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.

Experiencing the Death of God

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“True, every man today who is open to experience knows that God is absent, but only the Christian knows that God is dead, that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event, and that God’s death has actualized in our history a new and liberated humanity.” Thomas J.J Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism

The theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins is currently running a series of online seminars which I highly recommend, explaining his project of pyrotheology, taking questions, and following up with an online discussion group. Listening to the second seminar, I could feel a couple of things falling into place for me, which I will share in case they do for you too.

Rollins opened the seminar with Nietzsche’s famous parable of the madman, one of the key foundation texts of the radical theology movement. There is an important detail in the opening, quoted above. The people the madman addresses are not the devout ones, who we would expect to be deeply shocked by his views. Rather, most of the audience do not believe in God, they are the urban sophisticates, the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of their day. We can hear their rather embarrassed laughter at this fool banging on about a God who has surely for all practical purposes been left behind. The madman, and Nietzsche, are not addressing themselves to believers but to unbelievers.

Why is this? Why does this proclamation of the Death of God matter to a world in which, as Nietzsche so clearly foresaw, God is becoming less and less relevant? This made more sense to me in the light of a distinction Rollins makes – the madman has experienced a loss of connection with meaning and knows how painful this, whereas his critics, even though they disavow belief in God, still cling on to an assumption that there is a cosmic order of some sort. Their God has simply changed name, whereas the madman’s God is dead. Put another way the death of God is not an intellectual experience but an existential one.

What does this mean? It means that belief in a supernatural Deity is intellectually untenable for many, perhaps most, modern Westerners. But often, the Deity is replaced by some other way of thinking about cosmic order. I have previously commented on the number of people who seem to think that “Things happen for a reason”. Others might think of human reason, or the scientific principle, or the progress of civilization, making money, or even having fun as giving order and meaning to life. What has happened in this situation is that one Deity has been swapped for another – possibly for a less harmful Deity, but another Deity nonetheless. In Keep The Aspidistra Flying, written in 1936, George Orwell satirised the “money-god” almost universally worshipped in his society. It is hard to argue too much in that respect has changed since.

So this is where Christianity has something to say to us. At the very centre of the Christian religion we have a person, who in some way is himself God, hanging on a cross being tortured and crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15, 34 & Matthew 27, 46). The essence of Christianity is separation from God, and from all source of meaning. And this is not just something we can accept as a proposition. It is something we experience, maybe when we go through painful loss or bereavement, disability, redundancy, or something we have worked hard for being destroyed or taken away. As we rage, we can know that God, and any idea of transcendent meaning, is truly dead.

At such times it is tempting to rationalise these things, to think that we are being made a better person or being tested by them. Such explanations are occasionally examined in the Bible but are ultimately rejected. Accept there is no meaning, no transcendence and no guarantees, grieve for them however you must. But the story doesn’t quite end there. The resurrection accounts are confused but, after the death of God, it is very clear what represents him in the world – “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4, 7-8) or, as Kahlil Gibran put it more poetically,

“And if you would know God, be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.”

God is dead and we only have each other now to depend on. If we experience the death of God, of transcendent meaning, then we can understand that all we have left is to love each other as best we can. And that, my friends, is the good news.

The will of the people and the democracy to come

“Historically, fascist and Nazi totalitarianisms ascended to power through formally normal and formally democratic electoral processes. . . The aporia in its general form has to do with freedom itself: must a democracy leave free and in a position to exercise power those who risk mounting an assault on democratic freedoms and putting an end to democratic freedom in the name of democracy and of the majority that might actually be able to rally around to their cause? . . . When assured of a numerical majority, the worst enemies of democratic freedom can, by a plausible rhetorical simulacrum . . . present themselves as staunch democrats.” Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason

This is not intended to be a political blog, but it does stray there sometimes, and politics is hard to avoid at the moment. Current events are forcing us to reconsider the nature of our nation, our democracy, our allegiances, and that in itself may not be a bad thing. And as a contributor to our rethinking I would like to invoke Jacques Derrida. As an Algerian Jew who became a French philosopher and a world-famous intellectual, he may be about as much out of fashion as is possible. Nevertheless, I am finding some of his ideas resonating in the current political climate.

