FACT: There are in Scotland some hundreds of thousands of people addicted to harmful substances, some of which can be legally obtained such as cigarettes and alcohol, others of which cannot, such a marijuana and heroin. All of these damage human health, some fatally, but true addicts disregard the danger, even when the damage is all too evident in their minds and bodies. Many of them live unhappy lives, marked by depression, poverty, unemployment and homelessness, although those whose addictions are more socially acceptable suffer less severely. The state benefits from the sale of alcohol and tobacco through taxation.

FACT: There are in Scotland (and the UK) a class of professional criminals, whose families are well-known to the criminal justice system. They prey on other people by theft, fraud and violence. They may show loyalty to each other and daring of a sort, but are otherwise devoid of humanity, causing damage to the lives of others without compassion or remorse.

FACT: Our present laws regarding the availability of drugs places the supply of a whole range of addictive substances desired by addicts into the hands of professional criminals. Or to put it another way, our present law leaves a crucial aspect of the care of drug addicts to the lovingkindness of the scum of the earth. It is no wonder that the results are not good. The immensely profitable trade in illegal drugs is ultimately controlled by international criminals, and is serviced nationally by powerful UK criminal networks, including couriers and local supply agents. The addict will never know if she is being cheated as regards price or quality; and if she gets into debt, she may have to repay it by acting as seller or courier or sex-slave. Any serious challenge from an addict to a supplier can lead to injury or death. Both of these are all too likely for any user: I have officiated at the funerals of three young Dundonians, whose parents were involved as local supply agents.

FACT: The Daily Record newspaper has been campaigning on Scotland’s appalling number of drug deaths, urging the Government to deal with addiction as a medical issue by decriminalising the possession and use of drugs. It has been an intelligent and well-researched campaign, which looks as if it may succeed in changing Government policy.

FACT: It would be possible to legalise the sale/ provision of these drugs. Honest, regulated suppliers, privately or publicly owned, could begin to regularise supply, quality, price and local availability, (perhaps on the model of Off-Licences); and addicts could begin to re-order their lives in the confidence of available, affordable, legal supply. There would be many problems in doing this, but it could be done, not least because the Government could save the money presently spent on “The war against drugs”, and could gain by deciding to tax the sale of drugs, This revenue might be used to fund the medical care of addicts, and the kind of abstinence programmes, especially 12- Step programmes which have had success with addictions. Some drug users may be able to keep their usage at a level which damages them no more than social drinking.

FACT: This revolution would destroy the present trade in drugs. Of course it would continue in ways similar to the various black markets in tobacco and alcohol, but a huge network of criminal control, violence and profit would have been disabled. Given the key position of this network in Scottish crime, its collapse might significantly alter the balance of power between criminals and police.

FAITH: Many ministers and priests in Scotland, like myself, who have worked in parishes where poverty is an issue, will have experienced at first hand the misery caused by the drug trade, including violence, suicide, overdose-deaths, theft, prostitution, child neglect and more. We should be united in asking our churches to support a public enquiry into legalisation of the supply of drugs, as part of their commitment to those whom Jesus Christ called, “The least important of my brothers and sisters.”




In his campaign for election as President of the USA Donald Trump promised that he would not start any wars. He kept that promise, although his attitude to other nations was by no means as peaceable as that of Jimmy Carter, who believed that most issues could be resolved by diplomacy.

Still, it may be important to give Trump some credit for refusing to believe that violent intervention is a good way of keeping the peace, indeed for refusing to believe that it was his country’s duty to keep the peace. Our own Tony Blair defended the idea of moral intervention by force, but his engineering of facts left many wondering if the intervention deserved the name of moral.

As an old man, I think that the disgraceful appeasement of Hitler by the British Government, followed by a necessary war against fascist powers, left many decent people with an optimistic view of military intervention as a national policy. The so-called forgotten wars in Palestine, Burma, Korea, and Cyprus, and the disastrous attack on the Suez canal, showed Britain continuing its imperial role of policing the world, although with very little success. Blair was only reviving a habit that had been all too settled.

