Theological atheism – asking, searching, knocking

“When all is said and done, the journey is the reward. The end is, well, the end”

Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle

“Religion possesses no solution to the problem of life; rather it makes of the problem a wholly insoluble enigma. Religion neither discovers the problem nor solves it: what it does is to disclose the truth that it cannot be solved.”

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

I have tried in the past to formulate in my mind a clear way to explain the distinction between New Atheism (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc.) and theological atheism, which has quite a different flavour and which I personally find more useful. I have contemplated tables and analogies. But this distinction has now been very clearly articulated by the radical theologian and theological atheist Peter Rollins.

Rollins has just started this year’s running of Atheism for Lent – I have completed this for the last two years and highly recommend it – and has made his opening talk available to those, like me, who subscribe to his Patreon page. It is full of ideas, but this one is striking to me now. The explanation goes something like this.

There are various definitions of religion but in practice it is often aimed at solving the deepest problems of human existence – a path to peace, wholeness, enlightenment, salvation, the thing that will fill up the void we experience and complete us. At the centre of religion, in many cases, is God, the object that will bring us this completeness and wholeness if we approach him the right way, follow his rules, accept his dominion. New Atheism takes aim at this object, arguing (in my view convincingly) that for multiple reasons this object does not exist.

But the problem with New Atheism is that it stops there. The fact is that, in our society, God is only one of the solutions on offer to bring us wholeness and completeness and, if we remove him, it is quite likely that he will simply be replaced by another solution. Other solutions, promising us wholeness and completeness, are all around us. Some of the more common ones in our culture are:

  • The ideal romantic relationship, or at least a better one – the philosopher Alain de Botton once shrewdly commented that we seem to spend our lives looking for the relationship that will make all other relationships superfluous;
  • Money and status – if we can earn a certain amount or achieve a certain career goal, life will be complete;
  • Political causes – all will be well if we can stop Brexit/achieve Brexit/establish true socialism/restore capitalism etc.;
  • Technology – all our problems can be solved if we apply enough ingenuity and investment to them.

All of these form very popular secular religions, with gurus, how-to guides and recommended practices. I do not mean to argue that any of them are unimportant. A healthy relationship, successful career, political change and advancing technology can make a big difference in life. But I do mean to deny that any of these are “the answer”, that these are the things that will make our life complete, ending all feelings of emptiness. This is the point of theological atheism – there is no God to grant us completeness and wholeness, but neither will our relationships, money, achieving political goals or technological advances. The belief that they will can cause untold suffering and cruelty as people single-mindedly pursue these objectives, regardless of the damage they may inflict on themselves or others.

The alternative approach is to accept that none of these things will ever truly resolve our problems, our sense of incompleteness, and that we should learn to live with them, finding meaning and what Rollins terms “enjoyment” in our very pursuit of the things that are important to us. If God is Love (1 John 4, 8) then it is in the very act of love itself that God is found and shown, if you want to use that term. There isn’t any truth or answer beyond that. As Rollins has discussed in his book How (Not) to Speak of God, this perhaps can make sense of what is otherwise a truly baffling saying in the gospels:

” Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7, 7-8

This seems bizarre on first reading – the world is full of people asking and not receiving, searching and not finding, knocking at doors that are not opened. It only really makes sense if in fact it is in the very act of asking that we receive, seeking that we find and knocking that the door is opened. It is the asking, searching and knocking itself that is the point, that is what human existence at its best entails.

And so, in a further divergence from the New Atheists, theological atheism does not lead to an outright rejection of the Christian tradition. Instead, as writers from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich to Slavoj Zizek and Thomas Altizer have argued, atheism can take us to the heart of what it is really about.

Edit – This post was edited on 5 March 2018 to correct the reference for Peter Rollins’ discussion of Matthew 7.


One crucifixion, many resurrections

In my atheist reading of Christianity, I do find some common ground with many Christians. In particular, I agree with them that the central image of the New Testament is Jesus on the cross. That is our portrayal, the image much richer than any number of words, of what we mean by God. He can be represented by a homeless, outcast, powerless, criminal, surrendering all of their power for the sake of love. If we will find God anywhere this is our clue – He (or more often perhaps She) is found where power is surrendered and absent, not where it is present, not among wealth and privilege.

Where I start to diverge from most Christians is how they understand the resurrection. To paraphrase a common view, Jesus knew what he was doing when he died, and did so in order that God the Father should show his power by raising him from the dead. A sort of knockout miracle to convince the sceptics. Jesus came down from heaven and then, after an unfortunate interlude, went back up again and normal service was resumed.

