If science is defined as a method or project based on the assumption that there are laws of nature that can be defined mathematically and discovered experimentally then what it produces is a steadily richer set of descriptions of aspects of what exists. These descriptions themselves are modified as new theories replace discredited ones but the observations that enable them are preserved and re-thought rather than abandoned. Thus our basic model of the solar system has a lot in common with that of Newton even as its theoretical underpinning has been totally transformed. We still plot orbits of the planets around the Sun even as the nature of gravity has been totally rethought and the idea of the Sun as stationary been replaced with one in which the Sun itself is part of a complex galactic system in motion both around its own centre of gravity and with respect to other galaxies.

This second part of our series on faith and science touches on two domains of contemporary scientific description, cosmology and biological evolution, and attempts to integrate them into a single “story of everything” before reflecting on the implications of this story for Christian faith.

It is now thought that everything we can observe (the Universe) had its origins in a single event 13.8 billion years ago usually called the Big Bang. At that point there was a single undifferentiated point in which all the matter-energy that now exists (remembering that matter and energy are convertible into one another by the formula {\displaystyle E=mc^{2}} where E is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light). The space into which this was compressed, which was all the space that then existed, was smaller than the smallest particle. The laws of physics that govern our reality did not yet (could not yet) apply and the forms of matter and energy with which we are familiar could not yet exist.

There was a  rapid expansion and cooling of this initial state and after something like 1 microsecond the energy levels dropped sufficiently so that elementary particles (protons, electrons and neutrons) were able to exist stably and within a few minutes the first nuclei of elements (hydrogen and helium) “condensed” out of the soup of sub-atomic particles so that the expanding universe could be thought of as a gas cloud, although this process was not completed for some hundreds of thousands of years. No more complex structures than that had yet come into being.

There followed a period of structure formation when, over very long periods, slight differences in the density of the gas cloud led to gravitational forces pulling large amounts of hydrogen and helium together into galaxies and stars. The best estimate for how long it took for the first stars to come into existence is 200 million years. Sufficient matter had by then been brought together by gravity for nuclear fusion to begin, releasing energy and creating atoms of a range of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. These heavier elements are released both during the life of a star and more especially when it comes to the end of its life and explodes as a super-nova.

The galaxy of which our Sun is part is thought to have formed 13.6 billion years ago and our Sun to have ignited within it about 4.5 billion years ago with the earth and the other planets being created as part of the same process which drew together heavy elements from the remnants of an earlier generation of stars within the galaxy.

The first appearance of life on earth is thought to have occurred between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago. There is no consensus on how the transition to self-replicating life came about. The chemical building blocks (organic chemicals) are widely dispersed throughout the universe but the processes whereby the complex processes of life appear have not been determined.

The “last common ancestor” of all current living things is thought to have been about 3.5 billion years ago and was probably a single-celled organism most similar to a modern bacterium. Photosynthesis producing oxygen evolved among the bacteria around 3 billion years ago and began to transform earth’s atmosphere. By 1.2 billion years ago sexual reproduction had emerged among the single celled organisms and by 800 million years ago multi-celled organisms had appeared.

At 500 million years ago the first evidence exists for life that could leave the water and shortly after that for vertebrate fish with true bones and then for land-based plants. Before 350 million years ago the earth began to resemble its current state, with plants and animals including insects on the land. At around 250 million years ago a major extinction event wiped out around 90% of then existing species. A second major extinction event before 200 million years ago allowed the rise of the dinosaurs.

At 66 million years ago another large extinction took place that wiped out most of the dinosaurs and made space for the rise of the mammals, birds (and ants!). At 35 million years ago another big change includes diversification of grasses and of mammals with many modern types appearing.

Somewhere between 65 and 55 million years ago the hominims, which include the chimpanzee, modern humans and the totally extinct Australopithecenes first emerged.  The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees (our nearest living relatives) is thought to have been 4 to 8 million years ago. The first emergence of the genus Homo sapiens is dated to about 2 million years ago with biologically modern human beings (people genetically identical to us) appearing in Africa about 250,000 years ago. The migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa is thought to have happened 50,000 years ago and the last other human species (Neanderthal) to have become extinct 30,000 years ago.