From the point of view of my Christian faith, Donald Trump’s achievement in not starting any wars – except almost a civil war at home- is cause for congratulation. I’m not sure that Jesus would have condemned all wars, but it’s clear that he was against violence. He taught disciples to refuse a violent response to violent behaviour by others, including the bullying of the foreign occupying force. As a popular leader he could have led jihad against Rome, but refused to do so, warning that those who used violence often died by it. He may have found that Roman rule was not much worse than that of native kings. He had no nationalist convictions, and was happy to make friends with people who had collaborated with the foreign rulers. These are very important facts about Jesus, which explain the early church’s readiness to suffer rather than to use violent means of protection, and its strong teaching that no believer should be a soldier, non-violent policies which lasted for three hundred years,, until the church became an active partner of the Roman state in the 4th century.

Scots are historically part of more than one violent society: the clans of the highlands were forever killing each other; the lowland families fought amongst themselves and against the English; and the sophisticated society of the 18th century cities was deeply involved in the violence of British imperialism. Our Scottish religious tradition includes the sectarian violence of the 17th century which has echoes in the Old Firm violence of today.

If we want to confront the violence of our culture, it may be helpful if Christian churches confess and repent of their violence towards each other, and to native populations in the British empire. My grandfather who went to China along with Eric Liddell as a missionary, had no criticism of British and American imperialism in China, and actively supported the violence of Chang Kai Shek, because he was a Christian. He loved the Chinese people but could not see how Britain had abused them. Much of our missionary history includes the unadmitted violence of the Empire.

If it was ok to be violent towards the heathen, it was also ok to be violent to our own children. The otherwise inexplicable amount of male violence to women in Scotland is a product of the violent patriarchy that many children experienced.


The fierce non-violence of Jesus should be recovered by his church in the form of a commitment to international peace on the one hand, and to interpersonal gentleness on the other. St. Donald Trump may be an unlikely exemplar of non-violence, but good practice, even by sinners, is always welcome.

This blog follows on from a number of recent blogs, emphasising the importance of facts for faith.

It seems ages ago but its only a year since I was hillwalking in Glen Prosen, Angus, and saw two mountain hares in their winter white. There was extensive snow, and the animals were visible only by their shape and movement. As usual, they moved away from me, but not very far, and sat observing my slow progress through the snow.

Mountain Hare

I was reminded of this by a climate report this week detailing the difficulties imposed on this species and others in Scotland, by global heating. Lack of snow on the higher mountains meant that the hares’ camouflage was becoming an invitation to predators, especially to foxes and large birds of prey. The Ptarmigan which also turns white in the winter is suffering from the same problem; being white against a brownish background. In fact, at present there is ample snow, but recent winters, being mainly mild, have not provided it nearly as often as they did in the past. Certain creatures find that their basic survival strategy is no longer effective.

This fact of course is just one of thousands showing the effects of climate change on living creatures, which together with millions of facts about its effects on the ecosystems of the world, lead to my conclusions a) that human beings have caused an increase in the temperature of the planet and b) that the consequences will be catastrophic.

How does my faith deal with these facts?

1. God will not intervene miraculously to save the humanity. If human beings have determined that they will fry, they will fry. God has commitments beyond human beings. The extinction of homo sapiens will not be the end of the world.

2. As there is still time, but not much, to limit global overheating, and prevent human extinction, people of faith should do everything possible to do so and to encourage others to do so. Because of their shared faith, they should especially try to encourage fundamentalist believers to abandon their sinful rejection of the facts of global heating.

3. As nobody will be convinced by people whose way of life remains unchanged, believers must make the changes that science regards as necessary. At the very least those include a decisive move away from all habits that depend on fuels or foods which emit carbon dioxide and other harmful chemicals. There are clearly other ways of cutting down on carbon emissions, such as insulating our houses, but fuels and food are the main ones. So, what about me? If I and my wife were younger, I would try to do without a car, but as we are in our 80’s, the availability of personal transport is important. I hope therefore to buy an electric car, which is by no means an ideal solution, but will be better than my present car which uses diesel. Getting a useful second hand electric car is still expensive, which may put it out of the reach of many. I have already ceased to consume meat and dairy products, which are responsible for a large proportion of harmful gases. But my house is heated by a gas boiler, and some of my provisions come in plastic which emits harmful gases in the course of recycling. So there’s plenty room for improvement. Oh, and yes, I still intend to use a short-haul air flight once a year. Habits are hard to break but we all have to try.