Derrida is a notoriously complex thinker, but one of his more accessible ideas, at least in part, is that of the “democracy to come”. When Derrida speaks of things “to come” (à venir), he does not mean that they will happen in the future but is rather highlighting their impossibility. They are things we can and should strive for, work towards, but in the knowledge that they are never fully achievable. In particular, democracy, he argues, is fundamentally incompatible with sovereignty. Sovereignty is about the unfettered exercise of power, but in a democracy this cannot happen because decisions must be discussed and approved. But then to carry them out requires sovereignty again. The tension between the two ensures that we will never be able to say that we have a democracy and, as the quote above notes, there is always a risk that anti-democrats will achieve power by democratic means. There will be an ongoing restlessness that will make us critique the democracy we have and should spur us on to create something better. And voting, while an essential aspect of a democracy, is only one aspect and not the last word.

This is important to consider when politicians invoke “the will of the people” as a sovereign entity. The phrase is being used now more than I can ever remember and seems to be a device for short-circuiting the tension between democracy and sovereignty. The government is justified in doing what it does because “the will of the people” is behind it. Actually, if by this we mean the result of the referendum, then “the will of the people” must be interpreted extremely narrowly. On one day last June, a narrow majority of those who voted voted to leave rather than remain in the European Union. That is all we can say. There was nothing on the ballot paper about the Single Market, immigration, trade deals, the European Court of Human Rights or any of the other issues that have become caught up in the debate. Politicians who invoke “the will of the people” to justify positions on these issues are at best avoiding their decision-making responsibilities, at worst downright deceitful.

Because Derrida teaches us that solving the tensions in democracy by one particular tool, in this case the referendum, does not work. Referenda are not necessarily bad and may have a role, but they are simply one part of the messy, imperfect, political process. Being aware of the “democracy to come” should make us very suspicious of those who treat one part of the political process as absolute. The results of referenda or even elections are important, but they do not give politicians the automatic right to override other parts of the process, whether the law courts, the press, regional authorities or legislatures. Democracy is a process and all these things are part of it. It is not an end state which we have arrived at.

The idea of democracy to come is not meant to make us despair of the democracy we have. On the contrary, the imperfectibility of democracy is a cause for hope, the tensions keeping it constantly open to the possibility of change. But there is no reason for assuming that the change will be for the better – it is squarely up to us to decide that, not just in our voting but our political engagement and activism. The next few years are very uncertain for the UK and decisions taken will have a significant impact on what sort of country we become. This is no time for cynicism or despair, but a time to get involved, whatever form that takes.

Even if we can’t find heaven: love in a post-truth world

“When someone wants to tell me the absolute truth it is because he wants to put me under his control, under his command.” Gianni Vattimo After the Death of God

“Oh, truth—I guess truth is what you believe in
And faith—I think faith is having a reason” lyrics to “Stand by You”, by Rachel Platten

The parallels may not seem obvious. On the one hand we have an eminent Italian philosopher in his eighties, a Marxist and a Catholic who proclaims the death of God. On the other hand, we have an American singer-songwriter in her thirties, who happens to be Jewish and best known for upbeat rock anthems with a bit of personal bite. But what I find so intriguing are the similarities in the messages they proclaim.

Vattimo draws a contrast between Dostoevsky, who said that if forced to choose between Christ and truth he would choose Christ, and Aristotle, who said that Plato was his friend but truth a greater friend. Tyrants, he points out, have always been on the side of Aristotle, willing to trample over all relationships and human wellbeing in the interests of what they see as the truth. This issue has become very urgent in our current “post-truth” era, where it is more obvious than ever that different groups within society have very different, competing versions of the truth. As someone who works in education, and believes in its power to change lives, I like to emphasise the value of evidence and logic to arrive at some form of truth. This approach is extremely valuable and has led to extraordinary advances in science and human wellbeing. But, painful though it is for me to admit it, it has its limitations. Evidence rarely leads directly to conclusions – it usually requires interpretation. It also requires some form of consensus about what constitutes valid evidence. Within quite narrow confines where these things are established, such as empirical science, academic debate or courts of law, this works quite well. But in wider public debates it carries problems.