I do not accept this understanding at all, and not just because it robs the whole story of any power and meaning. I find some support for this rejection in the New Testament itself, because it is a curious and little-observed fact that, whereas the centrality of the crucifixion is consistent across most of the New Testament, and the story of the crucifixion largely consistent across the gospels, the New Testament writers have very different understandings of the resurrection. To take the relevant writings in (likely) chronological order, we can observe the following.

For Paul, the entire episode seems to have been a cosmic event. There is no mention of an empty tomb, or teachings given by a resurrected Jesus. The account in Philippians 2, 8-11 (which many scholars believe predates Paul himself) is as follows:

“…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…”

This moves straight from crucifixion to exaltation (and, it seems, receiving the name Jesus at this time, but that’s another issue) with nothing in between. In another account, Paul describes the appearance of the risen Jesus as follows:

“…Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15, 4-8)

This sequence is completely at odds with anything we have in the gospels and, what is more, seems to equate Jesus’ appearance to Paul, which seems to have been some sort of heavenly vision, with his appearance to others. No empty tomb, no resurrected body, no ascension narrative. This strongly suggests that Paul’s understanding of the resurrection consisted of visions of a heavenly Jesus, not a physical body wandering around shortly after his death.

Before turning to the gospels, it is worth noting, that Hebrews 9 describes the death of Jesus in terms of entering as a sacrifice into the heavenly temple. Again, no empty tomb, no resurrected body. The resurrection seems if anything to be a future event when “… Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (9, 28)

So what of the gospels? Mark, probably the earliest gospel, has an empty tomb, with an angel announcing that Jesus has been raised, and that’s it. No resurrection appearances at all, a deficiency addressed by some later writers who added their own endings to the story.

In Luke, we find a rather wonderful story of Jesus, unrecognised, joining travellers on the road to Emmaus and then revealing himself when they break bread together (I have blogged about this story elsewhere), then appearing to the disciples, the writer insists, as a physical body:

“Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24, 39)

In Matthew we find a rather truncated account where the Jews falsely spread a story about Jesus’ body being stolen, an angel appears at the tomb and Jesus ends up teaching his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (in contrast to Luke & Acts, which insist that the disciples remained in Jerusalem).

John’s gospel, famously, has two resurrection narratives, one concluding at 20,31 and then another being added in chapter 21. The first tells a touching story of Mary Magdalene weeping at Jesus’ tomb, then seeing the risen Jesus, initially not recognising him, then appearing to the disciples, including Doubting Thomas. The second story has Jesus appearing to the disciples while fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, and then a lengthy dialogue with Peter.

Acts 1 has a slightly odd modification to the story in Luke, that Jesus spent 40 days with the disciples teaching them, then ascended to heaven.

What can we make of this confusion? From a historical perspective, it suggests there were very different understandings of the resurrection within the early church, and some of the accounts may have been written as polemics against others. But from a theological perspective it suggests a certain freedom in how you interpret the resurrection and I think there is value in demythologising it altogether. I would interpret it something like this – Jesus is dead and so is the God he represented in some sense. He has surrendered his power, even life and existence itself but, if we choose, he can be resurrected in us, in a community of people who choose to value each other and look after each other, to live together in co-operation rather than conflict. As the famous prayer by the sixteenth-century mystic St Theresa of Avila puts it:

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…”

It’s all down to us, but the resurrection will happen if we do our best to follow the teaching laid down by Jesus and many other sages through the centuries:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7, 12)

Biblical roots of Christian Atheism

“In short, with this ‘Father, why hast though forsaken me?’, it is God-the-Father who, in effect, dies, revealing His utter impotence, and thereupon rises from the dead in the guise of the Holy Spirit.” Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf

The term “Christian Atheism” can seem paradoxical and self-contradictory, but atheistic readings of Christianity have proved surprisingly persistent down the years. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart famously prayed to God to rid him of God, another Christian mystic William Blake envisaged the death of God in his epic poetry (an idea retold by his modern disciple, Philip Pullman), the pastor’s son Friedrich Nietzsche told the story of the madman proclaiming that we had killed God and in the 1960s Thomas Altizer gained worldwide attention with his systematic theology of the death of God. In modern times, the most high-profile exponent of Christian Atheism is the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. But how is such a reading possible? In this post, I will try to set out a narrative of how I think Christian Atheism makes sense, tracing the idea through the Bible in a highly summarised form.

