I have just seen the report in today’s Times newspaper about Lord Singh’s withdrawal from doing Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. I am sorry to see this and the terms in which he frames his reasons. His voice will be missed – although I suspect he has the same questions as I do about who might pick up from the next generation in due course.

In my experience of doing Thought for the Day I have only once felt pressed to speak on a particular issue and it didn’t turn out well for me. I wanted to talk about Steven Gerrard’s retirement (theme of loyalty), but there was some interfaith issue going on and I was persuaded to do a script on Islam. Two hours after delivery the Charlie Hebdo shootings took place in Paris and the criticism/abuse online led me to shut down all social media. Of course, had I known at 7.45am that there were to be shootings later that morning, I would have done a different script; but that sort of prophecy is not a gift I have been given.

Nevertheless, I fully understood the reasoning behind the request to address the issue in my script that day. Choices have to be made. The routine is that the contributor speaks on the phone with the producer for the next day’s slot and we agree a theme. Sometimes I have several possibilities up my sleeve – sometimes I have a blank sheet. Occasionally I have already written a script (or two) – just to get my mind working. Having drafted a script, there is then usually some back-and-forth about it before it gets signed off. Sometimes I argue with changes, sometimes I don’t. Usually the producer – who knows the medium and audience better than I do – reads what might be heard by particular language and advises a change. I always listen to this and learn from it. I have never been asked to say something I don’t agree with or edit inappropriately.

And, yes, I have had the phone call ten minutes before lift-off to ask for a tweak, but always in the light of other news that might change the way certain language is heard. We then negotiate. In my experience it is always a helpful and challenging conversation.

I always come away from the microphone wondering how I might have made my point better, more entertainingly or more clearly. I occasionally think I might have chosen a different theme, given the context on the programme and the nature of the news. But, I am clear that this is not a pulpit. The job of the contributor is to shine a different light on a theme – not to preach a sermon, but to stimulate thought, reaction, reflection, and so on. (My Inbox tells me that most reaction is knee-jerk and prejudiced … and sometimes abusive, but I get some intelligent stuff, too. Occasionally I get a critical response that is really helpful and moves me on. I think that’s called ‘being grown up’, even if sometimes it is painful.

And, yes, I sometimes wish it could be sharper and provocative, but there is a fine line to be trodden.

So, I am sorry Lord Singh is finishing. I hope this won’t be used as a further reason to malign the BBC when they do a thorough and mature job in working a difficult slot with sometimes difficult and opinionated people like me.

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

“And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” Well, no, actually – probably not. But, William Blake’s questions are not to do with historical event or fantasy, but with the need for a vision of England itself that transcends present miseries. Reality can only take you so far, after all.

A new Blake exhibition opened last week at Tate Britain in London and it has provoked huge interest. As someone who has never quite understood him, I look forward to seeing it and having my imagination opened more widely by seeing the world through Blake’s eyes. For what is clear about him is that his poetry, art and writing sees him wrestling with what it means to be truly human in a troubling world.

In his work we see Blake struggling personally with what was going on around him. Political oppression, public fear, uncertainty about the future in a changing world – he faced reality with imagination, vision and thankless political commitment.

However, vision wasn’t enough: he took seriously his own responsibility for addressing the world he questioned. The ‘satanic mills’ were a source of England’s prosperity, but they relied on draining human beings of life and soul; children might fit into chimneys, but that didn’t mean they should be sent up them – especially by people who then went to church to praise God.

It seems to me that Blake understood what is easily forgotten by Christians like me: that those who claim God’s name should at least begin to reflect the character and priorities of God. In other words, if I truly believe – and claim to be motivated by – the God of the Bible, in whose image every human being is made, then I cannot support or collaborate in language, policies or actions that diminish people.

Now, Blake recognised that this isn’t a black and white matter. None of us simply switches a moral dial and suddenly becomes perfect or consistent. We are not only fallibly human, but we also live in a particular social, historical and cultural context. The most we can do is try to see clearly – which means having the humility to allow the lens behind my eyes to be re-ground – and live differently, despite everything.

Blake worked out his salvation in vivid and glorious – sometimes terrifying – image. Words opened up the possibility of the divine – a spirituality of hope and justice in a world of grinding misery and material poverty. In looking through his eyes I hope we might find our own opened to look differently and see differently – what I would call the beginning of conversion.

Agreeing with Blake’s vision is not the aim. Engaging with its struggle is. Because in engaging with his mystical vision of God and humanity we might find ourselves inevitably driven to what these look like in real flesh and blood. To seeing “Jerusalem builded here”.

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

The other day I was browsing the German political journal Der Spiegel and found my attention arrested by an article the like of which I have not seen before. It was written by Niklas Frank, son of Hitler’s notorious General Governor of Poland Hans Frank. His father, a politician and lawyer, was executed as a war criminal at Nürnberg in October 1946.

