imageThe nifty bit of abuse in my title comes from a Christmas song by Sydney Carter who imagines Mary and Joseph “knocking on the window on a Christmas Day” and getting the answer:

“No we haven’t got a manger, no we haven’t got a stable

We are Christian men and women, always willing never able”

It’s unfair of course, but it is does sum up a lot of Christain hand-wringing at the state of the world, while the churches, bible bloggers included, offer diddly squat to make it better. The U.K. church’s response to the Brexit referendum may be a case in point. They have made justifiable criticism of the mean -mindedness and outright racism of some of the debate; they have worried about the effect of the U.K. Exit on European peace; they have protested that God is concerned with people rather than boundaries, and especially with people who have no countries and no homes.

So let me suggest two practical responses that any church can take.

  1. It can help identify usable dwellings within its own parish that might, with Government help, house refugees, and it can publicly commit itself to welcoming refugees and helping them settle over years rather than months. It can notify its local council and the Scottish Government of its desire to help in this way. This is a practical response to the fact that Brexit will make it harder for refugees to come here. Churches in Scotland will find that some German churches already have experience of what can be done
  2.  It can work to establish a twinning arrangement with at least one church in the EU. Most denominations want their churches to do this kind of thing through their bureaucracies, which like to keep power in their own hands. Individual congregations should assert their independence and competence to make contacts and pursue friendships with congregations in Europe. Such linkages have four purposes at least: a) to celebrate our common faith and mission in Europe.  b) To share information about worship, education, pastoral care, and outreach which can enhance the life of both partners. c) to encourage mutual visits that build personal friendships. d) to make real especially to younger people our belonging together across boundaries. The reality of a European union is not totally dependent on what nation states and their governments decide to do, but upon the determination of citizens to build cross-border institutions and personal ties. Perhaps we should always have started to build Europe from the bottom up rather than the top down.image

These responses are far from being the only right ones, but they tackle real problems which are exacerbated by Brexit; the plight of refugees and the increase in nationalistic hatred of foreigners throughout Europe. They also hold out a chance for churches to take the lead in a social issue rather than being dragged kicking and screaming in the wake of change.

These initiatives would also be fun, because they involve contact with other human beings. Boredom comes from exclusivity and closed doors; fun, excitement, hope and pleasure come from openness. When Jesus spoke about himself, he did not say, “I am the Wall” (like Mr. Trump); he did say, “I am the Door.”

 

 

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Its only four hours since it became clear that the UK as a whole had voted to leave the EU, and only some minutes since the Prime Minister announced that he would stand down in the autumn. Too soon, therefore, for any disciplined reflection on this result, except to record how proud I am of Scotland and my fellow citizens, that we have shown our acceptance of inter-national cooperation and our rejection of racism, by voting 62% to remain. Of course we never saw ourselves as masters of the world, as the English did – even if we shared their imperialism, we were in fact their first colony- nor do we have the levels of immigration experienced in certain parts of England. Still, we have clearly shown our different political values in this vote and I hope they will guide our future.image

I promised to devote this blog to a consideration of what theologians call eschatology, that is, thinking about the end times. The classic Christian doctrine is that in the end time, Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead; that God will create new heavens and a new earth; and that God’s people will share the divine life forever and ever. I guess that very few of the believing people in the churches I serve either know or believe this teaching, but believe rather in individual judgement and reward at the end of their own individual time. Few believers now hold to the concept of a future general resurrection and universal judgement with the possibility of heaven or hell. The eschatology of the faithful has been privatised.

Of course any just judgement has to be personal. I wrote in my bible blog yesterday (emmock .com) that I see the final judgement of Jesus as happening in a time aslant historical time but impinging on it, so that every day is judgement day, every day people are welcomed into the light of God’s love or left in the darkness they have chosen. When I call God “the beyond in the midst”, I mean that God’s goodness (Jesus/ heaven) is available to me here and now, where I may choose it( life) or spurn it (death). Of course there is a sense in which evil people do not choose death; they choose wealth, power, violence, lies, lust and so on, but they are always aware that these goods are devoid of life. They are choosing the death of their humanity and in their own end time they get what they wanted. Good people may be afflicted by evil or tempted by it, but they know that it offers no life, and therefore choose to reach out towards a goodness, which in their end time reaches out to them and gives them life.