A distinction is made between biologically modern humans and behaviourally modern humans. Behavioural modernity is a way of life recognisably continuous with all modern humans. This is a controversial and much debated distinction but behavioural modernity is generally thought to include; abstract thought,  planning, trade, cooperative labor, body decoration, control and use of fire. Along with these traits, humans possess a heavy reliance on social learning. Archeological markers of these traits are accepted as; burial of the dead, fishing, figurative art, use of pigments for self-decoration, use of bones for tools, transport of resources over long distances, blade technology, diversity, standardization, and regionally distinct artifacts, hearths, and complex tools.

Whether behavioural modernity emerged suddenly, about 50,000 years ago, or gradually culminating at that time is a matter of debate. In either case it was not present at the first evolution of biologically modern human beings and was present at around the time of the migration out of Africa. It is also generally agreed that some kind of religion was present no later than 30,000 years ago with some scholars claiming to have identified evidence of religious practices even before the evolution of Homo sapiens.

The next major event in this story is the so-called Neolithic Revolution of around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. At that time human beings began the transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life that involved them getting their food from the existing environment to an agricultural way of life where they controlled and tended their sources of food (primarily wheat and domesticated animals). These first agricultural societies began a process of cultural evolution that brings us to the current day.

Over the next four sessions we will explore the implications of this picture for theology.

  • We will consider what it means for our ideas about a creator God and his relationship to Creation when we recognise that Creation is not and has never been stable. Right down to the most basic physical constitution of the Universe we see processes of change and development within time that still continue.
  • We will think about the nature of human beings and the relationship between the modern scientific view of them and the special place they occupy in Christian theology as the “image of God”. This will involve thinking about modern neuroscience and the puzzle of consciousness.
  • We will think about ideas about the ultimate destination and purpose of the Universe/Creation in light both of scientific projections and of our tradition of thinking about the End


I’ve been doing some thinking about science and religion recently. There are a number of reasons for this. The immediate cause was a request from the weekly Bible study group at one of my churches to run a short series exploring issues of faith and science. These issues have arisen repeatedly during other series of discussions and we felt it was time to approach them more directly and thoroughly.

This was opportune because I’ve reading quite a bit of the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg who has some very interesting things to say on this question (my reading of Pannenberg was in turn prompted by writing a review for the journal Theology in Scotland of a work on ecclesiology heavily influenced by him which made him sound indispensable, which I have come to think he is).

Finally, my initial intellectual formation was heavily scientific (I studied scientific disciplines exclusively between the ages of 16 and 20) and followed by immersion in a philosophical tradition (Hegelianism) that aimed at an integration of all knowledge into a seamless unity, rejecting any attempt to rigidly separate domains, for example, of facts and values. For this reason the apparent difficulties of integrating scientific and theological ideas has been a source of embarrassment to me since my conversion, in my 30s, to Christianity.

It has been a delight, therefore, to find what a lot of really interesting work has been going on in this area over recent years. Not all of it is entirely to my taste but I have found a great deal to like. I have been particularly drawn to the work of Nancey Murphy who is both an ordained Christian minister and someone who identifies primarily as a philosopher although she is also a theologian. Murphy’s work can be seen, in some respects, as a reconstruction of some of Pannenberg’s insights about the relationship of science and theology on the basis of more recent philosophy of science than Pannenberg takes as his starting point.

The developing relationship between science and philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other has been enabled by new thinking on both sides of this pairing. The ways in which scientific theory understands its object (let’s call it the Universe) on the one hand and the way in which those who try to make sense of the scientific enterprise itself (philosophers of science) understand what science is and how it works have both been undergoing rapid and radical change in the last decades.

