Leonard Cohen’s Amen – how to live faithfully in the context of suffering

I would like to talk about suffering, and I want to use Leonard Cohen’s songs as a means through which to explore what it means to respond with faith in the context of suffering.

I believe that suffering is a human universal. We all suffer. Now it is possible to engage with this as a philosopher, and that leads us to consider what is called The Problem Of Evil (with capital letters). That Problem can be simply stated: how can a loving and all powerful god allow us to suffer? Or, more precisely: God is all powerful, God is all good, there is evil in the world – you can only logically choose two of the three.

I am not going to give you an intellectual answer to that tonight. There are some intellectual answers but they don’t reach me; they don’t make a difference to me as a human being seeking to live his life in the context of suffering.

To enter into suffering is to enter into a mystery of our human life, possibly the defining mystery. When Christians talk about the world as fallen, as broken, we use these stories and this language to describe the reality of our life as we experience it. The Bible never gives an intellectual answer to The Problem Of Evil – what it suggests is that an intellectual answer is a blasphemy, an attempt to justify God to our own conscience, an resistance to allowing God to be God and thereby accepting our creaturely state (for more on that see the book of Job).

I see Leonard Cohen’s work as fitting into this Biblical tradition, and this is why his songs speak to me. Cohen’s perspective is fundamentally Jewish, Biblical and liturgical. Yes, he spent time doing other things, especially his training as a buddhist monk (I would also add that his writing is saturated with Christian references, and to my mind he ‘gets’ Christianity) but Cohen himself said that he never felt any need to change who he was, a Jewish man.

Most particularly, for me Cohen is a modern psalmist. He articulates for today the sort of thing that the Psalms articulate in Old Testament, the full range of human feeling and emotion. He was also deeply influenced by modern Jewish liturgy – but I shall come back to that. Yet one key way in which his work is Jewish is that it is always under the shadow of the Holocaust, often in surprising ways (as with Dance me to the end of love). This is a thread that runs through his life and his work and there are many references to it, often with an echoing and paralleling between more personal elements and the more large scale prophetically judgemental and obvious ones.

All that being said, let me begin with the ‘title song’ – Leonard Cohen’s Amen.

This song contains demands made of God, the demand to hear from God when we have made the time to listen and we still cannot hear, when “we’re alone and I’m listening so hard that it hurts”: tell me that you love me, tell me that it all makes sense, tell me when there is fairness and the suffering has been justified, tell me that you want me then…

This is a plea, a form of lamentation, a classically Psalmist form of song. Cohen is clearly articulating what it feels like to suffer and to bring that suffering to God. Tell me, tell me.

As such, this is a thoroughly orthodox and faithful response to our human condition.

Here are some further examples of Leonard’s spiritual orthodoxy:

Treaty (pleading honesty with God)
I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

If it be your will (surrender to God)
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

Show Me The Place (begging for guidance)
Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bendin’ low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

Anthem (prophetic cry for righteous judgement)
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Villanelle For Our Time (the wound of self-knowledge)
From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Where Cohen’s orthodox and faithful response to our human condition comes over most effectively for me is through his use of biblical words at key points, that is, where the Biblical words are used liturgically. The most famous example is of course Hallelujah which means ‘praise to God’:

and even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the lord of song,
with nothing on my tongue
but Hallelujah

No matter what happens, we praise God.

From his last album, there is the word Hineni which means ‘Here I am Lord’ and means surrender to God’s will; it is the response of Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah in the Old Testament.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Finally, for my purposes here, is the word Amen, which means “so be it”.

I mentioned the book of Job earlier. When Job suffers, his friends come to see him and say that he must be suffering because he has done something wrong. That answer is comprehensively rejected (it is rejected by Jesus too). We are taught that there is no necessary link between suffering and individual merit; rather vengeance belongs to the Lord. In his song Amen Cohen is pleading for some answer, in just the same way that Job pleads for an answer. Specifically, and with the shadow of the Holocaust in the background, and an extravagantly offensive promise of Christianity in the foreground, Cohen sings

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…
Tell me again
When I’ve seen through the horror
Tell me again
Tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then

Here I believe we have articulated the only human response to The Problem Of Evil that can ever satisfy.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Ivan articulates the most powerfully effective form of The Problem Of Evil. He asks if, were the price of making heaven on earth the suffering of one innocent child, would we accept it? Ivan says no. It is not that he doesn’t believe in God, simply that he declines his ticket of entry into creation, on the grounds that it is unjust.

In contrast to this, the faithful response is to say ‘Amen’ to creation. To accept the ticket. To accept that pain and to trust. It is to say Yes to God.

In the Jewish liturgy, Amen is the response to a blessing.

Amen leads to joy.

You got me singing
You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
You got me singing
Ever since the river died
You got me thinking
Of the places we could hide

You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on
You got me singing
Even tho’ it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn

This is the yes to God, this is the acceptance of the life that we have been given, this is the receiving of the whole package, good and bad, evil and joyful – as a gift. This, I believe, is the only spiritually healthy and life-affirming way to navigate through our sufferings.

Cohen as an artist is seen as depressing or melancholy. I have never found him to be this way; on the contrary, listening to him always fills me with joy. I gain a sense of being understood and exalted, as Cohen gives a fully human response to our situation. Cohen articulates the pain yet returns always to the beginning and end of faith.

This is holiness. This is the spiritual drink that sustains us, this is the food of life… and this is why I love listening to him. He brings me closer to God.

