The most thought-provoking words I read during Holy Week was the Good Friday headline of the Scottish Daily Record:


The accompanying text told how a woman in Bellshill near Glasgow had stopped some children from hurting a tarantula which had escaped from a nearby house. The RSPCA took charge of the animal which they declared to be in a robust condition. In the whole report there was not a word to suggest that this sequence of events was not entirely normal. It was flanked by a story about how a Scottish woman had trained her parrot to use the loo. “For this is my country….”

The beauty of the story is that it correctly identifies children as more dangerous than tarantulas, because of course Homo Sapiens is the most deadly of all predators, daily responsible for more kill than Tyranosaurus Rex managed throughout his history.

I have been taken to task by a number of readers for my pessimistic blog which  doubted if the human race would survive its own evil and folly. In particular a number of Christian believers asked how such pessimism could be reconciled with faith in the God of Jesus. After all, we are told to pray “Thy kingdom come” which surely cannot mean that humanity will be wiped out by global warming. We are commanded to take no thought for tomorrow, which surely suggests that gloomy prognoses such as mine are contrary to the spirit of Jesus. And doesn’t God guarantee in the Noah story that seed time and harvest will never cease again?


The biblical realism of the Afro- American slaves knew better:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign

No mo’ water but the fire next time.

That Spiritual picks up the plain truth of the witness of the New Testament with regard to the future of the earth: it won’t end well. Yes, God will rescue his faithful people, who have not contaminated themselves with power or wealth or other idols, but have trusted in the way of Jesus, these God will rescue from the destruction which will come upon the world. This type of theology is called eschatological (meaning thought about the end-times) or apocalyptic (meaning a revelation of God’s hidden purpose), and there’s a lot of it in the New Testament, more than can simply be ignored as an aberration. Almost all books of the New Testament contain some reference to the short future of the world. Of the Gospels only John fails to report the eschatological prophecy of Jesus. Most of the Pauline letters mention the shortness of the time of God’s patience and look towards the final appearance (Greek, Parousia) of Jesus Messiah; and the book of The Revelation contains nothing other than visions of the approaching end of this world, and the arrival of new heavens and a new earth. The end always involves God’s judgement on the powers of evil and their adherents and the reward of those who have remained true to Jesus.

There are all kids of subtle differences in way different writers use this kind of material, but there are a number of common convictions:

  1. While the death of Jesus on the cross reveals the astonishing goodness of God; it also reveals the astonishing evil of humanity.
  2. Jesus’ death on the cross is depicted as an eschatological event: the sun refuses to shine and the dead rise from their graves. The New Testament writers assume therefore that the end times have arrived. Other eschatological events may not be immediate but they are imminent.
  3. In the remaining time of God ‘s patience the Gospel of God’s Rule in Jesus has to be announced world-wide so that before the end people from all races may turn towards the God who will rescue them from the day of wrath.
  4. The establishment of God’s Rule on earth will not be a continuation of this world. If McCoy happened into it, he would say accurately, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.”image

In time, the texts which more or less clearly pointed to the swift return of Jesus and the ending of the world as we know it, became an embarrassment to the church and were interpreted as pointing to a remote future or spiritualised as symbols of the judgement that comes upon people at death. Many churches, recognising that those who are fascinated by this material are usually nutters, such as the 1984 people who awaited the end on top of Mont Blanc and hadn’t enough money to pay their hotel bills when they finally descended, or the pathetically deranged creatures who expect some variety of rapture, steer clear of the whole topic.

But like the homophobes say of homophobia, “it’s there in scripture,” and in this case it’s not in a few stray references, like homophobia, but is a central element in the witness of the New Testament.

