In my last blog I gave some information about what I mean by a “house of God” and the critical disciplines derived from it – ecumenism, economy and ecology, words whose first element comes from the Greek for house, “oikos.” I want to be clear that although the notion of God’s house is metaphorical, pointing to something I believe about the God of Jesus, the derived disciplines are patterns of human thought and behaviour in this world, which are open to use or question by anyone.87850B7B-71D2-41E4-B5B7-10D506624FA8

I would like to illustrate the virtue of ecumenism more precisely by referring to a report in the Scottish news today, about Christian responses to the stated intention of the Scottish Government to make illegal the smacking of children. There has been opposition from a body calling itself “The Christian Institute” which claims that the Bible is the inerrant guide to right behaviour and is in favour of the physical chastisement of children.

Now it is true that a few bible texts assume that errring children should be chastised, and that the book of Proverbs explicitly advises it:

Proverbs 23:13
Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.

Proverbs 23:14
You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from the house of the dead.

Although this advice is clear enough some believers will question whether it ought to  stand in the light of the example and teaching of Jesus, who especially loved children and made them exemplars of the way to receive God’s rule. This is not a question which has occurred to the Christian Institute, whose fundamentalism isolates biblical texts from each other, and even more from any outside source of criticism. From that standpoint the Institute has denounced the recognition of homosexual people as having equal rights as citizens and has defended the right of believers to discriminate against them.

The virtue of ecumenism is relevant here, because it encourages believers to see their good news about God’s love as intended for all the world, for all communities of human beings; and therefore to distinguish its core message from its cultural accompaniments, rather than retreating into a sectarian insistence on the absolute truth of each item in its own cherished tradition. The classic biblical instances are the quarrel between Jesus and Pharisees over the interpretation of Sabbath legislation, and between St Paul and Jewish Christians on the issue of male circumcision. These show the importance of ecumenical practice which insists that the Sabbath law must be interpreted to include the healing of sick people and foreigners; and the sign of belonging to God’s people designed to include Gentiles. Both Jesus and Paul drew on other biblical material to controvert a narrow sectarian view of God’s will, but also more controversally claimed to act by the Spirit rather than the mere letter of the law.

In the matter of smacking children, the Institute will have some degree of popular support, some of it from brutal people who say smacking never did them any harm, but some of it from good and loving parents who have used  light smacks for the swift correction of dangerous behaviour by children. For sure, there is scope for a debate on such matters, but it is not helped by a sectarian insistence that all the right answers are in one holy book. Those who so insist are not really debating because they are sure they only know the truth.B10A58B4-E07D-4BF9-8336-63C74F50C59A

The criterion of ecumenicity is not a recipe for relativism but rather a way of discriminating within a tradition what is essential from what is permissable, and both from what is mistaken. Immanuel Kant advised that only a principle upon which you hoped everyone might act could be a moral imperative. The ecumenical criterion advises that only those items of tradition with which everyone might engage creatively are part of the essential core of Christian faith.

There is a good story which illustrates this balance:

In the so-called dark ages, after the destruction of the western empire, churches in more remote areas developed their own traditions without much control from any centre. This was true in Ireland where the Celtic Churches followed their own customs of worship, community and even their own calendar of festivals. Now it happened that Pope Gregory felt a responsibility for these churches and sent one of his best bishops on a pastoral journey to meet them and teach them true Roman custom if necessary.

One day, alighting from his ship on the west coast of Ireland, the bishop came across three ancient hermits, who greeted him warmly. He asked them what they did, and was pleased to learn that they divided their time between prayer and the care of the poor people of the countryside. “That is good my brothers,” he said, “but how do you pray?”

” We kneel down, and we say to God, ‘We are three, you are three, holy is your name’,” he was told.

The bishop was shocked at such ignorance of correct doctrine. “From now on you must never say that, but the Our Father,which I will teach you.”

The old men were all apologies and happy to learn the new prayer from the bishop.

Later that day, after dark, when the bishop had retired to his cabin in his boat, he was urgently summoned on deck by sailors who pointed to a great light approaching the boat from the shore. Gradually the bishop was aware of three holy presences walking on the water towards the boat.  Finally he recognised the three hermits, who were calling to him, “Brother bishop, brother bishop!”

”What is it?” he asked in aamazement as they stood in the sea.

”We can get to Lead us not into temptation, but we’ve forgotten the rest.  Tell us again how to pray!”

2A78DC78-9FA9-492E-A855-2741ED27ECEC”Return to your land, my holy brothers,” the bishop replied, “and when you pray, say,’ We are three, you are three, holy is your name’”

That was a true ecumenical answer.












BDCF9337-EBFC-4A79-B668-D60DCD48E9D1In my last blog I introduced three concepts as critical, noting that I had derived them from my bible study: ecumenism, ecology and economy, all of which are derived from the Greek word oikos = a house.

Ecumenism means thought and practice based on residence of the “oikumene”, the whole inhabited world.

Ecology means knowledge of the universe as the home of life

Economy means the household management of the the wealth of a community

My use of these terms rests on an understanding of “House of God” as one of the keys to understanding the bible. Some time ago I wrote more extensively about this topic, and readers can find my thoughts at: oikos

Here I will simply remind the reader with knowledge of the Bible that from the book of Genesis to the book of The Revelation the presence of God in human houses (think of Abraham and “Behold I stand at the door and knock” ) and of human beings in God’s house (think of Jacob at Bethel, Solomon in the Temple, and the believers in heaven whose tears are wiped away by God), are central to the great stories of faith. There is a double meaning involved which is expressed in a pun in the story of Nathan and King David, who wanted to build a temple for God in Jerusalem. Nathan tells him that he will not build a house for God, but that if his descendants keep the true faith, God will build him a house, that is a dynasty, which will rule Israel. Nathan suggests that what God desires is not a house but a household, not a holy temple but a holy people.

