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

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

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

The original draft of the Barmen Declaration by Karl Barth

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

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

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

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

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

This is the text of the morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2:

I think I'm probably not alone in having from time to time a song going round my head that I can't shake off. Not that I want to, particularly, but it can sometimes be a distraction when you're supposed to be concentrating on something else and the song keeps interrupting.

The one that's buzzing through my consciousness this week sounds a bit twee, but it isn't really. It's a Bruce Cockburn song called 'Don't forget about delight'. Basically, it recognises that the world we live in is complicated, that the news crowding in on us from all sides is usually bad, that the world can often look a bit bleak. But, says the poet, don't forget about delight.

It seems to me that this is a necessary reminder, a timely prompt. To use a different metaphor, the darkest night can be illuminated by the faintest light. Or, as someone else put it, don't just curse the darkness – light a flame.

I picked up a book recently called Hope without Optimism. It's written by Terry Eagleton and makes an important distinction. Optimism is, in one sense, wishful thinking – a belief that things will get better. Hope goes deeper and is more realistic. Hope doesn't depend on a set of circumstances working out, but keeps us constant whatever the circumstances life throws at us. That's why Christian hope is rooted in the character and person of God, not in a formula for a successful life.

So, I go along with both Bruce Cockburn and Terry Eagleton – the poet and the professor. When the darkness crowds in I need to remember not to forget about delight. When the news is dominated by fear and cruelty, I must spot where love and light burn through and refuse to be extinguished. When horizons begin to narrow, I can open my eyes to the rich possibilities that lie ahead – even if hidden at the moment.

So, hopeful rather than optimistic. And, whatever else happens, never forgetting about delight. And I am quite happy for such a song to haunt my memory and imagination, making me restless for the light.

In his book Culture and the Death of God Terry Eagleton quotes Voltaire being rude about the English. “They give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts,” he said. I guess his point was that the English are cool about religion, hating extremes and being wary of enthusiasm. It also suggests, though, that the English are concerned only with money, and that the greatest blasphemy is to lose it.

But, heard in today's world, it questions our basic values and what, essentially, we consider to be worth living and dying for – or, at least, what we consider worth allowing others to die for.

At the end of August I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in which I put a series of questions about British foreign policy in the Middle East and its coherence within a clear strategy for realising a thought-through vision. The letter caused a bit of a media storm when it was published in the Observer newspaper. The PM was – understandably – not pleased.

When I received a long, helpful and detailed response from David Cameron, he addressed some questions more clearly than others; but, it was certainly not a fob-off response. I replied to his letter recently and pressed certain points.

As I said at the time, my purpose in writing the letter was to articulate what I thought to be the focused questions that went to the heart of people's concerns about what was going on particularly (but not exclusively) in Syria and Northern Iraq. What, I asked, is the overarching vision that guides responses to the particular crises that keep exploding? In my response I explained that the reason for allowing the Observer to publish the letter was that too many people were writing to ministers and MPs with serious concerns about the plight of suffering people and simply getting no response – including the Archbishop of York. For weeks. My approach certainly got the debate out into the public and media and placed the question of coherence at the top of the agenda.

Or did it?

Parliament is being recalled on Friday in order to – and I quote the BBC news report I heard on the way to the airport this morning, prior to writing this post on the flight to Berlin – “endorse military attacks on Islamic State”. Not to debate and decide, but to endorse a decision already made.

Now, the morality of this decision will be for another discussion. What concerns me here is the strategic purpose of the decision. What I meant in my question about coherence and (ad hoc) reaction is this: how do we avoid foreign policy commitments that simply respond pragmatically to short-term stimuli whereby yesterday's friend (to whom we supplied arms and money) becomes my enemy and today's enemy becomes my reluctant friend simply because he happens – for now, at least – to be my new enemy's enemy?

Is the planned use of violence part of a coherent long-term plan, or a short-term pragmatic response to an immediate stimulus – which might cause problems down the line which haven't been thought through properly now? Killing terrorists is the easy bit.