4. Personal changes are vital, but public changes will be determinative, so political commitment is also necessary. It is important to look carefully at whatever “green” policies are put forward, as most political parties are allied to large international companies who want very slow changes in fuel and food. On the other hand, Green parties at present have little direct power. In Scotland Greens have held a balance of power, and have had some influence. Protest as well as parliamentary means will be needed. I don’t like protests but I may have to get involved.

5. Churches as organisations should look at their own fuel and food policies, and must be ruthless in deciding against emissions.

6. So far, most of these requirements could apply to anyone regardless of faith. For Christians, the threat of global heating and destruction of ecosystems, should be viewed as an arrogant human attack on the Creator God, a blasphemous rejection of God’s gift of world and life. In faith, as always, there has to be recognition of sin, confession, receipt of forgiveness, change of heart and practical reformation. This issue must become central to the life of congregations.

7. I think it’s worth doing all this to save the beautiful mountain hare; if you don’t, you may still feel it’s worth it to save a beautiful world and its inhabitants.

In the wake of the preceding blogs, which have emphasised the importance of fact for faith, I will write of some important contemporary facts and how I deal with them in faith.

The pandemic

A virus which is of the Corona virus group, named Covid 19 has infected people in every part of the world, causing serious harm to its victims’ ability to breathe, leading to death in a significant proportion of cases. Treatment has been similar to that given for flu, with a number of drug interventions in the more serious cases. Vaccines are mow available to prevent or weaken infection, and may yet reduce its rate to permit society to resume normal life. Churches along with others, have been active in trying to ameliorate some of the consequences of the pandemic: extreme poverty, including inability to pay for food, isolation, bereavement, depression, fear. During periods of lockdown, Christian people, along with others have tried to keep in touch with family, neighbours and fellow church members, to provide mutual support. In addition to all other forms of support, Christian people have prayed, individually and together. Does prayer make any difference or is it merely a pious custom?

Perhaps I can start an answer by noting what prayer is not:

1. It is not bringing God news. Even if we imagine that God has universal responsibilities – there may be terrible famine on a planet of Alpha Centauri- we do not think that like a busy emperor he may need reminding about events in a small corner of the empire. “Your heavenly father knows what you need before you ask” Jesus said.

2. It is not an attempt to change God’s mind. We assume God’s love and desire to help people in trouble. When it seems, as it does in the pandemic that help has not been given, we should not jump to conclusions. God has already inspired the setting up and continued life of the NHS. Doubtless God’s blessing will have been upon all employed in the healing professions. Many of them have spoken of knowing this blessing in the course of exhausting and dangerous work. The scientists who have produced vaccines in record time may be seen as carrying out God’s work. What more help were we asking God to give?

3. It is not, at least in my case, a request for supernatural intervention. Some believers think that of course it is. My experience has been that God has not offered supernatural intervention in so many deserving cases, that if he were to offer it at all, I should turn from him in disgust, in the name of Marise who died of cancer a month after the birth of her first baby, and of David Haining, charity worker executed by ISIS, and many others. It is reasonable to ask, if I don’t expect supernatural intervention, what the hell I’m praying for, and I will try to answer that question in this blog.

4. In view of all the above, it is not a campaign. Sometimes churches set up prayer chains and other forms of mass petition as if God is the more likely to respond the greater the numbers are. Often this involves many public displays of fervent petition. It seems likely that this goes against Jesus’ criticism, ” They think they will be heard for their much speaking” and his instruction to pray “secretly to our father who hears in secret.”

So then, what is it?

1. It is in “The Spirit.” Paul says we don’t know how to pray but that the Spirit pleads for us in groans that words cannot express.” The Spirit according to Paul is shared life, the conviction that we are not closed in our egos but open to the lives of our fellow believers, out fellow human beings, our fellow creatures, and to God. We do not come to God without them, and in that shared life we are all children of God, swept up in that movement of God’s goodness in which we shall all be set free from “our slavery to decay.”