Of lust and the Bishops

The notes from my sermon on Matthew 5 21-37

St Paul – fed with milk not with solid food – you’re going to get some solid food this morning – I’m going to talk for about 20 minutes, and it may raise lots of questions that you may wish to discuss with me privately – please do so
Jesus in St John – there are some things that you cannot cope with yet; the Spirit will guide us into all truth – well, we in the church are on that journey with the Spirit


Jesus says that to look at people lustfully is already committing adultery in the heart
lust is a deadly sin – remember, sin is anything which breaches relationships, either horizontally with other people or vertically with God
so lust is essentially a corruption of love – it still looks outwards from the self, but it treats others only for what they can provide for our own bodily appetites; rather than giving other people their own dignity, other people simply become means to our own ends
this runs completely counter to everything that Jesus teaches and embodies

having said that lust is a deadly sin, it is worth pointing out that on the scale of sin – lust is the least dangerous of the deadly sins as it is misplaced love, not an absence of love – need to tackle the pride which is the most deadly sin, as that is when a person has become completely curved in upon themselves

everything that Jesus teaches and embodies, which is all about recognising the human significance of all those who are not seen as worthy by the religious establishment of his time, such as the Samaritan woman at the well
his is a movement of inclusion, to bring into a relationship with God all those who had been excluded, the Samaritans and the tax collectors, and lets not forget that he teaches that the prostitutes get to Kingdom ahead of the priests – which is why priests can find Jesus unsettling


so let me say something about the priests – and before I go on I should say that I am very conscious of the other elements that Jesus teaches in this passage, especially that those who call other people fools are liable to the fires of hell

so with that in mind I would like to talk about the House of Bishops of the CofE

they have recently released a document about same sex marriage in which they have reaffirmed the traditional teaching that marriage is a union of one man with one woman for life, and that any expression of sexuality outside of that context is sinful

in saying this, they are drawing on a perspective about what is the true end or purpose of sexuality, that is, what sex is for. The tradition, derived in part from Aristotle the Greek philosopher, says that the purpose of sexuality is procreation, and any form of sexuality that is not open to the possibility of procreation is therefore deficient and more or less sinful, dependent on how far it is driven by lust

this is why the Roman Catholic church does not accept contraception – and I can understand why they do so, for the implications of accepting contraception are quite profound, and would undermine a large part of the RC teaching on sexuality

however, the Church of England has a different perspective, and in the teaching of this church, marriage is instituted of God for three reasons, not just one – for the procreation of children, for the right ordering of our passions, and for the mutual society and help between a couple

this is, in part, why the Church of England some eighty years ago accepted the use of contraception by married couples – that is, the Church accepted that there was an expression of sexuality that was not open to procreation but was nevertheless not sinful, for it served the wider purpose of enhancing the love between a couple – the right ordering of the passions fostering the mutual society within the marriage

[a brief aside: to my mind there are still question marks around how we are to understand marriage, as the traditional core of marriage – around providing a structure for procreation – has now been almost entirely eclipsed, and I believe that we need to do some serious theological work specifically focussed on procreation, and establishing a parental covenant or something like that, because we need to take parenting more seriously]

the trouble for the church is that, once this step has been taken, there isn’t a coherent place to stand from which to reject same sex relationships. Let me explain that a little further – if we accept that it’s OK to have sexual expression when it is not open to procreation, then it means that we accept that non-procreative sex is valid when placed in the context of the right ordering of our passions and the mutual society of the couple concerned. There is then the possibility of what we might call holy passions amongst those who are not both fertile and straight


to reject the validity of same sex relationships must then rest upon a more spiritual argument, which is what our House of Bishops needs to be concerned with

now one line of argument is simply to say ‘Scripture says…’ It is undoubtedly the case that Scripture is uniformly negative about the sexual expression of homosexual relationships. However, to rest the argument at that point is, at best, sub-Christian. We are not a community that does without rules, so long as those rules are rightly understood as being based upon grace and serving a higher purpose.

Furthermore, the church has the authority to change the rules that we live by – this is an authority explicitly given by Jesus himself to the disciples, to Peter in particular – that what we bound on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

We are given a worked example of how the church is to change the rules in the description of the council of Jerusalem in Acts, when there was an argument over whether the gentiles had to be circumcised in order to enter the Kingdom. Scripture was very clear that if a man wasn’t circumcised then he couldn’t join the community – but ‘it seemed good to the spirit and to the [disciples]‘ that this rule should be discarded.

So the question isn’t about what scripture says in terms of a rule for us to follow, but what is the deeper spiritual question at issue. So, to go back to what Jesus says in our reading this morning, the spiritual argument has to be something along the lines that a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is necessarily characterised by lust rather than love. That a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is not pure.

That position is at least a coherent one, and it is one that has the benefit of being shared by the tradition, and by the majority of Christians in the world.

Yet I do not agree with it, and on this issue I would align myself (with the caveat about marriage I mentioned earlier) on the progressive side of the church debate. Whilst the church hierarchy is still arguing about this, our wider society, including the majority of those in our congregations, has quite clearly come to the conclusion that gay relationships are simply human – yes, open to lustful exploitation, but also vessels for the amazing grace of god – that within a committed relationship it is for the couple themselves to determine the right ordering of their passions to foster the mutual society, help and comfort appropriate to their relationship. In this they are treating homosexual relationships on the same level as heterosexual relationships – they are including all within the covenant community – and this seems to me deeply in tune with what Jesus was pushing for.

This seems to me to be what the Roman Catholics call the ‘sensus fidelium’ – the mind of the faithful. We are not there yet, but that seems to be the way that, at least in this country, we are being led, and I do see that as a movement of the spirit.