One of the problems with our politics is that we don't allow space for doubt. Repeatedly stating that “our policy is clear” does not make that policy clear, any more than me repeatedly saying I am a banana makes me yellow. But, politicians aren't allowed to ask difficult questions publicly because (apparently) we, the electorate, want clarity and certainty. Not always helpful, is it? I, for one, would prefer honesty – and some clarity about what would be gained and lost by any particular policy, without the pretence that every policy has to be 100% clear and certain. And right.

So, what have I learned from recent correspondence? (a) If the overarching vision and strategy are clear and coherent, then I still can't see it. Perhaps that says more about my limited mind than it does about policy. (b) What is very clear, however, is that there is no intention to make any asylum provision for IS refugees beyond what is already open to people wanting to claim asylum in the UK. I suspect this is because the PM (but other leaders are not breaking ranks on this) sees electoral suicide in doing anything that feeds UKIP or associates such provision with toxic immigration contamination. The only way to get around this is for those – particularly Christians – who don't like this to bombard party leaders and MPs with very focused letters that demonstrate that not all voters are xenophobic. (c) Asylum provision should be made, but should not be a tool for encouraging the evacuation of Christians and other minorities from the Middle East where they have been for centuries and where their spiritual, social and cultural contribution must not be lost. The stakes are high.

Incidentally, the two unanswered questions put down in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Coventry regarding asylum were eventually answered on 15 September by Lord Wallace of Saltaire. They read as follows:

“There are no current plans to resettle those displaced from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. However, we are proud of the UK's record of offering protection to those genuinely in need, and the Government will of course continue to consider asylum claims, including from Iraqi nationals suffering religious persecution, under the normal rules.”

“The safety and security of the UK are our priority. An essential part of delivering this is knowing who is coming to the UK and carrying out all necessary checks in advance of their arrival. We therefore ensure that the necessary checks are undertaken before those accepted on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme arrive in the UK. We have also been working with local partners, including local authorities, the police and healthcare sector, to ensure the safeguarding of individuals on the scheme when they arrive in the UK.”

Was Voltaire right in his assessment of the English? Discuss.

(And the reason it has taken me so long to post on this blog is simply that I have been working all hours for weeks – the creation of this new diocese is a little demanding at present – and haven't had the headspace or time to write. And, coincidentally, I am now in Berlin with the Meissen Commission, having spent time today in the Reichstag being hugely impressed with the approach and deep thinking of German political leaders.)

PS. Letters from anonymous people who don't have the courage to put their name and contact details on their communication will be disappointed that all their green ink was spilled in vain. I don't even read anonymous letters – they go straight in the bin.


So, Christopher Hitchens has died. I, for one, am sad to hear this.

Any death ends a world for those who are bereaved. And the brutality of this rupture has been brought home recently in the premature deaths – by various means – of people like Gary Speed, the young family in Pudsey, the victims of Liege. Death strips from our ‘normal’ life the veneer of self-sufficiency and confronts us with the pain of our mortality.

The odd thing about the death of Christopher Hitchens, however, is the repeated suggestion that he was in some way (and incontrovertibly) a ‘scourge’ of religious believers, trouncing by sheer intellectual sharpness the nonsense of religious belief. He wasn’t and isn’t a scourge in any sense at all. The difficulty for Christians like me (and theists in general) was that that he wasn’t ‘scourge’ enough. I don’t need to repeat the response he got from Professor Terry Eagleton (among others). Along with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens set up aunt sallies which are not only easy to knock down, but which theists might also wish to knock down. Caricatures of faith might be convenient, but they are not thereby credible.

But, that said, there was always something admirable about Hitchens’ willingness to provoke. Polemic – whether entirely rational or not – is at least interesting. It is a pity that such material will no longer come from his pen.

However, his death provokes thought not only about the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health, but about mortality itself. We shall all die – that is the fundamental fact of life. Heidegger described human beings as ‘beings towards death’ – and he wasn’t really being miserable. Hitchens went along (as far as we can know) with Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that ‘We die, then we rot’. But, is that all there is to say?