2. It is however also freedom of speech. Paul is especially impressed with the unexpected permission to speak frankly to God. He uses the word “paresia”, by which the Greeks meant a kind of democratic boldness. There may be particular issues that have to be raised with God, and we should not hold back. Our needs as people affected by pandemic are like this.

3. In the end it is not what we say, for our grasp of what is good is limited, it is our openness to God and our brothers and sisters. If we imagine this shared life as a place and time where God is present along with people from all the charities in the world, we may have some idea of its effect upon us. This is the “the secret place” of Jesus, where we meet his father.

4. It is not that we cannot speak; our words are precious to God; but that we must also listen intently. Prayer should not be separate from Bible reading, and the use of the meditations of others, through which our minds may be made ready to hear God’s words to us. God always listens to our concerns but she asks us to listen to hers.

5. The Jewish adage, that our individual prayer should always also be the prayer of Israel, reminds us of public prayer, especially in the worship of the church. There are many styles of this. I favour an honest formal style with space for contributions from the congregation, and with silences which permit inward prayer and meditation. However it is done, this prayer should be openly shared and inclusive.

6. Our private prayer however, should never be revealed to others. It is like intimacy between lovers. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it the secret discipline which fuels our discipleship, and guards the holy place of faith.

7. The Lord’s Prayer in both its forms should be used, as Jesus suggested, both as a prayer and as a model for prayer. It is the prayer of God’s son given to God’s children and is infinitely precious and down-to- earth.

8. In prayer believers are expressing their sorrow at the suffering of the world, their hope that God’s goodness will be done in the world, through the natural world and through human beings, and they will not be “brought into hard testing but delivered from evil.”

Whitehead sums up the creative activity of God in two ways:

1. In her eternal wisdom God provides the initial aim for every existing entity.

2. In her engaged love she includes the actual relationships of every entity, transforming them, by persuasion, for new life. This engagement causes God pain, but she is faithful. She accompanies her creation, and suffers with it. She is the companion who understands.

There are elements in Whitehead’s account of God, which relate easily to Christian belief, and others which don’t, for example, his statement that it’s just as true to say that God is made by the world, as that the world is made by God. Even this heresy, however, is driven by his rejection of images of domination and his insistence on images of persuasion and love. God is affected by the world because love is affected by its relationships.

There are endless subtleties in theologies based on Whitehead’s work. JS regards himself as convinced by a view of the world as process and relationship, and of God as a creative partner to it, as envisaged in the book of The Acts, “in God we live and move and have our being.”

From this vantage point he sees the process of evolution as provided with initial aims by God’s wisdom, and persuaded out of unfruitful dead ends by God’ subsequent engagement with it. This allows JS himself to engage with evolution as one of its products, trusting that he is also a product of God’s wisdom and love, along with viruses. But just as he cannot blame God for all his imperfections, he cannot attribute all the activity of viruses to her. He can imagine that the initial aim of God with viruses is for them to explore the wisdom of symbiosis as a form of life, while admitting that their relationship with human beings has so far not been very positive. What sort of adjustments in human beings might be necessary to improve the relationship? It may be that we are not adapted to viruses at all, in which case we should design our environment to limit their access to us. Or maybe viruses can adapt to cause us no more problems than say, than ordinary flu’. Or perhaps our immune systems, encouraged by vaccines, have to become more efficient in attacking them. It’s hard for JS to imagine a fruitful relationship between humans and viruses, but then he reflects that there must have been a time when the same might have been said about the many bacteria that now live in his gut and are essential to his welfare. Beyond all this, he knows that we do not understand all the relationships within our ecosystem, and must beware of destroying what may be essential to its functioning.

He believes that God remains in relationship with all parts of the universe. “Not a sparrow falls to the earth without your heavenly father” God shares the joy and the pain of all creatures, and will remain faithful until they all relate harmoniously.