Our Bishops, however, are in the almost impossible position of trying to reconcile two sides that have become more and more opposed, and the dominant impression that I have is that they are acting from fear – that they are terrified of causing disunity both within the Church of England and between the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. I am not without sympathy for that – it seems like an impossible job to me

but there is one area where I would want to raise a criticism against our Bishops, and it is this: within the report, indeed within all the ways in which our Bishops discuss this issue, the gay and lesbian community are seen as ‘other’ – not seen as within the church, but seen as a problem amongst those who are outside, to be touched only at a distance

I don’t believe that we as a church community will be able to make progress on this question until we accept that we are talking about a part of ourselves, part of our own body, when we talk about the differences between the homosexual and the heterosexual, and the right ordering of our passions.

Those who are baptised are a new creation, and their identity is found first and foremost in Christ. That must be the starting point for our conversations – we have to take our baptism seriously, and consequently, we have to listen to what the Spirit is saying through that part of our body which is gay.


Christ did not come to lay a burden upon us that we cannot bear; rather, Christ came that we might have life and have it in all its fullness. That fullness of life does not come when we surrender to our passions and allow them to dominate us; nor does it come when we needlessly tear out pieces of ourselves out of a misguided quest for spiritual purity.

We need to start from the love of God, that Christ came not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. We need to begin from a place of rest, resting in God’s love for us, and allowing that love to lead us into all truth. We will not get to God by making ourselves pure; no, it is by allowing God’s love to lead us that we will become pure in heart.

May God give us the strength and the grace to remove all lust from our hearts and minds, that we might truly be vessels for his inclusive love. Amen.

It’s all about the story


I am often asked to give reasons for believing in God. Whilst I very much honour the motivation behind the request, I feel that it is based upon a mistake and I would like to explain why.

In the 1930s the philosopher Bertrand Russell would often engage in polemical debate with representatives of the Christian churches. There was one particular debate with a Fr O’Hara that Wittgenstein listened to, after which he commented “Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm”.

For Wittgenstein, and for me, the problem with this sort of debate is that it turns religious belief into some sort of weak science. “The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words,” said Wittgenstein, “but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting.” What he was very opposed to was any attempt to “elaborate a philosophical interpretation or defence of the Christian religion”.

In part, this was because Wittgenstein was very aware of the primitive roots that lie behind all our patterns of thought. In discussing James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’, which was an immensely influential work at the time, he criticised Frazer for completely lacking an historical imagination, writing that “Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness”.

To imagine that religious belief is based upon some sort of intellectual exercise is a grave mistake. Moreover, it is a grave mistake not only in mischaracterising the sort of thing that religious belief is, but also in giving far more importance to a narrow sense of reason and logic than either deserve.

In an academic argument, the one who can make the most reasonable and logical points can make progress. Yet that reason and logic – all reason and logic – is based upon unstated premises. The fallacy of Modern (capital M) philosophy is that it believed that reason could provide the foundation for our knowledge. Post-Modern thought is characterised by the recognition that this was a fool’s errand from the start, for (as Wittgenstein wrote) we do not acquire our most fundamental beliefs by a process of ratiocination.

We human beings actually form our understandings, first from the patterns of life into which we are born (including the language that is our mother tongue), and then from the stories that we are told from an early age. Such stories do not have to be put into books; more often they are simply told and retold as we grow and as a community develops. Our supposedly secular society is not immune to the power of stories – we are told things about science and progress, for example, that are clearly very tall stories.

Which brings me to the point that I would like to make about what it means to believe as a Christian. Our most fundamental commitments are shaped through stories, and so, to be a Christian is to have our understandings shaped by the Christian story. The most important element of that is found in the stories around Holy Week and Easter, and perhaps I shall describe them in more depth at that time of year. For now I would like to talk about the Christmas story.

It is surely one of the most familiar tales in our culture – baby Jesus born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. It is the subject of so many Christmas cards and it seems so very sweet. Yet there is much more to the story. Take, for example, the way in which Jesus is born far from home and is immediately taken to a different country as a refugee, where he has to stay for some years before his homeland is safe.

A Christian would see this as the working out of God’s providence; to put that differently, a Christian would see God as at work in, and found with, those who are refugees fleeing from political persecution. As a result of this, a Christian perspective on our present refugee crisis would suggest that God is also found there – that amongst the poor and vulnerable infants fleeing from a war zone may be found those who will be carrying out God’s will today.

When he grew up, Jesus himself said explicitly that it was not those who called him Lord who would enter the Kingdom but rather those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked – for in doing so, those who are generous will be looking after Jesus himself.

To be moved by the Christmas story in this way, to be affected by it and to then to live differently as a result, is to start to understand what it means to believe in God. Belief in God is not a matter of abstract propositions, as if God was simply the result of a magnificent equation. Belief in God is living differently according to different priorities, acting out our own stories in the light of a very much larger story, one that gives our own lives a particular weight and meaning.

Which is why, despite my own argumentative and belligerent tendencies, I don’t believe it actually helps anyone to grow in faith to come up with grand philosophical justifications for religious belief. There is certainly room for thinking about the faith, for loving God with our minds, for what has traditionally been called apologetics – yet to think that anyone can come to faith by the use of logic is, I believe, a tremendous mistake.

I would much rather talk about the King of the world being found in human form as a vulnerable baby, carried on a wing and a prayer out of the reach of evil tyrants and government apparatchiks who are ‘just doing their job’. I would rather say ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est – that where there is love in the world, where there is compassion and mercy, forgiveness and healing, that is where God is to be found. Such things can never be demonstrated with reason and logic. We can know, understand and believe in these things only by telling our stories.

