Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Archbishop answers stimulating questions at Westminster School

Wednesday 23rd April 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed Upper School Pupils at Westminster School's Sir John Locke Society and answered their questions on religion, ethics and politics.

Archbishop Rowan at Westminster School

Direct and to the point, the pupils at Westminster School wasted no time getting straight to the heart of their interests in the Archbishop. From being a Christian - to animal-human embryos - to going to hell, the Archbishop welcomed the challenging questions in the forty-five minute session.  

Click download on the right to listen to the session [46Mb]

Read the transcript below:

Michael Haggar, speaker: Welcome to 'Locke' everybody. Today I am very pleased to introduce Dr Rowan Williams who is by no means your standard traditional establishment Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1985 while Dean of Clare College, Cambridge he was arrested for scaling the fence and singing Psalms at an American Air Force base in Norfolk on behalf of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. Having been appointed Archbishop in 2002, he went on to severely criticise both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More recently, as I am sure you will all know, he caused a bit of a stir with his lecture on civil and religious law in England, where despite what The Daily Mail and The Sun will have you believe, he argued simply that our legal system must keep an open mindset when considering how to adapt to change. Some mentions were made of Sharia law but he went on to emphasise that the most important thing was not to put the rights our society considers as fundamental at risk. As you can probably tell, for him politics and religion are greatly intertwined and that can only be a good thing for the questions in debate today. Thank you very much for coming.

Archbishop of Canterbury: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for the invitation, thank you for the introduction and the excavation of all the most embarrassing bits of my past; but you've been very helpful indeed in providing a few questions in advance. And what I'd like to do this morning is to take the questions that have been sent in and say a few words in response to those for a bit and see how much time we have got afterwards for more questions from the floor. And I hope it won't be terminally embarrassing if I ask the people who have submitted the questions just to wave their hands at me so that I know where they are and that I can fix them with my eyes and hypnotise them into submission when I try to respond. The first question is from Robert Natzler, who asks a nice simple direct question to start with:

Why are you a Christian?

This could obviously take the next three hours or so but I'll try to be brief. I can answer it at least two levels. I could give you the plain descriptive answer which is I am a Christian because I was brought up in a broadly Christian home, in a broadly Christian country – that is Wales – but there is always more to it than that. And it was as a teenager that I started beginning to get a sense that the stories and words that had been washing around over me since I was a small child might actually relate to my own experience and what there was to be hoped for. But I guess it was when I was 14 or 15 that I really began to see that the big issues that I was at that time wrestling with studying English, studying history, actually coalesced around the great ideas that my Christian faith was presenting to me. And those were things such as, "What's the horizon for human beings? How big is a human being?" Christian faith says that humanity is created in the image of God and that it can grow into a level of liberty, capacity to love, even capacity to change things. That is really reflective of God and it seemed to me then and it seems to me now one of the most ambitious accounts of what it is like to be human that you could possibly give. And I think it is quite a good idea to have an ambitious account of what human beings are capable of and that gave me a real reason for believing it and the context of the story of creation and redemption. God wants us to be here, God thinks we're infinitely worthwhile and therefore the coming of God amongst us in the shape of Jesus confirms that dignity and liberty that belongs to human beings. And that all slotted together as I say with all kinds of questions that were coming up in my mind raised by the study of literature and politics and history. And I was very lucky that at that time I belonged to a Christian Church locally whose members and whose clergy actually thought it was a good idea to encourage you to think in those large terms and encourage you to ask the questions. I'm still a Christian because I haven't yet found, and hope I never shall, any account of humanity or the universe that is half as persuasive or exciting as that is. And also because day by day, as I try to go on saying my prayers, the sense of not discovering new facts but moving into new depths goes on, supported by/nourished by my Christian commitment and discipline of daily prayer. So not a very ideas laden response in some ways. I can't say that I'm a Christian because of X, Y and Z and that is why everybody ought to be a Christian; but that is how it came to make sense for me and that is still the kind of sense it makes. Christian teaching gives me an excitement about humanity - all kinds of humanity - and it gives me a challenge at depth about how much risk I am prepared to take for that humanity, how much I am prepared to let go in terms of compassion or attention to others which I am signally bad at but I know is the way. That's I think where I would start with it so thank you Robert for giving that first turn to the wheel. And then there is Jackson Lu who asks me:

Who is my favourite philosopher and why?