He does not think that Whitehead’s thinking is the only way of bringing the facts of evolution and faith together; but he does think that simply banishing or distorting fact in favour of faith is the work of the devil, no matter how pious the people who do it. A certain kind of fundamentalism encourages the believer to dismiss facts in favour of what the Bible is said to say or what the pastor insists is true doctrine. The habit of ignoring facts in favour of what you believe, once learned, will turn a decent person into a raving denier of electoral defeat, who may also think that the corona virus vaccine will change their sexuality. The God who is opposed to facts is the God of the Inquisition, of the Mother and Baby Homes of Eire, of Franco, of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the KKK, ISIS and thousands of other killers. If beliefs are fact-proof, they will be dangerous.

This does not mean that faith cannot challenge alleged facts. When the idol – worshippers challenged the prophet known as Isaiah 2, he challenged the fact of their Gods, detailing how they are made by human hands and cannot stand with the God who makes the heavens and the earth: out of his faith which incorporated facts, he challenged a faith that ignores them. Jesus challenged a fearful belief in the deadliness of leprosy by touching a man who suffered from it. He knew the facts were friendly because God is in the facts.

Alfred North Whitehead, unlike most 20th century philosophers, wrote extensively about God, and incorporated him/her/it into his view of the world. He especially valued the late works of Plato which imagine the creator of the universe as persuasive rather than determinative. He admits that Plato never developed this crucial insight in logical detail, but he credits him with a fundamental understanding which strips the creator of notions of power derived from human tyrannies: God is not Trump determining his own reality, but rather a decent democrat who leads, but remains in partnership with her constituency.

Whitehead saw Jesus as the practical exemplar of Plato’s insight: he comes to persuade and convince, even to the extent of accepting suffering and death in order to do so. In that sense he is the incarnation of the persuasive God. He goes further and argues that a truly persuasive God must be open to persuasion, and therefore change, because she cannot determine the response of the universe and must therefore adapt to it. If this seems utterly heretical to some believers, JS finds it curiously similar to the story told of God in the witty and imaginative book of Genesis. The Hebrew “yehee”, meaning “Let (there) be” can be seen as persuasive rather than as an absolute command. God is depicted as having to adjust his intentions because human beings are not persuaded that his command is good for them. And even when he shares with Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he is subjected to an argument which forces him to hold his hand if he finds ten decent citizens. If Bible readers try interpreting the scripture in the light of Whitehead’s view of God, they may ask how they were ever persuaded to think it witnessed to an immutable, omniscient, omnipotent tyrant.

Whitehead realised that divine persuasion could not be limited to human beings, or animals or even viruses, for if the ultimate constituents of living things are totally determined then living things will also be. He therefore boldly insists that the events which are smallest elements of the universe are also persuaded by God rather than determined by imposed laws. The laws of physics are descriptions of what usually happens rather than prescribed behaviours. The persuasion of God is addressed to molecules and men. JS has benefitted from Whitehead’s radical description of what scientists have often treated as inert matter, which invites him to accept that all elements of the universe no matter how small are capable of responding to God and each other. He begins to see how much theology, philosophy and science has been distorted by an authoritarianism derived from our political institutions. Why are we so keen on commands, obedience, imposed laws, submission, not to mention the forms of flattery called prayer books? When the prophet Ezekiel abases himself before the appearance of God, he is told, “Son of Man, stand on your feet and I will speak with you.” (Ezekiel 2:1). JS gives God a round of applause.

Whitehead’s originality is his seeing the universe as composed not of clumps of matter and bits of mind, but of events which relate to other events in ways which are more like the relationships of persons than the collision of snooker balls.

– JS reflects on his morning walk as being very eventful: The sun shone brightly but the temperature was sub-zero, as he tackled the path alongside the potato fields. It was mainly ice with just a narrow strip of grass at the edge to provide grip for the walker. The constantly changing relationship between his feet and the ice made for sudden slips and frequent grotesqueries of balance. His attention was distracted from his own safety by the sight of three roe deer browsing some bushes on the other side of the field. As he watched one of them caught his scent, looked up, located him, and jumped over the bushes, followed by the others, into another field, where they were no longer visible. Another slip on the ice recalled him to the path, where he was immediately aware of a robin, flying upwards almost at his feet, disappearing into a hedge then performing the same routine again, clearly hoping for a relationship in this frozen environment that might bring it food. All these events of relationship were only the ones he noticed; the constantly changing relationship between his eyes and his surroundings happened so quietly he was able to ignore it. Similarly with the functioning of his lungs and heart. Similarly the encounter of the ice and the surrounding milder air which produced the deadly skin of water on top of the ice. –

Reality consists of events whose relations with each other create and recreate the world in the present.