At the same time there has been a profound shift in some parts of the theological world towards a new interest in what one might call “natural theology”. For a long time theologians had a tendency not to want to engage too much with science and in the work of the Reformed thinker Karl Barth (whom almost everyone – including at least one Pope – acknowledges to be the most influential and important theologian of the twentieth century) this was made a point of principle. More recently a wave of post-Barthian thinkers, of whom I rate Pannenberg highest, have rejected this rejection of integrating Christianity and the scientific enterprise.

There is a huge amount to say about all of this, and I will be tying to say some of it in my Bible Study sessions and here, but there are a few key general points I would like to make at the outset.

  1. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is nothing inevitable about the scientific method. It was an innovation of the early modern period but, like all innovations, it required certain things already to be in place. Among these preconditions, many historians would now argue, were a set of theological ideas about the orderliness of creation and in particular the existence of universal laws of nature. This basic foundational idea of the scientific enterprise can (and should) be seen as a theological idea. (One of the main theological interpreters and advocates of this idea is Alister McGrath, who holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford – see here for a relevant extract from his book Scientific Theology)
  2. The picture of the Universe that has emerged from the cosmology centred on the idea of the “Big Bang” has led us to a generalisation of the idea of evolution from the field of biology to the whole of science. The Universe is seen as having had an origin and to have undergone very fundamental change since that origin. The possibility that it has a terminus, that our Universe will not always exist is also a genuinely open question in contemporary scientific theory. Elementary particles, chemical elements, planets, stars and everything else we observe are now seen to have emerged from processes within the history of the Universe. This dynamic view of physical reality connects with developments in theology.
  3. For a variety of reasons there is much more interest in theology than there was before the twentieth century in the Biblical view of God’s relationship with Creation being historical and oriented towards bringing about new states of that Creation. The idea that we should think of God as working to redeem Creation, common in both the Old and New Testaments but somewhat foreign to the Christianity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, became more influential in the twentieth and is on the way to being the consensus view of the twenty-first.

There are then three basic intellectual trends towards: 1) recognising that science needs to presuppose ideas we would recognise as within the domain of theological (although not necessarily demanding any particular wider theological framework); 2) understanding the profundity of the shift in our vision of the nature of reality implied by contemporary scientific theory and; 3) seeing how deeply our conception of God’s basic relationship to Creation is being remade.

These three together provide a moment of tremendous opportunity and many theologians are working to grasp it. Besides those I have already mentioned notable other include John Polkinghorne, theologian and Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, Sarah Coakley, Cambridge Professor of Divinity and former co-Director of the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation” research programme at Harvard, and Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

One preliminary conclusion I have personally come to is that the task for theology is to re-integrate science into itself. The question of the relationship between science and theology should be recast not about their compatibility but about the best way of absorbing science completely into theology. We ought to be setting ourselves the challenge of making theology once again the “queen of sciences”, not by challenging or denying the scientific method but by demonstrating that it is a fundamentally theological enterprise, making the necessary adjustments to our theological frameworks to allow this fully to be true, in ways pioneered by the work of Pannenberg who showed that it is possibly to do this while in no way abandoning the determination to remain “orthodox” in one’s trinitarian Christianity, who indeed showed that it is precisely such a faith that can explore and vindicate the theological bases of scientific thinking.

cost of discipleship

This week (first Sunday of September 2016) the lectionary gives me the section of Luke 14 on the cost of discipleship as the Gospel reading. To be a disciple, Jesus says, you have to hate your family and even your own life, you have to take up the cross, you have to dispose of all your possessions. He adds two helpful parables saying that to set out on a building project you can’t afford to finish is to invite ridicule and that to enter a battle you can’t win is foolish and that a king should sue for peace if he thinks he’s hopelessly outnumbered.

Given the current fashion for discipleship talk in the church (here’s the URC “missional discipleship” proposal and here’s the CofE page of links) this is a scary passage. In the case of the URC “discipleship” seems to mean “becoming self consciously and confidently Christian so that you can share your faith” (or something like that) – hence “missional discipleship” (I find this an appalling phrase but I know it has its origins outside the denomination so I’m not blaming anybody for it). In the material as presented I don’t see a lot of warning about cost and completion, nor about cross-carrying and death.