I wish you all a peaceful, joyful and holy Christmas.

The queen of the sciences

queen of sciences 2
What does it mean to claim, as I do, that theology is the Queen of the Sciences? It is a title that stems from the medieval era, when theology was openly acknowledged as the most important intellectual discipline. Surely, by now, we’ve grown out of such superstitions? Well, that is the default assumption of the modern world, but as devotees of The Silence of the Lambs will know well, if you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. Truly, the last remaining superstition is the one that denies theology her proper place as queen.

There are all sorts of ways to consider our forms and patterns of knowing, and those forms and patterns interlink in particular ways. Most importantly, there are intellectual hierarchies. There are some areas of study which open up other areas, and where a development will cascade down to transform how things are understood. For example, physics and chemistry were once entirely distinct intellectual pursuits; now, however, it is understood that chemistry is effectively an intellectual subset of physics. That is, a full understanding of physics is determinative for how we understand chemistry. This does not mean that the study of chemistry isn’t separate from the study of physics. One can become an expert physicist without at the same time becoming an expert chemist; what it means is that the ultimate explanation for truths in chemistry are dependent upon the ultimate explanation for truths in physics, and not vice versa. There are no truths in chemistry that cannot finally be grounded upon truths in physics.

So to claim that a particular area of study is the Queen of the Sciences is to claim that this particular study is the one that underpins all other areas of knowledge. This is the original claim made for theology, that, properly understood, a right understanding of theology guides and determines the way in which all other subjects are understood. There are no areas of study that are excluded from the Queen, in just the same way that there are no areas of our nation that are not ultimately subject to the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, if there were areas outside her purview, that very fact would mean she would cease to be Queen.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that there have been two principal areas of study that have pretended to the throne. The first is mathematics, the second is physics. Whilst there are some academics who still dream of a ‘theory of everything’, which would establish their area of expertise upon the throne, I believe most would recognise this as a clear example of an ambitious reach exceeding intellectual grasp. This is what it means to live in a postmodern intellectual environment, for the ‘modern’ was precisely the notion that science, as best exemplified in mathematical physics, would provide a new and more rational way of understanding, and therefore ordering and controlling, our human world. That dream died at least fifty years ago, although there are still some who cling to somnolent fragments. Must I mention Professor Dawkins again?

So to have a Queen of the Sciences means to have an intellectual hierarchy, within which some subjects are fundamentally shaped and determined by other subjects. This isn’t just a matter of scientific knowledge (to think that it is is to maintain the modern assumption that science is the most important form of knowledge). Consider Jane Austen, and the study of her novels. Knowledge of Jane Austen is a subset of knowledge of nineteenth century English novels, which is itself a subset of English literature – and that in itself is a subset of literature as such. So it is possible to become an expert in Jane Austen, her novels, her writings, her context and so on – and yet still recognise that such expertise (admirable and enjoyable though it may be!) is only a small area of equivalent expertise across a wider field.

Now imagine that there is someone who is a devotee of science fiction novels – who studies Asimov and Clarke and Iain M Banks – and who denies that this has anything to do with the study of literature. Now this might be well-intentioned, and a question of semantics. In the same way that ‘classical’ music has become identified with music of a particular period, even though similar music is still being composed today, it may be that our aficianado of science fiction is simply segregating out one form of literature from another. That is a defensible position. Yet to say that science fiction is not literature, and by that to mean that issues of the use of language, plot structure, characterisation, thematic explorations and so on are not present in these works is not a defensible position. To say that science fiction has nothing to do with the questions of marriage in early 19th Century england, and is therefore not literature, is to restrict the subject matter of ‘literature’ arbitrarily.

Which is how I tend to feel when someone denies that theology is the Queen of the Sciences. In order to fully understand any subject area there must be an understanding of the investigator themselves. There has to be a level of self-awareness, an appreciation of the limits of what can be understood properly, of what might be useful speculation and conjecture and, most especially, of the way in which our desires and ambitions can distort our perception of the truth. In other words, all our forms of knowledge – even the most ‘hard’ of scientific realms – is ultimately dependent on our most fundamental commitments and beliefs. We need to cultivate an awareness of those commitments and beliefs in order to gain a full and proper knowledge of every other subject area, whether in the sciences or the humanities.

This is the realm of theology, and this is why theology is Queen of the Sciences. Theology is precisely how we talk about what we are most committed to, our faiths and beliefs and creeds. It is not essential to be a Christian in order to study theology – that is the same as saying you need to be a student of 19th Century novels in order to study English literature. What is essential is to have the capacity to engage in a discussion about these matters with an awareness of one’s own commitments and assumptions. This is why atheists can study theology without being committed to a particular devotional stance, and why people of all faiths and none can explore the subject.

Is it worth arguing with Dawkins?

witt vienna

What makes for a useful argument? There are several things that need to be in place before a discussion can be mutually fruitful, rather than such discussion descending, as politicians’ arguments so often do, into a simple exchange of soundbites and slogans. The classical form for understanding a particular subject divides the material into three categories – grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is where to begin, the ground stuff: the basic vocabulary, that which is needed in order simply to know what you are talking about. This is the stuff that needs to be learnt by heart before being able to progress any further, so it includes things like the alphabet, number sequence, basic dates of history and so on. Without this foundation it is literally impossible to progress any further in an understanding of the subject area.