But that is a personal vision. What about the world in which we live? What about the countless people who never had a chance to be persons because of oppression and deprivation? What about the ecosystem of the earth and our fellow creatures? What about the universe and its evolution, including perhaps forms of life of which we at present know nothing?

The bible offers visions of the end which are broader and deeper in their scope than individual salvation, and which give content to the believer’s prayer, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”. In this blog I’ll use just one of these, leaving other vision for subsequent blogs. Here it is:image

The Peaceful Kingdom Isaiah 11: 1-9

11 A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf also shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

This dates from the reign of King  Hezekiah of Judah 715-687 BCE, and comes from the pen of the first prophet Isaiah, who communicated to the rulers of his people what he believed to be God’s message, in vivid diatribes and visions. He was open to the politics of his nation and area, capable of assessing these out of a profound grasp of his religious tradition, and of expressing his assessments in language of beauty, precision and wit.

Here, towards the end of his life, he provides a vision of how his God will fulfil his promise to the great King David, that his dynasty will last and will be fruitful. In this vision Isaiah was looking I think into later, if not the last, times.

The instrument of God’s transformation will be a politician! In this case, a king of the Davidic dynasty, who will bring God’s rule to the people. He will not be a superman, but rather a man inspired by the fear of God, and moulded by God’s spirit. The qualities which are developed in him are not supernatural, but human: wisdom, understanding, counsel and might. This ruler sets aside propaganda and makes judgement in favour of the poor and the humble of the land. His harshness towards the wicked is shown by the force and accuracy of his words. His whole character is bound together by goodness and faithfulness. This description is given by a man who knew kings and their frailties yet trusted that God’s purpose would be achieved through a human ruler, by human means.

But then the vision makes an extraordinary leap. The establishment of social justice will lead to a paradisal peace in which all enmity will be abolished between predators and prey, and between animals and human beings. The reconciliation of animals with each other is twice emphasised by their gentleness to children. It is a vision that still brings a catch to the voice almost three thousands years after its composition. The abolition of the need to kill in order to eat does away with the most fundamental of all types of violence and convinces the reader that it is not necessary.

The summing up emphasises this possibility:

they will not hurt or destroy – that’s the result, and it is achieved by the universal knowledge of God:

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea-

-that’s the means: the prophet declares that the impossible possibility of peace will come through human knowledge and action that is rooted in the creative impulse of God.

image
Notice how the transformation comes through a peace treaty with native Americans 

I’ll conclude with some brief points about this text.

  1. It is set in this world of human beings and other creatures
  2. It is set in history yet transcends it.
  3. The events are encompassed by God’s presence but they are brought about by human action.
  4. Government, in this case by a King, is envisaged as necessary for justice.
  5. The opposition will be destroyed by the truth and wisdom of the ruler’s judgements.
  6. The Government is inspired by the character of God to dismiss lies and attend to the needs of the poor and the gentle.
  7. The life of the ruler is bound to the life of God.
  8. The ecosystem is returned to the state described in the vision of Genesis, in which there is no predation amongst creatures, no enmity between humanity and animals.
  9. Human justice is the precondition for this transformation, but does not define its scope. The just society flowers into the garden of Eden.
  10. This vision of the last times finds its imagery in a story of the first times, completing the arc of creation

We should note that all species including humanity are what they are because of predation, amongst other factors. Does this invalidate the vision? I think not, as Isaiah knew he was appealing from the real condition of the world to God’s original intention for it. This is the way he marks the transcendent nature of his vision.

All of these points deserve incorporation into Christian teaching about the end time.