But why bring God into all this? Because in a world of inter-relationships we can see God as the supremely – related one who persuades events into the harmonies which we call law, beauty, justice, and peace. Some people, conscious of this persuasive harmony, attribute it to “One who is not the universe” because they know it does not arise wholly from the elements of the universe, or from themselves. That is a leap of faith, but at least for Whitehead, not an irrational leap, since such a God supplies a beginning and an end, a stimulus and final adjustment to all the events of the process of evolution.

It’s a neat trick of evolutionary process, but difficult to imagine as the act of an omnipotent and beneficent deity.

Then the volcanic activity and the asteroid impact that ended the lives of most dinosaurs does seem a little like carelessness or even deliberate malice on the part of the omniscient and omnipotent One. John tries offering the excuse that the death of dinosaurs led to the flourishing of mammals, and hence to human beings, but then he realises the omniscient God could surely have bypassed dinosaurs altogether as they contributed nothing to the human genome.

No, the fact is that it makes no sense to attribute the process of evolution to an omniscient, omnipotent and beneficent God. So how can he believe that evolution is evidence for the existence of God?

Because he doesn’t believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God. He believes God is wise and loving, but rejects any words beginning with omni.

But is such a being worthy of being called God and worshipped as such? If he/she/it is not in complete charge, surely they are merely a demi-God, a pathetic excuse for a deity, and certainly a big disappointment compared with Jehovah in the Old Testament bringing floods and smiting the Egyptians? JS is a little impatient with this Old Testament stuff as anyone ought to be able to see the Bible as the story of a God who blunders in creating disobedient humans and tries to bring them to heel by mighty acts like the flood, then learns that the only way to sort his world is by patient persuasion of one family. Yes, there are still some miraculous outbursts but basically he sticks to persuasion. And if we add the New Testament, it’s all persuasion. So, in fact, there’s not much omni- about the biblical God. The omni- bits are because the bible authors inherited images of God as similar to the despotic monarchs of the ancient middle east, but the main story is all about persuasion. In JS’s view this truth is fundamental to any decent religion.

Is it possible to see God’s role in evolution as also persuasive rather than determinative, that God has to persuade the elements of the universe and its life forms to move towards perfection, rather than enforcing his own blueprint?

In fact, JS knows, this is the fully argued view of one of the greatest 20th century philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead.

Rev. John Smith, upbraided by his wife for having gone out for exercise and forgotten the fish van, asks in exasperation, “Do I have to remember everything?” This is not a good response, but had the Christian God been upbraided for the same offence he could not even have asked this question, as being omniscient and omnipotent, he is naturally expected to remember everything. This example points to one of the problems of epithets beginning with omni- they leave very little wriggle room for any failure or mess-up.

This problem is immediately evident to John Smith when he envisages making God responsible for the course of evolution. Development of new species by the mutations, one of which proves the most adaptable to new environments, may be a respectable mechanism for biological process, but it looks bad in the hands of an omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent God. What about all the mutations that led nowhere except to seriously inadequate creatures? What about the changing environments like ice-ages which killed off many creatures? And what about the parasitic wasp mentioned in his scientific text-book?

” It lays its egg inside a caterpillar. The tiny larva lurks in the flesh of the caterpillar soaking up its nutrients and drinking its blood, all the while being careful to keep its host alive, until it is ready to eat its way out and pupate.”

Rev. John Smith is thinking about a conversation he had with Sarah Thomson, a young mother with learning difficulties caused by birth trauma. She had told John that she was managing well during the lockdown, and that she was not fearful. “I think people are afraid of the virus because they can’t see it. They might deal better with a pandemic of tigers.” He now was struck by the wisdom of this observation. Tigers and humans go back a long way. Perhaps when hominids first descended from trees and lived on the plains, they had to deal with tigers – and of course, other large predators. They didn’t waste time asking why God had made tigers; they watched tigers and learned how to avoid them, mostly. Later, they developed weapons to defend themselves, and later still weapons with which to hunt them, almost to extinction. As soon as we rid ourselves of the childish idea that God had to create a world perfectly adapted to humans, he thought, we can leave behind us a lot of miserable whining against the creator of ecosystems whose members must learn how to live with each other; indeed they are members because they are learning to live with each other.