After grammar comes logic. This is where the basic raw material has been learned, and now it is possible to apply reason to that raw material. This is where the rules of interpretation are established and put to use, where words can be formed into proper sentences, where numbers can be put through equations, where a story can be told around a particular historical sequence of events and so on.

Rhetoric comes last. Rhetoric is where things can become creative, for this is where those who have mastered the grammar and logic of a subject are able to begin building new arguments and ideas; that is, this is where it is possible to develop new rules for the logic. This is where creative and interesting work can be done – and sometimes this creative and interesting work is so profound that it completely recasts the grammar and logic of the subject in question.

The great problem with arguments about theology and philosophy of religion in our society is that those who make the most noise are people who think that they are operating at the level of rhetoric when in fact they have not yet even engaged with the basic grammar. Richard Dawkins, for example, hasn’t even achieved the level of being wrong. He is like a baby first learning to speak words, whereby it is mostly gibberish that comes out, and when there is a coherent word you cannot be certain that it matches up with a coherent thought.

Theology and the philosophy of religion have been studied by the finest minds in human history for three thousand years and more. There is a rich and fertile intellectual field that interacts with every other intellectual field, most especially the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language – it is not possible to have a rigorous understanding of physics without an equally robust understanding of metaphysics for example (as Aristotle knew). In order to make a coherent contribution to understanding in this area it really does make a difference if you have become acquainted with the way the topics have been debated through history, not least because by doing so you discover many of the most common mistakes that have been made in the past, and you are therefore set free to not repeat them.

This intellectual history has many twists and turns, new pathways and dead ends. One particular dead-end is associated with the rise of twentieth-century atheism. The roots of that form of atheism are clear. It flows from arguments put forward by David Hume in the eighteenth century, moves through the development of analytic philosophy with people like Bertrand Russell, took a canonical form as ‘logical positivism’ with the publication of AJ Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ in 1936, and was taken as received opinion in undergraduate circles in the 1960s. The arguments that Dawkins and his ilk like to make are cut directly from the arguments made by people like Russell and Ayer nearly eighty years ago. He isn’t saying anything new. Of course, the tradition doesn’t stand still, and what was intellectually fashionable in the 1960s had begun to be dismantled by the 1990′s and is now regarded as rather quaint. Ayer himself has disowned the book that was so influential, stating that it was full of mistakes that he spent the next fifty years trying to correct.

So when someone who has been formed in an intellectual tradition like philosophy engages in debate with works like those by Dawkins, Hithens and their brethren, it can be immensely frustrating. There is no basic agreement on the terms of the argument, no consensus as to the grammar and logic, let alone the rhetoric. Dawkins himself is very clear about his distaste for theology as he consigns it all to an intellectual scrapheap (using what is basically a ‘logical positivism’ type of argument to do so). At that point, what can the educated person do? She can simply say ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ and leave it at that.

Unless…. unless she sees that there is a genuinely enquiring mind behind the arguments and disputes. Where there is a good will and an open mind then it is possible for a shared understanding to be formed. Please note that this shared understanding does not at all mean that the beginning student using Dawkins’ arguments will end up being converted to Christianity. Not at all. It is perfectly possible to understand the tradition completely, to know the grammar, be an expert in the logic, and to be creative rhetorically within the mainstream Western philosophical tradition, and still be a completely convinced atheist. It’s just that such an atheist would not be intellectually lazy, parroting opinions at fifth or sixth hand, and most of all, such an atheist would have a proper understanding of what it was that he was rejecting. That is what is most missing from Dawkins.

My philosophical hero, Wittgenstein, was a part of the intellectual movement that I summarised above – he was Russell’s favourite pupil – yet, even though his own faith was murky at best, he had a very clear understanding of the nature of religious belief and the way in which the philosophical tradition both could and could not interact with it. When he was invited to address the Vienna Circle of philosophers (those whose work Ayer went on to summarise) he realised that they hadn’t grasped some of the basic grammar of what he was trying to do. He therefore turned his chair around and began to recite poetry, in an attempt to shock them into opening their minds. He didn’t succeed. As he later wrote, “What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will.” That’s the problem that I see with people like Dawkins – they simply don’t want to understand.

Christianity is not a rational religion

A correspondent in the last issue of the Courier asked that I might consider what the strongest arguments against Christianity might be. I’m not going to answer that in this column, but I do want to write about why I think there is a mistaken assumption in the question. For I do not believe that Christianity is ultimately a matter of good arguments against bad arguments, however good I consider the arguments in favour of Christianity to be. I do not believe that it is possible to be reasoned into a Christian belief, nor do I believe it is possible to be reasoned out of it. To think that this might be the case is to place reason into a position that it is incapable of occupying, and I’d like to explore why.

I believe that it is possible to make an intellectually coherent system from any set of initial assumptions. It is possible to be both an intellectually coherent Marxist and an intellectually coherent Nazi (not at the same time of course); it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Buddhist and an intellectually coherent Muslim; it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Christian and an intellectually coherent atheist. In other words, to be intellectually coherent is not the same as being in possession of the full truth, it is merely a question of pointing out a consistency, that the conclusions of what is believed match up with the starting points of what is believed. Not many people actually achieve this of course – those that do tend to be called fundamentalists of one stripe or another. As Wittgenstein once put it, “The difficulty is to realise the groundlessness of our believing.” That is a comment which applies to all forms of believing, not just religious ones.