I’m finding it daunting to talk about Jesus’ strong warning about discipleship in this context. Far from encouraging everybody to take some courses and explore some options in developing as disciples his attitude seems to have been one intended to frighten anybody thinking about discipleship  as much as possible. “Hate my family”, “hate my own life”, “give up all my possessions”: and what do I get in return? A cross to carry? I think I’ll pass. Why would anybody, having heard all that, decide to follow Jesus, to become his disciple?

My feeling, reading the gospels, is that Christ wasn’t at all interested in accepting anybody into his circle of disciples. All the times I can think of when somebody approaches him (and there aren’t that many, unsurprisingly) he brushes them off. The demonaic burdened by Legion is sent away, the rich young man is scared off with unreasonable demands, Nicodemus is insulted. Nathanael in John 1 might seem to be an exception but even here Jesus has chosen Philip who calls Nathanael. The pattern seems to me to be that Jesus calls those he wants and pushes everybody else away. He seeks people out and rejects or at least strongly discourages those who seek him.

Now that isn’t necessarily problematic for those of us who are inside the fellowship of the Church, particularly those of us from “dissenting” or “voluntarist” rather than “Christendom”, “national” or “Catholic” “universal” traditions. We are (or should be) used to the idea that those in the Church are those who have been called. God chooses those whom he wills to be part of the Body of Christ, which we may think of in terms of discipleship.

What is more difficult, for me at least, is the contrast between what thay appears to mean to us and what it means in the Gospels (where the word “disciple” belongs, being used very sparingly in Acts and not at all in the Epistles or in Revelation). We seem to have an inclusive, gentle and gradual approach to discipleship. All are called to be disciples and it is something that one can embark on tentatively and in an exploratory way. What it means can vary from one person to another and doesn’t have to be too alarming.

That’s a long way from willingness to give everything up and carry the cross as minimum condition for entry.

I’m starting to think we should be a lot more hesitant in using discipleship language and a lot more humble about our relationship to Christ.

Maybe true disciples are few and far between. Maybe the rest of us depend on them and need to recognise how special they are. Maybe Jesus knows us for what we are and has tasks for us that fall short of what he meant by discipleship. Maybe.

At any rate I’m not comfortable with us using the word while ignoring what the one to whom we are supposed to be discipled has to say about its cost.

For the last weekend in August my wife Pam, our daughter and I and our daughter’s friend, drove up to Edinburgh and back from Hertfordshire so I could preach at Morningside United Church. We (the Brindleys, not the Friend who had never previously been to Edinburgh) had been part of the congregation there until we moved to Potters Bar in August 2012. My friend Steven Manders, who was also a member of the congregation until he went to be ordained at Nairn United Reformed Church in the North of Scotland in 2008, has been minister at MUC (as it is always known) since last summer. He had invited me back to preach and I was keen to see how things were going and to catch up with old friends. It was the first time I had been at MUC since our very emotional farewell service marked the end of fourteen years of membership there.

Steven’s predecessor at MUC, John Smith, preached at my ordination. His ministry had only just begun when we joined in 1998 and he retired from there in 2012. Steven and I are two of the seven people who went into ministry from MUC during the fourteen years John was there, which gives a sense of how fruitful this time was. We had highly successful youth work, around 20 new members joining every year, a succession of impressive young people ordained to eldership in their twenties and thirties and a range of other signs and fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit among us under John’s leadership.

When John left many things changed it is only fair to say that the period of the vacancy and the first year of Steven’s ministry have been difficult. It is a blessing that he is also a highly capable person with a wide range of experience, especially from a career in social work, and that things are now being stabilised.