It is fairly clear that the original faith of the Biblical writers was henotheistic – believing in multiple gods, but that Israel should worship only one of them. The first of the ten commandments, that Israel shall have no other gods before Yahweh, implies the existence of other gods, otherwise it is meaningless. This idea may have persisted all the way down to the New Testament – Margaret Barker in particular has argued convincingly that the earliest understanding of Jesus was drawn from the relationship between Israel’s god Yahweh and the high god El.

However, there is a competing (almost certainly later) view which is thoroughly monotheistic. Second Isaiah writes:

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no other….

I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45, 5 & 7)

Not much room for doubt here, but in this very text we have the problem of theodicy created by monotheism and debated extensively over the centuries. If there is one God who makes weal and creates woe, how do we reconcile that with the idea that God is good? This is one of the central problems of the Hebrew Bible – most scholars see the current books from Deuteronomy through to 2 Kings as various stories formed into one continuous narrative (the Deuteronomistic history or “DH”) which is primarily concerned with answering one question – why did Yahweh permit the Babylonians to conquer Judea and take its leaders into exile? The answer given is that it was because of the persistent rebellion of God’s people – beginning with their failure to fully exterminate the Canaanites when they conquered Israel, then followed up by their embrace of ‘foreign’ gods and practices.

As a theodicy, it is not overly convincing, not just because punishment for failing to commit genocide is morally repugnant or the whole idea being based on ugly xenophobic. The hero of the DH is King Josiah, who is credited with extensive reforms and reinstating the true worship of Yahweh, after he discovered a book of Moses during repairs of the temple. And yet, a mere twenty years after his death, Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed. An unbiased observer could be forgiven for thinking that old Canaanite gods were taking their revenge. The narrative (2 Kings 22) acknowledges this awkwardness, suggesting that Yahweh delayed the disaster until after Josiah’s death – a mercy clearly not extended to others. More profoundly, the idea that bad things happen as a punishment from God is unsustainable for anyone with a conscience and much experience of the world.

There are loud protests against this worldview within the Hebrew Bible itself. The author of Ruth pointed out that King David’s great-grandmother was a foreigner – one of the hated Moabites. The author of Jonah mocked those who believed that God’s love did not extend to the foreigners at Nineveh. The author of Ecclesiastes, observing the emptiness and injustice of life, decided the best approach was just to enjoy it as best you could.

But the most dramatic protest came from the author of Job, who took a fairly simple fairy-tale about loyalty to Yahweh being rewarded and inserted a poem protesting against Yahweh’s injustice, and the way he inflicts suffering on the innocent. Job’s friends tell him he must have done something wrong but Job rejects this – he knows he is innocent and does not see why he is being punished. Eventually, Yahweh himself makes an appearance, and does not endorse the views of Job’s friends, “for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42, 7) Instead, he boasts of his great power and strength, trying to awe Job into admitting that he simply does not understand the mysteries of the heavens and therefore cannot criticise the injustice of Yahweh. It works and Job admits that he has “uttered what I did not understand…” (Job 42,3). But, as Zizek in particular has pointed out, there is something unconvincing about the bluster and the submission, something reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

If the point of this is that if we cannot expect God to behave in a way that we humans would consider good (for example, he lets people suffer even though they have done nothing wrong), then there is some logic to that position, but it also means that statements like “God is good” lose all meaning. The author of Job seems to be well aware of this, and be slyly pointing it out. Zizek’s reading of Job is that it exposes the little secret at the heart of Judaism – they worship a god who is impotent, who cannot or will not protect his followers from suffering. It is a fair point, and goes some way to explain why so many Jews are in fact atheists, which does not really pose too many problems socially or theologically. An impotent god is, for all practical purposes, the same as no god.

But it is in the New Testament that we see the logic taken a step further. Jesus sees for himself that God is not able to save him, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15, 34). That Jesus himself felt desolation and despair was shocking to some – the gospel of John by contrast portrays Jesus calmly and deliberately “laying down” his life and “taking it up again” (10, 18) and this is the approach the mainstream church has taken ever since. Jesus came down to earth, his death was an unfortunate interruption but he soon came back to life, went up to heaven and normal service was resumed. But this is not the view of the earlier gospel writers nor of Paul, for whom the death and resurrection of Jesus were apocalyptic events, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. The resurrected Jesus is not not simply resuming normal service, but is now to be found in the community that takes his teachings seriously. It is now their responsibility to continue his work as best they can and however they see fit. As Thomas Altizer put it:

“…no longer is the realm of God heavenly and transcendent, as it is a dawning ‘here’ and ‘now’, a dawning only possible as a consequence of the negation of a transcendent beyond, a negation which is a self-negation and consequently a self-negation of Godhead itself.” (The Call to Radical Theology)

Or, as Jesus himself is quoted as saying in Luke’s gospel:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (17, 21)

The kingdom of God is among us, and the ultimate reality is here and now. The transcendent God, the Big Other, has exposed himself as impotent and then as dead. We cannot look to him to solve our problems for us and absolve responsibility. It is up to us, and to us alone, to build the kingdom, or the republic if you prefer, however we can, starting wherever we are and with those we interact with most. That is the Christian Atheism I believe in. 

Use and abuse of the historical Jesus

“The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” George Tyrell, Christianity at the Crossroads

When I was an undergraduate reading various reconstructions of the historical Jesus, I could not help noticing a pattern. All of them start with some sort of declaration that they are going to approach the topic as disinterested historians, setting aside considerations of faith, ethics or beliefs of the Church. But, by the end, very few could resist some kind of assessment of the implications of this historical Jesus, and overwhelmingly they approved of what they had found there. So we have the “Spirit Man” of Marcus Borg, the Cynic sage of John Dominic Crossan, the Jewish miracle-worker and teacher of Geza Vermes, the zealot of SGF Brandon and more recently Reza Aslan, and many others. There are of course a few striking exceptions, such as Hector Avalos, whose book The Bad Jesus gives a hint at his thesis.

This is not a new observation, as the quote above, from a book published in 1909, illustrates, and the metaphor of the well is widely quoted. This does not stop it being true. I thought of this issue recently when attending a course run by Dr Robin Meyers, pastor and self-described “Christian Atheist” who advocates following Jesus rather than worshipping Christ. The Jesus he commits to following is, it turns out, the one largely discovered by scholars like Crossan and other members of the Jesus Seminar. It is a Jesus who is a philosopher and teacher, with a radical system of ethics, concern for social justice and definitely not considered in any way divine.

I have very few disagreements with the ethical implications Dr Meyers draws from this view of Jesus, but his approach raised two questions which I think are a challenge to any project of this type. Firstly, if you are committing yourself to following a particular historical reconstruction of Jesus, then you are something of a hostage to fortune if and when scholarly views about the historical Jesus change. Given that competent scholars have come up with a variety of reconstructions, it is also not entirely obvious why this reconstruction should be treated as authoritative and final. If we are going to follow Jesus, can we know for sure he wasn’t the revolutionary zealot? And what if some new evidence turned up which changed our views completely about the historical Jesus? Does that mean revising all our ideas about faith and discipleship?

The second problem I find genuinely baffling. Unless you are a believer in the infallibility of the Bible, which Dr Meyers certainly is not and neither are the vast majority of scholars, it is not clear to me why the historical Jesus, even if we could find him, should be treated as an authoritative teacher in all respects. By all means we can take inspiration from him, use whatever of his teachings we find useful or relevant. But we do not have to assume he was right about anything, let alone everything. And, as the variety of reconstructions makes clear, we are a long way from knowing anything much about the historical Jesus with great confidence, and most likely never will, so even knowing what the teachings were is problematic.

Just to put my own cards on the table, briefly, my personal view is that there was no historical Jesus at all – he was a heavenly figure later written into history, with teachings from various sources attaching to him. The Jesus of the gospels is a composite figure, which is why so many reconstructions are possible. I will not defend this view here – I have touched on it elsewhere and anyone who wants to know why I think this should read Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, which to my mind sets out this case in a way that has not been answered. But, as anyone who has read my other blog posts will know, I take great inspiration from certain teachings in the gospels, particularly the parables of the kingdom and the emphasis on the interdependence we all have. I do not know who originated these teachings, and it does not much matter to me. They have come down to us in the tradition and I will take from them what I find inspiring. This approach means we can divorce the intellectually interesting historical question of whether there was a historical Jesus and what he said from the more urgent present-day question of how we are to treat each other and live together on this planet. Muddling them together does not do justice to either question.