Faith is often dismissed as a crutch on which those who cannot cope with life as it is can lean for emotional support. Apart from the fact that this (lazy) assumption rests on a further and un-argued for assumption that the non-faith world view is somehow neutral, it also fails to understand what faith is. Faith, for the Christian at least, is not some sort of credulous and escapist wishful thinking about a ‘system’ derived from fairies; rather, it is rooted in a person, a judgement and an experience. Put very briefly, a Christian is one who believes there is more to life than death, sees God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth whom death did not contain, commits himself or herself to living a life that transcends the mere satisfaction of personal needs or fulfilment, and, in the company of others who have had a similar experience of being grasped by God (including intellectually – see people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among others), live life to the full.

The beginning of being a Christian is coming to terms with – by facing and naming – death. We are mortal. We shall die. But, the sting of death is drawn by the conviction that death neither ends nor ridicules all that has gone before it. No escapism here.

The end is in the beginning. At Christmas we celebrate God coming among us as one of us. In being born, death became inevitable – and, with it, grief, loss, fear, and everything else that makes us alive. But, as the great Bruce Cockburn put it:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

I know they sound like a firm of solicitors, but it’s not law that they have in common.

Terry Eagleton wrote an excoriatingly incisive critique of AC Grayling’s decision to leave Birkbeck College in order to set up the New College of the Humanities. Eagleton questions the motives, values and consequences of the establishment of this college – which only rich kids will be able to access. Others suspect it might be a successful venture, but don’t address some of Eagleton’s questions (especially of the values underlying the move).

Giles Fraser has a go at atheistic humanism, stripping bare the pretensions of an assumed humanism that has amnesia with respect to its own roots and fails to follow through the logic of its own case. He cites Nietzsche and Foucault en route to his challenge:

Indeed, the new atheists simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism, believing their expensive scientific toys can outflank the alleged conceptual weakness of their humanism. Thus they dismiss the significance of philosophy just as much as they have always done of theology – as if the two were fundamentally in cahoots. But this is nonsense. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud attacked Christianity with passionate ferocity.

Christian theology of the 20th century has spent much of its time wrestling with the consequences. Why won’t the new atheists do the same?

It’s a good question. I wonder of any answers will be forthcoming. Probably not from the New College of the Humanities which appears to be headed towards the sort of thing Grayling & co hate about (their often misguided perceptions of) faith schools: only addressing matters from a narrow perspective that conforms to a set of philosophical assumptions that have been previously agreed – and won’t admit inconvenient theologies or anti-humanist philosophies.

Or will we be surprised?

A staff away day (in my house, bizarrely) was followed late this afternoon by the Confirmation of Election of the new Bishop of Southwark at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside in London. The process (as I am discovering for myself) is rather byzantine, but it involves the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, a rank of lawyers in wigs and a lot of witnesses. The Archbishop of York was there, too.

I went from this event – full of wonderful old language and ceremony – to a place associated with old language and ceremony – St Paul’s Cathedral – for an hour and a half of clear language and no ceremony at all (other than getting past the doorman). From internal church stuff I moved to the stuff of the world outside.

‘Uncertain Minds: What an Agnostic Can Believe’ was the title of one of a series of discussions with interesting thinkers convened by St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guardian newspaper. It represents part of an attempt to create a constructive conversation about God and religion and is described by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown as “for those readers who prefer conversation to cage fighting”. Mark Vernon, one of the interlocutors with Professor Terry Eagleton this evening, describes the evening events as being “about belief and unbelief in an age of uncertainty. Our hope is to encourage a more sophisticated public discussion about religion between those on the inside and outside of faith.”

Of course, one of Eagleton’s contentions is that no one is ‘outside of faith’ and that even Richard Dawkins exercises faith every day: faith that his house will be there when he gets home or that his chair will support him, for example.

Eagleton gave a compressed account of a compressed lecture from matters raised in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution: reflections on the God Debate (commented on here). Aside from discussion of the tendency of people on all sides to demonise those with whom they disagree, discussion raomed across the difficulty of speaking of God without resorting to ‘evidence’, the nature of faith, the importance of the ‘body’, and the nature of language. En route we passed Marx, McCabe, MacIntyre, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato and Giles Fraser.

