In my last blog I argued that chapter 1 of any theology book should begin with the sentence, “All gods and goddesses are invented by human beings.” This is not an atheist principle but an insistence on the irreducible contribution of the human imagination to all faith in god.

One or two readers have kindly questioned how on earth a Christian believer ( as I am) can agree with this principle, as the heart of Christian faith is Jesus of Nazareth, a historical person. Surely if one of the divine persons was also a flesh and blood human being, he, at least, cannot be imaginary. My immediate answer is that I have never said that God is imaginary, that is, wholly a creation of the imagination, but rather that his/her reality cannot be thought without the exercise of the imagination. Opponents of my argument may then want to ask whether we need much imagination when dealing with a historical figure. Do we imagine Julius Caesar or Napoleon? And if we do doesn’t that invalidate our image of them? Alexander the Great is one thing, and Mary Renault’s story of him another, no? I could spend some time arguing that there is no Alexander outside of someone’s imagination, but I will rather take up the question about Jesus.

1. We only have access to Jesus of Nazareth through the imaginative narratives of the gospels, and references to him in other New Testament writings. Well, there are some in Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus, but they are little more than confirmation that Jesus lived and was crucified. The conventional English titles of the gospels in English, “according to Matthew, Mark, Like and John” should alert us to the nature of these writings: they are versions of Jesus as the bearer and exemplar of a joyful message for human beings, as recreated in the imaginative writing of an author. For example the Markan Jesus does everything “immediately” because Mark imagines his ministry as very urgent. Matthew sets Jesus’ sermon on a mountain because he imagines Jesus as Moses, Luke sets it on a plain because imagines Jesus as a prophet on a level with people. Although, on the whole, the timeline of Jesus’ story is similar in these writings, incidents and the specifics of incidents vary considerably, even in respect of key incidents such as the birth, deaths and resurrection of Jesus. When these narratives are tested for facticity by strict historical criteria, only a minority pass.

Some of these contradictions may be attributed to the distance of the authors in space and time from the original events, but many are more likely the result of the re- imagining of Jesus by different believing communities with different priorities of faith and practice, together with the very different narrative methods of the gospel authors. The story of Jesus is essentially an imaginative construct based on the communal memory of a person. Above all, it is witness to an act of God. This squares with what we can see in the genuine letters of Paul, which are much earlier than the gospels: Jesus Messiah is presented almost exclusively in his death and resurrection as evidence of God’s favour to Jewish and non-Jewish peoples. It would be an exaggeration to say that Paul was not interested in the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, but not much of an exaggeration. It may be that the later writing of gospels was promoted by elements of the Christian assemblies who saw the danger of a gospel unanchored in the original humanity of Jesus.

Are the stories imagined by the gospel authors sufficient to arouse faith? Of course they are! They are witness to an extraordinary grasp of what is important for human flourishing, of the disciplines and graces which produce human goodness. They have an earthy wisdom which nevertheless would be folly if the God of which they speak does not exist. They outstrip the complex reasonings of classic and modern philosophers. They stand in the Jewish tradition of which they provide a radical re-interpretation, inviting all readers to share Jesus’ love of God and his neighbour, and God’s love of Jesus and all creatures.

2. My decision whether or not to accept this invitation engages my imagination necessarily: I must imagine Jesus as my teacher, brother and God, otherwise I will find it impossible to follow his way. In this imagining I have the help of the Gospels and other scripture, together with 2000 years of Christian tradition, including hymns, prayers, frescoes, sculpture, paintings, music, books, along with the creeds and confessions of the churches. Sometimes I have memorised a hymn before I understood it, only to find, much later, that it fills my imagination, supporting my faith in a dark time. The best spiritual guidance has always been directed at the imagination of the believer.

3. The story of Jesus demands a comprehensive re-imagining of God. Much of the worst theology has failed to do this, simply bolting Jesus on to a simplified version of the Jewish God. The wrathful God who demands the sacrifice of his only son as the price of offering forgiveness to human beings, is an example. If God is imagined as persuasive rather than executive, as asking cooperation rather than commanding obedience, much that has been taken for granted in the character of God has to be ditched, and much that seems improbable has to be imagined. Take for example, the notion of God’s judgement. If God is not a pathological monster, loving a person one moment then burning them to a crisp for disobedience the next, then a serious attempt to contemplate a loving God has to be made, in spite of centuries of refusal by the Christian church to do so. In fact love is more terrible than wrath, as it will not compel a person to turn from evil, but will respect that person’s decision even as it results in suffering now and after death from the evil they have created. Somewhere I read the terrible sentence: “God will leave them in the darkness they have made.” Perhaps there is a stubborn evil which love cannot conquer, but we know that God will try, through his/her own persuasion in Jesus’ action and suffering. Or the notion of God’s forgiveness. Jesus requires no qualifications for the forgiveness of sin, no elaborate rituals or spiritual preparations; wanting it is enough. In fact Jesus scatters it around so promiscuously in his ministry, that some of his church’s careful prescriptions for gaining it seem to ignore the one they call saviour. Jesus was not much interested in the “weight of sin” other than in a person leaving it behind to enter into a new life. St. Paul understood this: “God was in Messiah reconciling the cosmos to himself.” It is not God who needs reconciled, but us.