On the event, elections and hope

The term postmodern may conjure up pictures of French academics writing incomprehensible papers and using strange arguments to justify unreasonable positions, but there is a lot more to it than that, and some ideas within postmodernism I find extremely relevant and useful. One of these is the idea of “the event”, particularly written about by Derrida, who pictured the event as something over the horizon, something almost unthinkable, but which can have an impact on our day-to-day lives and sometimes break through, if only “barely”. This idea implies another key lesson of postmodernism – that nothing is inevitable and things that appear to us to be “the natural order” are nothing of the sort. They can change in ways that are completely unimaginable, sometimes very fast. After such changes, the new state quickly becomes the natural order of things again and we rationalise why it was actually inevitable. But it was not.

This idea is extremely topical because we have experienced a number of “events” recently – things considered inconceivable until they happened. We are now used to the idea of Brexit, but do recall that every major political party, nearly all business organisations and nearly all trade unions favoured remaining in the EU. The unthinkable became possible, then inevitable, with remarkable speed. Ditto for the election of Donald Trump. In both cases, I personally deplore these results, but then no one ever said the event would be benign.

But what these votes do prove is that real change is possible, and if it is sometimes change in the direction of isolation and xenophobia, it can also be in the other direction. The election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France is also an earthquake – a political novice offering a vision that is socially and economically liberal, pro-European, pro-business, pro-environment brushed aside the entire political establishment. The UK election last week was not quite as dramatic but consider this. Just over two years ago, in May 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was an obscure 65-year old backbencher known as a firebrand left-wing activist and frequent rebel against the party leadership. Rumours are that he was planning to retire at the next election, and only stood for the leadership because he and some colleagues felt there should be someone in the contest from the left of the party. He has now led the Labour Party to its biggest increase in vote share since 1945 and, if he had managed to add just a few more points to that share, we would now be discussing the future of Britain under Prime Minister Corbyn – something quite literally unthinkable two years ago. The reasons for his rise are complex, but no doubt one of them is that he is offering a fresh, radical vision to people unhappy with the status quo and feeling there has to be a better way.

Indeed, it is striking that Macron, Trump and Corbyn are about as far apart as you can get on their politics, but they have some very important things in common. All of them bring passion and authenticity to a public tired of cautious politicians explaining why things cannot be done. All of them proclaim that things can change, a different way is possible. All have come from outside politics as normal. Millions of people are responding to that.

As a Liberal Democrat, I am of course disappointed with the overall result. However, I absolutely see grounds for hope as well. Like him or not (and I don’t especially) Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in expanding our sense of what is possible, of making people believe that change can happen. And, as we have seen, if enough people believe that, then it will happen. This is a theme in Jamie Bartlett’s new book “Radicals”, which I am currently reading and enjoying. His argument, reiterated in a talk by the author which I attended, is that the people prepared to think differently about the world, who are pushed away from the mainstream, may well see their ideas become commonplace if we are to tackle some of our deepseated problems. I argued on the night that liberals were the radicals now, or at least could be, an argument he found interesting, judging by a subsequent tweet:

So it would be very foolish to make any predictions about the next few years, but, like Mr Bartlett, I am convinced that things will happen which no one is currently expecting – the events will not stop here. Despite the headline results, following the election I can feel a glimmer of hope now that, just perhaps, in some way that no one can now foresee, maybe we will find a way to stop, or at least soften, this criminal act of self-destruction that is Brexit, that we may find a way to present a radical vision of change that is based on looking outwards to each other and the world in tolerance, understanding and co-operation, not looking inwards in fear and suspicion.

I am fairly sure that big unpredictable, changes are afoot but in what direction? That is up to us.

God in each other

“Today, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other – that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister. If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?” Mother Teresa

It does not take a great deal of reflection to see that, as individuals, human beings can achieve next to nothing. Turn any of us loose on our own in the wild and it is doubtful we could even survive a few days – a few experts might manage that, but little else. The truth is that to achieve anything at all worthwhile, we need each other, we need to work together. If we work together, we don’t just survive, we can thrive and create entire, magnificent civilizations. We can solve the most difficult problems and meet almost any challenge. If we work together. To do anything, we need each other. This is the most fundamental fact of our existence.

And yet it is a fact that is often well disguised, and we flatter ourselves that we can achieve something called independence. The major culprits here seem to be money and power, those gods of our age, and most others. With money and power, we believe that we need no one else, that we have independence, but this is a dangerous illusion. The richest and most powerful person must still rely on other people to grow their food and make their clothes, to say nothing of meeting other needs. We are, all of us, bound together by a complex web of laws, morality, rights, obligations and exchange. Mother Teresa was absolutely right when she identified forgetting this fact as being the root of so many of our problems. Not only do we forget that we belong to each other, we seem to have an uncontrollable urge to demonise certain groups, to isolate them and blame them for our problems, to regard them as being outside our circle of concern. Whether they are Muslims, terrorists, immigrants, foreigners or simply “them”. Like them or not, they are all part of our web and we forget this at our peril.