The important thing about the event was that it was intelligent, thoughtful and respectful. It didn’t ultimately nail every aspect of the nature of reality, but it raised the discussion to a better and more reasonable level of engagement. Even ‘certainty’ got a philosophical boost: one of the funnier observations of an evening containing many funny observations was Eagleton’s that “liberalism is fearful of certainty” and – as if to demonstrate the point – that contemporary ‘yoof’ language reflects this. “It is 9 o’clock’ is far to certain; so now we say, ‘It’s… like… 9 o’clock’.

Eagleton repeated his demolition job on the aunt sallies set up by the New Atheists. The god Dawkins sets up in order to knock down is a god most of us don’t recognise as God. Dawkins’ god is a caricature of something that ought to be rejected by anyone with a shred of intelligence or decency. It just happens not to be the God most of us do believe in. As MacIntyre was said to have said:

The God rejected in the nineteenth century was the one invented in the seventeenth century.

It was useful also to be reminded of the importance of theology (and theological language) for politics. Whereas 1960s theology aligned (or even associated) theology with politics, theology cannot be reduced to the political: theology always has to critique the political. This leads the Marxist Eagleton to state that “the trouble with radical politics is that it isn’t radical enough – it doesn’t go to the roots”; politics needs a deeper critique from without.

The discussion of language was stimulating. Eagleton described the temptation of fundamentalists to ‘fetishise’ language – turning it into something fixed. Such fundamentalists, despite using the langauge of faith, actually lack faith; they just have certainties which deny the space for anything else.

This probably sounds a bit disconnected. However, these are just slices from a longer argument that I don’t have time to reproduce here. However, the video can be watched on the Guardian website shortly. The next one is a discussion between Giles Fraser and John Gray and it takes place on 7 March.

I went into London today to have lunch with a friend who is ‘in media’. On the way in I read that ‘80% of Bill Bailey’s new show is a rant against Christianity’. Can’t remember exactly where I read it, but that was basically what it said. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “here we go again. There’ll be more protests about Christians being persecuted and attacked.” And I was right! (Which is shameful when you see what is happening in the real world in Iraq…)

I am beginning to feel in a minority of one in being a Christian who doesn’t think we are being persecuted. ‘Misrepresented’, ‘misunderstood’ and ‘an easy target for people too lazy to think through their own assumptions’, maybe. Subject to educational and political assumptions that are sometimes staggering in their arrogance and ignorance in relation to Christianity in particular, definitely. But ‘persecuted’, no way.

I go with the agnostic Marxist Terry Eagleton when he complains that the so-called New Atheists have bought their atheism on the cheap and that this enables others to think that their easy dismissal of ‘religion’ (let alone Christianity) has inherent intellectual credibility – that Dawkins’ position is self-evidently true because it is Dawkins who says it. And it is obvious that the methodologies Dawkins adopts in his television tirades would never pass the editor’s desk were it to be driving towards a theistic theme. (It would be like me depicting Stalin in the first minute, extrapolating from Stalin that all atheists are on the same road as the Soviet dictator, then writing off atheism as having any intellectual, cultural or ethical credibility worth thinking about.)

As contributors to this blog have demonstrated, there is a thoughtful and intelligent discussion to be had between atheists and Christians (or theists) – one that presupposes mutual respect. I usually find Bill Bailey sharp and funny, so look forward to his new show. But, if it does turn out to be an easy potshot at Christianity, I guess I’ll just have to be big enough to take it. Popularity and big laughs don’t prove any point whatsoever.

The problem is that there is much about Christians that is funny or odd or open to question. Now is not an easy time to speak of ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ in a context in which Christians appear happy to accuse each other of all sorts of nastiness. But, if our reputation is tarnished and our credibility low, then we cannot blame anyone else for this… even if the reputation also involves selective reporting, misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

Anyway, to go back to the main point, being misunderstood or misrepresented by a liberal elite who dominate the public discourse with a confidence that is ignorant of its own (religious) illiteracy, is inconvenient, painful, embarrassing and should be countered. But, it isn’t persecution. Bill Bailey is not pulling our finger nails out or stopping our kids from going to university purely on account of their faith – he is simply doing what people have done to Christian faith since Calvary. It’s not clever and it is boringly predictable – get used to it. The way to counter it is to stop being ‘against’ anything we don’t like and proactively present what we are ‘for’ in the public space. And, for God’s sake, try to enjoy it.

