We all know that nothing lasts.

From the motor car that we hoped would see us through another year to the old friend we’d meaning to see once again, we can find our expectations dashed by the ability of things to wear out or to be smashed by accident. We know this, yet we are shocked and grieved when it involves something or someone dear to us; and in spite of the ravages of time on the face and alcohol on the liver, we refuse to accept that it happens to us: no, no, amidst the ruins we, our fundamental selves, are the same. Aye right! The bright certainties of my youth, that I was wonderful and the world my oyster, where have they gone? They and the person that believed them have not lasted.

I went walking in the hills yesterday, continuing a project that I began with my late daughter, to climb all the hills between 2000 and 3000 feet in the county of Angus, in which I live. It was conceived partly out of a recognition that she might no longer be fit for the higher hills, but could rebuild her health on these smaller ones. It was not to be. On the hill, however, enchanted again by beauty and solitude, I felt comfortably close to her, remembering particularly her knowledge of landscape forms and their history. She would have understood how these hills were once of alpine height at least, thrust into the air by the force of clashing tectonic plates, only to be ground down by wind and rain until they were sculpted anew by the glaciers that munched through them in the ice ages. She would have been able to tell me where the local ice cap was located and the direction of the glacier flow.

At the top we would have shared together some bars of caramel shortbread, which we had long considered the ideal mountain snack, ever since we discovered a garage where the youthful attendant sold his granny’s version of it under the counter. Now both the granny and the garage are gone. Then we would have argued furiously about whether that was Lochnagar – non-Scottish readers need told that this is a mountain- rising in the middle distance. As I stood alone on the summit of the Hill of Sauchs, I imagined that it was lower by some tiny but measurable amount as a result of erosion, than when I visited this glen as a teenager more than sixty years ago.

Doubtless these thoughts of mutability were due to my daughter’s recent death. I remembered some lines by one of my favourite poets, “The hills are shadows and they flow/ from form to form and nothing stands.” Today I looked up the passage, from In Memoriam, section 23/24,, recollecting that Alfred Tennyson wrote the poem following the death of his dear friend, Arthur Hallam:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

But in my spirit will I dwell,
And dream my dream, and hold it true;
For tho’ my lips may breathe adieu,
I cannot think the thing farewell.

(The “thing” is of course his friend)

His friend, at least in his human form, has not lasted, but his friendship endures, across the gap of death. This fact leads him to think directly of human faith in something or someone that might transcend the realm of life-and-death

That which we dare invoke to bless;
Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;
He, They, One, All; within, without;
The Power in darkness whom we guess;

I found Him not in world or sun,
Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye;
Nor thro’ the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun:

If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,
I heard a voice ‘believe no more’
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the Godless deep;

A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason’s colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer’d ‘I have felt.’

No, like a child in doubt and fear:
But that blind clamour made me wise;
Then was I as a child that cries,
But, crying, knows his father near;

And what I am beheld again
What is, and no man understands;
And out of darkness came the hands
That reach thro’ nature, moulding men.

This is an astonishing section. The first stanza makes clear that the “God” he imagines is not the well-defined God of Christian theology. His list of the arguments which have not led to his enlightenment includes cosmological arguments and arguments from design, which then as now focused on the eye as an organ which ‘must have been’ designed as a whole. None of them cuts the mustard for him. His discovery comes from the most painful experience of doubt, without which he would have remained in reasoning alone. We should note that the great stanza which ends “I have felt” does not mean “I have felt there is a God, and that outweighs the experience of doubt” but rather “I am a creature that feels and has felt, especially the love I have felt for my friend.” This love is his identity which, he asserts, is just as real as the changing earth. He does not deny the facts of change and death, but makes them part of what he feels, which prompts his cry to the one who is near to the crying child.

All logic and common sense tells us that Tennyson should have called this presence “mother” as of course it’s the mother who is near to the crying child while the father is in the library writing poetry

“ And what I am beheld again/ what is” He asserts his true identity as a being that feels, because only as such can he feel the “hands that come out of darkness” the darkness of change, death and sorrow, moulding him in and through these natural experiences.

These sections are the turning point of the poem, and are also helpful to me. They tell me that I must not deny the truth that nothing in this world lasts, but that there is a greater wisdom in my sorrow than in my reasoning, because the facts of human love and rage at its interruption, may be the only things that point to something that outlasts the hills.

The great Buddhist teacher, Dogen, in his collection of meditations called Shobogenzo, sums up a reflection with the words:

“You, who are learning to be Buddhas, who are practicing the Way in this age, open your minds to the mountains that flow and the rivers that do not.”