 

 

The image of Nigel Farage the UKIP leader unveiling a poster at the weekend is unintentionally comic as well as racist. A small, slightly apologetic, sad man (what we would describe in Scotland as a “wee bachul”) stands in front of a picture of hundreds of vibrant human beings about to burst into a Greek field. He is telling us that this will destroy life as we know it. This swarming mass of needy people in Greece will trample the Union Jack, abolish private education, occupy our parking places with their camels, close our ale houses, defeat us at football, force our men and possibly our women to grow beards, and deliver the editor of the Daily Mail to be martyred by crazed ayatollahs.

AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!

The end of the world will arrive if we don’t vote leave on Thursday.

Pull my finger...

On the other hand, a responsible man in a suit with a very red face – can he really be our PM? – assures us that on the contrary, all the rich humanitarian policies of his government- constant  reductions in welfare benefits, cutting down on the huge numbers of costly people with disabilities and throwing alylum seekers into detention centres – these shining examples of social justice will be no more, unless we vote remain on Thursday. If we vote leave, the floodgates will be open for hordes of slimy alien creatures, led out of the sewers  by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, to terrify the nation in a feeding frenzy of right wing ruthlessness. Most of these treacherous creatures will be indentifiable as Tory MPs and colleagues of the honourable PM.

UUUUUUUUUUUURRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!

If we do vote leave on Thusday, the end of the world will arrive.

I have always been attracted to the apocalyptic utterances of end of the world prophets. I loved the dismal street preacher of my youth, who would stand in Sauchiehall Street on a wet November afternoon giving the punters the glad news that the end of the world was nigh. Most of his damp audience looked as if they would consider this outcome a blessed release. I particularly liked the transatlantic group who knew that the world would end at midnight on 31st January 1983, at which hour they gathered on Mont Blanc, as instructed by their prophet. By breakfast time on 1/1/1984 scores of bedraggled creatures were back at ground level, lamenting the fact that they would now have to pay their hotel bills.

Given the poor record of all such prophecies, you might think that even the loopiest orators would avoid them. But no, all we need is a political, moral, religious or ecological crisis, like for example the possibility of Turkey joining the EU in 50 years time, for the manic street preachers to grab their placards and point to Armageddon.

Jesus entrusted his followers with the task of announcing the arrival of God’s Rule, which some saw as an apocalyptic event, but He saw as the robust communication of God’s goodness here and now. Knowing however that there were plenty loopy prophets around, he counselled them to pay no attention to the voices saying, Tomorrow in Jerusalem, or Next Week in Damascus, and to continue abolishing poverty, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, and staying hungry for justice.image

I hope the UK votes to remain in the EU, for, degraded as it is, it remains a reminder of a generous vision and a stimulus to a fraternity that might lead to greater liberty and equality. Political choice is often a matter of achieving small gains or preventing small losses.

But if it votes to leave I shall not be closing down my blog and getting my climbing boots on for the ascent of Mont Blanc. Like the 8-05 Scotrail from Dundee to Glaagow, the end of the world will have been postponed again.

 

image
Luminous Angel

The murder of Jo Cox MP by a man shouting, “Britain first!” has caused public horror and the temporary abandonment of the ritual exchange of lies and insults which has taken the place of rational debate about membership of the EU. Suddenly even the worst offenders, most of whom are well-known public figures, are seen with solemn faces, deploring violence and urging more protection for MPs. Doubtless the public will regard their solemnity with the same scepticism as their rabid splutterings.

My particular concern is that the BBC whose newscasts have for weeks given publicity to intemperate allegations and slurs, whose presenters have given airtime to routine lying and called it balance, now has the impertinence to put on black ties and ask if there’s something disrespectful about the way we treat our politicians. Indeed, responding to the terrible death of a young woman with hours of vapid discussion may be another kind of disrespect. The very news engine which has gorged on political abuse is now chewing its way through the tragedy of a human death.