So we’ve learned how to live with tigers – as long as we can kill them- but not with viruses. The modern habit of living in close proximity to one another in cities, obtaining our food in cramped supermarkets, travelling in crowded vehicles is really an offer to be sitting ducks for a virus that wants to move from host to host. If we had been as inept at dealing with tigers we would have been extinct long ago. Moreover if we took viruses seriously we’d have created a health service with stand-by resources which could be speedily called into service in an epidemic. And when we talk, as I have done, John thought, about the human suffering caused by the pandemic let’s remember that for most of us that has consisted of restraints on our work, our leisure and our pleasure, which bears no comparison with the holocaust we impose daily on millions of chickens.

Maybe, he thinks, the key to thinking about the pandemic is ridding ourselves of the notion that the world is made for us. The bible (Genesis 1) in fact says the opposite: we, human beings, are made for the world, to look after it and keep it in order. And another bible story ( Genesis 3) tells us that the ecosystem is made tough for us, to keep us from becoming too dominant. So, yes, before we blame God for making viruses, let’s recognise that God is not responsible for our ignorance of them and our ineptness in living with them. And while we sympathise with those who have suffered illness and bereavement, and show gratitude to those who have risked their lives to provide essential services, let’s not exaggerate the problems we have encountered. Above all, let’s remember that we are part of a web of life which has no overriding concern for our welfare. When in the Bible, God looks at creation and sees that it is very good, he does not mean that it is very good for human beings only. But also for viruses. And tigers.

He suddenly finds himself saying the words of a poem he learned at school:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 
In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire? 
And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 
What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 
When the stars threw down their spears 
And water’d heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 
Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake was tempting his readers to see that in the ecosystem of the universe God plays both the roles of Tiger and Lamb, and that limiting God to the single role of lamb is a distortion of divine reality. In disarming the rebel angels, the “stars,” God needs to be tiger as well as lamb. A lambish tiger or tigerish lamb.This truth is celebrated by Bach in the St. John Passion, where the dying of Jesus on the cross is immediately followed by the triumphal chorus, “The Lion of Judah fought the fight and has prevailed!” He says Lion, but it could just as well be Tiger, or Virus. Of course, this is poetry, in which animals are symbols of the action of God in the universe, but they remind John Smith that the Creator is just as honoured by her creature the virus as by her creature the tiger or her creature the human being.

Indeed, he knows that if God is real, she is the God of the entire process of evolution, with its marvellous developments and its terrible extinctions, its rabbits and its dinosaurs. Either this imperfectly known process is the process of creation, this is what Genesis is talking about, or God can be safely relegated to the realm of folklore. When he judges that the new atheists are not talking about his God, he means they are talking about the God of folklore rather than the God of evolution.

“There are more viruses on earth than there are stars in the universe.” (Katherine Wu)

That astonishing fact was unknown to the classic evolutionary biologists, who informed the young John Smith that life was divided into three domains: archaea (single celled creatures; bacteria (single celled also) and eukaryotes ( having cells with a nucleus, often multicellular,as fungi, plants and animals including homo sapiens). This was incomplete, because it ignored the strange life of viruses, which are unable to exist independently and must therefore find hosts. There is a finicky argument that anything unable to live independently is not really life, but many biologists now teach that life exists in (at least) four domains, including viruses.

This discovery means that viruses cannot be understood as an obscure corner of life, whose existence might have been limited to animals other than humans. (Some pious souls have defended the creator God on the grounds that he intended viruses for “animals” only but sinful human gluttony and carelessness, such as found in Chinese meat markets, or worse, in human sex with animals, transferred them to humanity.) No, it’s clear that viruses are a major domain of life, and that some classic diseases such as smallpox were caused by them. The common cold and various influenzas are common evidence of their use of human beings as their hosts. The so- called Spanish flu of 1918, which may have killed a quarter of the world population, indicates how significant their activity has been.