I come back again and again to the need for Christians to put their own house in order, gain confidence in the content of the Christian faith (which, strictly speaking and in shorthand, means in ‘the Word made flesh’ – the person of God seen in Jesus Christ), question the assumptions of those who attack or question Christianity, and stop complaining about being victims of other people’s horribleness.

And the BBC still needs a ‘Religion Editor’

There hasn’t been much time this week for posting. The return from Wittenberg landed me with a pile of work and appointments – all good and all encouraging in one way or another.

Apart from the total and unmitigated misery of Liverpool’s abysmal performance against Northampton Town – which silenced me for a couple of days simply because I couldn’t bear the mockery from my ‘friends’ – I have met great clergy, helped judge an interfaith award, read an excellent book and got up to date with correspondence of all forms.

However, I missed the 76th birthday of the great Leonard Cohen. How sad is that? If you follow the link, you get to a site from which you can download the Radio 2 documentary (in which I took part) on the 25th anniversary of Cohen’s song Hallelujah.

And my quote of the week? Terry Eagleton writing in the Preface to his wonderful and funny Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (which I will post on more fully when I get time):

Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. But it is also the case… that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinion of it.

Eagleton goes on to challenge Dawkins, Hitchens et al, but is also profoundly challenging to the Christian churches. The language he uses is very funny as he penetrates through the superficialities of much of the contemporary debate. More anon.

There comes a point before holiday becomes a reality when the desk has to be reordered, the email inbox emptied, the office in-tray cleared and the clutter of the previous year’s indecions (where to put things and whether or nto to keep them) sorted. I put off this point until as late as possible. Today that point has been reached.

Fortunately, I was able to postpone much of this because I got distracted by the need to select which books I want to take away with me – which novels need to be read and which theological books can continue to hold their guilt-inducing stare at me while they sit un-opened on my soon-to-be-organised desk. Apart from a couple of Robert Harris novels, I pulled off my shelves several books I haven’t read for a very long time. Unfortunately, they all seem to be miserable: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Elie Wiesel’s Night. Oh dear.

While musing on how to choose more cheerful books, I dipped into the Church Times and read the extract from Terry Eagleton’s new book On Evil. Hah! Even here it is grim! Or not…

Eagleton’s point is basically that evil is frequently portrayed as dramatic, sexy and glamorous. In some wonderful language he debunks all this and claims evil is basically boring and banal. Try the following:

[Evil] is boring because it keeps doing the same dreary thing, trapped as it is between life and death. But evil is also boring because it is without real substance. It has, for example, no notion of emotional intricacies. Like a Nazi rally, it appears spectacular but is secretly hollow. It is as much a parody of genuine life as the goosestep is a parody of walking.

Isn’t that perfect? He goes on:

Evil is philistine, kitsch-ridden, and banal. It has the ludicrous pomposity of a clown seeking to pass himself off as an emperor. It defends itself against the complexities of human experience with a reach-me-down dogma or a cheap slogan.

Wonderful! And then:

Hell is not a scene of unspeakable obscenties. If it were, it might well be worth applying to join. Hell is being talked at for all eternity by a man in an anorak who has mastered every detail of the sewage system of South Dakota.

I think I’ve met him!

But Eagleton, taking in Aquinas, Augustine and Blake, goes on to conclude:

…evil is a kind of spiritual slumming… The evil, then, are those who are deficient in the art of living.

This opens the provocative question of whether it is possible to think you are a Christian (Jesus talked of giving ‘life in all its fullness’) while actually being a life-denying, over-simplifying, boring, philistine, purity-obsessed, fear-driven (of hell?) parody of the real thing? It’s a question I am now asking of myself as well as of the Church.

Anyway, his book is now on order. I never expected to laugh at prose about ‘evil’. Thanks to the Church Times for publishing the extract – it’s brilliant.

Or, as my son would put it, wicked.