4. Of course a wrong imagination of God/ Jesus, or even a truthful but one-sided imagination, can be both powerful and damaging. The imagination of a God who delighted in the death of Moslems fuelled the crusades just as that of an Allah who delighted in the death of heathens fuelled the early Moslem conquests, as well as those of “Islamic State” in our own time. There is no cure for these aberrant imaginings other than the recognition that they are imaginings, and as such subject to error and correction, rather than objective and inerrant truths of faith. The imagination of faith should be bold, but confidence in its productions should be modest. Theology is the testing of the imagination of the faithful.

I am convinced that almost all books produced by believers for the use of fellow believers or as defences of belief for a general readership, are defective and misleading if they omit an initial chapter which explores the foundational sentence of theology:

ALL GODS AND GODDESSES ARE INVENTED BY HUMAN BEINGS.

Most theologies will promote their version of this other sentence:

ALL GODS AND GODDESSES ARE INVENTED BY HUMAN BEINGS – EXCEPT OURS.

Refusal to recognise the human origin of all Gods encourages a sectarian (we’re right/ you’re wrong) view of reality which is at the root of all fundamentalisms. Although this refusal is made by people of irreproachable virtue, they cannot be exempt from the charge of encouraging dogmatic lies. Religions are far from being the worst purveyors of untruth in our electronically- connected world – the deliberate and systematic lies of murderous regimes come to mind- but because they purport to seek truth and guide people into goodness, they are the more guilty.

Healthy faith begins with a history of the human construction of its beliefs, so that the possibility that this or that teaching is wrong, insufficient, mistaken or plain bad, is kept before the faithful, and that genuine change and development may occur. There are people within the Christian Church who not only find gay sex unattractive, but are also convinced that God does. They are incapable of realising that a God invented by people who find gay sex unattractive, will probably share their distaste.

I am a Christian believer, who happens to find the doctrine of the Trinity illuminating, but I can see very clearly the history of this teaching – it barely exists in the Bible and is an interpretation of the Bible by believers in the first centuries of the church life. That does not invalidate it; indeed this doctrinal history is evidence that some human inventions are better than others. Scientists produce hypotheses which are tested against reality and revised accordingly; even long -accepted hypothesis called “laws” may revised or discarded. The truths of faith should in my view follow a similar procedure, although how they are tested will be very different from the scientific method.

But how then can faith give people the absolute certainty they crave? It can’t and will be all the better for admitting it.

I do not hold this reasonable scepticism with the truths of faith only; it is essential for any pursuit of truth and any criticism of others’ truths. Imagine how devastating it must have been for scientists to be told by Heisenberg that no scientific facts could rule out the human observer, and that some facts – such as the simultaneous knowledge of the position and velocity of an particle- are unobtainable. But they did not immediately abandon science as a busted flush; rather, they persevered while recognising new limitations on their procedures. They made Heisenberg’s scepticism part of science. For after all, every human perception is biased because it is human. The bird outside my window sees the tree differently from me. And as for me, I spent most of my life in utter ignorance of the underground life of trees, in which root systems are connected by fungi in such a way that trees can communicate with each other. Buddhist thinking encourages us to see that the names we give to “things” are just convenient ways of chopping our world into manageable chunks, whereas in reality everything is connected with every other thing.

A small dose of this sort of thought frees us from lazy dogmatism, and introduces a decent modesty into the human quest for truth.

A decent modesty does not mean a total scepticism about our ability to understand the universe, more a cautious optimism. I believe in one God, the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Messiah, his only son our master, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, but I know that generations of human beings have praised and prayed and pondered and invented the nature of this God. But surely it is God who has revealed himself to human beings? Well yes, that’s the nature we gave him. The imagination of human beings has been central to what we call the revelation of God. If that were not so, how would we have made him masculine and honoured him with a masculine pronoun? Our sticky fingers are all over the history of God. But just as the same imagination is capable of understanding the quantum nature of particles, so it is capable of understanding God. Just as there is no need to judge that there is no reality behind our understanding of particles, there is also no need to judge that behind our theology there is no God. Much “new atheism” misunderstands the process of invention and testing in theology and dismisses theological assertions as lacking proof. In fact the doctrine of God has undergone millennia of testing by millions of human beings who have believed in God. Richard Dawkins submits a Sunday School deity to a scientific kicking.

My purpose here however is not to give Dawkins a well-deserved kicking in return, but to urge that all theologies acknowledge their roots in human experience and imagination:

IN THE BEGINNING – OR SOMETIME NEAR IT- HUMAN BEINGS INVENTED GODS AND GODDESSES.