Am I allowed more than one? I would quite like to have two really. I would quite like to have a few more but the ones that have really shaped me are I suppose Wittgenstein and Hegel - very, very different. Why do I like Wittgenstein? For those of your for whom Wittgenstein is not bedside reading everyday, Wittgenstein is a great 20th century Austrian figure advancing two quite different accounts of what philosophy is for. Initially suggesting that the point of philosophy was to clarify to the minimal point exactly how you would represent the world in words knowing that when you had done that representation, there was nothing more - that was it. You just had to shut up. And so the task of philosophy is just clarifying, reducing, mathematicalising you might say, the language. And then more and more he realised that, that doesn't correspond to anything in the way language really works or only a tiny bit of that. And he began to look at how the meaning of words is shaped by the way we use them and the using of words happens in what he calls a form of life – practise, a way of going on, a way of relating, a way of shaping life together. And so he moves towards his second, mature, philosophy which is all about "meaning and use" and produces a series of blindingly difficult and complicated and unfinished reflections in his later years but I just found him a deeply challenging writer in all sorts of ways. A philosopher who, as we know from his pupils, set the most demanding standards and would say to his students repeatedly, "You've got to go the bloody hard way, don't make philosophy easy". It's all about attending to the way things are said and the way people relate and the expectations around it and it requires an immense focus on the particulars. He liked to quote a line, I think, from Shakespeare's King Lear, "I'll teach you differences"- that attention to the different, the specifics, the forms of life. So yes I got excited by Wittgenstein, learnt from him, still love him and find him exasperating! And I came to Hegel later on who seems in some ways to be the exact opposite, somebody who believes that thinking about thinking shows you that everything finally folds in together. And yet if you read Hegel, he is not saying there is a quick answer and a universal system you can find like that. He says it is by following out every single argument, pro and contra, again in detail watching the history of it you finally get to the point where you see how thinking is about convergence. Not in any glib or easy way, but it took me about fifteen years of dipping in and out of Hegel to begin to see how he made sense and I was very much helped by some colleagues and students of mine in seeing there was more to him than I thought. Those are the ones which really fire me because I think in their wildly different ways they, both of them, say something which is actually said by John Gray from the L.S.E. in one of his recent books Straw Dogs which some of you may have read. He says, "What if human beings were just put on earth to see, to see clearly? What if that were the humans' job?" And I thought well yes, that rings a bell with both those philosophers. In their different ways they are both saying our job is seeing and the problem with human beings is their failure to see each other – to see and grasp what it is to be intelligent because of the identification of exactly what intelligence means. Look around, I don't mean here, look around you in the society that we are in and it's not exactly obvious what people think intelligence is about these days – that's another story. Now here's a nice one from Frances Gene-Rowe:

Is agnosticism lazy?

Well I know some lazy agnostics but I am not sure that agnosticism is lazy. It is lazy if it simply means, "I can't be bothered to make up my mind; it's all too difficult". But I think that for a lot of people who call themselves agnostics there is a real sense that it would be dishonest, glib, cheating somehow to come to quickly to massive, cosmic conclusions and I don't think that's lazy. I think it is honest as far as it goes. I think that at some point everyone who would want to describe themselves as an agnostic is likely to come up against some situations, in actual life, in thinking, where choices have to be made. But I think that there is something healthy about the willingness not to be rushed into huge conclusions. And it is a bit related to a question from Louis Lunts who asks about Richard Dawkins, surprise surprise, who openly attacks religious beliefs. Indeed he does! I have been on the receiving end once or twice. Louis asks:

What is your response to the growing phenomenon of atheism?