This ambiguity, this fruitful quarrel between holy place and holy people, is expressed in many books of the bible. Jeremiah warns against those who think the “temple of the Lord” will keep the people safe in spite of their failure to be holy, while Isaiah sees the temple as the place of unity where jews and gentiles will worship God together. Jesus told his followers that God’s kingdom would dwell amongst them, but also demanded that Temple should be a house of prayer for all nations. The emphasis on household protects believers from imagining that being in a holy place is all that matters, while the temple as an image of the universe protects believers from imagining that the household of faith is all that matters to God.

The ecumenism of God’s house tells us that the truth of God’s love belongs to all creatures. It is never the property of one group, or race, or church. Although it is made known in Jesus it will never be fully expressed until the kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of the Lord.

The economy of God’s house tells us that God’s gifts belong equally to all creatures. It is well expressed in the marxist slogan, “from each according to ability; to each according to need.” As opposed to marxism  and capitalism it does not advocate unlimited growth, which it sees as idolatry, but prays, “give US today OUR daily bread.”

The ecology of God’s house tells us that life belongs equally to all creatures. With our brother creatures we share life in this universe, learning to respect its natural systems as indicators of God’s wisdom. Killing our brothers and sisters for profit, convenience, sport, or pleasure is always  wrong; and even in necessity we should be careful to minimise it. Our attitude should be, “Let all things their creator bless/ and worship God in humbleness.”

A house of God is a part of God’s life which God has set aside as space for creatures: in God we live and move and have our being. God has limited Godself, withdrawing so that the creation may have freedom, absent from the house only in the sense that a mother is absent from her womb, which is separate from her will but nourished by her life. The purpose of God’s house is that God’s children may be born there. This birth is different from their natural birth; it is a completion of their natural birth which requires their full consent and cooperation. It is what St. Paul meant, when he wrote that the universe groans as if in the pains of labour awaiting the birth of God’s children. Jesus himself voluntarily submitted to this birth through the labour of his cross.

The church is a part of the universe in which its identity as God’s house  is recognised, lived and celebrated. The ecumenical, economic and ecological practices which I have outlined are a means of affirming that identity. It will always do so partially and imperfectly because the perfection of God’s house (hold) lies beyond the horizon of history, although even now it impinges on our history and tells us to wake up. A story from Mark’s gospel shows how this happened through Jesus, as he dealt with the traditional sexual taboos of his time:BDCF9337-EBFC-4A79-B668-D60DCD48E9D1


Mark’s Gospel 5:22-43

Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Ja’irus by name; and seeing him, he fell at his feet,
23: and besought him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
24: And he went with him. And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him.
25: And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years,
26: and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.
27: She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment.
28: For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.”
29: And immediately the haemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
30: And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?”
31: And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, `Who touched me?’”
32: And he looked around to see who had done it.
33: But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.
34: And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
35: While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?”
36: But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”
37: And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.
38: When they came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, he saw a tumult, and people weeping and wailing loudly.
39: And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.”
40: And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.
41: Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Tal’itha cu’mi”; which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”
42: And immediately the girl got up and walked (she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.
43: And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

In the masterly storytelling of Mark the healing of a sick woman is nested in the story of the healing of a twelve year-old girl. Jesus is asked to come to Jairus’ house. It is noted that he is a synagogue official. On his way, in the midst of a crowd drawn to Jesus as the dwelling of God, a woman suffering from continuous bleeding who has found no help from doctors, touches his cloak. She, from within the socially constructed house of uncleanness, breaks through the taboo and knocks at God’s door. Jesus, the one in whom God dwells, reaches out across the taboo of purity, to invite her in.

BDCF9337-EBFC-4A79-B668-D60DCD48E9D1But now messengers arrive to say that the girl has died. Perhaps Jesus’ delay in healing the sick woman has allowed this to happen but Jesus asks the father to trust him. When they arrive, the house has become a house of death: ritual wailing and other women’s ministrations to the dead have begun. The young Jewess, daughter of Zion, is in the power of the “strong man.” Religious rules isolated the dead as sources of pollution. As Jesus prepares to break into this “closed house” he is mocked for his cavalier attitude to death, “She’s only sleeping,” he says. Jesus goes to the girl, takes her hand, and says in Aramaic, “Talitha Cumi!” which means something like, “Time to get up, my wee dove.” She gets up, and walks. Her age, the age of transition from girlhood to womanhood is noted at the end of the story. A true understanding of this story, as of all the stories in Mark’s gospel is only given to the second- time reader who knows of Jesus own death and resurrection. From that perspective the story of Jesus walking into the house of death to bring life has added meaning, and the beautiful Aramaic injunction to the girl, can be heard as the eschatological call by the one in whom God dwells, for a new awakening of women, of society, of the world: it’s time to get up.