In 2016 those problems became painfully apparent, especially with the British vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US president, both strongly against conventional wisdom and the views of nearly all those in both countries who considered themselves to be opinion-formers. One way of interpreting both movements is a rebellion by those who considered that the truth as they saw it had been suppressed and ignored for a long time. Both votes were characterised by a debate that did not take place at a level of evidence and rational argument but howling slogans at each other and a frightening level of personal abuse. To use my earlier language, there is no consensus on what constitutes valid evidence, so arriving at an agreed truth is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Indeed, to use Vattimo’s insight, the really scary thing about the “post-truth” era is not so much lying and misinformation – we have always had those – but the denial of the validity of alternative viewpoints. When the Daily Mail proclaimed three High Court judges as “Enemies of the People” they were claiming a unique insight into the interests of “the people” and implying that anyone resisting this interpretation of “the people”‘s views needed to be silenced or removed. The Nazi echos of this headline were commented on at the time.

So this is what brings me to consider the argument put forward by Vattimo and Platten. The ability of truth to guide us may have been weakened, so what can we use? At this point I would like to join Shakespeare to my argument, and quote what for me is the most powerful and harrowing scene ever put on the stage. At the close of King Lear, the mad, homeless, broken king is restored to the daughter whom he rejected and sent away.

Lear: Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
Cordelia: And so I am, I am.
Lear: Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.

Cordelia is of course dead wrong – she has every cause not to love her stupid, headstrong, pompous and selfish father. But she does not at this point value truth. Instead, in a Christlike gesture, she forgives him. This actually is a repeated theme in Shakespeare – Portia eloquently advocates for mercy and Prospero ends up forgiving those who tried to kill him and his daughter. Conversely, failure to forgive leads to dire consequences – consider the pointless body counts in Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth.

The message is pretty clear and is echoed in the chorus of “Stand by You”, which takes on heavy echoes of gospel music:

“Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you”

I find this a beautiful poetic summary of what I am trying to say here. I certainly don’t think we will ever “find heaven”, or for that matter, absolute truth, in this life or the next – all we have is this world and the people in it. But what we can do is “walk through Hell” with each other, showing support, solidarity and yes, love. Rather than focusing on power and trying to prove ourselves “right”, or impose our views on others, maybe we can make more effort to “stand by” each other. Without compromising our views, maybe we could use a bit more kindness and forgiveness in our public debates. Because after all, what is the alternative?

Taking responsibility – the narrow gate that leads to life

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” Matthew 7, 13-14

“There is nothing that so thoroughly erodes action and distorts life than expecting to be saved and rewarded by a Superbeing, nothing more at odds with the kingdom of God than this cynical economy of rewards and punishment which demeans life into a means to an end, that turns life into a coupon redeemable for an eternal redemption, for an eternal reward, and the love of God into credit in a celestial bank.” John Caputo, “It Spooks”

Back in the 90s, when I was an active evangelical, I went with a group of friends to see a play called “Who Killed Hilda Murrell?” If you are old enough you may remember Hilda Murrell, a horticulturalist and environmental campaigner (and like me, a resident of Shrewsbury) who was kidnapped and mysteriously killed in 1984. The circumstances of her death have given rise to conspiracy theories and the play suggested that she may have been killed by the secret service, or others acting on their instructions. Discussing the play afterwards, a friend, who was also a Bible study group leader said he had been wondering how far Christians should really get involved in causes like this. Coming from the background I do, I was a little shocked by this and suggested that surely Christians should be concerned about the potential for environmental disasters. “It’s ok,” he said, “God would stop anything like that happening if He wanted to.”

This view was being expressed particularly starkly, but the gist of it is not uncommon among conservative Christians. I thought of this recently in relation to the above quotation from Matthew. Many orthodox Christian writers over the centuries have used this metaphor for the Christian life – hard road and narrow gate. But does it make sense?

For what is really so hard about the orthodox Christian picture? You believe what you need to believe, you endure this life one way or another and then you get to spend eternity in heaven. In practice, this life and this world do not matter very much as they are only a testing ground for the next ones. So we do not really need to worry about anything or concern ourselves with issues of social justice, the environment, crime and so forth. All that matters is that we take God’s escape route and ideally bring a few people with us. There is only one question that matters and you have the correct answer. As Brian Maclaren put it, this is “elevator religion” that gets you out of the world and into paradise.