The pursuit of perfect intellectual coherence is ultimately a delusion, for all our understandings are destined to be incomplete and partial. Mathematically this has been proven (by Gödel), that even the most beautifully fine tuned intellectual system must be incomplete. So, in so far as you believe that mathematics has the capacity to reflect reality then you are equally bound to accept the limits to that.

The key issue, of course, is about the initial assumptions. How do we decide the premises on which we base our thinking? If it is possible to be intellectually coherent across various diverse and contradictory belief systems, how can we choose amongst them? Well, I am rather dubious that we do so ‘choose’. In Wittgenstein’s ‘On Certainty’ he wrote “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” In other words, our most basic beliefs are not the product of ratiocination, of some sort of armchair based abstract theorising. Rather, all of our thinking takes place within a world view that is already given to us.

Consider how important to our beliefs is the language in which they are expressed. It is a commonplace to say that some words cannot be translated – how then can we ‘choose’ what we believe if some things simply cannot be stated within the language that we have inherited? No, the language that we speak is something given to us independently of our choice; similarly, the patterns of life into which we are formed, the habits that we depend upon to go about our daily lives, all the moral and ethical expectations that society places on us from before our birth – all these things form our ‘inherited background’. (Which is why, by the way, the baptism of infants makes sense – it is promising to establish that background rather than leaving it to the world to fill the gap – but that is another argument).

Is it possible for such an inherited background to change? Yes, it is, but it is not something that can be done purely by reason, although reason can be an immensely useful and healing tool to assist in a process of change. Rather, to change such an inherited background is more like the process of falling in love in that it is something that involves the whole of us, all of our passions and deepest concerns, and not just simply our capacity to intellectually reflect.

Possibly the most influential atheist in our intellectual tradition was David Hume, who wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Our beliefs change when our passions change, and our passions only change when something significant happens within our life. For our most fundamental beliefs to change, something similarly fundamental needs to have happened to our lives – a bereavement perhaps, or a personal crisis of another sort. In essence, we need to experience something for which our ‘inherited background’ way of thinking is inadequate; to put it colloquially, we need to have our minds blown by a particular event.

Such events have to involve us as fully human beings, all our passions and desires, loves and hatreds, fears and joys. The closer we come to consideration of such things, the closer we come to being able to change our inherited backgrounds. Which is why it is so essential that the humanities remain central to a civilisation, and why a proper understanding of tragedy is the foundation of all sustainable political resistance. What is most often misunderstood about Christian faith is that it is seen as being in competition with physics or chemistry, that it is offering a scientific description of the way that the world works. That is not where the centre of gravity of faith lies. Rather, the religious point of view is about the ordering of our passions, interrogating our desires in order to find the ‘one thing needful’ that puts everything else into its proper place and enables us to live life abundantly.

Let me put it like this. If you really want to understand the Christian faith, you’re better off pondering the state sponsored execution of an innocent man, and all the issues about a meaningful life that are raised by that, rather than the logical consistency of omnipotence and omniscience. Christianity is not in competition with physics. It is in competition with Sophocles and Shakespeare, or, these days (given the utter impoverishment of our culture) it is in competition with EastEnders and The X Factor. In other words, it is telling a different story about what it means to live well within the world. The great tragedians tell one story; modern soaps and reality television tell another; Christianity tells a third. We need to decide which one we actually believe in, and then live life accordingly.

A category mistake that atheists make

Imagine that you have nine grey mice lined up in a row, and at the end of the row there is an elephant. The elephant is coloured in exactly the same shade of grey as the mice. Now if the question is then, ‘how many grey creatures are there?’ then the answer is ten. However, if the question is ‘how many mice are there?’ then the answer is nine. If someone answers the latter question with the answer ‘ten’ then they are including the elephant in the category ‘mice’ – and that is a mistake. It is a type of mistake that philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ for it rests upon placing an item into the wrong category.

I want to explain a category mistake that atheists often make when they are making polemical arguments against religious believers (mostly, but not always, Christian believers). The particular argument that I’m thinking of is the ‘one more god’ point, which can be summarised in the following way: all human beings doubt the existence of almost all the gods that have ever been believed in; atheists simply doubt the existence of one more god than the religious believers.

Normally resting behind this sort of argument is the assumption that the movement from believing in various gods to not believing in them represents a sort of progress. It is part of a more general story that claims that western culture is moving steadily away from the superstitious darkness of religious faith into the wonderfully enlightened realm of secular thought. This story took root in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was conventional wisdom by the middle of the twentieth. It has, however, largely become discredited and it is now extremely rare to find someone with academic expertise in this area who still has faith in that story. Obviously it takes time for the wider culture, especially the media, to catch up with academic developments, but it is happening.

This story of progress, however, does have roots in our own religious tradition. The very language of an ‘Old Testament’ and a ‘New Testament’ indicates as much. Even within the Old Testament, however, it is possible to trace the development of the Hebrew understanding of God (that is, Yahweh), and explaining this will help to understand the category mistake that I argue that atheists commonly make. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem:

“On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12-13)

The King of Judah was brought to the steps of the Temple, whereupon his family were slaughtered in front of him and then he was blinded and bound, taken into captivity to Babylon itself. There he joined all of the upper classes in Judah’s society, who had been taken into Exile by the Babylonians: ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137).