Well, let me talk first about the growing phenomenon of people reading Richard Dawkins. I suspect you know that every age needs a kind of anti-pope. It needs an intellectual figure in public life asking awkward questions and pushing outrageous ideas and Richard Dawkins is a great pusher in some ways of the most extreme, the most obnoxious and offensive versions of anti-religious language. But he does it with such eloquence and even such charm that it is a great tribute to his intellectual quality. And I think part of his public reputation is to do with that sense of we need a figure like that in public. Bertrand Russell used to be the kind of Poet Laureate of atheism nationally and now Richard Dawkins is and in fifty years we will have someone else. Fine, that's public life. More seriously as to the arguments he puts and others with him, two or three points. First, Dawkins is of course a professional biologist/geneticist. He would say that there is no way of holding the Neo-Darwinian view of biology and genetics coming together and still believing in a purposeful creator. To that I think I can only say that there are plenty of other biologists and geneticists who don't seem to feel that problem so acutely and the particular way in which he has developed the Neo Darwinian view is one which tends to reduce every single aspect of intellectual or spiritual life to Darwinian survival strategies. I think that is both a reductive and a rather dangerous view of how intellectual life works because it cuts off the branch that itself is sitting on. If every intellectual system is a survival strategy in the Darwinian world then so is Dawkins version of Darwinism - so I don't think that will quite do. The second thing to say about him; he is very, very reluctant to engage with forms of Christian thinking, or religious thinking generally, other than the most rock bottom fundamentalist. I don't know that he has actually read of digested very much of the tradition of serious Christian philosophy, historically or in the present. He would say I think, and indeed does say, "Well that's just clever Christians trying to wriggle out of the unacceptable consequences of what they believe". But I think if he or any other modern geneticist were held to the exact letter of what Darwin had said, they might be in some difficulties. Darwinism is a tradition that has thought itself through, developed and grown and responded to challenge and so has Christianity – and so has any religious system. The third point though is most basic perhaps; I don't think Christianity or any other religion is meant to be a scientific system. It is meant to be an account of the context in which the whole of the universe exists - the context of God. It doesn't set out first to explain things so that science comes in and says, "We have a better explanation". It sets out to give you a vision, an imagination, a commitment rather than a set of explanations. So I think, and I've quoted this once or twice before so forgive me for repeating it those who've heard me say it; it's something that Dostoevsky in one of his novel has one of his characters say when he reads a tax on religion by atheists, "It always seems to him that they are talking about something else, you know, not the religion he knows". And I guess that a lot of people would be like that with Richard Dawkins, so I am fascinated by Dawkins, engaged by him; I don't worry to desperately about him and I think there are plenty of very interesting responses but the leverage he seems to have in public has quite a bit to do with what I call this expectation of a public anti-pope and also with the status we now give to science. The assumption [is] that if someone is a first class scientist, then they are automatically a first class philosopher. Dawkins is clearly a first class scientist. I don't think he is a first class philosopher but because we have this tremendously exalted view of what science is about, we think if you're good at that, you must be good at everything and I think I would want to put a bit of a question mark against that with due respect to him. Here is a very challenging one from Edgar Smith who asks:

Is it morally wrong not to doubt God's existence in the face of terrible suffering or moral evil like Iraq?

That is a very searching one. I think I'd start by saying it is pretty odd not to doubt God's experience at some point in the face of awful sufferings. I think the most demanding interview I have ever had to do was with John Humphreys the morning after the Beslan massacre a couple of years ago. Essentially he got me into the studio to say, "Well how can you talk about God in the face of this level of sub-human atrocity?" And I said then and I say now that it is very strange not to let that level of suffering and human awfulness dent something about your faith. But is it morally wrong not to doubt? I don't think I could say that. I'd say it is morally insensitive just to come out with untouched platitudes about belief in the face of that but it does drive us, this sort of question, to a very difficult level where I think I'd want to say first of all, human atrocity makes me doubt humanity at least as much as it makes me doubt God. And back to what I said at the beginning about how Christianity gives you a big picture of what humans are capable of, this is one of the things which undermines that. Well if human beings can be like that, are they worthwhile? Are they worthwhile in the way the Christian tradition says they are if they are capable of such appalling cruelty, barbarity? That is the level at which the doubt comes and the other thing that I find myself driven back to constantly is when the question is asked, "Where is God in situations of horrible suffering?" I remember saying about Beslan; God, if God is there at all, God is there in one child taking the hand of another to try and reduce their fear. God is there in any little movement that somehow witnesses to the dignity of humanity and the possibility of compassion in a circumstance where things are as bad as they could be. Somehow when things are as bad as they could be they are pulled back from as bad as it could be by the extraordinary way in which human beings still do act as if compassion were worthwhile, as if human beings were worth taking troubles over. It's the encouragement given by one Jew to another on the way to the gas chambers. It's the texted messages of love to family and friends from the people who are about to die in the planes on the 11th September. It is those things that somehow bring back the human into focus and for me in doing that say, well, talking about God is not such nonsense after all. If the world was uniformly dreadful, and these things didn't happen it would be a lot harder to believe in God. No quick answers to that and I could go on but that is where I start. Two questions here related to each other from Chris Sykes and Rebecca Kinder:

What is my view on hybrid animal-human embryos and questions about whether Parliament ought to be reviewing the number of weeks before which an abortion is permitted and about whether euthanasia should be permitted in this country?