The atmosphere in which we currently do our poiitics is seriously polluted, and therefore dangerous, even if, as it may turn out, it had little to do with the murder of Jo Cox.

I immediately think of two classic Christian texts.

The first is the sermon on the mount in which Jesus quotes the commandment against killing and goes on to to forbid violent and denigratory speech against another person. I have to admit that I have not often preached on this text, perhaps because churches have their own internal arguments which do not always avoid harsh words. I may have been guilty myself of words designed to demolish rather than to refute. Like all teachings of Jesus, the link he makes between violent action and violent words is wise and radical. The mental and emotional disposition in which we dismiss others as worthless is violent even if we manage to restrain ourselves from anything worse than words. Clearly if we permit violent public discourse we encourage acts of violence. More positively, if we encourage peaceful public discourse, we discourage acts of violence.image

The second is Simone Weil ‘s book, “The Need for Roots” written during the Second World War. In it she lays down what she calls “needs of the soul” the most sacred of which, she says, is truth. Human beings in society need truth and suffer from lies. She writes this sentence: “We all know that when journalism becomes indistinguishable from organised lying, it constitutes a crime.” She goes on to ask why it is not punished, and seriously proposes making it a crime to publish lies. She knew that this would lead to howls of democratic rage from the habitual liars, but suggested a special sort of independent judiciary to deal with such cases. Perhaps we need to recognise that public lying is a crime and the mother of crimes, and that a press free of political control need not be free of all control.

These issues have been of concern to me for some years, but may be of greater public concern in the wake of public savagery.

 

 

 

image

(Jesus (J)is praying alone, watched by an armed JewIsh Jihadi (JJ))

JJ. Jesus of Nazareth, I hope you are praying for yourself!

J. Why, brother?

JJ. Because I’m here to kill you in God’s name, for having given comfort to a Roman, and for having committed abomination.

J. I plead guilty to the comfort, but I need informed about the abomination.

JJ. “If a man lie with another man as with a woman, they have committed abomination.”

J. I know such men, but I’m not one of them. Why do you think I am?

JJ. You pretend to be a Rabbi, but you’re not married, and you teach that men may keep away from women for the sake of God’s kingdom. You live with a group of men, whom you have instructed to love each other.

J. And you, brother, and your fellow soldiers, have you not renounced marriage and family for the sake of holy war? I and my friends are also engaged in holy war, although not against flesh and blood.

JJ. If you swear that this is true, I will spare you.

J. There’s no need for swearing. Yes and no are enough. I’ve said it is so.

JJ. Very well, God be with you….

J. Perhaps we can talk, if you have time for anything but killing…

JJ. Don’t laugh at me, Jesus…

J. What gives you the right to kill in God’s name?

JJ. The right of holy war against the Gentiles who have stolen our land!

J. And the killing of men who lie with men?

JJ. As it is written in the Torah, they shall be killed and their blood shall be on their own heads. Leviticus chapter 20. Surely we must obey the Torah!

J. We have to do something much harder: we have to obey the God of the Torah.

JJ. How can there be a difference?

J. This teaching makes two mistakes. The first is that men lying with men is contrary to God’s creation and therefore abominable. But the truth is that these men were created with this desire; they do not choose it. If you know any, you’ll know that this is the truth. And if God created them, they are also God’s children and precious to him.

JJ. You dare to speak for God against his Torah?

J. Yes. And the second mistake is that God needs our protection, so we must kill those who commit what we call abomination or indeed those who conquer our land. If God needs protected from his creatures, he’s not much of a God.

JJ. How can a true Rabbi show such disrespect for our God?

J. For all your weapons you’re just a child, brother. You need to grow and learn from our father Abraham who was strong enough to argue with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Father doesn’t want scared wee kids who hide behind the Torah, but grown up sons and daughters who love him with all their heart and soul and MIND and strength.

JJ. But this is worse blasphemy than lying with men! It mixes the thoughts of human beings with the Word of God!