This blog continues my reflections on the church of Scotland and the sexual revolution of the late 20th century in this country.E77F01BF-AE40-483B-8FB3-23E6742BF8CE

I should be honest about my own place in the story which I have been telling. I along with most of my friends, just missed the revolution.  By reason of class and age I was part of the last generation to live by the old standards. At least mainly. I would be unjust if I let it be supposed that the church gave me only some unhelpful sexual morality. In fact, the church had been for me a warm and encouraging community in which many adults gave time and creativity to its varied organisations for children and young people. Its Youth Fellowship gave me the opportunity to mix with young men and women and an experience of responsibility for others. The preaching of the church offered me the gospel of God’s forgiveness of my sins, which I received as a precious truth. Like many of my generation, I stuck with the church because it had been good to me.

For my younger contemporaries however, especially those who rejected traditional sexual ethics and contributed to the the changing culture of the 60’s and 70’s, the church was identified with the the past, and with the voice of condemnation. Sadly, the church was good at offering guidance to young people but bad at listening to them. This disabled its occasional attempts, through special youth projects and the like, to understand even its own young people, far less the majority who had no experience of the church. My judgement is that most churches abandoned young people to cope with the huge changes that were taking place in social and interpersonal mores, which issued in the establishment of pre- and extra- marital partnerships as a way of sharing life as well as sex.

Had the churches been willing to listen to young people, they could have provided stable and affectionate support for the adventures of the young. They could have encouraged parents to understand their own children and to give their partnerships a measure of material help. They could have offered the Jesus of the Gospels as someone who only ever condemned self-righteousness, while challenging people to live a tough love. They could have diagnosed the genuine evil of the commercialisation of sex by the market, especially by the expanding youth market and its attendant media. They could have protected young women from fleeing the imposition of marraige and family only to become disposable objects for liberated males. They could have invented special blessings and rites of passage to accompany  key moments in a new timetable of maturity.  In other words, the churches could have played a creative role in social change but chose rather to defend a culture which, although it had Christian elements, was fashioned by a particular class (middle)at a particular time, (postwar Britain) under a particular economy (welfare capitalism).

There are doubtless many ways of analysing this failure. I will use three critical categories which I have developed through my biblical studies: ecumenism, economy and ecology, which all contain the Greek word oikos = house.1DDFA5B4-8CCF-4EDF-9EA3-04B6623D5B43

ECUMENISM means the practice of acting according to your membership of the OIKUMENE, the inhabited world, and is the opposite of sectarian, which means acting according to your membership of your own group. The first Christians, through St Paul, recognised that faith in Jesus was ecumenical; it could not be limited to Jesus’ fellow Jews, nor defined by Jewish custom and history. This was revolutionary in its time and remains so even in a world where “globalism” is a cliche designed to hide the sectarian interests of the most powerful people on earth. The word ecumenical has been highjacked by the movement for unity amongst churches, but it is much broader than that, encouraging people to see that what they take for granted in their place and time (like circumcision amongst Jewish men) may be utterly meaningless to people in other times and places ( like the first century gentiles visited by St. Paul)

Ecumenical thought is especially aware of the geography and history of the inhabited world, knowing that these often determine beliefs and customs, including one’s own. This does not dissolve its own convictions but increases awareness of their limitations and encourages their further development. Ecumenical custom values contact with people round the world, and obeys the ancient command to welcome strangers. In an era menaced  by sectarian identities it acts on the basis that we all come from this planet. (So far)

I would argue that the church of my childhood was insufficiently ecumenical, imagining that its sexual ethics and its family structures were right for all times and all places, which prevented it, for example, from understanding those of its own Bible. There is nothing in that Bible which limits the number of wives a man may have. Jesus forbade divorce but he did not forbid a man to marry more than one woman. More generally it failed to see the patriarchal nature of its own traditions and the inequality they excused, making it unsympathetic to the arguments of female liberation.

Instead it slid towards a sectarian mode of existence which was insufficiently critical of its own history and of the world in which it ministered, while holding fiercely to its traditions.  This incipient sectarianism disabled its ministry towards young people in a time of rapid social change. Its house was not open to its own children.

ECOMOMY means household management in Greek and has been expanded to mean the management of a national or international budget, including goods amd services,  taxes and pensions. Churches, as well as citizens, live within particular economies, which determine the opportunities open to their citizens, through inherited wealth, paid employment or state benefits. Within the capitalism of western Europe the division of the population into landowners, business and professional people, wage labourers and the unemployed has come into being and continues today. That structure permits individual success and failure but also determines that there shall always be the rich, the adequately remunerated, the poor and the destitute.

The old church aystem of parishes meant that all sorts and conditions of people belonged to the one local church, but the Scottish Disruption of 1843, which brought the Free Church into existence, although evangelically inspired, led to the establishment of many new congregations and the virtual abandonment of the old parishes. In 1929 when the free and established churches reunited, many parishes included only a single class of citizens and  congregations were less aware than previously of the relationship between wealth and family values.

As for example: the relative license in sexual matters granted to the sons of substantial landowners was balanced by strict control over marriage, since that affected the future of the family’s property. The late marriages of the professional classes made possible the lengthy education necessary for their children’s success. As there was no place in the economic system for homosexual people, the moral system also denied their value. The meagre income of many working families put such a continuous pressure on the mother and father, that the marriages  were frequently put at risk.

The church was unaware of these relationships, seeing moral judgements along with their theological underpinnings as separate from practical matters like money, food, clothes or work. In the case of young people it was ignorant of how commercial interests encouraged the developing youth culture to be competetive, for example in sexual attractiveness, in order to generate profits and expand their markets. A church that was more aware of the economy might have helped young people to distinguish between what they wanted and what they were being sold. A church that  had exposed the economic roots of its patriarchal values would have been well-placed to challenge the exploitation of young women endemic in the new sexual culture of All You Need Is Love.