So a brief rundown of all the most controversial questions before our neighbours across the road! Hybrid animal-human embryos, well a slightly divided mind on this one. I am not as sure as the Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews is about this. I will tell you why. My general worry about the embryo research world is moving into a situation where we take it for granted that it is alright to create embryos solely for the purpose of research and then destroy them. I think that is the moral difficulty and actually it is shared by a number of people in the world of embryo research that I have spoken with. If they could find other ways, they would – but that's where I would want to raise a real question in general. Now, the animal-human embryo: my question, and I am not enough of a scientist to resolve it, my question is this. If you were creating a real embryo that is something that could actually be implanted and grow into a hybrid organism then I would be worried, I would think, "I don't know what we are doing here!" If you are creating a purely laboratory reality, which has certain features of an embryo about it which allow you to experiment, I don't think the problem is quite the same. Most of the scientists I speak to who have got experience in this field say the so-called "cybrid", the laboratory construct, is almost certainly not capable of being implanted and grown. It remains a pure laboratory reality. If that is the case, I have fewer moral worries though I still have some. So that's my very cautious view at the moment. I'm still trying to find out more about it and spent a day a couple of weeks ago at a day conference in the University of Christ Church Canterbury trying to understand a little bit more about genetics to shape my thoughts about this. As for abortion and euthanasia, I think on abortion briefly that yes it is time to reduce the number of weeks. Apart from general questions about abortion on which I have a fairly traditional and rather absolutist view – okay granted it's legal and we have to work with that – but as the technology moves on and it becomes easier to save and continue the life of the embryo/foetus after a shorter and shorter period in the womb, I think we do have to look at that very seriously and I would like to see levels reduced. And on euthanasia, again I take a fairly straight view on the moral inadmissibility of euthanasia and am not happy with it because a) I believe our lives are given to us in trust by God and not to be returned at our own choice and b) I think that as soon as we legalise it, we open the door to pressures, psychological and economic about accelerating death which could be deeply difficult. Very problematic! These are arguments which I and others have had, again across the road in Parliament, and the argument goes on. In clarification, I certainly don't think that the Church, whatever people mean by that, ought to be able to dictate what Parliament does and what the nation does. But I do believe the Church has a right and a duty to get into the argument and to try and persuade people. Not everybody will argue with what I say about euthanasia. Not everybody begins where I begin with a particular moral and religious view. Okay so I have got to argue, I have got to try and persuade and that's the job of public debate in a sensible society. So I'm not asking for the liberty of the Church to decide policy. Vyvyan Almond asked exactly that question:

To what extent do you think that religion should influence the laws of the state in this age?

And I hope that is part of an answer. Influence in the sense of being involved in the argument -determining the outcome. We're not an autocracy where Archbishop's decide things – not even the Church is like that but that is another story as well! Isobel Faulkner asks:

Why are there no female bishops in the Church of England and will this change?

Why are there no female bishops? Well the short answer is we've never had them! And we are in the middle of debating whether we should. Historically, partly because of theological convictions, partly because of social conventions, women have not been seen as been eligible for the same role as men in the Church as in other areas of society. As that's changed in society at large, the questions come for the Church, "Is our resistance to women clergy a matter of social convention or is it really a matter of religious conviction? And if it's a matter of religious conviction, what kind of conviction?" and that's been what the argument's dealt with over women priests, and now over women bishops. As we speak, there's a report being prepared which the Church's Parliament will be looking at in a couple of month's time when the bishops of the Church of England are finalising. Trying, as I say, to sort out whether there are deep theological objections or whether the objections can be overcome, and also trying to sort out what weight in that discussion should be given to our relations with other churches like the Roman-Catholics, the Eastern churches. So, a work in progress I think is the answer there.