J. Do you know of any word of God that did not come through the thoughts of human beings?

JJ. But then there will be no certainty in our faith, no absolute authority!

J. The Torah and the prophets are a human witness to God. They are only God’s Word if we treat them as human and sometimes mistaken.

JJ. And you think that’s enough?

J. No of course it’s not enough, child! Once the Torah points us to God, we are to love Him with all our heart and soul  and mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves. And part of that is going in secret to fall on our knees and pray, as I was doing when you interrupted me.

JJ. Jesus of Nazareth you are a greater danger to God and our people than I could ever have imagined. As a soldier of God I must kill you! God is great!

J. Amen! And because God is great, I’m going to get to my feet and walk past you, and you will not hurt me, because you already think I may be right. If you grow into a new faith, you’ll find me again, and I’ll welcome you. Peace be with you.

(The armed Jihadi stands still as Jesus leaves.)

*jesus and mo, as above, is the most intelligent commentary on contemporary religion available. Just google Jesus and mo.

 

 

 

If there’s a minister in Scotland who is forever applying for the role of Old Testament prophet it’s the Rev. David (Elijah) Robertson of the Dundee Free Church of Scotland, and there are few areas of Scottish life untouched by his vigorous denunciations. In some instances his well-argued polemics have been a welcome antidote to liberal platitudes, in others more an expression of theological prejudice. Just this morning I see that David (Elijah) is at it again, this time as a spokesperson for the “SNP for Leave” campaign, on the subject of the forthcoming referendum, in an essay in the Sunday Herald.  His argument is: image

  1. The true sovereign of the world is God and therefore under God, all people share equally the right to determine their own affairs.
  2. In the case of Scotland that derived sovereignity should belong to the Scottish people and their chosen government.
  3. Sharing that sovereignity with the Europeqn Union is a diminution not only  of sovereignity but also and more importantly of democracy, because the effective rulers of the EU, the commissioners, are not elected but appointed.
  4. An independent Scotland would have more power as part of an “interdependent UK.” than as part of the EU.

Most people will notice some strange things here. At present, the Scottish people, in a referendum, has chosen to be governed within the UK. If that’s their use of their God -given right, then presumably God gives it his tentative approval, however much Rev David (Elijah) may disapprove. In fact the whole article suffers from the ambiguity as to whether  it is arguing against a future independent Scotland or Scotland now as part of the U.K., remaining in the EU.

The point about the lack of full democracy in the EU has been made by many others, but it cannot be honest to ignore altogether the EU Parliament and its elected representatives including those from Scotland. An argument that pretends the EU is simply non-democratic is inaccurate.

In fact we must contrast the existence of an EU Parliament with the utter lack of any institutions that might allow an independent Scotland to have influence in an “interdependent” UK. Indeed this “interdependence” is a prophetic vision which must be God-given as there is no earthly evidence for it at all.

These elements are curious. There are also some good elements, such as a genuine concern for grass- roots democracy, for the Scottish fishing industry, and distinctively Scottish social justice proposals, like banning tax- avoiding companies from bidding for public contracts.image

But as a fellow theologian I find myself suprised by the absence of any genuine biblical perspective. I imagine David (Elijah) will have one which he has chosen not to use when arguing a secular issue, but its absence permits him to be more positive about nation states, such as Scotland, than the Bible is. The desire of  the confederation of tribes called Israel to become a nation state and be governed by an elected monarch is viewed by the  biblical prophets as rebellion against God. The people are warned that their new King/ government will rip them off and lead them into dynastic war. And even after the successful reign of King David, his successors are judged by whether they worshipped God or idols, and gave justice to the widow and the orphan, that is, to those who had no social power. The best that the Old Testament expects of the nation state and its rulers is that they are not idolatrous and protect the weak and powerless! That’s it.