This confession would allow Popes to recant their doctrines and Martin Luther not to blame the scriptures for his interpretation of St Paul (” my conscience is in chains to the Word of God”) Believers would learn to take responsibility for their contribution to the nature of their God rather than pretending that the moment Jesus saved them he also gave them an implant of all sorts of garbage about gays, blacks and socialists; or that Allah issued them with a prescription for the killing of cattle and the proper headgear of women.

If I’m right in believing in a God of love, then of course he/she will want to communicate with her human creatures, and if she does so, will accept the consequence that her message will be filtered through the human imagination, with all its power to distort. And if ultimately she decides to hold nothing back, she will still have to communicate through the human imagination of her son Jesus, to whom she did not give the advantage of a son-of-God implant that could by-pass his human limitations. Maybe that’s why his story leaves us with the greatest question in the Bible:

“My God, my. God, why have you abandoned me?”

All theologies, I suggest, should be Chapter 1 theologies, which admit the human origins of faith and the corrigibility of doctrines.

FACTS

After a peaceful demo in Bristol against the Police Bill currently under consideration was hijacked by people who attacked the Police violently causing injury and damage to property, a left-wing activist, who had not participated in the violence, defended the perpetrators on the grounds of ” all they have suffered.” Perhaps he can tell with certainty that the people who were violent are the same people who have suffered; I know, from being in other demos, that this identity cannot be assumed, and that there are often present people who want violence for their own purposes. But even if we assume that the violence arose out of suffering imposed by the state and the Police, does the suffering justify the violence?

The people of Myanmar have suffered for many years from the reluctance of its army to submit to democratic rule. Now again, the army has carried out a coup, dismissing the democratically elected government and its leader. Day after day, in spite of beatings, gassings and fatal shootings, the people of Myanmar have gathered peacefully in the streets, to indicate their refusal to accept a military government. They have been disciplined, determined and civilised, in obvious contrast to the army which has bullied and killed unarmed civilians. They have suffered more, far more than anyone in Bristol but they have refused to be violent.

The protesting people of Belarus have shown similar wisdom and discipline in their protests against Mr Lukashenko, their unelected ruler.

On the other hand the non-violent Christians in Syria have been decimated by killings and threats of further violence. Their peaceful responses have led to nothing that can be called good in worldly terms. Nor did Jesus’ peaceful opposition to the religious establishment and to the Romans. In worldly terms his mission was a failure. Perhaps non- violence is not so helpful, and the use of violent opposition, as in Bristol, may be justified?

Justification depends on moral judgements, which may vary, but I have always been amazed at the non-violence of the poor in the UK. They put up not only with the deprivations of capitalism, but also with the betrayals of those who purport to stand for their cause, and the oily lies of those in power. Why have they been so patient? Perhaps because, like me, they have a deep aversion to violence and a suspicion that its results may not be beneficial.

Back in the 17th century, in a poem about Cromwell, the poet Andrew Marvell saw clearly that even very successful violence might not lead to a successful peace, summing up his doubts in a concluding couplet:

The same arts that did gain

A power, must it maintain

He foresaw no end to violence.

Jesus’ teaching against violence is usually seen as an absolute ethical principle, leading to sacrificial behaviour which can only be rewarded in heaven, rather than as a piece of practical wisdom. Jesus suggests that it is divine wisdom, but surely that doesn’t make it impractical? Let’s look at what he said:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 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. 35 Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Yes, here is an absolute command, but it is backed up first by a series of very practical examples, concluding with the “golden rule” which makes a practical connection between how we treat others and how we hope to be treated. Then there is an argument which criticises a merely quid pro quo sort of morality. Finally there is an encouragement to imitate God. Clearly this teaching is neither an unattainable ideal nor a model for martyrs only. It is meant to stop the replication of violence, and the lazy acceptance of imitative behaviour.

It is unapologetically radical. Gandhi, who read the passage in the light of his philosophy of satyagraha, soul-force, said that this was not for cowards; if you lacked the courage to fight, you would not be able to oppose without violence. But he too, meant the teaching to be practical and indeed, like Jesus, practised it himself. Martin Luther King applied the teaching to his campaign for civil rights, and managed to infuse huge crowds of protesters with his vision and discipline. It is true that King, Gandhi and Jesus were all killed violently, but many have judged that they were not defeated.

Critics however, have suggested that non-violent opposition only works where the oppressive person of regime has some kind of conscience; and that utterly unscrupulous people will simply ride roughshod over it, killing and destroying, as Nazis did to non-violent Jews or Stalin’s thugs to millions of non-violent citizens. The wisdom of Jesus has to engage with the wisdom of those who argue that non-violence may sometimes make it easy for bullies and tyrants. It may be right to have soldiers to defend (but only to defend!) countries from attack, and police to defend (but only to defend!) citizens from violence, but in a violent humanity, it may be all-important to stop any violence at all.