I love this earth and would like to be optimistic about its future. In fact, given what I know scientifically about life, I am reasonably optimistic about the future of the physical planet and life on it, and would like to extend this optimism to include the human race, but cannot do so with any conviction. Homo sapiens may turn out to have been an evolutionary cul de sac. That rational doubt about the long term future of human beings is supported rather than rebutted by the theological witness of the Bible. The great flood of the bible story is God’s exasperated response to the evil caused by the creatures made in his likeness. God ends up sorry that he destroyed so much of his original creation but there’s nothing in the story about human sorrow for their evil. Sure enough, scarcely has God unveiled the rainbow than Noah’s drunk and causing trouble. God’s decision to persevere with humankind looks like the triumph of hope over experience.image

Pessimism need not weaken faith, nor the commitment of believers to oppose human arrogance, violence and stupidity while there is the least chance of averting disaster. Optimism on the other hand may lead people to ignore the ominous signs of what our grandchildren may face in their lifetimes.



imageThat phrase of Shakespeare’s has been in mind for a few days as an accurate description of what I see when I look at the activity of the human race. We face an increasing threat of devastating global warming, which has already begun to affect many countries and will soon affect all, and the response of the rich and powerful of the world is to try to run things so that they will become richer and more powerful even if they end up in artificial environments poised on the surface of a burnt out planet. This means conspicuous consumption of earth’s diminishing resources, complete carelessness with the lives of the poor and the creatures or the earth, and vicious brutality towards anyone who gets in the road. And the Islamic jihadis who claim to stand for justice in opposition to the power of the rich, are touched by a hysterical self-righteous extremism that simply adds to the evils they try to oppose.

There is nowhere on earth that offers me news of anything better; the many people who work for justice, goodness and beauty are forced to exist on the margins of power and are always vulnerable to its priorities. image

Yes, I know this sounds extreme, but my view stems from the realisation that I have been wilfully optimistic in refusing to see that the destructive people are more powerful that the others, and that most of what actually happens is what they want to happen. How could I have failed to see this? I think probably I didn’t want to see it and therefore ignored it. Check it with your own view of the world- that’s the reality, isn’t it? – it’s going to hell in a  handcart, because we’ve permitted comfy rich boys, like the U.K Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is presently delivering a budget which will enhance the lives of the rich and damage those of  the poor, while failing to address any of the real problems of our country, to decide our futures. Yes, yes, it’s called democracy, I know. But does anyone think that their grandchildren, who are already poorer than them and will live precarious lives on an overheating earth, subject to vicious wars for the remaining sources of energy, does anyone think they’ll be grateful that it was all done democratically?

The instinct of people who begin to see how they’ve been shafted is not encouraging: witness the rise of right wing parties in Europe, the US, and in many other places. They have a common gift to their supporters: someone to blame other than themselves, for the state of the world, usually foreigners. Clearly these people are not seeking real solutions. They want instant magical solutions that will solve the problem at a stroke, building walls over vast territories to keep foreigners out (Trump) or jailing everyone who disagrees (Putin). None of these are quite as mad as North Korea’s drive to make its armed forces larger than its civilian population, but they’re at least competing. Nothing rational has any effect on the pathetic, demented, squealing rage that falls for these solutions. It’s as if the passengers on the Titanic, being warned that it might crash, started fighting to finish the whisky and diverted the crew’s attention from the danger.


I used to quote Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist, who prescribed, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” meaning that things would probably go wrong but you could fight them successfully. I still want to fight and will continue in this blog to encourage others to fight, but I don’t anticipate victory: I think evil and destruction are the default settings of the human race.

And what about God? Will he/she not intervene to avert catastrophe? No. God has already intervened through the great prophets and teachers, and in person in Jesus, and it hasn’t worked. Well, not enough anyway. Maybe God has always known this,  and having done his/her best, is already dreaming a successor to Homo sapiens.

imageCome on, come on, someone will be saying, all this is some kind of provocation, you don’t really think this.  Ah but I do, and one of the strongest supports for my argument is myself: why haven’t I fought harder? Why have I sometimes added my own evil and destructiveness to the common pile? My only excuse is that I’m a human being.



I belong to the Scottish professional middle class, a social grouping which has historically contributed more than its fair share of scientific, engineering, literary and philosophical excellences to the world, along with its support of the British Empire, its Calvinist morality, and its canny commitment to personal prosperity.