As if we needed that indication when we are in the middle of a pandemic which we are only just beginning to control by vaccination, he thinks. We know only too well what suffering an unregulated expansion of viral life can cause. Clearly a successful virus cannot be too successful, for if it kills its host species, it kills itself. In fact, once a virus has penetrated a cell of its host, it compels it to produce viral cells according to its own DNA or RNA., which may be compatible or not with the host’s continued existence. The host’s immune system will recognise and attack these cells, and may succeed. Vaccination boosts the host’s capacity to do so. If the virus only kills “weaker” individuals in its host population, it may be interpreted by evolutionary biologists as a “culling” process which in fact strengthens the host population, as for example, early statistics seemed to show in the case of Covid -19.

From an evolutionary perspective viruses are credited with spreading genetic information contained in their DNA with other creatures, “horizontally” that is, not by generational inheritance. Modern biologists rightly refuse to ascribe any purpose to any life form, other than that of the continuation of its species. Viruses are good at their way of achieving this, the way of symbiosis. Clever human beings have already worked out ways in which certain viruses called phages can be used to assist the survival of patients suffering from bacterial infection or cancer. The phages can be positioned to “eat” bacteria or cancer cells, either by training or gene editing. It may be that with the growth of antibiotic -resistant bacteria, these techniques will become more and more important.

John realises that these are some of the most general facts about viruses. They are of fairly recent origin because virology is a young branch of biology, which offers exciting scope for research. All this tells him that while the existence of viruses is a problem for humanity, understanding them is not problematic in principle, but proceeds by a mixture of established scientific disciplines. They can kill us, but we hope that as we gain more knowledge of them, they may help to keep us alive.

All these facts come from human sciences and common sense.

But add the conviction that viruses like everything are made by a benign creator God, and immediately there is chaos:

1. The most obvious theory is that the God uses the viruses and epidemics in general as an instrument of punishment of disobedient mortals. This theory is displayed in the Hebrew bible and in ancient Greek story and is only rational if we see all victims as sinful and God as a vengeful killer. Some believers are happy to do so: “God’s an awesome exterminator and you must have done something to offend Him.” Others however would see such a God as made in the image of Adolf Hitler and refuse allegiance.

2. A less obvious theory, is an expansion of the one set out in Job. It is certainly better to question a God who permits the suffering caused by viruses, than to make him a tyrant as above, but let’s remember the limits of our knowledge and understanding. The known universe is vast, and there may be more than one. Who can know the role of any living species in the story of the whole? Who can know the role of human suffering in the ultimate perfection of the creation. We are right to question but we should not expect to understand the answers. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” God asks Job, who says, “Before I knew you only by hearsay, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. I retract what I said and repent in dust and ashes.” This is a profound theory but it rests on Job’s encounter with God. For those who lack such an encounter, like John Smith, the questions remain.

3. Another theory is to do with our sources of information about God. These are the sacred writings and writing is a human activity, so these writings are by human beings. Humans make mistakes, so it’s probable that there are mistakes in the sacred writings. Perhaps God is not as all-powerful a creator as the writings suggest. Maybe the materials of the universe are more recalcitrant, and God’s desire for perfection has not (yet) prevailed. This view recognises that “God” is a human invention, which may or may not point to a reality. When we are dealing with facts, like viruses, for which evidence is available, maybe we should ask about the evidence for God.

4. We can dismiss the issue as unscientific and therefore not worth consideration. The modern philosophers called logical positivists held this view, and the “new atheists” led by Richard Dawkins think something similar. In a world where beliefs without evidence have done much harm – think of Donald Trump and his cohorts- decent people should be rigorous about excluding nonsense. John Smith finds himself sympathetic to these angry atheists, because he is of a scientific cast of mind which demands evidence for the assertions people make. But he thinks that often the “God” imagined by them is a travesty of the one he worships; and that their view of what constitutes evidence is much too narrow. He would want them to look at the best expressions of faith in God, and to accept a greater range of human experience as evidence.

Still, for his own faith, he continues to find the activities of the corona virus very troublesome.