For me and for Pam it was strange and difficult to be back. MUC is not, quite, the church we joined and left, although we still have many friends there. We stayed at the manse with Steven and shared his minister’s view of the church. At worship I stood in the pulpit rather than sat in the pews where I had sat so many times. We had a hectic weekend seeing friends (and our oldest son who still lives in Edinburgh) and visiting familiar places. We sat up late talking to Steven and his other house guests. Then on Monday morning we set off to drive back to Potters Bar.

My sermon (on Luke 14:1-14) had two related messages for the congregation, for Steven and for me. First the church is a banquet where God decides the seating plan. We sit where He decides not where we think we belong. That is true of every single one of us and perhaps most of all for those of us called to serve in ordained ministry. God has put Steven in the chair at the front of MUC and me in Hertfordshire. Those are our proper places. Secondly God invites those whom he chooses to the church party and Jesus is clear that the host should concentrate not on his or her friends and family, nor on those who can do something for him or her. When throwing a party invite those in need, the “poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (v 13). If that’s who we’re supposed to ask then we have to assume that that is who God will have asked and given that we’re at the party we have to assume that that is who we are.

As we approached Potters Bar along the B556 on Monday evening Pam and I were both struck by how much of a home coming it felt. We were back where we lived, where we were supposed to be. We felt this even though for both of us Edinburgh is and will remain “home”. We fully expect and intend to return there some time, when we retire or perhaps for a last ministry, but now home is Potters Bar and Brookmans Park and we thank God for placing us in our seats here and for inviting other “cripples” to join us in this part of the banquet.


At our weekly Bible study yesterday evening we began what is intended to be a series of meetings looking at the practice and understanding of prayer in the Christian tradition using written prayers from its various periods and strands along with passages reflecting on what prayer is or was thought to be. We began with a selection of Old Testament “prayers” (excluding the Psalms and using a fairly wide definition of prayer).

We read:

  • Abraham’s plea on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 18;
  • David’s response to God’s promise that his descendants would sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever from 2 Samuel 7;
  • Solomon’s appeal for wisdom in 1 Kings 3;
  • Nehemiah’s prayer for success in his meeting with King Artaxerxes of Persia to ask for help in rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh 1)
  • Job’s repentance of his defiance after God appears to him in the whirlwind (Job 42)

What I found fascinating is how much easier we find it to think about God and God’s nature than we do to pray. Our discussion of prayer was overshadowed and crowded out by a set of issues only indirectly related it:

  • Do we believe God to be active in the world or do we believe that the course of events is independent of anything God wills or does not will?
  • Do we believe that God is implicated in the suffering of the world by allowing or even causing it?
  • Who or what do we think is named by the name “God” and in particular is the God we name the same God as the one named by Moslems, Jews or other religious believers?
  • Does the Biblical text have any authority over or even relevance to contemporary people, including those who call themselves Christians and attend churches?

My own answers to these questions are predictable in minister of the Christian church who professes a faith bound by (my understanding of) the normative orthodoxy expressed in the confession of faith of the United Reformed Church (UK). I believe that God is active in the world, that the relationship between God’s will and the world’s ills is inseparable from human sin and God’s mission of salvation, that the one true God is the three-in-one, one-in-three Father, Son and Holy Spirit revealed in Christ and that the Biblical text is the highest authority over our life and faith.

That is, though, only the beginning of the discussion since how we should conceptualise all these matters is both complex and contested. If we had to answer any of these questions definitively before we could pray then there could be no prayer. Indeed I think that they are important only insofar as they act as barriers to prayer. Somebody who can’t answer any of them AT ALL but who can sincerely and prayerfully address themselves to God is in a much better place spiritually (which is to say has a much healthier relationship with God) than somebody who has sophisticated and well worked out answers to them all but is unable to find a way to come into God’s presence.

This is not to suggest that we wasted our time going round these matters again but rather to say that it is only worthwhile if it removes barriers that are preventing prayer. I sometimes worry that theology can be a form of prevarication, a way of delaying the dreaded moment when one comes face to face with God in the privacy of one’s own room (as Jesus recommends in his teaching on prayer during the Sermon on the Mount).