What is so difficult about that? This “cynical economy of rewards and punishments” is surely the wide gate and the easy road.

But what if we do not find the idea of the Superbeing or the afterlife convincing? What if we think that this is our one life and our one world? In that case things become a whole lot tougher. In that case, how we spend our life is of ultimate importance because it is the only one we will get. In that case, the world’s issues press in on us because this is our only planet and its inhabitants do not have another world to make up for this one.

Above all, this perspective is death to complacency. We cannot relax in the confidence that someone else will step in and fix everything. If we destroy the planet it is destroyed. There are no guarantees of success and we must take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

This is truly the narrow gate and the hard road. There will always be an audience for the message that someone else is taking responsibility for your life and your world but that path leads to complacency, injustice and damage – in a very real, physical sense it leads to destruction. But there is another road available – we take responsibility for ourselves and our planet. That road does not carry any guarantees but can lead to life, a life lived to its full, and might, just might, lead to a better world too.

Not Like Us

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6, 32-36 (paralleled Matthew 5, 46-47)

It is a fairly well-known passage, but strange to say I gained a new understanding of it when, after several years as an evangelical, I started to move to a more liberal position and eventually out of Christianity altogether. This is because my first experience of being a Christian was intoxicating. At 17, for the first time in my life I was with people my own age who actually seemed to like me, respect me even, and treated me well. At university, to my surprise, I became something of a Christian leader. A local, very experienced vicar met with me regularly and helped me by talking through a range of issues. Various people asked me out to lunch. A postgraduate student who was a rising star in the scene started taking me to presentations he was giving and asking me to co-present, as a way of developing the next generation of leaders. He became my mentor and one of my closest friends.

But then, shortly before starting my postgraduate studies, I felt I had to be honest about what I now believed. I stopped attending evangelical groups and went to a more liberal church. The response was swift. Almost all of the people who had been so keen to talk to me and work with me before were no longer interested in seeing me. I had transgressed unforgiveably. I was no longer One of Them.

Decades later, this still hurts a bit, but it is an illustration of a common phenomenon, which, judging by the quote, goes back some centuries. It is relatively easy to love, respect, hang out with and be nice to People Like Us. Churches illustrate this well because they are generally groups of people who have agreed to accept certain ways of operating, speaking and behaving. In my experience, they do a pretty good job of being nice to each other and supporting each other. This is great for those who belong, who are in the club, but breaking into the club is tough even if you are willing to play by the rules, and if you aren’t then you don’t count at all. In the quote above, Jesus doesn’t seem too impressed by this approach.

Sticking to “your own” is topical on a much bigger scale too. Britain is at the moment divided more sharply and intensely than I have experienced in my lifetime. The EU referendum exposed and solidified our division into two tribes, divided by geography, age, education and above all outlook. Both tribes consider themselves patriots but doubt the genuine patriotism of the other. One tribe considers the other to be ignorant racists. The other in turn considers their opponents to be selfish elitists. Sometimes this divides families and friends, although more usually it doesn’t, because that’s how tribes work.

This will need to be resolved one way or another. My own views on this are strongly held and no secret, but they are not the point of this post. I fully appreciate the temptation at times like this to close ranks, to seek the support of one’s own tribe, stoke hostility against the other and join battle in any way possible. The echo chamber of social media has made it easier than ever to avoid engaging seriously with contrary views. We can just shout our own views louder and louder.

But what sort of victory could result from that approach? In a country divided down the middle, a solution that leaves half of us (whichever half) alienated is a recipe for simmering resentment and further problems. I am not suggesting anyone abandons their deeply-held beliefs and I certainly have no intention of abandoning mine. I will work through the peaceful and democratic process to further my views and values, and everyone has a right, maybe even an obligation, to do the same. But what seems to be needed, and what I think is called for in the opening quotation, is a spirit of understanding and goodwill, not screaming slogans at each other or worse. This is much, much harder work, but may just lead to a sustainable solution.

It is so tempting to retreat to the security of your tribe, whoever they are. But mercy, love, understanding, whatever term you want to use, these also apply to people who are Not Like Us.