. Trust assumes that we will take seriously the Common Good.

This means – taking the context of the Guardian’s piece seriously – that the media have a massive responsibility not only to question and critique, but also to see themselves as ‘players and participants’ of our society and drop the pretence of being disinterested, objective observers of everybody else. The media shape public perceptions of reality and motivation – and that makes them responsible agents in shaping society and the trust or cynicism that infect public life.

In All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare put is like this:

Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none.
We don’t have a right to happiness, despite the assumptions behind the American Declaration of Independence. But, we do have a responsibility to take seriously the well-being of all in our society – especially those least able to secure their own. Trust will either encourage us – or its lack will further destroy us.

I don’t have a very good memory for poetry, but there is one line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth which has been playing on my mind in the days since the inconclusive General Election:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other. . . . (Act 1, scene 7, 25-28)

Macbeth intended to kill Duncan, the King, but lacked a motive. The Prime Minister’s ambition tells a different story.

Gordon Brown is leaving office (and, if reports are accurate, politics) amid a mixture of respect and scorn. He craved the top job for so long and yet has only been able to hold on to it for three years. It seems that his dark resentment against Tony Blair blinded him to the limitations of his own abilities. Rather than being content to fulfil his potential in the roles that were suitable for his gifts, his ambition compelled him to manoeuvre his way into a post for which he has always appeared ill-equipped.

Therein lies the tragedy of a good man whose ambition o’erleaped itself and led to a sad departure. Gordon Brown is one of the most eloquently ethical politicians I have ever heard. Intelligent, informed and articulate, he was on his best ground when addressing socio-economic realities through a framework of powerful moral (even biblical) ideals. Those who heard his impassioned appeal to the bishops of the Lambeth Conference at Lambeth Palace in July 2008 will forget the prophetic urgency of his speech – urging the bishops to take seriously their commitment to hold governments to account in relation to the Millenium Development Goals. He was honest not only about the political contraints on politicians, but also about the moral force of bishops (and others, of course) who should keep reminding governments of the commitments they had made.

The best line of the post-election game has been the one about us moving on from the Lib-Lab Pact of the 1970s to the ConDemNation of today. The shenanigans of recent days will soon resolve into some sort of government for next few months. But I suspect that one day the history books will be kinder to Gordon Brown than are the media this week. His policies (under Blair and subsequently) brought many people out of poverty, gave parents a better start and, amid some of the not-so-great elements, treated international aid seriously. He had his weaknesses – but he also had his strengths and these should be recognised.

Perhaps for the first time, he might now get a family life before offering his huge skills and experience to the world in a different capacity. In the meantime, we will no doubt be entertained by other politicians whose ambition is no less than Brown’s. It won’t be an edifying spectacle.

The debate about the Bible opened up by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has had some interesting responses – not least to my post yesterday (Bible and Motion). One of the amazing things, in my opinion, is the widespread ignorance about how texts work and how literature is to be understood. There are two elements to this in relation to the Bible:

1. The Bible and its stories provide the cultural backdrop to western society and our society cannot be understood any more without the Bible than it could be by ignoring the First World War. This is not an ideological claim and it is a view supported quite rightly by atheists such as Richard Dawkins. This should provide no problem for anyone with a shred of rationality about them. To deny it would be to regard as reasonable the suggestion that western cultural history can be understood without some nod towards the Romans, the Greeks or the Assyrians. In the same way that England cannot be understood without the Elizabethan Settlement or Germany without the Reformation, so Shakespeare cannot be understood without the Bible. This is not an ideological position – after all, I can acknowledge the role of Greek mythology in the formation of the western mind without having to believe that it isn’t a load of nonsense. Equally, I can learn to understand Nazism without having to agree with Mein Kampf.

2. However, the Bible is regarded as the source of truth claims by people of varying religious conviction. Those truth claims must be subject to public scrutiny and questioning. One element of such scrutiny will be its intellectual coherence – another will be the experience of those who claim its truth for themselves or the world. Within the community that regards the text as ‘true’ or ‘authoritative’ there will be endless debates about what ‘truth’ means and how the text itself conveys that truth. For example, the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘factuality’ will need to be explored: a parable can convey truth (about life, the universe and everything) without recording an event that actually happened.

To insist on the importance of the Bible’s role (1) is not to suggest that everybody should be subjected to blind acceptance of its truth claims (2). But here we hit on another problem. The ‘secularists’ (for want of a better category) seem to regard their worldview/understanding of what is ‘true’ about the world as somehow neutral, but see a religious worldview as ‘loaded’ (somewhere up the dangerous/loony scale). Yet, the secularist worlview is not always argued for, bears many assumptions which can neither be falsified nor verified, and arrogates to itself a position of unassailability in the public market place. It is simply assumed to be true for all people and suffers no deviation or qualification.

This is, I suggest, both irrational and absurd.

Andrew Motion’s critique applies to my first observation and it is to that that I applied myself in yesterday’s post. Maybe I should apply myself to the second observation in a future post. That would be the place to say something about how texts work, how they are understood variously in the course of time and how any text is a text in motion. Put briefly, the Bible is partly an account of a people’s growing realisation of who God is, how God is and how we should live together accordingly. Butchery might have seemed justifiable at one point in history, but not after some ‘motion’ a thousand years later after the cost of such butchery had been experienced.

Slavery was abolished in the teeth of Christian biblical opposition. But it was abolished because Christians such as Wilberforce read the Bible differently and compelled the readers of the text to read it differently. Which I realise is a bit embarrassing for those who would prefer it if Wilberforce had been an atheist.