Or, as Isaiah put it:

“For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed; but my lovingkindness shall not depart from you, says the Lord that has mercy upon you.”

We all know that that living things are unique, because even individuals that are not unique by birth, become so by virtue of their interaction with their environment. We know this, but because all lives are classified by what they share with each other, such as DNA; and because most species are numerous enough for us to experience their common behaviours; we become less accustomed to recognising the unique behaviour of unique individuals. I do not expect a bird to bark, but one of our resident starlings, living as it does in an area which abounds in small, yappy dogs, has learned to include a bark or two in its vocal repetoire.

This is also true of our experience of human beings: we expect their behaviours to accommodate to a norm, even if that norm changes, for example when a community becomes multi- cultural, but we do not expect any human beings to groom each other for parasites, like certain apes. We are happiest with people whose character and behaviour is familiar, although we are pleased if they can still surprise us by word or action. Most human behaviours can be understood by some sort of quantification, by numbers, percentages, statistical estimates, equations, algorithms and the like.

I’ve just finished reading the final volume of a trilogy by novelist J M Coetzee entitled The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus, and The Death of Jesus. The protagonist is a boy called David, whose adoptive parents Simón and Inés struggle to understand his uniqueness as doubtless Mary and Joseph did with Jesus. These books are difficult, not because they use strange vocabulary or means of expression, but because they chart the life of a unique individual amid the kinds of ordinary human routines with which we are familiar. Parents have expectations of what a child is going to be- oh I don’t mean only about their child’s ability or future work – but about the norms of child development and behaviour. Children who depart from these norms are called geniuses or ‘suffering from learning difficulties’, and these classifications in turn also have norms.

The last novel in the series shows how hard it is for a child who knows his own uniqueness to find any satisfactory role in a world that wants to script every role in advance. A sign of this is David’s love of individual numbers and his refusal to use them in arithmetic or any system that prescribes their interaction. He sees himself also as alone and unique, imagining himself through the one book he has read, as Don Quixote, the man who sees a different world from everyone else. When he becomes ill he asks, “Why do I have to be this child?”

Even his loving adoptive parents do not understand him, wanting him to be even a little like other children, but are able after his death, to process him as a special kind of prodigy. Set free however from the terrible demands of parenting, they ready themselves without great teluctance for a return to ordinary living.

The books are a protest against the speed with which we put people in boxes and the tardiness with which we grapple with their uniqueness. How desperately I wanted my late daughter to be more like other people’s daughters, successfully independent, happily partnered, fruitful in work, surrounded by friends. How slow I was to see and value her unique character and to appreciate her unusual gifts. Yet all sorts of needy people were able to see her clearly and wrote movingly of her after her death.

We are also aware that the more a person insists on their uniqueness, the more they will suffer, because they will be unacceptable to those who have hidden themselves in socially approved roles. This kind of suffering is seen in the story of Jesus, his family and his community. His family thinks he’s off his head and his community sees him as a jumped up charlatan, all of which contributes to his suffering. For the gospel writers as for Coetzee, character is the destiny of their unwise protagonists, who refuse to hide what they are.

Our science tells us that each person is unique; even identical twins are not identical for long, and clones would speedily differ from their model. This is a mystery which cannot be described in general concepts, but only obliquely referenced in riddling phrases, as when Coetzee’s hero says, “I am what I am.” Maybe this is why Coetzee gives his story the name of Jesus. He looks with admiration on the one who is able to assert this identity and with compassion on those who love such a person without comprehending their mystery.

There is a hymn for children that says this truth:

God made me as I am,

Part of creation’s plan.

No one else will ever be

The part of God’s plan that’s me.

We all know that killing people is wrong.

In the wake of a anniversary of VE day, it may be as well to get one argument out if the way first of all. People may try to kill me of my family and friends, by way of crime, vendetta, terrorism or war. In these cases I have a duty of defence which if need be, overrides my duty not to kill. Even in such circumstances I have a duty not to kill more than is necessary. Radical pacifists and others may argue that all killing is wrong in all circumstances, and that violent defence leads to the perpetuation of violence. We may applaud their witness to non-violence, while noting that it departs from the common view, that reasonable self-defence against violent attack is permitted in national and international law, and accepted as morally right by most decent people – which is what I mean by “we all know.”

The exception I have introduced above does not lead me to approve all killings by, for example, British armed forces. If Britain enters a violent dispute in promotion of its own trade advantage or retention of its remaining empire, its armed forces are not fighting in defence of its people, and are therefore engaged in illegal killing. It’s easy for governments to excuse this sort of killing because they say it is in the national interest, but improper use of violence turns its trained defenders into hired killers.