The New Testament is no more positive about the nation state. Jesus announced a Rule of God which had no place for either the rule of Rome or of Israel/Judah, nor did he propose a caliphate or theocracy that would implement God’s Rule. He expected that God’s Rule could be exercised in communities of those who accepted it, underneath, within, and alongside the nation state or empire. The only teaching we have from Jesus that  is directed at  “nations” is in Matthew 25 where the nations are gathered before the true king and judged as to how they have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, with whom the true king is identified. This goes further than the Old Testament, but does not expect more of the nation state than basic social justice and care.

I make this point to suggest that Christian people ought not to assume that the nation state itself is a boon to humanity. It tends towards unrestrained competition with other states which is ultimately resolved in war. This pessimistic realism about states is characteristic of the biblical tradition and of the best Christian political writing. From this perspective we cannot assume that an independent nation is always desirable or that full sovereignity is always better than international association. With this in mind we might see the founders of the EU as looking at the history of their nation states in two world wars, and recognising that their full sovereignity had become demonic and required restraint; and that their mutual ignorance had issued in bigoted hatred of neighbouring peoples. Shared sovereignity could accustom legislatures to decisions made for the good of neighbouring nations as well as their own; and the freedom of people to learn work and play in other nations could foster transnational community. These, as well as free trade, were the hopes of those who founded what has become the EU. From a biblical perspective they could be seen as ways of undermining the self- idolatry of nation states.

But perhaps David ( Elijah)  has thought of all this and dismissed it, either because he thinks that  the EU Is seriously oppressive or that the Scottish nation is especially just, or would be, if only it could free itself from Brussels. He would have to justify either of these positions by more coherent argument than he has provided.image

Although I am not a prophet, I do judge politics from a biblical perspective, which leads me to ask the following questions about the referendum:

  1. Which choice is more likely to restrain our government’s and neighbouring governments’ worship of their own powers?
  2. Which choice is more likely to provide justice for the poor, the migrant and the orphan in Scotland and Europe?

These criteria do not make for easy answers. For example, the poor of the UK are the most adversely affected by immigration, but they lead me, on balance, to vote to remain in the EU, which puts me at odds with D (E) our national prophet. But they led me to vote the same way as he did in the last referendum, so maybe there’s hope for me yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m tempted to call it a bad week, because it included the severe illness of two members of my family, but better reflection urges me to all it simply strenuous as it gave me the opportunity to care, if I was prepared to make the effort. The interval of a week becomes more significant to people at times of pleasure like holidays or times of pain like illness. The seven days of the week seem to have no seasonal or cosmological significance beyond their derivation from the cycle of the moon, although the number 7 has gathered to itself a range of meanings in many cultures and religions, such as its use as a marker of perfection in The Judaeo – Christian tradition, as in the 7 days of the creation of the world. In my case this week, it simply serves to mark off one period of time in the hope that the next one will be happier.

Семья волков - The Family of Wolves (goo.gl/NAxhhJ)
Семья волков – The Family of Wolves (goo.gl/NAxhhJ)

The invention of the seven days of creation in Genesis is paralleled by the frequent use of the week by scientists to help lay people imagine the main events in the evolution of the earth, from its fiery birth 4,500 million years ago. If the earth was born on Monday, they say, then the first evidence of life, that of bacteria, comes late on Monday evening, and until now all the evidence pointed to Thursday as the earliest evidence of the eukaryotic cell which is the basis of all multicellular life. Plants and animals do not appear until Sunday and human beings late in the last hour of Sunday. This timetable is a little different from the one in Genesis, but the latter of course is for the universe and not just the earth.

Recently scientists have been puzzled by examination of a a fossil found in China which is 1,500 million years old and multicellular, whose existence is ruled out by the usual timetable. This is leading some investigators to revise the existing timetable and to tell a different story of the evolution of life. New facts have emerged which appear to challenge the existing story, which must therefore be re-examined and perhaps altered.