Imagine that you are part of this society which sees Yahweh as present in the temple and knows, therefore, that Jerusalem is inviolate and invincible – and then utter disaster comes upon you. This is where a great shift in Hebrew thinking about Yahweh happens. Up to this point the Ancient Hebrew people had thought of Yahweh as a tribal deity: “our god is bigger than your god”, where Yahweh is simply one god amongst other gods, maybe the most powerful in the pantheon but certainly one amongst others. When you are faced with this sort of calamity, however, you have two choices: you can either say, “Our god isn’t as strong as the other gods, therefore he is dead” and the worship of Yahweh dies off (which happened many times in ancient history); or – and here the genius of the Hebrew people is demonstrated – the people respond by escalating the attributes of Yahweh and say, “Yahweh is faithful; if this has happened to us, Yahweh must also be in charge of the Babylonian armies, therefore Yahweh is the only god, Yahweh is the creator of everything”.

In other words, what happens at the time of the exile in Babylon is that there is a shift from Yahweh as a tribal god of the Israelites, to Yahweh as the creator of all things. In other words a shift from thinking about Yahweh as a god (lower case g) to thinking about Yahweh as God (upper case G). This is the real genius of the Hebrews: to be faithful no matter what. They are “a stiff-necked people”, but this steadfastness is why they are the chosen people. God touched them and gave them a way of growing into a greater understanding of the truth.

In other words, to return to my original image, at the time of the exile the Ancient Hebrews stopped thinking of God as being one mouse alongside other mice, but realised that God was in fact an elephant – that he was radically unlike what they had previously believed. From this point onwards, in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, it is a mistake to think of the standard religious language about God as describing the equivalent of one god amongst other gods – to think of the elephant as a mouse. They are simply not the same sort of thing. To assume otherwise is a category mistake.

Of course, this does not end all the arguments. I would emphasise also that this is not an argument to establish that there actually is an elephant in the room. It remains possible to say that the religious believers are mistaken and that what they believe to be an elephant is in fact simply another mouse, and that the religious believers are deluded in thinking otherwise. Yet to pursue that line of argument necessitates engaging with what is actually claimed about God by the religious traditions, most especially what are seen as the attributes of God such as omniscience and omnipotence and so on. This is something that the most prominent atheists signally fail to do. After all, the finest human minds for thousands of years have pondered the details of this question. It would be something of a surprise if someone like Richard Dawkins, who has never received an education in this subject, was able to overthrow the tradition with his ‘one more god’ jibe.

Those like Dawkins will undoubtedly continue to insist that mice and elephants are the same, but there comes a point when all the powers of logic and reasoning fail and it is simply a matter of saying ‘look and see’ – but then, some blindness is wilful. Wittgenstein once wrote “… it is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect.”

Following a crucified God

crucifixionGrunewaldWe live in a broken world. We want our world to make sense, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes the brokenness of the world can overwhelm us, and our desperate desire is to have a way of making sense of what happens, a way to put the brokenness right.

Christians have lots of words to use in such situations; most of them are called prayers. The trouble is that I know from my own life that there are particular times, such as a sudden bereavement, when the words run out, when begging doesn’t seem to be answered, and there is just silence. There are only a certain number of times that you can put your whole heart into praying such words.

The process of saying those words so often, though, and in such a heartfelt manner, changes us. It burns off the dross that we so often fill our minds and hearts with. We get more in touch with the things that we truly value – the clutter gets swept aside, and the central building blocks of our life – our love for our nearest and dearest, a husband or father, a brother or child or friend – these come into focus. And we realise just how very precious they are. For we each bear the image of Christ within us, we are each made in the image of God, and we are each so very, very precious. I think that is how God sees us. One thing that I take away from my own place of bereavement is this sense of the richness, the value, the sheer beauty of a human being, another soul. It is not easy to let something like that go.

There is often still a sense, in me, that if only we do things the right way, then the brokenness of our world can be fended off. That our bereavements and breakdowns can be set aside. If we could only say the right words in the right way then the world can go back to what it was before. This is a type of magical thinking, it is not Christian thinking. Magical thinking in this sense is about controlling the world for our own purposes, using occult means. This is one of the main reasons for Christian missionary success – if the God of these incomers can heal the sick, give people back their sight, or knit bones back together then their magic must be the most powerful magic, their God must be the most powerful God, so let us convert to their rituals. Traces of this can still be found in the Old Testament by the way – and we can trace within the Old Testament a growth in understanding of God, from being the magical figure who was under Israel’s control, to the Creator of the universe.

The central reality that is brought home to me so clearly in my own difficult days is simply this – that we are not in control. God is in control. God will make the creation in a way of his choosing. This seems an obvious thing, a trivial truth, and yet I do believe it is one that we have almost forgotten in the structure of our lives. It is certainly a hidden truth in our culture. We have become accustomed to getting our own way with most things. If we break a leg, we expect to be able to recover, and return to our previous normal life – when that is something astonishing in human history. We are accustomed to being able to see during the dark winter hours, and be kept warm and well fed. Yet, within all the insulation that we surround ourselves with, all the comforts that chloroform the soul, God is still the fundamental ground of our being, the support on which we sit. We are utterly and irreducibly dependent upon God.

Which brings me back to prayer. The heart of prayer is love; that if we bring love to the centre of our awareness, then God is able to work through us. And what is the Christian response to living in a broken world? We follow Christ crucified. In other words, we declare that God is not separate from our own suffering, He is alongside us. That through what happened on the cross, God himself takes on the burden of our suffering and starts the process of putting it right.

The cross is foolishness to a rational mind because it does not represent a complete or fulfilled life. The philosophers of Ancient Greece sought a way to live that avoided suffering, a way that would lead to a fulfilled life of great wisdom and old age. So to hold up as wisdom a way of life that leads to being executed in the prime of life is folly. Worse, the cross is a stumbling block to a religious mind because it is a scandal, an offence to a system of belief. It is a sign of disfavour by God, a sign that God hates the person to whom this is done. For God clearly acts through the crowd, and blessing in this world is the most prominent sign of God’s approval.