Why have I never been violent? Because I have had a sheltered life; I have seldom been attacked and I have always been able to gain an adequate living. That means I have, in comparison with many, been lucky. So it’s certainly not for me to judge those who have protected themselves or their loved ones by violence. But my small experience of dealing with threat has only bolstered my conviction that Jesus’ way of doing good to enemies may be a wisdom that works and can be learned.

FACT

All public media in Scotland agree that the story of the Scottish Government’s handling of accusations against its former leader, Alex Salmond, have reduced its popularity and that of its leader, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. I am by no means expert in this matter, but I’m sure, as most people seem to be, that the government has not been frank with the public about its own actions and omissions. That being so, the obvious question is why they have been so incompetent. Were they indeed engaged in a plot against Salmond? Does Salmond know something to the discredit of the government or its leader, that led to a desperate attempt to silence him?

As all conceivable reasons seem unlikely, I am forced to consider that the real reason for their incompetence is that as a government they are incompetent; lazy, arrogant and purposeless.

Now of course many will say that they have a firm and overriding purpose of gaining independence from the U.K. I doubt that. True, a repeated pretence of advancing towards that has been a mark of their governance. But surely any real march towards independence would have by this time led to some characterisation of the nation they hoped we could become? As it is, aside from vacuous boasts about a new Scotland, which are as full of substance as Boris Johnson’s riffs on global UK, together with anodyne promises that it will be progressive and democratic, there is not much to influence the voters. I guess any significant detail, for example on taxation and public services in the new Scotland, might upset the coalition of left and right wing voters which is thought necessary to achieve independence. But preference for mere independence in itself, does not suggest a burning, radical desire to remake a nation.

I think the SNP has no real intention of gaining independence but rather a desire to remain as the not very progressive government of Scotland it is, possibly with a few further spoonfuls of devolution. And it’s not very good at it: an educational policy which has led to a reduction in the reading age of pupils at the end of primary school; grossly inefficient handling of vast contracts for passenger ships and hospitals; delay after delay in establishing a humane policy on drug addiction: words but little action on the scandal of residential care and the pay of carers; lack of attention to the issue of robust local democracy. No, this is not a great reforming government with its eyes on the future, but rather a well-meaning, decent, lazy government hoping that things will stay more or less as they are. In their defence, I can see that the limits of present devolution are likely to encourage this mindset.

FAITH

Given the appalling levels of poverty in Scotland, created by poor housing, exploitative employment and deliberately inadequate levels of benefit, it is clear that at least a quarter of its population lives without the resources for a decent life. More than a million men, women and children live without a serious expectation of security, health, creativity and joy. The existence of these deprived groups provides an easy target for further exploitation by money lenders, drug dealers, petty criminals and other scum.

Of course, there is global warming in all its aspects to be tackled in Scotland also, but I am convinced that attention to poverty cannot wait. As the Green Party keeps pointing out, policies for the elimination of poverty and of global warming can go hand in hand. The great texts of the Hebrew prophets, which express the anger of God at the oppression of the poor, remain a non-sectarian source of encouragement to churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, to demand governance that is for all Scots, with a determination to eradicate poverty. An alliance of people of faith ready to make specific demands in the name of the poor of Scotland, might make our desultory politics a little livelier.

The Scottish News today

FACT 1

Rangers Football Club, after years of comparative failure, made worse by the continual triumphs of Celtic FC, its main opponent, in a battle which is cultural and religious as well as sporting, won the Scottish Premier League yesterday. This was celebrated by thousands of supporters coming together outside the football ground at Ibrox in Glasgow and later at George Square, to sing, and chant and let off fireworks. Police pleaded with them to disperse but were ignored. The First Minister pleaded with them online but was ignored.

Clearly for them the victory of their club was far more important than concerns about spreading the corona virus amongst each other, and amongst other members of the public. The manager of Rangers FC, Steven Gerrard, excused the behaviour by saying, “These people have gone through hell” referring presumably to years without triumphs.

FACT 2

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey on USA television speaking mainly about Meghan’s difficult experience with the British Royal family, who were depicted as cold, hidebound, and racist. The couple are very rich by ordinary standards, and have decided to live in the USA which is a beacon of open democracy compared to the UK. They would like to be loved and respected just for being who they are.

FAITH

My Christian faith leads me to characterise both of these bits of frontline news as utterly trivial, neither Rangers nor the Sussexes have any real importance other than being somewhat different aspects of celebrity culture. Both the Rangers supporters and the royal couple exhibit a sense of entitlement which is a matter of concern.

Because the supporters have had to wait many years for their team to triumph, they feel entitled to break the law, putting their own and other lives at risk, simply to display this success in a civic space which they share with supporters of other teams and of none. Their years of disappointment at their team’s lack of success are presented as if they were the experiences of an oppressed people or downtrodden minority, rather than what they are: a hobby which has brought some trivial disadvantages along with its pleasures, which are for many spiced with sectarian hatred. A culture which excuses or promotes this sort of behaviour has lost its grasp of reality and its sense of civic values.