The thrust of the article is that at the age of 80, having thought his father’s legacy had gone from the earth, he now discovers echoes of the same rhetoric in the mouths of some extreme right-wing politicians in Germany. And he is a very worried man.

The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht ended his play ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ with the warning that the end of Nazism did not mean that its ideology died in a Berlin bunker. And here is Niklas Frank’s concern: that the same old ideas find their way back into our discourse while we are not looking, and sound reasonable in the midst of current uncertainties, crises and fears.

One of the things I began to learn many years ago is that my children might well have to forgive me for the wrong things I have said or done to them or others. Parents always make it up as they go along, seeking advice and trying their best. But, I doubt if any of us looks back with smug satisfaction at having got everything right. But, that is a far cry from having to live with the knowledge of a father’s crimes against humanity and the legacy this left for the whole world for ever.

When Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” he was echoing the Hebrew Scriptures when they describe – rather than prescribe – reality. We inherit and cannot escape from the consequences of the sins of the fathers and mothers, and maturity involves coming to terms with this and living with or despite it.

For Niklas Frank, however, the matter cannot be left there. His inheritance, he believes, imposes on him a moral obligation to see through his father’s eyes the language and rhetoric that would have been as familiar as it was effective. So, when political language betrays a view of human beings that dehumanises them or dismisses their dignity, Frank sees the urgent need to identify where this thinking led in the past – his own family’s past.

I guess he would sympathise with WH Auden who once wrote: “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie”. This tells me that I don’t have to have had a murderous father before listening for the language that turns people into numbers or objects, converts their inconvenience into disposability, or elevates my own self-righteousness above the dignity of those who have less power.

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

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of what is now called GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters. During that century the world – including the worlds of communication, espionage and intelligence – has changed radically. Even when I joined as a linguist specialist back in 1980 what we thought of as cutting-edge technology now looks quaint. As the world, driven by technology has developed, so have the intelligence services, their competences and self-understanding.

When I was at Cheltenham, working mainly in Russian and German, the place itself was so secret it didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Now they have open days, social media recruitment and lots of other imaginative ways of communicating their existence, preoccupations and value to society.

What haven’t changed, of course, are the basic questions of national security and the need for any country to learn the languages of others. Whereas the need for national security, in one sense, speaks for itself, the “learning the language of others” stuff might not be so obvious. But, effective intelligence work demands that you get inside the head of those you suspect of threatening you, look out through their eyes, listen through their ears, and understand how this shapes or directs their language and behaviour.

Now, there is a risk to this exercise. If you learn about another people and enter into their experience, you begin to comprehend and, sometimes, even sympathise with them. It isn’t quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it is risky. For example, learning about the experiences and historical contexts of my enemy might reframe my understanding of why they behave or speak the way they do. We all speak in codes and the codes depend on common intuitions or understandings.

I think this goes to the heart of being human in society. If empathy gets lost, then we find it difficult to read each other. Instead of being exposed to reality – which is often complex and nuanced – I pigeon-hole or stereotype them and then feel justified in the security of my own trench.

“Loving my neighbour as myself” is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but demands hard and imaginative work – letting the other slip beyond the box I want to put them in.

I think this is also pertinent in other areas of our common life in these strange times. Instead of lobbing accusations from trenches at those who see the world – or particular policies – differently, a decision to invest in listening, imagining and understanding does not come naturally to most of us. Listen to debates in Parliament this last week and it becomes clear how hard and how important it is that we try.

I might have left GCHQ a long time ago, but the questions it fed me have not gone away.

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

This weekend I was a little surprised to read in a German magazine that democracy might be under threat … from silence.

The silence referred to is the anecdotal evidence that people are declining to engage in argument or debate – even with friends and family – because dispute and disagreement in the public sphere have become so toxic. Here in the UK this perception might be attributed to a reaction against the divisive discourse around Brexit. But, in Germany it has a different root: although their media do comment on events in the UK, they are primarily occupied with the end of Angela Merkel’s reign – and the transitional time when the Far Right are pressing their case for change and the Left are falling apart.

If the silence this generates is real, then worry about the future of democracy might be well-grounded. Why? Well, I can understand people saying that arguments in private are not of the same order as those in the public or political sphere. And, of course, there is some truth in that.

But, the point is that we learn how to argue and debate in private well before we test out how to do it in public – how to do it as individuals before we try it out in a complex public arena where the voices might be loud and multi-accented. So, if we don’t practise arguing with our family and friends, we don’t learn the skills of differing and disputing … and we risk not learning the behaviours that go with it.

As a Christian, I sometimes wonder who argued with Jesus in the thirty years or so before he began his controversial and short lived public ministry.  We know he was an argumentative child, but, I wonder who helped sharpen his wit, shape his stories, steel his mind and hone his rhetoric. It doesn’t happen by magic.