I grew up with a very strong sense of right and wrong. That’s not to say that I was a saintly child, far from it, but when I had done wrong, I knew it. Not only did I know it, I felt guilty about it, and was in constant fear of being found out and exposed as a unworthy of my family, my church, my community. Again, all this fear and guilt in no way stopped me from doing the things I knew were wrong. Quite the reverse in fact, as it gave an additional thrill to the doing of them.

Jesus with fishermen

Looking back, I wonder how many of those sins were in fact wrong- some of them, certainly; others were simple failures and follies. This was the product of a moral system which saw sex outside marriage as wrong, but the takeover of other countries for the benefit of the natives, as right and even praiseworthy. Without doubt however the training worked. Even now I hesitate to talk back to respectable people who are expressing loathesome opinions in case I get a clip on the ear and am always conscious that appearing in public with unpolished shoes is slovenly and lets the family down.

I can see that this ethos, backed by an agreeable sort of Christian faith, equipped its young people to treat their equals with decency, to work hard, and to believe that public service was honourable, albeit better as a hobby than a career. It was probably the same ethos that David Cameron’s mother impressed on her family. In my case, and perhaps in many others, it produced a selective conscience which judged my foolish actions as big sins but was quite unmoved  by my leaving my physician mother to do all the housework.

At first I saw Jesus as another purveyor of this ethos, even if He was a bit superior to the rest. In fact I never thought of him as historically real, or even as the hero of the books in which he appeared, but rather as a sort of free-floating human God who had descended to earth for my benefit, and in some mysterious transaction involving his death, had persuaded God to forgive my sins. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the story of forgiveness, because it meant that even if I flunked the moral examination which was my life on earth, I would not be relegated to the eternal Junior Secondary, which was the anticipated hell of all lazy 11+ examinees. ( “the plumber’s kids go there!”  my mother hissed.)

Jesus in the housing scheme

But then, bit by bit, Jesus started to be real to me. At first, it was just noticing that he  wasn’t much in favour of the ethos in which I had been trained. He was especially unimpressed with those who passed judgement on others and seemed at ease with tradespeople, of which he was one, not to mention prostitutes, traitors, and other riff-raff that his moralistic contemporaries and mine considered beyond the pale. Above all, he was curiously un unconcerned with “sin”. There is a certain gaiety to his forgiveness of sin, by which he recognises its capacity to destroy life, especially when it results from the judgement of others; and gets rid of it in God’s name, so that the sinner may recover fullness of life. Even serious sins, like those of the collaborating tax collector Zacchaeus, are left uncondemned, so that the sinner can change his life and provide recompense without being told to do so.

I said, unconcerned, but of course that only refers to his lack of moralistic condemnation, while he is on the other hand, a complete terrorist with regard to what human beings can become, that is, citizens of the kingdom of God, who must strive to be perfect as God is perfect. For the sake of becoming agents of God’s justice and compassion people have to leave other things behind them, including their sins. Forgiveness is offered not for the sake of what a person has been, but for what she is called to be by God.

There is practically nothing in the teaching of Jesus which chimes with the theological story of the appalling weight of human sin which can only be forgiven by the Divine Son of God bearing the divine condemnation of it, so that God may offer forgiveness without compromising his justice.

Jesus it appears, understood human wrongness as the misuse of the capacities the Father had given to his children. ( As the father of the prodigal provides a share of his patrimony) He knows that “in the beginning” that is, in God’s intention, it was meant to be otherwise, and rather than compromising, he insists that his followers live as they were meant to, no matter how unrealistic that may seem. The children of God, to be sure, need not fear the Father’s rejection, but they are commanded to begin again in the Father’s generosity ( to become like children/ to be born from above), showing that same generosity in their life with others.

imageThe cross is not the grim story of a psychopathic God who demands satisfaction from his Son, but the sober story of the Son of God who poured out the Father’s generosity in life and death, the victim of moralism, meanness, prejudice, hatred and fear, yet still undefeated. Jesus faithfulness unto death to the generosity of God, is as St Paul recognised, the end of all religious systems designed, like the Torah, to secure the blessing of God. As Jesus knew, the blessing is already given to those who turn to God, in spite of their sins. Now, in that blessing, they have to start again, and again and again.