The wise management of a house requires a critical knowledge of the wider economy.

2C576D59-1BBA-4257-8C6C-B579CE4CD570ECOLOGY is a term invented in the 19th century to designate the study of the universe as a home for life. It is concerned with the natural systems that produce, sustain and enhance living beings. It is especially concerned with ecosytems, that is, with the interrelationships of living beings with each other and with the material processes of the planet.

Sex is one of the strategies developed by living beings on earth to secure the survival of species by determining an unpredictable mixture of genetic material in every newborn. The sexual activity of human beings was evolved through the sexual activity of  mammals, birds, fish and even insects. Any genuine understanding of human sexuality must interpret it as the genetically coded result of millions of years of evolution, which has as its primary purpose, the survival of the species.

The fact of self-consciousness in human beings means that sexual activity is not simply instinctual but mediated by human understanding and relationship. It is however, in a way which greatly disturbed St. Augustine, not completely under the control of the human will. An ecological understanding of human sexuality will see it as a meeting place of nature and nurture, of instinct and personality, of compulsion and choice, of mating and love.

Jesus’ understanding of sexuality is thoroughly ecological: “In the beginning God made them male and female….therefore a man shall leave his family and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” Human beings share the division of other creatures into male and female. The human male is under compulsion to unite sexually with a woman, and the one flesh of the sexually united couple is blessed by God.

The moral teachings of my church about sex, at the beginning of the 1960’s, were untouched by any ecological wisdom. Instinct, for example, was seen as merely animalistic and therefore bad; there was no appreciation of our animal heritage, or of the wisdom of the species laid down in our genes and the working of our bodies. The sexual discourse of the church emphasised the control of the human will rather than any art by which sex might enhance our capacity to be truly human. Unlike Hinduism (The Kamasutra) or Islam (The Perfumed Garden) Christianity produced no classics on the art of sexual love. Its recognition of the the frailty of human existence and the permanence of salvation led it to neglect the place of humanity in the web of created life.

Along with its younger members the church might have produced a more graceful sexual ethic which valued pleasure and fun but retained a commitment to tenderness and faithfulness between partners as elements of the “one flesh” which Jesus valued. Its failure to do so was due to its lack of ecological understanding. The house of God includes the created world and its processes.

I was a young minister of the church I am criticising and must acknowldege my own share in its failure. Although I was already aware of some of the above, I  failed to make a disciplined analysis of the problem, or to develop, along with others perhaps, a model of the kind of teaching and nurture which was lacking. It is out of a sense of missed opportunity that I offer this analysis now, with a view to offering further crtiques and proposals for the church’s future, based on the three categories I have used in this blog.







Some kind readers have said these words to me at times, indicating that while they liked what I had written well enough, they weren’t sure I could cope with anything that demanded more stamina. I could argue that in my other blog,, I have commented on several complete books of the Bible, sometimes translating them as well, but that doesn’t prove I could carry a sustained argument on a big subject. All of which is just a preface to announcing my decision to tackle the question of why, over the course of my lifetime, institutional Christianity in Scotland has declined continuously so that on any Sunday, less than 10% of the population will actually be in church. A slightly larger percentage will state their intention of going to church, but some of them won’t make it. This is the sort of statistic which leads my own denomination to ask how it can survive, and  Secularist Society to demand that all religious faiths are separated from the state and its institutions.

Where has the church gone wrong?

One response is to argue that such decline is evident at other times in history, and that the church may be blameless and helpless in the face of cultural movements it cannot control. If I describe those movements as typical of liberal democracies with advanced capitalist economies, you may think it unlikely that any church could do much to control or even influence them. But churches are part of the changing society, and 60 years back, when I was a teenager, a much larger part than now. It is reasonable therefore to consider whether they have, by their own action or inaction, contributed to their own decline.

I am going to confine my analysis to the Church of Scotland of which I have been a member since childhood, and to the years since I left school, namely from 1960 to  the present day. I do not think I need to write a chapter reminding you of all the societal changes in Britain in that period; they are many and profound. But in any review of these changes, I cannot find any in which churches were leaders or more than a very few in which they were a major influence. You might think that such a significant section of society might have at least one or two beneficial changes to its credit, but I can find none. Not one of the main moral, political, economic, artistic, technological or scientific or even spiritual changes in British society over these years has been led by the churches.

That seems to me an important judgement that deserves analysis, but given the huge number of changes and their complexity any extensive analysis across the board would be well beyond my capacity. On the other hand, an examination of just one area of significant change might be possible and illuminating. I’m going to focus on the changes in sexual attitudes and behaviour in Scotland since 1960. I’ll list those I consider most important:

The ideal

1. Effective contraception and the availability of abortion have made it possible for heterosexual people to have sex without making babies.

2. It is accepted that teenagers are sexual beings and will probably have sex during their achool years.

3.  It is accepted that a large proportion of young people will form significant but temporary sexual partnerships outside of marriage.

4. The sexualisation of large areas of social life – music, fashion, news, social media- some of it extreme by any standards is taken for granted.

5. All forms of consensual sex are legal for people over sixteen, and most sexual orientations are recognised as of equal worth, in spite of lingering prejudice.

6. The revolution in the status of women can be overstated, but the degree of equality achieved would astonish my parents’ generation.