That’s different of course from the Genesis story which is part of a bigger narrative of the adventures of God and his human beings, written at a particular time, and valuable not only for its content, but for its example of using the best science available to imagine the relationship of humanity to the source of life. I don’t want to change the Genesis story but to use it as a model for the new story I want to tell, in the light of the new evidence that any week may bring.

In the instance of this last week of my life, I want to revise or at least tweak the story I tell about living to include a bigger place for the phenomenon of the human love which brings joy and makes us suffer. If I did not love my brother and my daughter, their illnesses would bring me no pain. I might still have goodwill towards them and hope for their full recovery, but I would not have this nagging unease that has been with me all the time, and this  terrible vertiginous feeling that the solid earth is dropping away from my feet.What is this love? Evolutionary biologists point out that the apes from which we are descended live in family groups and have developed a multitude of subtle behaviours which express their care of the family group as the primary means of their survival as a species. In the case of human children, who start out even more helpless than most animals; and of the human individual who is in himself not well-built to survive predation, scientists would argue that parental and sibling love are hard-wired into our genetic inheritance, for survival.image

I have a lot of respect for this evolutionary argument, but I can see its weak point: that if this love is hard-wired, that is, simply determined by our genes, why does it appear to fail so often, in parents who do not love and do not care for their children, and in siblings who are perpetually at odds with each other? Evolutionary psychologists tell us that genetic factors only make  behaviours likely, and that useful behaviours have to inculcated by upbringing and education. The capacity of children to love in their turn is determined by the love given by their parents and shared with their siblings. Again I want to agree with this argument. But of course it leaves the same gap as the previous one: if our genes make parental love likely to be given and passed on, how and why did any parents fail to give it? We seem to need some notion of original sin.

I am no expert, so I can only guess at answers.

Most scientists are agreed that whereas in animals species, successful adaptation to environment takes place at a genetic level, in human beings it takes place at a cultural level, because we are conscious of ourselves and our environment and can decide to adapt or to make our environment adapt to us. We are engaged in conscious learning and in making choices. Our capacity to adapt our environment is the source of our success and failure as a species, because we can make positive adaptations, like traditional farming, and negative adaptations like agribusinesses that destroy the resources on which they are dependent. This also true of our life as a species, where we can choose to cherish each other’s lives as the best way of securing our own flourishing, or we can choose to dominate or exterminate each other to secure that end. Our delight in our own capacities often leads us to destroy other lives.

In this perilous situation, love comes to our rescue. It is given to us as a gift from our generic inheritance, re-inforced by our nurture, if we are lucky. It does not compel us, because we can neglect its prompting; and it does prompt, not as a moral injunction but as a fundamental experience. We do not so much decide to love our children and siblings, as find that we do so, because we have already experienced the love of our own parents and siblings. Even those of us who have been deprived of that parental love, may find that a subsequent experience of love opens us to giving it in turn. It somehow feels right, it is the proper care of flesh and blood.

But it does not compel. We can choose to neglect it, by resolutely acting only for our separate selves, for what we regard as our own welfare; and we can refuse to receive it, except as a contribution to our own welfare. When we receive it however, we are prompted to something beyond familial love, for we recognise this flesh and blood caring as something we can extend to others who are not of our family. Friendship often teaches us this. Then we recognise that it can be extended even to people who are not our friends but who belong to the same residential or voluntary community. Ultimately we may realise that it can be extended to all members of our ecosystem, because it values each life for itself and for its contribution to the whole. These recognitions may occur naturally, but they are also the aim of the great religions of the world, which provide training in enlightenment to open believers to every other being and to the whole of being.

imageBecause love originates in the primary experience of family life we know that it will always be a source of joy and sorrow: sometimes we celebrate together, other times we weep by a bedside. Because love is so adapted to our needs we can say that in the imagined week of evolution, it originated on late on the Monday, with the first unicellular creatures and grew until it touched the strange life-forms that thought they could control their environment. But I would want to say that it was present before the Monday and after the Sunday, and continues to be the beyond in our midst.