Prayer, it seems to me, is ultimately an admission of dependence and helplessness. We turn and appeal to God when we know ourselves inadequate or overwhelmed. This is not the only kind of prayer, of course, we offer praise and thanks and we offer almost routine pleas for blessing but in all of these we acknowledge a power beyond us towards which we can turn only an appeal, not an offer or a bargain.

Our unwillingness (or inability) to do this is the heart of sin and some of our discussion of theology expresses this as it finds reasons to delay and evade the simple act of saying: “Lord God, help me in my doubt, guide me in my uncertainty, comfort me in my suffering, soothe me in my anxiety. Lord, be gracious to me and bless me, in the name of Christ”.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary has paired an interesting couple of texts. We have Luke 4:14-21 (Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth) and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (“one body  in the Spirit”). At first sight there isn’t an immediate connection between them and I suspect they are joined because the RCL is following two simultaneous tracks, through Luke and through 1 Corinthians, that are not strongly aligned.

At any rate I was at first puzzled and uncertain about what to do with them this Sunday. Should I continue with my exploration of the way the Spirit equips the Church (begun last week with the immediately prior section of Paul’s letter)? Or should I return to my reflections on the Spirit’s empowering of Jesus (begun the week before when thinking about the baptism of Christ)?

Then it came to me that this was in fact two ways of approaching the thing I really wanted to talk about, the Spirit’s empowering of the Church to be Christ’s body (the centre of Paul’s attention in our epistle) in order to continue to proclaim God’s good news (as Jesus does in the Gospel passage).

Here the two key points are 1) the role of the Spirit in the two texts and 2) the relationship between the text Jesus reads, with its explanation of what the Spirit has anointed the prophet Isaiah to do, and he remark when he has finished: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

When we hear read the account of Jesus’ reading and of his claim of fulfillment, what is happening?

When this text is read in a church, in the midst of the body of Christ constituted out of our weakness by the Spirit, the scripture is fulfilled again: the good news is proclaimed.

It is true that our salvation is not yet complete. It is true that peace and justice do not yet reign without qualification. It is true that we still await the return of Christ in glory.


In the Church Christ remains present. His coming does fulfill the scripture, he does inaugurate the kingdom of God. We are given the opportunity to participate and to inhabit that kingdom, in the power of the Spirit.

The enthusiasm some in the UK feel regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party has filled me with almost as much gloom as my feelings of helplessness in face of the pan-European crisis of refuge and migration. What these phenomena have in common (for me) is that they point so directly to the limits of the possibilities of political action.

To take refuge first it is essential to note that the only European politician who had performed really well in all this is Angela Merkel. The collective memory of her will, I suspect, be dominated by her leadership in this to the same extent as that of Tony Blair is dominated by the disaster of the Iraq war. We all needed a voice that spoke for our moral obligation to those seeking shelter and Merkel stepped up to be that voice. Just as the underlying story of Blair’s premiership as it led him to take the wrong turning when faced with Bush’s determination to overthrow Saddam is more complicated than it is now often allowed to be so is the story of the German response to the present moment and Merkel’s embodiment of it. Nonetheless she has come out on the right side and I admire her for it.

Overall, though, the German response is only part of what is required. It is essential that the rest of the EU come forward to assist those bearing most of the burden (and we should be clear that it is a burden) of offering protection and respite. The Germans, Swedes, Greeks and Italians can’t be left to pick up such a disproportionate share. The UK in particular should be much more cooperative, unlikely though that is, given the complexion of our government and the state of popular opinion (recent poll numbers). At the same time, much as some of us might resist admitting it, David Cameron is right to stress that the best way to help those fleeing Syria is first to provide adequately for them in the neighbouring countries where most of them are likely to remain, above all Turkey and Lebanon, and second to find a way to end the war itself. He is also right that there is something essentially perverse about prioritising helping those with the resources and initiative to get to Europe over helping those stuck in the hopeless camps nearer Syria. In condemning the UK government for remaining outside the effort to cope with those arriving in Europe, and we should condemn it, we must also recognise the value in the UK’s very significant contributions to the effort to assist those in neighbouring countries, to which the UK is far and away the biggest European donor.