The conviction that killing is wrong means that even in cases of for example terrorism, minimum effective violence should be used, so that perpetrators may be taken alive and tried by law. We want to maintain our respect for human life even if a particular human may be a killer. There is some evidence that armed police squads are being used more often than before against potentially violent criminals, a habit which unfortunately means that on occasion unarmed suspects are also killed. While almost all citizens support the police, there is justifiable worry that policing by consent may be substituted with policing by force.

A divinely appointed killer

It should be noted that the argument which supports defensive violence by individuals or nations, has also been used to justify the kind of armed struggle against injustice seen in South Africa, or more controversially, in Northern Ireland. Sections of populations who see themselves as oppressed, having exhausted all peaceful means of change, claim the right to kill in defence of their rights. Some such movements have restricted their violence to members of the security forces, others such as the IRA have killed ordinary citizens. The IRA claimed that its war on the UK was similar to Mandela’s struggle against Apartheid. I think that most people reject this as spurious, and would limit their approval of deadly violence to occasions where oppressive forces are actually threatening lives.

We all know that killing is wrong and would extend the meaning of the term to cover situations where the death of a person is the result of criminal carelessness, neglect, torture, beatings, or enforced exposure to life-threatening conditions.

But how so we know this moral truth? It’s clear that we know it through civil and/or religious tradition. In Scotland we know it through the legal tradition of the European civilisation mediated through the civil society of lowland Scotland. No amount of pro-Celtic argument can disguise the fact that Scottish clans viewed killing the members of other clans for the sake of honour as acceptable into the 18th century. We also came to know it through the Christian tradition, in particular the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Jesus, the latter indeed forbidding any violence of word or deed.

I am saying that we do not know this essential moral truth by some kind of universal intuition, or innate instinct: we have to learn it.

Why then do we not teach it?

In places of education we teach all manner of things for the benefit of individuals and society, but nowhere, as far as I know, do we teach moral truth about killing. Surely this is an astonishing carelessness. Perhaps the reasonably recent dominance of the Christian tradition in British society allowed educators to assume that most people would be exposed to its teaching on killing, but it is clear that this assumption is out of date. The absence of any serious teaching of this morality may turn out to be dangerous, especially in a world where climatic interruptions of settled patterns of life will be more frequent. Would we like to live in a society where we don’t all know, or perhaps very few of us know, that killing people is wrong?

Meantime, Christian Churches might consider it more important to teach children, teenagers and adults that it’s wrong to kill, rather than dubious narratives from its Bible that suggest the opposite.

We all know that human beings invented God. As this is precisely the opposite of what my religion teaches, it’s necessary to repeat it in case some kindly reader thinks it’s just a careless mistake: we all know that human beings invented God, well in the first instance Gods, and later the single God.

Gods first appear in the ceremonies, stories, artefacts and writings of human beings. Of course it’s also true that trees first appear in the same way, but whereas there is general agreement that, although trees appear to us through our human processes of perception, they are real existences separate from us, there is no such agreement about Gods or God, which cannot be perceived by the senses or examined by science.

Now I imagine that some scholars will want to object that lots of Gods, of the sort Christianity calls idols, can be seen, touched and even tasted. Yes, true, but the thing that distinguishes an idol from a lump of wood, is precisely the human imagination of its power. Others may want to note that much of what is important in science cannot be perceived by our senses, and is also the product of human imagination. Yes, true, Einstein’s terrible equation E = MC squared, which we might call a universal law, is the invention of a human being, the product of a very profound imagination. It has however been found to be in accordance with physical reality, most terribly in the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But if in some future circumstance the equation was found to be faulty, it would be revised or abandoned by scientists.

If I want to argue that belief in God is like this equation, a product of human imagination which is in accordance with reality, I have first of all to admit that there is no revelation that gives me privileged access to truth, and that my God must be as subject to correction by experience as Einstein’s equation. We all already know that we have invented our God or Gods. We give the game away when we attribute his (Hindu) Gods, or her (Islamic) deity to mere imagination, but ours to divine revelation. The Christian Bible, if we read it rationally, is quite clear that God is invented, sometimes well, but always partially, by patriarchs, lawgivers, prophets, and indeed by Jesus, Paul and the rest, all of whom add their precious adjustment to the image of God.

But if we admit this, as I do, we must immediately take responsibility for the appalling violence unleashed by religions over the centuries in the name of Gods who are absolute truth and cannot accept competition. As soon as we are more modest in our claims, recognising that our Gods are are own inventions, and that we may be able to learn from the imagination of others, violence will at any rate, seem less justifiable. We have allowed our traditions to persuade us that our knowledge of God is certain, but it may be that our violent response to others is a sneaky sign that we are not completely persuaded, and cannot cope with the dreadful thought that it may all be a load of baloney.