In that confidence I have learned from Jesus how to be wrong, namely, to accept it as my misuse of God’s endowment of my being, my choice as a person who shares in human evil, which also means that I can choose otherwise, to start again as a person who can share the goodness of God.

All this comes from Jesus, whose life and death and resurrection I accept as the definitive communication of God. There is for me no other God than the Father of Jesus. Do I mean that all other religions are lacking? Yes. Do I mean that all other religions are completely wrong? Of course not. I cannot follow Jesus and pretend that Mohmammed was right about enemies, or that Buddha was right about non-attachment. But I can learn from Mohammed’s commitment to justice and the Buddha’s cure for egoism. My approach to other faiths and philosophies should be wholly ecumenical, but even that openness derives from Jesus the crucified Messiah, the beloved child of God.







imageWriting blogs about matters of faith may create an image in the mind of readers of someone constantly taken up with the great teachings of Christianity, while leading a life of disciplined piety and virtue.

I’m not like that at all, especially as regards virtue; and it may be useful for readers if I ask myself how excatly my faith touches my day-to-day living.

Although I continue to work part-time as a minister in three beautiful parishes in rural Angus, I have much more time for myself and my family than I had when I was working full-time. I have time to reflect and study, and enjoy these so much that I recognise the role of scholar to be a calling for which I am temperamentally suited and might have followed, had I not been called to another role. You might think that I therefore delight in the solitude that study requires, but in fact, although I do enjoy quietness, my study reminds me every day of the most important connections of my life, with other people, other creatures and the world.

The study of the Bible for example, would be impossible without the work of the biblical authors themselves and the thousands of scribes and scholars who have worked on these texts. I am aware that prior to the invention of printing in the 14th century all Biblical texts were copied by hand, mainly by monks and nuns. Again in recent weeks I have used the biblical insights of Greek-speaking believers who wrote in the 4th – 7th centuries of our era. Their lives were very different from mine but they have much to teach me. And if those connections sound a wee bit pretentious, my family are always present with their love and brutality to keep my feet on the ground. image

Beyond my desk and my house, I have pastoral responsibilities, visiting the sick and bereaved which make the church community real to me,  as I give what I can, and receive what my fellow believers give to me; for this is not a one-directional ministry, but a way of sharing, sometimes happily, sometimes sorrowfully, in the daily bread God sends.

I also remain connected to the politics of Scotland, the U.K. and the world. Some years ago I left the Labour Party and joined the SNP because I hoped it would gain independence for Scotland and open our national life to a new politics free of the malign influence of conservative England. It hasn’t quite worked out the way I hoped, making me now a vocal critic of an SNP that desperately hopes we will not be independent too soon, and which has become a political establishment in its turn. St Augustine confessed that in his youth he used to pray, ” Lord, give me chastity….but not yet.” Unlike most people perhaps, I have a high regard for those people who give themselves to political life, and value my distant connections with them.image

Every day I spend some time running, walking or cycling near my home in Monifieth, making my way perhaps to the Sidlaw Hills, or the farmlands of Angus, or the beaches of the Tay estuary. Over years of  doing this I have become a reasonably well- informed watcher of fauna, and a still poorly – informed watcher of flora. I have a sketchy grasp of geology, geography and history. All of these, with the recent vital addition of ecology inform my connections with the natural world, which never ceases to delight me with its familiar routines and to disturb me with its frequent surprises. Only the other day I watched the estuarine crows demonstrating their mastery of dropping shellfish from a height on to the promenade, so that they could consume them, a technique they’ve copied from the gulls. Recently too I’ve taken to looking carefully at the ordinary sands of the beaches, sometimes photographing patches that interest me. Here are tiny bits of the natural world: sands which are the result of the erosion of mountains upstream, deposited in the estuary; pebbles freed from conglomerate rocks and sculpted by the sea; the ogygen bubbles of many tiny creatures, the shells and skeletons of larger ones; all marked by the daily ebb and flow of the tides. Perhaps a whole lifetime of study would not exhaust the information contained in one square foot of beach.image

Finally there are the powerful connections made through music, visual arts, and books read for pleasure. What would my life be without links to Bob Dylan and Jordi Savall, to Bach and Bob Marley, to Shakespeare, Dante and James Kelman?