Oh come on, some may say, it’s just fun. Ask the attending policemen if they thought it was fun, and it might be good next week to get the views of those who’ve got the virus as a result of it: they could die laughing.

When it comes to the royal exiles, I have to confess that I am not a royalist, feeling a lack of democratic choice as to who should represent me and my nation; whilst admiring the choices made in Eire of people such as Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. I am sympathetic to the notion that there are victims of our perpetuation of a hereditary royal establishment. But here are celebrity young people, privileged in their past, present and future, who feel entitled to the attention of the world over their family squabbles. Perhaps the revelation that one established royal person asked just exactly how black Meghan’s first baby might be, may have the benefit of making the British public ask whether they need such dick-headedness beyond the demise of the present monarch; but I doubt it.

The existence of mass media which make money out of elite sport or the lives of elite people, encourages a sense of entitlement among elites and their followers, which leads to a public neglect of real worth and real importance, such as the real worth of nurses offered a 1% pay rise, or the real importance of the the people of Yemen who will suffer a reduction of British aid this year. Maybe a sense that the lives of human beings are graced by a divine love to which we are not entitled, can keep us sane, humble and committed to the welfare of our fellows.

Supermarket Staff

More or less every morning I go into my local Tesco to pick up my newspapers and anything I might want for breakfast. In this way I have come to know some of the early morning weekday shift, some at the tills, and others whose tasks are done near my habitual shopping itinerary; I would not call them friends, but rather kindly acquaintances, who greet me pleasantly, ask after my health, and discuss the issues of the day. They do not wear name badges, but I have picked up most of their names, over a period of time. That period includes all of the months of the pandemic, during which some of them have had worries about family members or neighbours, although none of them have had the viral infection.

I have therefore been daily aware of their presence as people who have worked continuously throughout the pandemic, initially without significant protection. After a few months their protection, and the safety routines of the whole store improved considerably, but they remain, as they say, in the “front line.” They are seldom mentioned as heroes, either in the media or the casual conversation of citizens, yet they have cheerfully provided an essential public service, without claiming any special place in popular esteem. They know, as the public knows, that their employer has made record profits over the time of the pandemic, without making any commitment to increase their hourly rate of pay. They are not outraged by this injustice because they take it as given.

These are facts; what do they reveal?

1. That those often described as ordinary working people possess qualities which are seldom recognised even by themselves: courage, kindness and sense of duty. Of course they have also been encouraged by the continuation of their normal working routines, but that does not deny the qualities of character mentioned above.

2. These same qualities, shown in a place where the public are frequently present, set a positive tone for daily experience which may go unnoticed, but is an important contribution to customers’ welfare. Local supermarkets have become the equivalent of the village square or city forum, where civil values are expressed and shared.

3. Given that many people live alone, the conversations at the till are very important: for some people they may be the only conversations they have in a day. Most till operators initiate conversation, and continue it at a level appropriate to the customer; with some it remaIns superficial, with others something deeper is exchanged.

4. These exchanges contribute to good expectations of public behaviour. In so-called superstores I have seen instances of selfishness, stupidity, and dangerous disregard of Covid rules, but in my local, smaller, store I have not seen any of these, but rather a kind of good-humoured decency. This reminds me that social virtues are based on shared experience, and that goodness arises from interaction with good people. Jesus spoke of the city on the hill which cannot be hidden and urged his followers to let their light shine out for others. This is happening in my local store, led by staff who would not think of themselves as saints.

Ageing

I suppose I was lucky until recently; I could still enjoy my outdoor activities, walking, running and climbing hills, without noticing any significant diminution of ability, although I had left 75 years well behind. Yes, some symptoms of ageing were noticeable, a slight but significant enlargement of the prostate gland, for example, but nothing sinister. So, nothing to worry about. But the last few years have made a difference.

I still walk and run and climb, but latter two are perceptibly harder. I used to be able to run reasonable distances – 5-6 miles- without trouble, but now I stop every now and then and walk. Or I do interval training and comfort myself that this is still a form of running. And the hills! Recently I’ve found ordinary Murroes very testing, to the extent of pretending that I don’t need to “conquer” them, and therefore don’t need to go to the summit, although of course, I could.

Then again, there’s being unable to remember the name, the place, the book, the word, -all quite natural for an active mind with lots of interests, just calm down and the word will arrive- but it does happen rather frequently. Then again and again, I find myself proclaiming how much better the world was in my youth, socialism and the welfare state, forgetting the British Empire and the Glasgow fogs that exterminated numbers of its citizens every year.

Yes, I’m getting older, and it makes a difference.