So it’s healthy, sane and I believe blessed, to know that our God is a product of an imagination which is dealing with human questions: how can I be safe, when should I plant my crops, what am I looking at in the sky, should I kill animals, how should I treat my neighbour, where do I come from, where am I going, whom should I obey? And more. And while there will always be answers which are in the form of facts or theories, there are also answers which are stories. This is especially the case with the Gods, most of whom are stories: Zeus turning himself into a bull, Krishna into a blue-skinned seducer, Jehovah into Jesus. This form of knowledge can be seen as feeble compared with science, but who will seriously argue that Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy give us more feeble knowledge than Einstein? In fact it’s quite possible a new story of any God to take Einstein into account.

My Christian faith then is a product of the imaginative stories told in the Bible – eh, hang on a minute, surely Jesus is a fact? Yes, Jesus is a fact deduced from a story. As I was saying, my Christian faith is a product of the imaginative stories about God in the Bible, worked over in the imagination of the church over centuries and re-interpreted by the living imaginations of my own church and myself. I think that these images of God point to what Dante called, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” They do not define, fix, pin down the mystery of God, but point reliably in God’s direction. The rest is for living rather than arguing.

An example. The gospel writers, Mark and Matthew show Jesus starting out with a clear, radical trust in God his Abba as one who desires to turn human beings towards his justice and love, through Jesus his dear child. Their stories show him living out this image of God in conversations, acts of healing, and prophetic announcements. But then he is betrayed by his own people, tortured and killed by an imperial power. He ends by asking, My God, why have you abandoned me? As well he might. This event forces his followers to imagine God (and Jesus) in a new way.

Another example. The first Christians saw their God as Israel’s God, their faith as a continuation of Israel’s faith. St. Paul however recognised that if Jesus had been rejected by Israel, faith in Jesus meant rejecting the God of only-Israel in favour of the God of all people.

A final example. People have said about my daughter’s death, that my faith will strengthen me. In fact that event is changing my faith, my imagination of God, for now she/he has my daughter with him/her. Or not. We all know that human beings invent God; our actions and our sufferings reveal how well we have done so. Decent religious people know this; they have to get used to chasing off leaders and teachers who say, We have the true God; the rest are human inventions.

The recent untimely death of my daughter has reminded me of the fragility of our lives and the need to do or say important things now, before we are unable to do or say anything. I have decided therefore to use this blog to mention some things that we all know to be true. When I say, we all know, I am including those who know but refuse to admit that they know. The Christian aspect of this is the promise of Jesus to send an advocate to his followers, called the Spirit of Truth.

We all know that with the possible exception of viruses, the human being is the most dangerous and destructive creature on the planet. We know this, yet we are only beginning to take it seriously. Why? Until recently we were not conscious that this truth means we are destroying our own habitat, involving the death of most or perhaps all of us. Before, it was only a matter of polluted rivers, oceans and landscapes, and the death or mutilation of our fellow creatures, including our fellow human beings. Most of us could put up with that. And even now, few of us are worried enough to do anything much about the destruction of our planet, and there are many who prefer their killing habit to their own survival.

We all know this. But we tend to view the actions of Extinction Rebellion as a bit over the top, meaning we should all go towards death politely. Jesus was savage; he didn’t think that people who were only concerned with the day to day needs of family and work could do a job for him; and so he demanded some separation from family life as the condition of being a disciple. He recognised that ordinary routines would triumph, unless they were opposed. Comfortable Christians don’t like being reminded of the savagery of Jesus which takes account of what we all know.

What we all know could be called the sinfulness of humanity, which is not the moral failings usually identified by churches, but rather enslavement to the powers of death, lack of commitment to life. We all know this but we would rather not talk about it, because it’s not cheerful, optimistic or genial. If God made us, it’s possible he knew from the start we were a busted flush, doomed in spite of his and some humans’ best efforts, to join the dodo and the fresh water dolphin in oblivion. But it’s also possible that he knew that we could be roused to act on what we all know, by daft, savage, outrageous lovers of life, and by quiet humorous reasonable lovers of life, who want their grandchildren to live.

Once the virus is under control, we all know that we need to get moving, fast.

(Eleanor Jane Mair, our daughter, died on the 21st April in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, as result of trauma caused by alcoholism. She was a beloved and loving person, who cared for everyone except herself, bringing joy through what she was but also sorrow through what she was doing to herself. She is with God.)