These are vital connections all of which bid me open my mind and heart to what is not me, to permit myself to be part of a network of lives and their environment, so that although I can still say “I”, I am also  learning all the time more of what it means to say “We”. I become aware of how much of me is contributed by the rest of the world, and how my actions impact on that world. To me this is what it means to live in the communion or partnership of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the prompting of that Spirit also reveals to me how reluctant I am to open up in  any way that serves justice or demands sacrifice. This persistent wrongness will be the subject of my next blog on this site.







imageGiles Fraser is a priest of the Church of England with an honourable record of putting his own interests at risk for the sake of justice. He writes a weekly column in the Guardian newspaper in which he reflects on political and social issues from a religious perspective. Today his article is a denunciation of Donald Trump, who is certainly a deserving target; but the arguments used in the article are lazy, trite and prejudiced about American Christianity in particular, and Americans in general.

Giles Fraser assumes the Trump is nothing but an ignorant, rich, blowhard. This may not be true: Trump is more critical of American wars than most Democrats have dared to be. Of course, Trump is a parody of conservative politics, he doesn’t even pretend to think about policies but simply expresses his prejudices, but he’s nothing like as abhorrent as those who confidently state that their prejudices are based on God’s Word. Still, I suppose, I shouldn’t regret an attack on the Trump.

It’s when Fraser seeks to explain Trump’s appeal by claiming that the Pilgrim Fathers saw themselves as God’s chosen race, and therefore established a nation which sees itself as divinely appointed, that he begins to annoy me. Of course, there should be critical examination of the the connections between Calvinist faith and the American Dream, but Fraser’s assertion that the Dream is simply a screw-you capitalist rush to the top, is just a prejudice. Martin Luther King amongst others made the American Dream into a revolutionary dream of equality. Obama probably got elected because his story seemed to many to be a fulfilment of that Dream. Of course it gets used by greedy bastards to justify their evil, but even a superficial view of the facts undermines Fraser’s description.image

He goes on to say that the American nation is its own God and that the most important article on its church’s altar is the flag and not the cross. This sort of general slur is the stuff of prejudice. Of how many Americans and churches are these statements true? One might easily imagine from Fraser’s article that the vast majority of Americans were behind Trump and committed to Tea Party religion, when as far as we know, the majority are likely to vote against him if he becomes a Presidential candidate, and reject that kind of religion as hateful. It may be easy to forget the huge amount of good scientific, sociological, political, medical, philosophical and religious thinking and practice which is done in America and exported to the world; it may be easy to forget this, but it is not excusable for a man of God.

We cannot destroy prejudices by beating a drum for our own.

Christians are commanded to speak the truth in love. This requires the help of the Holy Spirit which opens the understanding of creatures to each other, even, as Jesus insisted to our enemies, so that we can see the world from their perspective. If that perspective is warped, we must of course characterise it as such. Our expression of this judgement need not be mealy-mouthed; it can be as robust as we wish. But we must always keep in mind that we are dealing with our brothers and sisters and not a bunch of zanies whom we can dismiss from serious consideration.

imageGeorge Clooney, speaking as a concerned fellow citizen has called Donald Trump a fascist. This may not bother someone who knows as little history as Trump, but it invites Americans to look at the the policies Trump has articulated and to compare them with those of, for example, Mussolini. That’s unfriendly but fair, because it can be examined and found to be true or false. It is part of a debate between fellow citizens.

The guidance of the Holy Spirit is not irrelevant, because if we open ourselves to our opponents we will be able to offer a more devastating critique of their views than if we remained at a safe distance from them. So this is not a diatribe against gloved- up politics, which I love. But you only get points in boxing for actually hitting your opponent. Jesus had the gloves on when when he described the Pharisees as whitewashed graves; and he scored a hit because he understood so well  their desperate desire for outward respectability. His empathy with them led to his a devastating accuracy.

