To be in southern Spain is to be reminded of the Arab civilization here which has left wonderful traces of its character in the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Gibralfaro- Alcazaba complex in Malaga, and in many ancient villages of the region. Its  buildings put to shame the heavy imperialism of many other civilizations by their suble commitment to human scale, playful structure and grace of detail. The sound of water trickling through their palaces is a reminder of the dependency of  human covilization upon the natural world.img_0338

Although the various Spanish kingdoms were ruled by Muslim dynasties, it is clear that for much of the time they found ways of absorbing and granting some human rights to Jews and Christians. This toleration is just as much a mark of their civilization as the elegance of their palaces and remains a challenge to faith traditions in our time.

The noble Qur’an is the holy book of Islam, containing all truth and nothing that is not the truth. Tbere is no room for the believer or the non-believer to question its origin, composition, commands or wisdom: it is the word of Allah given to The Prophet Muhammed  (peace upon him). This makes it an awward companion for any tolerant amd thoughtful belieber as it persistently denounces those who do not believe in its teachings, although it finds some wriggle room for Christians and Jews. As such it is a good companion to very conservative Islamic teachers and the Jihadists who obey their tachings. A holy text which contains much that is humanly vañuable becomes a tool for murderous authoritarian obscurantism because of the way it is understood by its users. Some will argue that that the Qur’an cannot be used differently, but the history of the Islamic kalifates in Spain contradicts that argument.

We can get a better hold on this issue if I confess that as a minister of the Church of Scotland I have  ackowledged “The Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the supreme rule of faith and life.” This is in itself a carefully crafted phrase, allowing room for theological subtleties of interpretation, but it neverthless embodies a notion of biblical inerrancy, which is in the end of the day polemical: if you accept this view of the Bible you know that atheists and Muslims are wrong and homosexual acts are an abomination. For this reason my church has added a clause the allows “liberty of opinion on such doctrines as do not enter into the substance of the faith,” which means more or less what the church decides it should mean.img_0339

Both the Islamic and Christian adherence to magic books rests on  notions of the divine origin of these texts. They are not human productions but either by means of dictation or inspiration, they are the Word of God. Certainly, in modern times, Christian scholars have been able to investigate the origin and history of the biblical texts, providing probable dates of writing, probable attributions of authorship, and an understanding of their probable meaning in their own time and place. These are forms of acholarship denied to the Islamic believer who cannot for example entertain the notion that parts of the Qur’an existed before Muhammed.

Behind the reluctance of both religions to admit that their holy books may contain errors of fact and faith, is their conviction that the content of theit faith traditions has been revealed rather than invented. This conviction is the source of most of the grief caused by religions, because it gives divine authority to human thoughts, customs and religious functionaries. The amount of human misery caused by this unjustiable authority has been and is, immense, and may even outweigh the undoubted good brought about by religious believers.

Justifiable faith begins with the acknowledgement that its God and its theology are the  fruit of human creativity; and that its sacred literature is of human authorship. I am not naive enough to imagine that religious arrogance, prejudice and violence will thereby be abolished, only that their perpetrators will be deprived of a significant excuse.

Some will argue that it also deprives faith of any claim to truth, but I would answer that it may provide empirical truth like Einstein, or experiential truth like Shakespeare, or practical truth like the anonymous inventor of the wheel. What’s not to like? Nor does it abolish the idea of revelation; it simply insists that if God communicates with human beings s/he does so by way of human creativity and that the fruit of revelation is therefore as fallible as all human productions.

No believer can rightly say with Martin Luther, “My conscience is in chains to the Word of God. Here I stand; I can do no other.” For the content of faith including any interpretation of holy books is the responsibility of the believer, who cannot hide behind his tradition. All those who have killled or sentenced others to death for religious reasons are simply thugs  whose brutality renders their theologies invalid.

img_0044If  Jesus saves, then he must save his followers from the sin of unjustifiable certainty. And the evidence of the Bible is that in life he hardly demanded adherence to any doctrine but asked people to follow his way, did not denounce his enemiies for theological errors,  but argued for his own view; called some scriptural commandments, “sayings from the old times,” and modified them. He reserved his sharpest language for religious leaders who knew they were right. He loved the scriptures of his people but interpreted them in the light of God’s goodness. His argument against divorce is a classic instance: God in his goodness has made male and female of equal value and their sexual union is never trivial but always holds the promise  of lasting faithfulness. He suggests that the Genesis story is more important than the Mosaic commandment.

Yes, one of the Gospel writers quotes Jesus as promising his disciples that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth, and that they will be able to do greater things than he has done!  Here indeed is the teacher who can save people from the kinds of certainty too often preached from pulpit and mosque. Nobody should think I am proposing something odd. Common sense wisdom from all cultures has pointed out the fallibility of human knowledge and the folly of dogmatism. “To err is human; to forgive divine” says the old proverb. Jesus would have approved both of its assertions.

img_0220For my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, 

neither are my ways, your ways ;

But as the heavens are high above the earth

so are my ways above your ways

and my thoughts above your thoughts.