The human species has managed to more than double the life -span it inherited from the great apes, but it is still not impressive in comparison to some recently discovered microorganisms in the South Pacific which are about 101 million years old, which would do me. Possibly the most testing thing about ageing is the knowledge that I’ll almost certainly be dead in 20 years, and quite probably in 10. These are figures which sharpen my mind to consider the future welfare of loved ones, and to question my own attitude to a) dying and b) death.

a) I know that medical science has increasingly helped us live beyond the point where living has much purpose or enjoyment. If it were not for the assistance I give to my wife whose mobility is restricted, I doubt if I would now want any dramatic medical interventions on my body, especially as they are a finite resource, which ought to be rationed in favour of younger people.

I reckon aged people ought not to whinge at the indignities and pains of old age, but I can understand the desire of some to be able to end their lives when they want, with dignity. I might support a change in the law to make this possible, but I would not choose to take advantage of it. I believe this thing is a gift, and it seems churlish to hand in one’s dinner-pail before one has to. Still, if I’m on the way out, I should like it to be reasonably quick and preferably painless.

b) I believe in resurrection and life with God. If this belief is true, I’ll know it. If it isn’t, I won’t. I know that a respect for science has made this belief harder to hold, but I also know that it has always seemed unlikely to sceptical minds, and that St Paul was ridiculed for preaching about it in Athens. It is nevertheless central to my faith. If there is no after-life which corrects the injustices of this life, then there is also no God that I want to worship. I also like the idea of learning the truth about myself even if it is painful.

I therefore approach death as a hopeful mystery, although I’m far from running towards it.

As to the traditional claim that age brings wisdom, I am sceptical: for every lesson well-learned by elderly people, there will be another lesson forgotten. Moreover I have been unfortunate over the years of my ministry, to listen to many of their mean and angry prejudices. Yes, some elderly people have the goodness and calm which make for wisdom but the same is true of younger people.

Self-deception is a serious barrier to wisdom, and I guess that if I’ve managed to gain some realism about myself, others of my age will have done so too. In my case this realism would have prevented many of the mistakes and follies of my younger years, but perhaps, if I recommended it to someone younger, they might reply that they preferred their mistakes to my wisdom.

I would like to say that age has made me a better person, but I know I’m still stumbling along that road, as the Bible asks:

“Who can say, I have cleansed my heart”? (Proverbs 30:9)

Sex for sale

Weekdays I read the Daily Record at breakfast. For those who don’t know it, I should say that it is a Scottish tabloid popular newspaper with a left of centre political view, and a broad, working class culture in its presentation. It cannot resist a pun or popular phrase and would greet Judgement Day with the headline, SQUEAKY – BUM TIME NOW, a phrase popularised by Sir Alex Fergusson. Amongst its other delights, however, is its substitute for the old page 3 semi-nude woman: several pictures of scantily clad female celebs, with a jokey commentary drawing attention to their dishabille: SHE IS SO BUSY DURING LOCKDOWN SHE FORGOT TO PUT HER TROUSERS ON. This is now a standard form of self-presentation, the photos often being produced by or for the celeb’s online pages.

Hardly anyone is offended by these, so it’s reasonable for me to take them as evidence of popular morality now. What on earth can I have against them?

1. They are bad and ugly photos zeroed in on boobs or groin or both, with no real attention to the person whose body is displayed.

2. They are often also fashion shots displaying clothes or lingerie designed “by” the celeb which are being advertised to the millions of women who already follow them online. Nevertheless the angles are still on boobs and groin for the benefit of the male gaze.

3. Often they are frankly ridiculous images which suggest that this person cannot be taken seriously, and perhaps, as a subtext, that women are best as objects of male fantasy.

4. Reproduced in a national newspaper they are hints, that however much its journalists say they take the worth of women seriously, they’re not that serious.

I want to argue that these images are part of a commercially generated culture whose fundamental belief is that young women, and increasingly young men, are to be judged by their suitability and willingness for sexual activity. This belief can be garlanded by advice on dating, clothes, conversation, and so on, but it is basically a- personal, having little to do with class, education or character. It is important to understand that this culture is not oriented to pleasure, as is sometimes alleged, but to consumerism and success. A young woman for example may signal sexual availability by her clothes and may even dutifully have sex, without getting much pleasure out of any of it. It is required for popularity, celebrity and success – and for being a useful stimulus to transactions which make money for others, often not individuals but corporations. This is sex for sale but not in the time- -honoured form of prostitution but rather as a monetising of sex and its use as means of social discipline for capitalism.

That may be why, in the social media exchanges on teenage and young adult sexual relationships there is so much anxiety expressed and so little joy; why stress is the dominant emotion in so many personal accounts of young life. An aspect of human maturation which can bring romance, pleasure, experiment, beauty and self-awakening has become a form of competitive self-justification which trains people to achieve success by buying things, a lesson which often lasts a lifetime.