The question of how to cope with the current crisis is not a simple one of good vs. evil although we do in the end have to decide what is right. I think the UK should participate in the formulation and implementation of a common policy of resettlement of those arriving. I also think there is something positive to be said in favour of the UK scheme to resettle directly from the camps those most in need and a lot to be said for the emphasis on improving conditions in those camps and seeking a way to bring peace.

In all of these areas, though, I am very aware that the situation is unlikely to improve and that, indeed, the increasing instability in Turkey makes everything more difficult. A lot of the refugees are in areas where an escalating campaign of terrorism against the Turkish state is being waged by the PKK in response to the aggression of an Erdogan regime reacting to its political difficulties with provocation against the Kurds. In reality what I do, say or think as an individual is insignificant in face of all this. I can say to a few people that we are under an obligation to help in every way we can. I can give a little money. My actions, when I look at them objectively, are irrelevant to the outcomes.

In my estimation, as somebody who was once a part of the same marginal far-left world that Corbyn and McDonnell have inhabited for forty years or more, the political outlook of those now in charge of the Labour Party is essentially formed as a howl of protest against this helplessness. Seen in this way it is hard not to feel some sympathy with it. There is a lot of suffering and misery in the world that looked at in a certain way appear completely unnecessary. 500 million rich Europeans should be able to give shelter to a few hundred thousand desperate Syrians without any difficulty. If you look at the food eaten and wasted by the rich world it seems obscene that anyone anywhere is hungry.

Making this sort of straightforward observation can lead quite quickly to the thought that if these things are not addressed it must be because of the indifference or even malevolence of those in charge and that if the mass of people allow it it is because those evil people in charge are manipulating them. That, in essence, is the world-view of the milieu from which Corbyn is now emerging, blinking owlishly, into the light of the real public world. His message to the British people is: “those in charge are evil and they’ve been fooling you for years”. The popularity of films along the general lines of “The Matrix” show that at the level of fantasy it’s a message that at least some people are very ready to hear. In essence it share a good deal with that of UKIP (“liberal elite”, “speak the truth”) and indeed all other populist movements. “They’re lying to you but the truth has always been in plain view, if only someone had the courage to speak it.”

At one level I even think that they’re right. The truth is simple and clear. If people would love one another, put their selfishness aside and act in the interests of others rather than seeking their own security and comfort through conflict and competition we could and would indeed live in peace and plenty. That’s the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus and by the prophets before him. It’s the message of the Mosaic Law and is the essence of the founding of monarchy and temple under David and Solomon in the historic books of the Old Testament.

In all these Biblical cases, though, it comes up against the reality of human sinfulness. Jesus ended up on the cross, the prophets were without honour, the Law was never followed and the monarchy and temple went down before God’s servant Nebuchadnezzar. That is not a cause for despair in the Bible, although there are plenty of desperate reactions in it. In face of every failure to overcome human sin we are encouraged to keep our faith in God, whose love is unfailing. This triumph of love over sin reaches a climax in the resurrection of Jesus and we are able to participate in that resurrection as a foretaste and promise of our own resurrection.

To put our faith anywhere else is to invite and embrace despair. That isn’t altogether a bad thing but it can’t be the last thing. One of the texts most important to my own Christian journey is Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness unto Death’. In it he argues that true faith can only be born of despair, only when one has accepted the futility of all human endeavour can one throw oneself unreservedly into the arms of God, with the loss of hope enabling the leap of faith into the unknown depths of the divine.

As long as one closes one’s eyes to the truth of the pervasiveness and intractability of the problem of human sin, preserving the illusion that all problems are soluble by us, then faith in God is partial and eclipsed by a desperate faith in human possibility. Only when this is surrendered by a faith that gives it all up to God enabled.

All my hope on God is founded … God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.