7. In 1960 about 5% of births were outside marriage, at present almost 50%.

8. Over the period, the divorce rate first increased, peaked, and has been falling for the past few years, due to cohabitation making marriage more of a personal choice than a required status

Summer of love 1967

With regard to most of these, my church has played a reactive rather than a fully participative or leading role. It has rightly seen that some of these changes are far from beneficial, but even its opposition has been largely ineffective. The one exception to this criticism is instructive. In 1968 The Church of Scotland agreed to the ordination of women as ministers in full equality with their male counterparts. Although many professions had for years admitted women to positions of authority, and one or two churches, notably the Methodists, had already accepted women ministers, this was a bold decision by my church, placing it alongside progressive groups in Scottish society which were promoting the equality of women.  The results have been overwhelmingly beneficial, transforming parishes with new practices and the fellowship of clergy from a smelly male club into something much healthier. Three women have been elected as Moderators of our General Assembly, representing the Church for their year of office. The public face of the church has been a rebuke to all who want to deny the equality of women, especially those Christian denominations who offer spurious biblical arguments in favour of male superiority.

Contrast that example of leadership with the church’s attitude to the revolution in the sexual attitudes and behaviour of teenagers and young adults. Affluence, pop culture, contraception, along with the far from altruistic encouragement of  market forces, accompanied a gradual but very definite rejection by young people of the conventional morality about pre-marital sex. This had frequently been two-faced: boys and young men might sow their wild oats,  but girls and young women should remain virgins until marriage, because that’s what men wanted. Nobody asked which females were to be the receptacles of the wild oats, or how, in the face of such sowing, a sufficient supply of virgins could be maintained.

The church generally avoided the topic – never in all my years in the (Christian) Boys Brigade was the topic discussed, unless the shinyness of one’s leather belt and the blancoing of one’s haversack were some kind of symbolic indicators. Public teaching by the church always pointed to marriage as the right context for sex, and recommended chastity outside it. Homosexual activity was condemned as unnatural and harmful. God had designed the sexual apparatus of male and female for use in marriage alone and any other use was not in his plan. Except…. it was kind of admitted…..somewhat shamefully…. that “occasional masturbation” might take place. Occasional! Millions of acts of masturbation helped the males through years of restraint, into the sexual license of marriage. What the girls did is unknown to me.

Christian Mothers Homepage

Of course, young men and women did get together. My working class friends seemed to find enthusiastic young women without much trouble, and because they were wage- earners from age 14, were able to marry in their late teens, whereas middle class young people were not expected to marry until their mid-twenties or later leading to a variety of sexual strategies which fell short of “going the full way.”

The economics of liberal capitalism demanded the postponement of marriage until mature adulthood; the church demanded chastity outside marriage, and the young people caught in this trap rebelled. Pop music and so-called youth culture, along with the gurus of liberation, advocated sex as a pleasurable experience without any moral strings attached. From year to year the church deplored the evidence of “increased promiscuity”, the sexual content of books, magazines and films, the easy availability of contraception, not to mention the “animalistic posturing”of pop idols, all to little avail. Meanwhile it left at least one generation of young people to find its own way towards better sexual attitudes and relationships. Small wonder if in that endeavour many young people made serious mistakes which hurt themselves and others, were frequently led into unwise behaviour by the idiot pronouncements of their favourite entertainers, and, hampered by persisting inequalites, women were disadvantaged and abused; but great credit to them all that out of this chaos there emerged the new form of cohabitation called partnership, in which men and women, men and men, women and women, committed themselves for longer or shorter periods of time to share dwellings, love, sex and the fortunes of life. There are no formal rules for partnerships, but rather a broad expectation that partners are equal, and will treat each other with respect, honesty and affection.  There are of course exploitative partnerships as there are marriages, but the social usefulness of this new relationship cannot be denied. It was invented by young people,  while the institutions of society which might have helped them, parents, educators and churches stood on the sidelines and carped. EBD86371-0574-4598-A85F-B5DA0CD720A6

It’s not surprising that younger people deserted a church which had deserted them, while standing in judgement on their creativity.

(more to follow)




This famous expression of Robert Burns in his satirical address to King George 3rd in the year 1778, means in English that “facts are lads that won’t be moved,” which remains true even when we know that facts don’t meet us ready made but have to be constructed. E= MC2 may be a fact about the universe but it took Einstein a bit of labour to find it. Human beings do not live by facts alone but we should all be ready to live with facts even if they contradict our cherished myths or opinions. Mr Trump is convinced for no good reason that Iran is a very wicked country, possibly because it harbours a desire for influence in the world similar to that of the USA, but he would do well to look carefully at the facts, as befits a man who is always complaining about fake news.

My weekend dose of science from the Spanish newspaper El Pais brings me a story which shows the relationship between myth and facts very clearly.CFFDA192-1185-411A-9F3B-ECA88FBCBDBC

For many centuries people have puzzled over the great stone statues which stand in numbers on Easter Island, in which the heads are at least half of the whole artifact, so much so that some travellers described them as simply heads or faces. After more than a century of research archeologists describe them as images of ancestors, believed to hold ‘mana’ or sacred power, to protect their living descendants, and perhaps the island itself. They were constructed continuously over a period of 250 years between 1250 and 1500 CE, and this competitive cult – the size of your ancestor’s image was important- may have exhausted the resources of the culture that produced them.