The reasons that have normally been brought up against women being priests and bishops have to do partly with history – Jesus' male apostles – partly with theories and speculations about God's different purposes for different sexes, a number of other things like that. But, why don't we have them? Because that debate isn't over yet, I think is the short answer, and it continues. A question from Arjav Trivedi:

Do you believe that Britain is becoming a disillusioned and divided country?

Yes, is the unhappy answer. "Disillusion" is a very interesting word there because I think there is a level of public cynicism in our culture and society which is a bit worrying. We want very promptly, very quickly and decisively to undermine anything that looks like a credible ideal or public figure that wants to talk idealistically and you can sense the - almost the - sigh of relief when someone in public life finally makes the mistake that allows you to go forth and Gordon Brown has had it a couple of times in the last twelve months as you've noticed and he's going though it at the moment. Coming in on a wave of sober, principled, responsible reputation, "Oh wonderful, at last we've found something", say the media-related public. "We've found something that we can use to dissolve that". So there is a cynicism around which is not good for us I think, and I'm not suggesting we go back to an uncritical view of public figures where they can do no wrong, God forbid. But getting the balance between a responsible, critical society where people are encouraged to ask really awkward questions. And a society where everyone assumes the worst in public life and loses trust in politics, that's grim, and I think – and I know you all know better – but my sense is that people of my daughter's generation, not so far from yours, find politics as traditionally conceived a very uninspiring world to put it mildly. And not one that many people want to get stuck into, that's disillusion. And I think that leaves a lot of divisions – racial divisions, class divisions – that we ought to be thinking through that are not very well addressed in public so, yes, I've got some sympathy. A question from Patrick Beardmore:

Having tested the waters on Sharia Law, do you still believe in its incorporation into UK law is inevitable?

Well, indeed! (to speaker) Thank you for your gloss introducing me which is very helpful. Testing waters is a very fair way of putting it I think. I asked the question whether, given the way that we thought about our culture these days, whether there could and should be ways of bringing elements of Islamic law into the field of recognition into British law. And, coincidentally, just a couple of days after the great fuss about my speech in the Royal Courts of Justice, the government announced that it was introducing some Sharia-compliant forms of mortgage arrangement for Muslims in this country. And my immediate thought was, "Well there you are, that's just it, that's the point, that's the kind of thing!" And the word 'inevitable' which wasn't a very happy choice of words, I think, was my own way of saying, "If we're going to live constructively and harmoniously with some people who have some very different convictions about certain things like money and interest, we need to ask whether our law can cope with that" and I think if we really want harmony and constructive relations, then it's inevitable that we should ask those questions and perhaps recognise those differences. The mortgage-compliance thing is absolutely the sort of thing I was talking about and the much more difficult area of domestic law, and the role of women, that creates – as I said in the lecture – some tougher questions, but ones we can't really avoid forever. And I seem to remember the word 'inevitable' means 'unavoidable' (!) so we can't get away from those issues. I still think that. A very interesting question again from Hannah Hauer-King:

Do you think we are psychologically programmed to believe in God?

Depends on whether you think we're psychologically programmed to believe in anything. And it's back to the Dawkins question: Is our thinking life – our thinking, feeling, imagining life – just a kind of spare time activity of a mechanism going on inside us? Or does it have a real independence? I think to say that any belief is programmed or genetically determined, or whatever, I'd be very reluctant to come to that conclusion about any imaginative intellectual vision because it does seem to need to reduce our humanity again. But, the other side of the question is, "Are we, in some sense, so constructed that we've become a bit less than human, a bit less than normal you might say, without belief in God?" That's a much more interesting question relating to really sharp question from unnamed religious studies pupil:

Is it true as St Irenaeus says that, "only God can satisfy us"?

And as a Christian, I would say "Yes, God is what we're made for, we are most human when we're most in touch with God. Most humans are most capable of intelligence, love, liberty, relationship, when we're in touch with God, the source of all love and freedom and relationship." And is that psychological programming? I don't think so; I'd call it more creative purpose I suppose. But the teasing out of how the image of God, that the picture of God in our minds, is formed by our psychological evolution, how it interacts with internal images of parental figures and so on, that's a very interesting area which a number of scholars have worked on, I think very usefully, without at all concluding that because we can find analogues between these relationships, then we just dismiss the whole idea of God being there. But it's related to a question from Flora Zackon:

What would you say to those who suggest religion is only a comfort blanket, or as Freud said, a kind of 'neurosis'? Given that we have no unquestionable evidence for God, how would you hope to refute these claims?