In countries like the UK where the rule of law is still strong we should be aware that the same multinational corporations which have poisoned and killed people in other parts of the world, in order to advance their interests, do not become less ruthless in their methods here. They simply adopt different tactics, one of which is control of the minds and habits of people when they are most vulnerable, namely when they are young.

As for the Christian churches, they have neglected their duty to the young by being more concerned with what they see as breaches of biblical morality, than with offering the friendship of Jesus and the church community to those who are trying to work out how they should live. Many churches have simply abandoned young people altogether, while others have added to societal stress by increasing their sense of failure. As a result most young people have been left to navigate an increasingly stormy crossing into adulthood without a pilot or a chart. Amazingly some of them have done it well. Where Christian influence has been helpful it has often come from organisations like Boy’s Brigade or Scouts or Girl Guides, regarded by some in the church as old fashioned.

A more radical analysis of societies and a more supportive attitude to young people might be the beginnings of a new ministry to this age group.

Hate

Following the politics of the USA over the last few months has left me astonished by two things: the resilience of its democratic traditions; and the virulence of the hate expressed by people on both sides for people on the other and their representatives. It reasonable to speak of demonisation: one side speaks of crazy violent people ready in the name of their twin saviours, Jesus and Trump, to destroy a civilisation and its political processes, terrorising and killing their enemies; while the other excoriates the sinister, deceptive deep state, ready to get rid of opponents while defending paedophiles, homosexuals, communists and Muslims. I do not judge these two camps as equal in value, because I think a decent life is impossible under Trump supporters, while it may even flourish under the justly elected government; but I also judge that the hate expressed by both sides is equal in virulence.

But what are we to make of the fact of hate?

1. It is frightening.

2. It does not see an opponent as a person, but as a frightening object to be removed.

3. It is violent

4. It is not rational

5. It renders inoperative the humane qualities of the one who hates.

6. It must destroy opponents; compromise is impossible.

7. It wants to dominate, often in the name of some cause, The Reich, Great America, Jesus, Mohammed.

8. It is afraid of the opponent.

9. It usually lies.

10. The person who hates is vestigially aware that it is evil.

I could lie and say that I have made this list by rigorous scientific examination of the hate expressed in the USA at present along with classic expressions of hate such as Nazism, Islamic State, The Inquisition, and so on. In fact I have only had to look into my own behaviour.

Without going into overmuch detail, it should be enough to say that by the end of my secondary education I viewed myself as a corrupt and cowardly failure. This was a result of events in my upbringing and education. Although some of the corruption and cowardice were real enough, there turned to be some good in me as well, which I was lucky enough to learn through good friends, further education and the Christian Gospel. Faced, as I have sometimes been, however, with people whose attitudes to me or my loved ones remind me of those who made me a failure, I react with hate. I forget that these people have no power over me, that their actual behaviour may be trivial, that perhaps they have merely expressed a common prejudice. None of that seems relevant; I want to destroy. I am not interested in what is fruitful, true, wise or just. They have to be destroyed. In truth I never let this happen, although once or twice I glimpsed a (quite satisfying) degree of fear in my opponents. But I felt it, the blessed relief of hate.

I should make clear therefore that the only justification for hate is that someone is actually trying to destroy you, to take away your self-respect, your will to live, your civic rights, your means of life, your life itself or that of your dear ones. Even in those circumstances, hate as the desire to destroy may not be the most effective response, as Jesus indicated in his words about trying nevertheless to do good to enemies, and in his lived example. Martin Luther King argued that a courageous love was more effective than hate in defeating the opponents’ hate. But before one rises to those heights, it may be necessary first to feel hate, to redirect the hate shown by the opponent back upon him, refusing to be a victim. Gandhi said that if we didn’t have the courage to fight, we would never have the courage to love. Sadly, however, if this hate insists that we are just as good as our opponent, it may also remind us from time to time, that we are just as bad.

There exists in the world a deliberate campaign to persuade white Europeans and others descended from their colonists in Africa, America, Australasia, that a conspiracy of other ethnic groupings along with dissident whites is trying to destroy their way of life and status. Various expressions of this doctrine can easily be found online. The kind of fears which led Anders Brevik to murder socialist young people are very similar to those expressed by The Proud Boys and other Christian militias in the USA. There Is also a disturbing similarity between these discourses and the rantings of Salafist Islamic leaders against the Christian West. Any political activist can use elements of this conspiracy theory to arouse hate and to direct it at his political opponents, as Donald Trump has done in the USA, or Viktor Orban in Hungary.

It helps of course, if there are large numbers of available people who feel their way of life is under attack. It may be, as in the USA, that white power is under threat from the insistence of other groups on their civil rights. It may be for white working people in many societies that the failure of liberal capitalism to provide a decent living is all too clear. It may be little to do with economics but much to do with traditional communal mores, regarded as backward by urban elites who are at ease with all sorts of sexual preferences. In any case where people suspect that they are failures, the provision of an enemy to hate is a blessed relief: we are not failures but victims, and we can refuse to be victims by making our hate work for us. Hitler knew how to use this ideology in 1930’s Germany. Political rallies like Trump’s or Hitler’s are echo chambers for expressions of hate, as is the Internet: from teenage tantrums to football allegiances, to the seductions of Evangelical Christianity, it amplifies the sound of hate.