But who were the islanders? And how had these human beings reached such remote pacific islands? Some historians considered the statues to have links with Amerindian culture, Aztecs, Mayans,  maybe, but their critics pointed out that with the very primitive water transport available the huge distance would be uncrossable. Cue Thor Heyerdahl whose Kon-Tiki raft with its crew sailed from Peru to Polynesia across 5000 miles of ocean, proving to Heyerdahl’s satisfaction the possibility that the  islands were settled by immigrants from South America. He liked  myths of jouneying, believing also that some  Caribbean islands had been settled from West Africa


Scientists have just finished testing DNA from five Easter islanders, three whom.ived after European/ American contact with the islanders and two from before. The three showed some elements common to Amerindian DNA and the two showed none, but instead some common elements with the so-called Denisovans, a human group contemporaneous with Neanderthals, which can be traced in the populations of the Asian mainland. It seems the original Easter Islanders came from Asia.

After many years of speculation, mythology and argument, one scientific discovery is enough to establish the fact. Before the DNA sequencing technique was available the issue was open to argument. Now a fact is established and further understanding of Easter Island history has to start with it. The rigour, beauty and value of scientific investigation are made evident by this story.

There are many Christians who believe that Jesus earthly corpse was raised from the grave by God’s power leaving the empty grave behind. If so, the DNA of the risen and exalted Jesus ought to match up with that of other first century Jewish corpses. It might seem blasphemous to ask the Son of God for a blood sample, but if it could be arranged it would help settle matters of theological debate. Of course the same believers may point out with some justification that Jesus’ DNA was already odd, as it derived from his mother and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, there is also a argument that Jewish racial identity, as asserted in the  Bible is itself a myth, which could be examined by DNA evidence

Thomas checks the DNA

from the past and the present. It is possible that instead of issuing from the loins of Abraham, Jews are a congregation of many races, pressed into racial purity by their own propaganda and the prejudice of others.

The power of science to establish facts amd settle arguments is disturbing to those who love the myths which can be tested by its procedures.

I would argue, as indeed Jesus himself did, and his first followers, that the “DNA” shared by his true brothers and sisters is not physical but spiritual, based on a commitment to the justice and goodness of God, and proven in voluntary poverty, sorrow at evil, generosity, peace-making, mercy, purity of heart and readiness to suffer for justice. These characteristics are also matters of fact, which establish a believer’s likeness to Jesus, and demonstrate his contemporary aliveness in a way that goes beyond all mythology.







It’s some time since I gave my readers any information about my blog’s mascot, Desperate Dan, whose statue strides across the city centre of Dundee accompanied by his dog called Dawg. It is the most populat piece of public art in the city, with locals and visitors. Somehow it works as a symbol of Dundee and its people.

8330B0A6-DE7C-4829-9C24-202E96C067EAHe was in invented in 1938 in the Dandy, the famous comic published by D C Thomson, who still flourish today. Desperate Dan (DD) was originally a wild western desperado, but over time evolved into the giant muscleman who used his strength to help others, especially children. His most famous habit is his addiction to cow pies, enormous meaty dishes with the horns sticking out of the pastry. A succession of gifted artists drew the cartoons, whose bright colours and bold forms delighted generations of children. Even today, years after the sad death of the Dandy, DD Annuals and paraphenalia sell well, especially at Christmas, and a huge DD mural decorates the gable wall of the Thomson building.

What’s the appeal? Well, unlike DD, Dundonians male and female, are neither tall nor  large and may relish the thought that a huge, strong and genial giant is looking after their welfare: in the face of officialdom, the Law, Nazi Germany, employers, the Church and bullies everywhere, Desperate Dan was on their side, and would, however clumsily, help them win the battle. The clumsiness was important; Dan was a superhero with the human quality of messing up, which especially endeared him to his admirers. He wasn’t like Superman who never made a mistake, which allowed children and adults to identify with him. There were attempts over the years to broaden his appeal, by giving him a family – I think I remember an Aunt Aggy, and maybe a Squaw, yes, honest, a native american, but these soon vanished as they only detracted from the lasting appeal of the Big Man.

A410FB6A-7106-4F0C-97CE-43847E932EF1The process of developing a popular superhero has been called, by people with too much time on their hands, as “mythopoeic enhancement” which adds to the hero’s profile elements from the history and character of the readers, so that he/she becomes their hero. The Greeks, who were addicted to warfare and wisdom, could identify with Homer’s heroes, the angry warrior Akhilles and the wily wiseman Odysseus. As in the case of these heroes, popular response to the early stories of DD contributed to the further development of the character.

Nobody should think that the technical accomplishment used by a comic book artist, who is required to invent and present episode upon episode, is trivial. Some of the greatest artists like Michelangelo have used their techniques to great advantage, as he did on the Sistene Chapel ceiling. But the enhancement of the myth by elements of character and ability which come from its audience’s experience demands an equal if less recognised skill. People may show reverence or awe before some reprentations of heroes; DD has always been able to count on the affection of his admirers.

So where does that leave Jesus, the other hero of my blog, which I called xtremejesus because the UK Government classified as extreme anything that contradicted  British values or denied our national narrative, such as the Jesus of the Gospels? Isn’t he too an invented figure, mythopoeically enhanced? Isn’t he the work of  skilled artists, who also had the ability to incorporate into their story fundamental experiences and convictions of the people for whom they wrote, using material from the tales told and retold in their communities. Yes, he is, but unlike DD who has no particular time and place, no history, no identification, Jesus is presented as living in Galilee and Judaea in the time of named emperors, kings and officials, having an ordinary trade, that of carpenter/ builder, belonging to an identifiable family, and entering recorded history as a result of his challenge to named religious leaders and a named official of the Roman Empire. The earliest evidence about him comes in the letters of St Paul written less than 20 years after his death. Unlike superheroes, Jesus died, which is a reasonable indication of real humanity. So Jesus was a historical person, about whom we know at least some facts.