I think Giles Fraser swung and missed in his Guardian article today, but my guess is that he was rushing to meet a deadline and gave it what he had. I’ve done the same thing many a time in sermons…….

( readers who may have missed my own take on The Donald can find it at: the last trumpet )


This blog is a kind of interlude in the closely theological stuff I’ve been dishing up. It is in fact a simple whoop of joy at having purchased and begun to read Clive James’s translation of the Divine Comedy. People who are not readers of serious poetry may find that declaration a complete turn- off, but I can assure them that this is a vivid story-teller’s version of the great poem. There are some bits that may involve historical or theological knowledge but ignorance of these would not spoil enjoyment of the poem which takes the Christian view of salvation and damnation seriously enough to make it into an extended story, a pilgrimage through hell, purgatory and heaven. Dante is determined to find out how this sacred story plays out if it is imagined precisely and at length. This is a daring and possibly troublesome thing to do, for the preacher can threaten people with hellfire but the poet has to imagine even his friends in the fires of hell. Dante is brilliant at this. He imagines in great detail what it’s like for a human being to be in hell or purgatory or heaven.

The lustful in hell

Even now, in a society which is very different from Dante’s Florence,  and which has largely abandoned the Christianity of the Middle Ages, we can recognise the kind of people Dante meets and estimate the meaning of their punishment or reward.  It risks, in other words, looking in detail at what God is said to do to people and why. Milton wrote that his Paradise Lost was intended to “justify the ways of God to Man”, but Dante is less didactic. He says, “this is a journey we can all make. Come with me and see what you think.”

Dante calls it a comedy, in spite of the hopelessness of hell, because all his characters, even those he loves, end up where they want to be. Those in hell want to be there; its pain and squalor are preferable to abandoning their wrongness. Those in Purgatory make progress according to what they truly want, even if takes years and pain. Those in heaven are truly happy because they are where they want to be, even if they in the lowliest position. God’s terrible love, which cares for all, but will not override the will of any person, permits human beings to take their own decisions, which gives an appalling dignity even to those who have chosen hell.

That  sounds more positive than the poem, which is full of pain. Also there are times when Dante’s precise imagination, leads him to question the justice of God. He is not noisy or outspoken in these instances, but his precision allows the reader to detect a question.

In Canto 15 Dante meets, amongst the souls who are being punished for sodomy, his old teacher, Brunetto Latini, who had seen his youthful promise and helped him in his calling as a writer. Dante is shocked to find him in this place, “You here, Master Brunetto!” he exclaims. Brunetto is a pitiable figure, his face “well cooked” by the fires that punish his lust, yet Dante continue to address him as master, using the Italian reverential pronoun. Of course we have to remember that Dante is both in the poem as a character, and outsider it, making it up. But it is clear that the poet wants to depict affection, maybe slightly embarrassed affection, between his pilgrim self and his old teacher of rhetoric.

Brunetto greets Dante in hell

There is no criticism of the church’s doctrine against sodomy, it is built into the very structure of hell, and yet Brunetto is described, when he runs to catch up with his fellow sodomites, as one who runs to win not lose. Perhaps Dante is thinking of Brunetto’s book, Treasure, which Dante thinks ensures his lasting reputation, the kind of reputation that Dante desires for himself. Yet, surely, giving such a positive image of such a serious sinner, must have indicated in his own time, that Dante was sympathetic to Brunetto.

The subtlety of Dante’s narrative is that it doesn’t often make judgements but presents the judgements of the Christian tradition with unmatched clarity, leaving his readers to arrive at their own response. This reader disagrees with the Christian tradition on homosexual acts and responds to Dante’s presentation by asking, “if Dante can feel affection for this old sodomite, why can’t God?”

Over the course of the Comedy there are many characters that engage our pity, admiration and our fascination as Dante lets us see how fundamental desire has placed them where they are. His depiction of divine love is broad, profound and often unexpected.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James and published by Picador, is a splendid book, which I recommend to anyone interested in theology, morality, God or human beings.