Going ahead

You have always had a loving heart, and showed it especially towards people in need. I remember once, when you had harmed yourself by bingeing, I had to take you the NHS out-of-hours clinic. There the waiting room was filled with all manner of needs that couldn’t wait: mums whose babies were sickly, insomniacs, old men with emphysema, young lassies looking for the morning-after pill, depressives of all kinds.

Among them was a youngish woman, poorly dressed, bruised by being battered and twitching because she’d run out of valium. I only know this because you saw her weeping and sat beside her and put your arm round her. Smelly as she was, you held her and listened to her quietly. Gradually she stopped weeping and waited patiently for her turn. When she came out from her consultation she kissed you as she left.

I remember her. All the time I was scared I would puke on her, as I couldn’t stop vomiting. There are people so conscious of their own virtue or scared of their own humanity, whose needs I would never have been allowed to share, but it’s surprising how many people respond to a need-for-need approach. That mostly didn’t involve any overt focus on need, but simply a mutual recognition that need was part of our humanity, of our ordinary conversation, of our working together, of our laughter; and that sometimes it could be admitted openly. My deepest relationships were based on acknowledging mutual need, which meant that I could be honest about my needs without fearing that the other would distance herself from me. In that sort of relationship people can also cherish each other’s strengths and graces without false modesty or competitiveness. It was like that with you and mum too.

Nice of you to say so, but of course sometimes it wasn’t like that, because of our anger, or fear of what was happening to you, or guilt that we must have contributed to your illness. I just hope those times were the exceptions. Underneath everything was our delight in you as an undeserved gift to us, as our dear daughter, our delight.

Now and then I would risk blasphemy…..

Only now and then?

…. I would risk blasphemy to think that the love of imperfect, needy human beings for each other is even greater than the love of God, who can rely on his/ her perfection. But now I know that supreme goodness is also supremely vulnerable. That’s Jesus is it not?

I started this out of my own grief, hoping to find where we could continue to meet. I think now I know the answer.

The answer had already been given, “Those who dwell in love, dwell in God, for God is love.”

So we can meet in the love which is God and us.

But don’t forget that these meetings are a product of your imagination…

Aw don’t tell me that!

I didn’t say they are only a product of your imagination, but the truth of them is filtered through your imagination. The reality is greater than you can know. As I said, I’m still learning it. If your imagination stays faithful, we’ll talk again soon.

If you’re going now, can I give a blessing?

Once you could, but now I should bless you…

Please do.

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord smile with delight upon you, and be kind to you. The Lord look upon you face to face, and give you peace. Amen.



(Eleanor Jane Mair, our daughter, died on the 21st April in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, as result of trauma caused by alcoholism. She was a beloved and loving person, who cared for everyone except herself, bringing joy through what she was but also sorrow through what she was doing to herself. She is with God.)

Janet and Eleanor

Are you happy?

Yes, I’ve been rescued from the power that oppressed me, into happiness. The rescue began in my worldly life. I never doubted the value of goodness, or wished harm to anyone. I saw the suffering imposed by human beings on animals, and by powerful and wealthy human beings on the poor and the weak. As much as I could I worked for rescue and justice. I felt the frustration of God at what people do to the world and each other, and at what I was doing to myself. Here there is happiness, not because all is perfect, but because God will rescue all that can be rescued. I and all the saints share the labour of that rescue.

You’re one of the saints!

Aren’t you? Don’t waste time feeling sorry for me. I’m fine, finer than I’ve ever been. Yes, you’ll miss me, but one of the places where we’ll always meet, is the work of rescue. Don’t ever give it up. It’s still possible for human beings to stop killing and polluting and contributing to the heat-death of the planet. Do the small good things that can be done locally, but don’t be content with them. As long as life is being diminished or destroyed, you have to find ways of rescuing it. And God will be there and I will be there too.

Everything from The Dog’s Trust to Greenpeace, from the Foodbank to Refuge for Refugees, from Women for Peace to Medicins Sans Frontieres?

Yes, and many thousands more who are part of God’s rescue. In churches there often seemed to be a schism between those that stood for salvation meaning God’s rescue and those who stood for the kingdom of God, meaning God’s just rule. In fact they are united: this is a saving kingdom, God’s rule is a rescuing justice.

I picked up your ashes today from the undertaker. We’ll scatter them in the garden to remind us that you still share in the life of the household.

Good, but if you could save some for the summit of a Cairngorm, that would also be good.

OK. This may seem naive, but can you still see the Cairngorms?

I’m in God and so is the world, but I have to learn to see it in a new way. I’m not deprived of any good thing. Deprivation is where you are. Justice is a high hill and we can climb it together.