First of all, 'religion as a comfort blanket' – I think I could only answer that by pointing to the way in which religion actually specifically works in the lives of a lot of people. Plenty of people use religion as a comfort blanket. As a short-cut, to make themselves feel good. And then you have to give in the account of those who don't. And I don't have the impression that religion is a comfort blanket for Archbishop Tutu lets say, or that it was a comfort blanket for Martin Luther King. These are people who regard their religious faith as something prompting them to take some rather large risks, and risks for the sake of those others whom they believe God cares about. So whatever you say about religious faith in that context, 'comfort blanket' I think won't do. They may be 'deluded', if you like, but the one thing they're not out to get is an easy life. Years ago, debating with Don Cupitt, the religious philosopher in Cambridge when we were colleagues, he was always going on about how religion was generated by the will internally, nothing to do with anything out there. And I remember saying "Well if you'd gone up to Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination or Thomas Moore on the day of his execution and said to them 'Do you think that what you believe has anything to do with what's really the case?' then Moore and Martin Luther King might very well have turned around and said, with varying degrees of impatience, 'What the hell does it look like? You know, here I am being executed, here I am taking risks, come on, this must be something to do with more than me.'" So not an argument but just an observation, a sort of Wittgenstein observation – "What's going on? What's the language doing?"

'Neurosis' is much harder of course, because it's very tempting to characterise almost any belief that you think is irrational or inadequately evidenced as 'neurotic'. And Freud's own way into this of course was to treat religion as an obsessive compulsive neurosis, a very particular kind of neurosis and I'd want to see what the specifics are before giving a general answer. I think Freud's account of religion as obsessive compulsive behaviour is vulnerable on any number of scores, just again as a matter of description. People will differ on whether this or that religious belief may be true or false but I don't think it's to be too readily dismissed on the grounds that it just serves this or that psychological purpose. Partly because of the sheer variety of how religious people behave".

Sorry, time's marching on, I'll try and deal with the remainder if that's alright, as briefly as I can, so we might just have one or two extras. Two related ones from Jake Mellet and Milan Vadher:

To what extent do you think one has the right to convert people to the Christian faith? And will those who are faithful believers in other religions go on to hell for their beliefs?

Jake – Trouble with the way that's phrased – sorry no criticism but it's the language that might carry the wrong answer – it suggests that conversion is something I do to other people. When someone 'converts' they change their mind. I have absolutely no right to make anyone change their mind, nor has anyone else. I do have the right to argue with someone and try to persuade them, and hope to persuade them, and I think that society has a duty to safe-guard the right to change your mind. So, "Does one have the right to convert people?" if that means "Does one have the right to make people become Christians?" No. If it means "Does one have the right to try to persuade?" Yes. And then you're into the ethical questions of what right and wrong ways of persuading look like, and there are manipulative and false and silly ways of trying to persuade which ought to be ruled out of court, and there is the honest, persistent, respectful argument that I hope we can all engage in.

Milan – I think believers in other religions would go to hell for exactly the same reason that you and I would go to hell – that's to say, by the wilful refusal of life and hope. One of the great Christian principles is that no-one goes to hell except by their own choice. And I'm using "going to hell" as a kind of shorthand for somehow being cut-off from the life and love of God. We go to hell from our own choice because mysteriously we've made ourselves so selfish and so stupid by our own choices that we're no longer really capable of seeing goodness when it hits us on the nose. And that's the paradox of "hell", and the Christian teaching is the absurdity of it. The "Devil", again I'm using shorthand, but the "Devil" is not a vastly cunning, supremely intelligent, subtle being - the devil is, in one sense, the most stupid being you can imagine, in that the devil imagined in Christian history is an angel who has seen the glory of God and said "Nah". That's stupid. And going to hell is like that - you cut yourself off from life because you say "I'm not interested in life" – that's why people go to hell, not because they believe this or that set of propositions.