This is important because ideas – even silly ones and heresies – need to be articulated and tested if I am to learn what will hold water and whether an idea or ideology will stand the test of contradiction or rebuttal. In other words, argument and debate are positive things that should be encouraged and learned in order that matters of common life and order can be properly understood and their consequences explored ahead of any commitment to them. After all, as we are experiencing now, the only alternative to arguing or disagreeing well is simply arguing or disagreeing badly. And then everyone suffers.

This is why I think our children need to be encouraged and taught early not only to argue a point, but to learn how to lose an argument – and that this can be a strong thing, not a weakness.

Silence can be golden, but not when it is born of fear.

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

I’m not sure if a confession this early in the morning is wise, but I have never watched Game of Thrones. I have no idea what the story is, who the characters are, or what the plot line is. So, I can’t comment on any aspect of it … except the response to its ending.

Social media seem to be full of people who are angry that they didn’t get the ending they wanted or hoped for. I have even seen passionate pleas with the producers to fire the screenwriters, pull the last series and re-write (and re-film) the thing so it ends properly. What on earth is this about?

I guess in a world of custom-made this and custom-oriented that, we too easily believe that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction – that somehow I should have a life of individual personal fulfilment that makes everything nice. And, of course, it’s obvious from experience that this is nonsense.

It’s not only nonsense, but I think it’s boring nonsense. I recently read a lot of books while on study leave and a couple of the novels I read left me hanging, wishing for a different denouement. But, the joy of story is the element of surprise – shock, even.

For a Christian like me, this shouldn’t be a novel idea – especially in the current Easter season. Follow the gospels through and we see a story developing that keeps twisting and surprising. Get to the end – Jesus dead and buried – and there’s no airbrushing the powerful human brutality of it all. It’s not exactly escapism, is it? But, while the bereft friends of Jesus are trying to make sense of what shouldn’t have happened, they are further surprised by their women coming home and saying that the dead man seems not to be finished after all.

But, this is no ‘happy-ever-after’ deus-ex-machina make-us-all-happy resolution. In fact, it causes more problems. These people have to keep wrestling with reality, experience and their whole understanding about God and the world, and try to make sense of it all. This isn’t the script they were following, but it is forcing them to choose between their expectations and their experienced reality.

That’s how endings work. Surprise, challenge, discomfort. And it’s the ending that makes you go back to the beginning and re-read the whole narrative in the light of the twist.

We can no more control the endings of our own stories than we can compel writers to change their books. We are supposed to be challenged, arrested, surprised and intrigued. That’s the point. The story goes on in our imagination. And if we simply say: “Oh, there you go then,” then the story hasn’t worked. As true for resurrection as it is for Game of Thrones. Whatever that is.

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

I was checking my diary for this week when the news came in of the death of Doris Day. Whether it’s significant or not that this happened in Eurovision week, I have no idea. But, as we Brits will be exercising our foreign language skills again – nul points – in preparation for the big night, we might recall that it was Doris who introduced many of us to Spanish.

My late dad was a fan when we were kids and one of the first vinyl records he bought was one of her’s. And that’s where I heard Que sera sera – pronounced like a true Brit ever since. Que sera sera – what will be will be.

As a child I thought this was deep philosophy. You can’t change the future; what will be will be. Resign yourself to whatever comes. We call it fatalism.

Well, I liked the tune and I liked her voice. But, as I grew up I began to realise the idea was wrong. It’s a human responsibility to shape the future and not simply be a victim of other people’s decisions and choices. In Christian terms – which I was also exploring decades ago – the kingdom of God is not about some airy-fairy spirituality for when you die; rather, it’s about transforming the world here and now … thus creating a future that is more just and peaceful and fruitful for our children and grandchildren. After all, Jesus is all about God opting into the real world of matter and politics and muck and bullets and not exempting himself from it. Try sticking that into a Christmas carol.

Of course, this involves real commitment to the stuff of life and society. Fatalism is a denial of responsibility. Commitment to playing my part in building what has been termed ‘the common good’ becomes an obligation that goes beyond simply claiming my rights. Belief, in Hebrew terms, means committing oneself – body, mind and spirit – to the vision of the world that I believe to be true.

I think this is why politics gets fierce. After a couple of generations of little mainstream political choice we now find ourselves full of noise and fury about things that matter. If the choices currently facing Europe weren’t serious, we wouldn’t be getting up in arms about them, would we? It’s because the choices matter, the consequences matter, how we enact our collective priorities and decisions matters. In one sense, it’s heartening.

So, Doris Day nearly made her century. She lived through a century of wars and much more besides, and was part of the generation that exploded with optimism about a glorious and peaceful future. But, apathy and complacency have proved to be the enemy of peace-building. Que sera sera is a great song, but a disastrous way to think about living together.