As the rain comes down and the snow from heaven

and do not return there without watering the earth

making it produce grain

to give seed for sowing and bread to eat,

so it is with my word issuing from my mouth;

it will not return to me empty

without accomplishing my purpose

And succeeding in the task for which I sent it.

Isaiah chapter 55

I woke up this morning to find an inch or two of snow in the garden and the street, the first fall this winter. Later, driving the winding country lanes of my rural parishes, I could see deeper drifts against the stone walls of the fields, where sizeable flocks of starlings, crows and pigeons had already gathered to seek food under the covering of snow. There is a beauty in the scene as long as you are not wading through the white stuff to feed animals, or clearing drifts so that your truck can exit your farm.

I don’t suppose the author of Isaiah chapter 55, great poet as he/she was, had as much experience of snow as myself, but he may have taken the time  to look carefully at the crystals that, in Palestine, fall rarely from the sky.

Strictly we should speak about snow crystals rather than flakes, which is a more general term. Snow crystals are hexagonal, often though not always showing the classic intricate, symmetrical lattice that most people recognise.img_0221

The crystal begins as a simple hexagon cube, a three dimensional structure which then grows spikes at its six vertices, the amount of growth beeing dependent on its precise journey through the clouds. It is not frozen rain but frozen water vapour which skips the liquid state as it freezes. It is therefore impossible to predict the final shape of a snow crystal as so many variables, temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed, concentration of cloud and so on, affect it. Some crystals are the flat shape we all recognise, others are long, slender tubes. img_0222

A Japanese scientist has made a diagram setting out the more important variables and the kind of snow crystals which they produce. The classic snowflake shape is only produced when temperatures are around -15C. Obviously the geometry of the snow crystal itself a constant in the midst of these variables as it is invariably hexagonal. This is in turn is due to the hexagonal pattern of water molecules in the crystal.

These facts are only a superficial description which doesn’t go much smaller than parts of the crystal that can be seen. A description that included the behaviour of atoms and subatomic particles would demand a substantial volume. The brief description however allows us to see that a snowflake, like any other natural phenomenon, is a complex structure which exhibits some processes regular enough to be called Laws, and others random enough to be called chaos, which means that although snowflake is a general term, each and every snow crystal is unique. That is why the history of the planet’s atmosphere and weather systems can be deduced from an examination of ancient snow found at the Poles or on the highest mountains.


For the believer in a creator God, the snow crytsal is a good lesson.

1.  As each is unique we have to recognise that creation is not “in the past” but happening now. We should have known this when we recognised the uniqueness of each human baby.

2. Probably God cannot, any more than human beings, know in advance the exact shape of any crystal, because of the indeterminate journey it makes from sky to ground level. Random elements are part of God’s creative action. If we take seriously the notion that God’s word is like to snow, then we will recognise that the accomplishment of the  Creator’s purpose includes the astonishing freedom she gives to the elements of any process.

3. If we think of the basic hexagonal shape of the snow crystal, as with the double helix of DNA, we may claim that beauty and efficiency are equal and related aspects of creative wisdom.

4. As the description of snow that we give is from the point of view of human beings rather than say of my neighbour’s dog, or of the spider in the garage, we can truthfully say that we are co-creators with God of what we call snow. But it is surely the case that the canine and arachnid point of view is just as important and that, in fact, all sentient beings are co- creators of our world.

5. The snow started melting as soon as it landed. When I look at the natural world I see first of all events rather than static entities. And of course I have also been changing while I looked at the snow this morning. As Heracltus knew, a person cannot step in the same river twice, because the river is ever -changing… and so is the person.

These reflections are meant to encourage those who believe in a Creator God, to sharpen their understanding of creative wisdom by using the best science available; and to understand the spendour and responsibility of being co-creators of our world, with God.

John Berger who died last week may not be a household name, but he was known to many thoughtful people round the world, some of whom like me viewed him as a hero. He was best known for his 1970s TV series, “Ways of Looking” which demonstrated that so-called high culture was often a mask for lazy, prejudicial views of art. His perspective was influenced by the critical skills of Karl Marx and others of the socialist tradition. The same perspective led to him donating half of his Booker Prize for his novel “G” to the Black Panthers. He continued to write on visual art over the years, while also producing novels that reflected his involvement in peasant life in Haute Savoie, his radical political commitment, and the mixture of anger and compassion with which he approached the suffering of human beings. His geatest novel, perhaps, is “To the Wedding” which balances grief and optimism without compromising either.img_0215

He remains a hero to me because unlike many on the left side of politics who had expressed unwise admiration for socialist regimes, he recognised his error of judgement after the collapse of the Soviet block, but did not renounce his marxism, or his search for a genuine political expression of it. For this reason many of his obituaries have been critical, reflecting the dominant view today that rejection of capitalism is a sign of lunacy. He remained convinced that an unrestricted and triumphalist capitalism was destroying the natural world, wiping out traditional ways of life, distorting language,  impoverishing billions of people while enriching a few, and not even truly enriching them, because it reduces the dimensions of life to mere consumption.