Now, it raises the question, "What's the relationship between other beliefs and Christianity?" I believe – and that's why I'm here in this job – I believe that Christian faith is true, that is it gives the most comprehensive and exciting and life-giving version of reality that is available to human beings. That's what I want to grow up in, that's what I want to live and die in. And that means that when I look at other faiths I can't relate to them in the same way. But I can find all kinds of echoes, points of contact, points where I want to discuss and engage, and I do quite a bit of that, again, professionally through inter faith dialogue, and I don't try and make God's decisions for him. But whether in the Christian family or outside it, going to hell, that is a final loss of life and meaning, would only come if someone seeing the truth fully wanted to turn away from it.

And two more, very briefly which are all the ones I've got here. Another from a religious studies pupil:

Why does Jesus like using paradox in his teaching?

Very good question and I think it's because Jesus in his teaching is constantly trying to get people to start from another point than the one they take for granted. He's trying to make it strange, he's dealing with a religious environment in which people think they know all the answers and so uses paradox, irony, and sometimes shocking things to get people to another point. It's about the newness of the world and paradox does that for us doesn't it? Just one example, which has stuck with me and it's the parable of the Good Samaritan - not exactly a paradox but a shocking thing. Jesus begins to tell a story about a priest and a Levite, and in the context of his time, that was rather like beginning a story about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. You tell stories about a priest, a Levite and an Israelite - the three levels of society. There was a priest who came down the road and he walked by on the other side; there was a Levite who came down the road and he walked by on the other side; and there was a...and the audience is waiting for an Israelite, they want to be told that the hero of the story is a good, ordinary, down to earth Israelite bloke like themselves, not some stuck-up priest or Levite, that's what they're expecting, and Jesus says "...and a Samaritan came down the road..." which completely 'ruins' the story. It's not what they're expecting – instead of the hero being the good, ordinary, solid, honest-to-goodness bloke, it's the person you would least like to go on a train journey with, it's the person you're most encouraged to despise. So, instead of the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman, it's the Englishman, the Irishman and....? Well, fill in the gaps. Who are the people we are least likely to be alongside these days? It's the Englishman, the Irishman and the asylum seeker/the Englishman, the Irishman and, you know... fill it in! But that's what's going on there.

And, the last question, (sorry, rushing here) the most difficult of all:

What is the secret of holiness? How should we live if we want to be holy?

Taking a leaf out of my Master's book and being paradoxical, I would say, "How do we live if we want to be holy? By not thinking about it, by not even asking the question, because holiness is in part self-consciousness, it's being so absorbed in the reality of God that you're not wasting time thinking, 'Am I being holy?'" and the awful thing of course is you can't do that by trying. You can't say, "Right, today I'm not going to think about being holy I'm going to think about God because that's the way I'm going to be holy...oh no damn I thought about being holy!" - and so on and so on. We've just got to let ourselves somehow be overtaken by God's surprising-ness and God's glory, and that's how holiness happens. It happens when we're not looking. One great early Christian teacher said, "You're really praying when you don't realise you're praying". And that's worth thinking about and holiness then becomes just that; being unselfconsciously at home with God in such a way that something of God comes through, and that's why holiness is different from just 'goodness'. Again, someone once said, "Good people can make you really depressed" as you think "Oh dear, why aren't I like that?" Good people go around with a sort of "glow" and you think "I can't manage that". Holy people make you feel better than you are because they convey something of God, something of love, acceptance and promise – that's the difference. But the awful truth is, it doesn't come by trying to be holy. It just comes by God being real, and there are things you can do about that, like being quiet with him and making sure you go and absorbing the Gospels day by day, and doing those ordinary duties towards one another which our vision of humanity – back to where I started – compels you to do.

So, there we are, that's the questions, and I've run over time, sorry.

Michael Haggar, speaker: We don't usually hear from pro-religious sources so that's refreshing in itself, and in particular I found the response to Dawkins, the reason for him being Christian, and also the small philosophy lesson very interesting. You mentioned that the media turns into this sort of predator which you yourself have been on the receiving end of, and I know that a lot of people, including myself, respect you for standing by your principles and convictions when in the face of this and I think you've showed them to a great extent today as well, so it really was a pleasure, thank you.

Back · Back to top