But surely I’m not suggesting that the Gospels with their angels, demons, miracle cures and walking on the water, are factual accounts of their hero? No, I’m not; the Gospels include much invention and mythopoeic enhancement. The usual critical interpretation of what the gospel stories are doing is that they are turning Jesus into a superhero by giving him abilities which are supernatural. If we take the story of Jesus stilling the storm in Mark, we are inclined to agree: Jesus is described as stopping a storm at sea by his command. And it looks as if the author does want his audience to think of Jesus’ supernatural power, for he finshes his story with the question, “ who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?2C599711-AB29-4031-B775-7D890F758148

If we want a fuller understanding of what’s going in this story we have to look at the Jewish consciousness of the sea, displayed in their  Bible. The sea is the image of pre-creation chaos in Genesis 1 and of the return of chaos in the story of the flood. The Psalms and the book of Job praise God for controlling the turbulence of the great deep. The chaotic potential of the sea was part of the thought and experience of every Jew. It was particularly linked to evil and death. So when Mark tells his audience that the boat with Jesus and his disciples is crossing the sea of Galilee, the audience pictures a journey through chaos to safety, which is of course an image of the journey of faith. When the storm strikes the boat, Jesus is asleep, apparently uncaring, as indeed he might seem to be to disciples facing personal danger or persecution. This mysterious sleep of Jesus mimes the fact of his death – this Jesus who commands the ship of faith, appears dead when chaos strikes. But when he awakens, demonstrating his risen life, he can issue the command to the elements of chaos, “Peace, be still” because he speaks in the power of God. The result, in nature and in the minds of his disciples is a “great calm.”

In this case the mythopoeic enhancement uses imagery from the Jewish culture, with which however people of all cultures can identify, to address the experience of abandonment common to all humanity. Just when terror strikes, when the diagnosis is bad, when the baby is stillborn, when the car crashes, when the holiday is interrupted by a hurricane, when the mortgage cannot be paid, just then the hero, the saviour, appears to be asleep or dead or not to care if we drown, Then we, the audience are told two things: one, he’s in the boat with us, sharing the danger, we are not on our own; two, when he responds to our fear, as he will, he can speak a word from beyond us, a creative word which calls the chaos to order.

The story is if you like a dream sequence depicting Jesus the crucified and risen Lord who is with his people in the fragile ship of faith. A simple moment from the history of Jesus, crossing a lake in a boat with his disciples, becomes a story about the One who was dead and is alive for evermore. Often miracle stories are pieces of magical realism that depict a fact about the relationship of Jesus and his followers, rather than about the life of Jesus in Palestine.

Even when the gospel story is apparently ordinary history, as for example, the trial of Jesus, the magical realism is still present – just listen to that cock crowing three times! We can interpret the enhancement of the history of Jesus as a subtle way of communicating the human meaning of his life and death and rising. And besides, they’re good stories.

Desperate Dan is a product of my culture, Jesus is the producer of my faith. Two good men.

I have a special service to lead at 12 noon today, and therefore an unusually quiet Sunday morning to spend in thought. I could go to church, but my local congregation worships at 11am at which time I’ll be leaving for work. So writing a blog seems as good a way as any to discipline my thinking.

Having just returned from (French) Catalunya, I’d been considering an essay on the different forms of violence displayed in the last week in the dispute over the referendum in Spanish Catalunya, including Señor Puigdemont’s implicit violence in not recognising the opinions of Catalans who want to remain part of Spain. In a volatile situation any violence may be dangerous, and the state has a responsibility to use its monopoly of force to prevent violence rather than to promote it.  But I don’t really have much wisdom on this topic other than to confess it has made me question what percentage of a majority vote I would consider sufficient for Scottish independence, although I would once have thought 51% to 49% perfectly adequate.

Then I had an email from my friend Kostas with some material from Varoufakis on reform of the EU, which I read, marvelling at the scope of the author’s knowledge and imagination, almost as much as his complete lack of a workable plan for getting from A to B of his programme. Maybe that will come.

Maybe indeed I don’t really have a thought worth communicating, and should abandon the blogosphere to the millions who know that their opinion will benefit humanity. Maybe….perhaps…..I should listen to the quiet voice which I have often ignored as I wrote one blog after another, the voice that says, clearly enough, “Oh, shut up and listen!”

I want to protest that there’s no better recipe for madness than trying to listen to the clamour of global media, but I know the quiet voice is not directing me to a new batch of tweets, but rather reminding me that I used to imagine I could listen to God. Yes, I did, I remember, and not as an exercise in supernatural contact, but more as envisaged by D H Lawrence who wrote of “man in his wholeness, wholly attending.” He meant a disciplined awareness of oneself in the world and a disciplined openness to what comes from beyond the self.

I recollect that my mind has nagged me since I got up today with the memory of past events in which my smart mouth led me to say things that were hurtful or ungenerous or arrogant because I was in thrall to my own cleverness. It’s just as well I didn’t then have access to social media, as I would infallibly have turned bad thinking into worse messaging. One of the most painful of these memories is of a time when a female colleague was trying to tell me about her breast cancer, while I was on my high horse about some political issue. When she could stand it no longer, she said, “When God gave us one mouth and two ears he meant us to listen twice as often as we speak.”