In his analysis of the one dimensional world of global capitalism Berger visited and revisited his special sources of inspiration in the art of the past, challenging the reader with dimensions of humanity revealed by cave painters or Rembrandt or Goya. Increasingly he found support from radical Christian voices who wanted to draw on the God-dimension of their tradition to provide resources for social and political liberation. He was always insistent that any claim of transcendence had to be grounded in the life of the world: word and vision had to be incarnate in the universe, especially in flesh and blood.

He had almost certainly read Pablo Neruda’s poem:

The Word

was born in the blood

grew in the dark body, beating

and flew through the lips and the mouth…..

which draws of course on John’s Gospel, “the Word was made flesh.”

He was forever aware of small moments of transcendence in the lives of men and women, often in good work, in the words of a poem, in the angle of a photograph, in the curl of a leaf. All of these, for him, brought news from nowhere, from the Utopia that beckons to us and invites our hope. He was someone above all who exhibited the twin qualities that The Italian socialist Gramsci recommended, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”img_0216

His faith in the transcendent possibilities of beauty, truth and justice, was also expressed in his habitual courtesy and kindness, which are attested by all who met him, as well as those who like me, sometimes bothered him with correspondence. He had a robust sense of the worth of every person including himself, reserving his most severe rebukes for those who would deny it by their actions, policies or inertia.

When Jesus was asked how a person could get Life, he responded with the traditional Jewish commandments to love God and your neighbour. In his atheist way, John Berger did both of these. For me, he has Life.

This Police statement appeared online in my news feed this morning.

“West Yorkshire Police said a police firearm was discharged at about 18:00 GMT on Monday in Huddersfield. A man later died in hospital.”

I took me a minute or two to realise it meant the police had shot and killed a man. The statement ingeniously removes all agency from the event. Firearms, even when they belong to the police, have an unfortunate habit of being discharged. Police may or may not have been present when their firearm was discharged. A man later died in Huddersfield which is after all an everyday occurrance even in a nice place like Huddersfield.'I'm giving up all of my good habits. They're easier to stop doing than bad habits.'

As George Washington is reported to have said, “An axe was deployed upon the trunk of a tree. The tree was later observed to be severed from its roots.”

As the Bible recounts, “A stone was discharged from a sling in a battle yesterday. A Mr. Goliath of Gath was later found to be dead and minus his head.”

As a press release of the Third Reich notes, “Gas chambers at a number of locations, including Auchswitz have been operational over a period of some years. 6 million Jews, and some millions of Gypsies and homosexuals, are reported missing, presumed dead.”

Theologians have noted that all these unfortunate events go back to an original and shocking accident in the Garden of Eden, where “two sets of teeth were munching an apple. A man and a woman, clad only in fig leaves, were later found to be homeless.”

Such statements are very different from those that describe the behaviour of those not in authority:

“In Tiannanmen Square yesterday a violent anti- Government dissident thug, armed with dangerous bare fists, launched an unprovoked attack on a tank belonging to our heroic armed forces. A body was later discovered to be flat.”

I don’t need to labour the point. As the Adam and Eve story in Genesis shows, if you have been caught out doing something dodgy, deny agency or at least pass the buck:

Adam: The woman you gave to be beside me, she gave me the fruit of the tree and I ate.

Eve: The snake enticed me, and I ate.

These are ways of saying, as is traditional in Scotland, “It wisnae me. A big boy did it and ran away.”

These denials of agency fit neatly into what we will call (for the sake of squeamish readers) the S Happens philosophy. Nobody S’s, or causes S or throws S, it simply happens. Tough if it happens to you, buddy, but it might be me tomorrow.

OK sometimes it does just haappen

I think I prefer a world where people do things, even if sometimes these things are bad, and even if sometimes it’s me that does them. Yes, there may be forms of compulsion, there may be extenuating circumstances, there may be irrestible temptation, all of these, but human action or inaction and responsibility for  these, seem preferable to any kind of  vague and haphazard S that descends upon you for no reason. At least when a human being does something bad I can hope that he/ she may be persuaded not to do it again,  or that I may find out how to stop them doing it to me.

If passive acceptance of S is bad, passive expectation of Good is no better; G does not just happen any more than S, it has to be done. i think a lot a decent people believe that individual good actions may be done. Their acts of kindness, care, justice and peace, prevent communal life from becoming completely S-ty. Fewer people have confidence in communal acts of goodness, and fewer still in governmental goodness. Perhaps if government isn’t actually evil, Goodness will happen.

The Christian  Bible Old Testament is full of the expectation that rulers can do good or evil, and that their choice brings either blessing or disaster to their people. The New Testament is full of the confidence that small assemblies of people who follow Jesus’ way, can do good for each other and the societies in which they live. Those who hunger and thirst for justice, and do it, will be filled. Of course God also does good, but there is no goodness of God in the Bible that is not done in and through creation. All human beings in the Bible are sinners but they are at least wrong- doers; nor are they bystanders in God’s battle against evil: God counts on their help.