Christians belong with Christ crucified. We declare that God is not on the side of those who seek a worldly wisdom that gives worldly satisfactions, nor on the side of those who equate the approval of the world with the approval of God. No, we say that God is to be found with those who are broken and shattered, those who are on the edges, who do not enjoy the favour of the world. These are the ones to whom Christ came.

We live in a broken world. We each carry wounds that have been carved into our flesh, engraved upon our hearts. I believe that the only way through our brokenness is to follow Christ crucified, for Christ crucified tells us the truth about the world, and the truth about God. Yet we Christians do not simply follow Christ crucified. If our story ended there it would surely be scandalous foolishness. Our story ends with the resurrection, but notice that when doubting Thomas meets Jesus, it is through placing his hands in his wounds that he is finally convinced. The wounds are the anchor point of reality for Thomas. They show that Christ has suffered alongside us. And there is a deeper mystery here, for the way of Christ’s resurrection is to demonstrate redemption, not restoration. It is not as though the crucifixion did not happen. It is not as though Christ has been returned to the state that he was in before it happened. No, Christ bears his wounds, they define who he is – and yet, whilst wounded, he is the source of life and light and peace to all who can see him. So we follow Christ crucified, yes – but Christians follow Christ crucified because we know Christ risen, and so we have grounds for hope, and for trust, and these things give us the strength to carry on, day by day, hour by hour, as we navigate our way through our broken world.

Why bother with a church that isn’t spiritually serious?

One of the long themes in Scripture is the divide between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Each of them expresses something of the divine purpose and each has a particular besetting sin to which they succumb when they lose touch with a living faith.

The priestly class upholds the form and ritual that has been mandated and commanded for worship. The prophetic class demands that the life of the nation must honour God through establishing social justice. When Jesus attacks the traders in the Temple he is acting prophetically. When he attends synagogue ‘as was his custom’ he is conforming to the priestly pattern.

By mentioning these things I merely wish to say that I am aware that an over-emphasis upon the priestly responsibilities at the expense of wider questions of justice is a temptation of the religious professional. My concern with regard to what has happened at St John’s Waterloo is that the priestly element to worship has been completely forgotten. That is, it’s not so much that Canon Goddard has done something wrong, it’s that he didn’t have any awareness that it was wrong. It is that absence of awareness that concerns me most.

After all, one of the most essential parts of a spiritually serious faith is the notion of the sacred. That there are some things which are more important than others, some places that are more important than others, and that these more important things are marked out as distinct and different in the life of the faithful. They are, indeed, named as sacred. Do not treat these things in the way that you treat other more mundane things. It is this difference in value between the sacred and the mundane that is the principal means by which a wider sense of value is inculcated. It is impossible to have a Christian virtue tradition, in MacIntyre’s terms, without some sense of the holy and the sacred.

In the life of the Church of England, this has included land – certain land, and certain buildings erected on that land, have been consecrated. That is, they have been dedicated to the worship of the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been set apart for that purpose. They have gained a quality of holiness. It would be fitting for us to take off our shoes before entering into the holy space, as Muslims do before entering into a Mosque, and as Moses did before the burning bush.

With the consecration, certain acts become prohibited – and those prohibited acts are those that profane the sacredness of the space. Specifically, any act of worship which is not of a Christian character would count as such, whether that service be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or Mormon. The sacred space has been consecrated to Christian worship – any other form of worship that takes place in that space is a breach of that consecration. This is not to say anything whatsoever about those other forms of worship, whether good or bad, it is simply to say that if such worship takes place in a place that has been made sacred for Christian worship then this is profanity, sacrilege and blasphemy. It must not be done, on pain of self-undoing.

(Now there are some exceptions to this blanket prohibition when it comes to ecumenical co-operation with other Christian denominations, when, as I understand it, it is possible to gain approval from the relevant Bishop to allow, eg, a Methodist service within an Anglican church. These points also do not apply to other non-consecrated spaces within a church complex, such as a church hall.)

Now there may well be times when, as a prophetic act, it is necessary to act against such a consecration, yet surely such an act would need to be done with a full awareness of the nature of the intended act, and a fully prayed through understanding of the likely consequences. I see Jesus in the Temple precincts as the paradigm form, and I see that as the specific reason why he was executed.

Now I have no desire to add fuel to the pyre on which a witch-hunt can find a conflagratory fulfilment. I think Canon Goddard might simply apologise and promise not to do it again, and that would be the end of it. What most appalls me about this episode is, as I say, the seeming unawareness that there is any issue here, and the way in which the discussion has been presented in terms of ‘hospitality’. If such language is to retain any sense then it must involve some level of respect to the host; most especially it must involve offering respect to those things which are considered by the host to be of utmost value, those things which are considered holy. The language of hospitality is simply inadequate as the governing description for what has happened. There is a barren and atheistic secularity to such reasoning that I find shocking amongst clergy, and it is this that makes me wonder – what is the point of a church that isn’t spiritually serious? That does not treat holy things as holy but rather, as simply incidental details to be discarded at the behest of any passing good idea?

I think a church that no longer has a sense of the sacred, and therefore of the boundaries of behaviour by which to police the sacred, has failed the Ichabod test, and the Glory of the Lord has departed from it. The consecrated space has become just another building, and then it doesn’t matter what happens within its walls one way or the other. God has left the building.

The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.