More often than not, religion provide convenient cover for this demonisation. Those of a different faith, or no faith, can be conveniently blamed for our problems. If only everyone believed the same as us, the religious sigh, everything would be ok. In saying this, they are making the same mistake. They have forgotten that we belong to each other, regardless of what we do or don’t believe. If religion serves to divide people, if it encourages groups to think of each other as enemies, then I for one want no part of it.

But there is an alternative perspective if we choose to see it. In the parables of the gospels, no one kids themselves that they can achieve independence. Instead, our interdependence as a community is celebrated and encouraged. The phrase “the kingdom of God” refers to a place of justice, where everyone cares for each other and on that basis we can have peace. A place where every single individual is valued down to the hairs on their head being numbered, where shepherd leaves his flock to look for the one sheep that is lost and banquets are held to which everyone is invited, especially if they are the last people you would really want to see there. When the kingdom of God is discussed, God is not there as an overbearing presence, or intervening to perform miracles for a select few, or a remote figure we can flatter and sing hymns to. Instead, “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17,21). As the famous parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25, 31-46) makes clear, the way we treat God is nothing more nor less than the way we treat each other, and particularly the other who needs our help. If we take this at seriously then for all intents and purposes all we mean by God is our neighbour, i.e. other people. We must find God in each other and treat each other accordingly, or, as Mother Teresa observed, we face war and quite possibly extinction. If we do not recognise our inderdependence and treat each other with compassion, then religion is simply a cloak for human selfishness and God is a self-help guru at best, a monster at worst. In this life we have each other. There is no other God.

This is how change happens

This post will veer into politics as I have a couple of times before, discussing the aftermath of Brexit and the tensions in democracy, but I like to think it is still driven by the main theme of the blog – questions about life, faith and values, about how we decide what is important in our lives. Because if politics is about how we use the powers of government and make decisions as a collective, it is not that easy to separate it from my topic. Personally, I have always seen some sort of political engagement as being part of my values – at a very minimum exercising my vote in accordance with those values and contributing to our debates. But, until last June, I had not joined a political party or engaged as an activist of any sort.

And maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe too many of us took for granted that our values would always be reflected by governments, at least to an extent that we could live with. But June 23 was a wake-up call. Without wanting to rehearse the Brexit debate, which had many complexities, the most tragic thing about it for me was the belief that complex questions can have a simple answer. We are faced with many serious challenges, from climate change to economic inequality to the de-skilling of jobs. Faced with these challenges, the leaders of the Leave campaign pulled the oldest political trick in the book – they blamed foreigners for our problems. If we can have fewer foreigners coming into the country and less “interference from Brussels”, the belief goes, we will have fewer problems. It is hopelessly misguided, but it is a seductive message and this time it just about worked.

As part of my personal strategy to respond to Brexit, I decided to join the Liberal Democrats, the only wholeheartedly pro-European party and the one most in line with my values, now by some margin. At that stage, my priority was to work together with others to resist in any way we can the increasing intolerance and nationalism in the UK. I thought I could contribute some expertise in social media. But as I attended meetings and got to know more people in the LibDems, I realised something else. Online campaigns and party membership are great, but building sustainable change requires something more. It requires sustained effort over time and it must start at the most local level possible. So, with the elections for Shropshire Council coming up on 4 May, I have applied, and been approved, to stand as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the ward of Belle Vue, the beautiful and lively of suburb of Shrewsbury that I am proud to call home. Shropshire is a Conservative-controlled Council and their values in terms of decision-making, funding, environmental issues, support for the community and other matters do not reflect mine nor, I believe, those of the residents of Belle Vue. With the support of the local LibDems, I will start fighting back here.

None of this is to disparage those who make different political choices – that is a personal matter that each individual must decide. But, for me, the choice in the current political landscape is not even close. I am a patriot who loves Britain, and I strongly believe that we have always been at our best when we have been most international in our outlook, encouraging trade, cultural links and, yes, migration, proclaiming that our key values are tolerance, respect for the individual and for difference, a sense of fair play, pragmatism and compassion. Here, in my corner of Shropshire, I want to try to promote those values in the way we govern ourselves. Because here, in the local issues that directly affect lives and the messy business of decision-making, here is where change can happen.