There is the great bible story of Elijah who after his vigorous defence of the true God of Israel, feels overcome by the opposition, and journeys to the place of divine revelation at Sinai, where he experiences all manner of B-movie effects which do not however, reveal God. Then however he hears “ a sound of silence” that asks him what he is doing. Immediately he answers with a well- worded defence of his sacrifice for God, but is given detailed instructions about how to undermine his enemies and establish his successor. The ‘still, small voice’ beloved of sentimental preachers accepts that he is at the end of his life’s work and tells him how to finish it well. He is made quiet so that he can listen to the intelligent voice of duty. He is reminded that although he is necessary to its progress, he is not in charge of God’s business.

I think that’s what I need to hear.






While on holiday in the Pyrenees Orientales, I visited the so-called Cathar country where in the 13th century, at the command of the Pope, crusaders massacred thousands of innocent people because they held beliefs that were anathema to the Catholic Church. The Cathar communities came into being in the 12th century and had been almost completely eradicated by the end of the 14th.

Cathar castle at Peyrepertuse

They refused to recognise the authority of the Roman Church because they considered it corrupt and insufficiently Christlike. In this respect they shared some of the same concerns as St Francis, who, however, was obedient to the hierarchy of the church. The Cathars based their criticism of the church on a theology which was radically different from mainstream Christian tradition.

1. They insisted that there were two “principles” or Gods, one the true father of Jesus whose goodness liberates humanity from all material evils into the life of the spirit, and another who created the material universe and imprisoned humans in material bodies.

2. Much of the Old Testament they saw as witness to the activities of the evil God.

3. Jesus himself had no material body but was a disguised spirit, who therefore could not undergo a real death. For the Cathars, Jesus was the revealer of the life of the spirit.

4. Material sacraments like holy communion and baptism were rejected as unspiritual.

5. Conception and birth, as the means by which material life is continued, were seen as without value, if not evil. Some of the Cathar community might marry but those who desired to be perfect did not. As sexual difference was unimportant, women were encouraged to be leaders along with men.

6. The gospel teachings of Jesus were taken literally and put into practice: voluntary poverty, sharing of goods and love of neighbour were marks of the Cathar communities, as was admitted even by their orthodox enemies.

I have read an extended statement of Cathar beliefs by one John Lugio, dated 1240, in which he explains why he believes in “two principles” rather than one. He refers to the common problem of evil in the world and asks how so much evil can proceed from the will of a good Creator. If such an omnipotent creator intended the world to be this way, then he cannot he called good.

He recognises that the Catholic theologians have answered this difficulty by arguing that God gave human beings free will, so that they could choose good or evil. John counters this by saying that this just pushes the issue back one stage: if God is God he must known that some humans would choose evil and so he must either have intended the world to be as it is, or at least allowed it to be so. This last possibilty, that the Creator has given freedom for creatures to make their own choices and has allowed their bad choices although they give him pain, is rejected by John. He imagines God considering the evil of humanity:

Cathar castle at Queribus

“‘It repenteth me that I have made them; namely, I shall have to undergo suffering and pain in the future, through myself alone, because I made them.” And so it seems manifest, according to the doctrine of those persons who believe that there is only one First Principle, that this God and His Son, Jesus Christ, who, according to them are one and the same, causes Himself sadness, sorrow, and suffering, bearing pain in Himself without any extraneous intervention by anyone. But it is impossible and wicked to believe this of the true God.’

John glimpses a truly radical truth about the creator, that creation involves acceptance of the cross, because only through the suffering of God can human evil be forgiven and overcome. But he cannot accept this because his view of divine perfection excludes suffering. Therefore he concludes that evil originates in another principle or God, whom he designates as the creator of material reality. Faithful believers fight alongside the true God against the Evil One on behalf of spiritual goodness.

I am suggesting that Catharism, along with other dualistic theologies, grew out of a profound apprehension of evil, of the wrongness of the world as it is.  Conventional Christianity concentrates on personal sin but accepts worldy life as basically OK.  More radical believers have often questioned this acceptance and tried to make sense of a world-gone-wrong.  We can be pious and say that God simply endures the wrongness of the world, or we can be more daring and say that God has chosen this world and its wrongness over a world where goodness is achieved by compulsion. And we can assert that the consequence of this choice is that God in his/her goodness  suffers grief and pain. This vulnerability of God draws the believer to God’s side, walking the way of Jesus so that God may win against the odds. The Cathars thought this commitment entailed the existence of two opposed deities; I think it points to the   astonishing permissiveness of the one God,  who grants a genuine freedom to his/her creation, but maintains his/her goodness at the cost of pain.

All of which is to say that although I totally disagree with Cathar theology, I can  sympathise with their radical commitment to the gentleness of Jesus, their risky choice of the narrow path in a landscape of precipitous heights and depths. They were exterminated by the Church because they challenged its corrupt power. The worst thugs in Europe were employed by the Holy Father to cleanse the Albigensian lands of people whose only crime was being too clean.

only a suffering God can help

A Cathar martyr described the conflict as between a “church that hides and a church that flays.”

I have described this historical event in the language of theological realism: God is this, God is that; but of course both Catholic and Cathar were engaged in inventing their Gods, as believers like me still do.