All this deals with hate as a societal phenomenon but I have been made frequently aware through my pastoral duties of personal hate. The greatest, indeed purist example of hate I have known was when two estranged daughters of an apparently nice old man travelled from L.A. to Dundee Scotland for his funeral, to tell me that he had sexually abused them both as children, and that if my eulogy made him sound nice, they would interrupt. Honour to them. But often family hate is unjustifiable and corrosive, and between former friends vituperative. I have seen a daughter-in-law maintain her hatred of an authoritarian father-in-law beyond his death because it was also her means of dominating her husband.

Where does it come from and why do human beings enjoy it so much?

The archetype is in Genesis 4, in the story of Cain and Abel. God does not look with favour on Cain’s offering, not because it consists of plants, but because of his competitive attitude. When Cain grumbles, God tells him that if he does right, he can hold up his head; but that if he doesn’t, sin is crouching at his door, waiting to pounce. Even then, he can master it, if he wants. But he prefers the wild animal and kills his brother out of hate. We can of course blame God, but the story forces us to see how easily hate builds up and how devastatingly it expresses itself. Hate can give pleasure to human beings; we are an animal that loves and hates. The only remedy is to confess it and control it. Jesus taught his disciples to recognise the beginnings of hate in the denigration of others and to stop it there. There’s no magic cure for hate, either the communal kind or the personal. If we see it crouching we must use its name and call it to heel.

But we may be able to prevent its occurrence by forms of family and societal life which by their affirmation of the value of each person, namely through justice and love, reduce the likelihood of there being anything real or fictitious which arouses hate. I see encouraging signs of such prevention in the policies and conduct of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. Where real causes for hate already exist, we should listen to the experts, to the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Luther King, and to wise politicians, like Mary Robinson, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern and Karin Jacobsdottir.

Recently my neck began to hurt, not very acutely, but painfully when I made certain movements, not least when I attempted to find a comfortable sleeping posture. After trying various forms of self -help, which only made it worse, I went to a local physiotherapist, who has lots of experience with sports injuries in elderly idiots. She – it would be a woman, a very fit, strong young woman- listened, watched, then massaged, discovering spots of tension and pain, not merely in my neck, but all over my upper back. Often the pressure of her knuckles would be exquisitely painful, but if I groaned a little, she would say, “Sore?” and then press harder and longer on the spot. No pain, no gain, she knows this truth, and uses it as a diagnostic tool. She’s very good.

My guess is that the healing skills of Jesus included this tool: he knew where the pain or dis-ease was located, and dealt with that. The leper was suffering from exclusion and the absence of human touch, so Jesus touched him. He saw that the demon-possessed man was afflicted with a violent compulsion, so he made him reveal its name, “Legion, the Roman Army.” He had been traumatised by its violent rule of his people and needed to name it so that he could gain control of it. Jesus knew that Peter’s mother-in-law was fevered because, in her daughter’s house, she had lost her honour as hostess, so he raised her to her feet, so that she could resume that role. He understood that the rich young man was suffering from an overdose of wealth, so he recommended giving it away. We don’t know if this was the right prescription because the patient refused to take it. Unerringly, Jesus could put his hand on the place of pain, knowing that this revelation would be therapeutic. If the person had enough faith to face the facts, they would get well.

( No, the scripture tradition of Jesus’ healings is not very factual, emphasising miracle and divine power. Doubtless the stories show exaggeration and misunderstanding but as a sceptical reader I still conclude that the historical Jesus did heal, and that some memory of his healings survives in the gospel narratives.)

All of the above reminded me of some lines of T.S. Eliot in East Coker:

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art.”

Jesus is the wounded surgeon. His sharp compassion comes from his own experience of pain, in his life and death. In his risen life, he has complete respect for pain, knowing that it signals something wrong; its purpose is warning and protest at the presence of that wrong. It is life’s argument against death. In his pain on the cross, we can see, as opposed to all the blethers about his acceptance of our punishment for sin, his refusal to accept it as the will of God; his pain and his cry of protest, signals that something terrible is being done to a human being, which must never be glossed over or made acceptable. It is pain that demands a healing it does not receive, which makes Jesus, according to the Letter to Hebrews, perfect through suffering, and therefore a suitable high priest for humanity.

The fact of pain as an indicator of human illness, extremity and rebellion is clear in the gospels, as is the call for human hands and brains to supply the healing which God can’t. Faith in this God means seeing pain as an indicator of wrong, recognising the wrong and doing our best to heal by changing it.