A review of the ‘Third Way’ years
The High Profile series of in-depth, unspun interviews began in Third Way in May 1993, with a rather formal examination of the then Lord Chancellor, James Mackay.
Below are some of the most illuminating moments from over 240 hours of conversation since then.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What do you think are the qualities of leadership that are needed in politics at the moment?
First of all, to tell people how the world really is … and, as much as anything else, to give people some sense of hope that change is possible and that it’s not something to be frightened of.
Do you have those qualities?
Well, that’s for others to judge.
No, it’s not, because part of any leader’s security is the knowledge of his or her own strength.
Obviously I wouldn’t say things if I didn’t believe them. You will go through a testing time in politics where it will be found out whether you’ve got those qualities or not.
In the end, I can walk away. I’m not obsessed with politics at all, and if I felt I really couldn’t make a difference I wouldn’t much bother. … I’m in politics because political decisions are so important to the things I believe in. The actual business of politics, although I can do it, I don’t have a great deal of time for. So, we shall see.
Michael Schluter spoke to DESMOND TUTU in February 1994.
What is the role of prayer in your life?
For me, it would be impossible to engage in the kind of public life I have had if this was not undergirded by an attempt at a spiritual life. … One’s life would be a shambles if I didn’t have that as a kind of anchor. When I do not pray or do not have a meditation it is like not having brushed my teeth. It’s almost physical.
You have said that your biggest mistake was supposing that people would assume you were asking questions from a position of faith, not doubt. Do you think you have been fundamentally misunderstood?
In the beginning – the episcopal beginning – yes, it really amazed me. It was a shattering experience.
It wasn’t until I realised that I really hated the church that humour came back and depression went away
I can remember a public occasion in Birmingham Cathedral where I expounded what I had to expound and there was a reception afterwards with the Lord Mayor and a lot of pukka people, and them saying quite condescendingly, ‘Oh, I see, you believe, do you? You believe in the Resurrection?’ I almost felt like saying: ‘Do you think I’d bother with you lot if I didn’t?’ …
I suddenly tumbled to the fact that I was absolutely furiously angry inside – furiously angry with the fact that, for instance, fellow bishops, many of whom I know hold the same views as me, didn’t put their heads over the parapet. Very angry that people who alleged that they were concerned with the gospel and with grace and forgiveness didn’t give me the benefit of any doubt at all.
It wasn’t until I realised that I really hated the church in some ways that humour came back and depression went away.
A lot of people get into that church groove when they get older, have children. Are you a churchy type yourself?
Oh, yes. I always have been. I am the sort of Christian that evangelicals get very upset about. I go at Christmas or maybe at Easter. My children are baptised.
Sometimes, I sit in church and think, ‘This is complete bollocks, all of it, and always has been,’ and then a month later I’d sit there thinking: ‘This is all there is.’
You are on record as saying, ‘I am not a Christian,’ but now you’re saying you’re a sort of one.
[Someone] said to me on the radio, ‘You’re not a Christian,’ and I laughed and said, ‘No.’ But I felt, ‘Oh dear, there’s a cock crowing,’ and the reason I didn’t admit it was because it’s really uncool.
But, well, I’m not sure I am, really. I end up just saying I believe in belief and I keep wanting. I believe in other people’s belief, in being genuine. I believe in the possibility of belief.
Nick Pollard spoke to RICHARD DAWKINS in February 1995.
Suppose some lads break into an old man’s house and kill him. Suppose they say: ‘Well, we accept the evolutionist world view. He was old and sick, and he didn’t contribute anything to society.’ How would you show them that what they had done was wrong?
I couldn’t, ultimately, argue against somebody who did something I found obnoxious
If somebody used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose … I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds. I think it would be more: ‘This is not a society in which I wish to live. Without having a rational reason for it necessarily, I’m going to do whatever I can to stop you doing this.’
They’ll say, ‘This is the society we want to live in.’
I couldn’t, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious. I think I could finally only say, ‘Well, in this society you can’t get away with it’ and call the police…
Some people might divide your ministry into two halves, one focused on pietism and one concerned with the very broadest social, cultural and economic aspirations of society. What caused this change?
I think it was reading the Bible. As I read and studied and meditated, my vision of God grew and I came to see the obvious things: that he is not just interested in religion but in the whole of life and – in the old phrase – in justice as well as justification.
I don’t see any dichotomy between the ‘pietistic’ and the cultural and social. To me, they’re two aspects of the same thing: a pursuit of the will of God. I have always been moved by the phrase ‘to hunger and thirst after righteousness’; but righteousness covers both personal holiness and social justice.
Why should people do good?
‘Why should they not do good?’ is a better question. … I enjoy myself doing good. Why should they do good? Because it makes them, I think, feel healthier, feel better. I think it’s all about themselves; it’s not about what you do, it’s about how good you can feel yourself. Humans are communicative animals. When you do good in a community, the benefits get back to you. I can’t believe that anybody would want to do the opposite.
Would you call yourself a Christian?
I couldn’t get through life without being prayerful
Yes… I’m pondering on the question because I think labels are quite problematic. I like the sense of there being a God, and I do take succour now from the collective comfort of being at a Mass or another religious event where you can be anonymous and individual – just a sense of community at prayer and of paying attention to that spiritual dimension which is in all of us; and I also take some succour in a private, solitary way from being able to reflect on those things.
So, I would shy away a wee bit from being put into any religious category, but I (without being too pious) couldn’t get through life without being prayerful…
…and to IAN PAISLEY in October 1996.
What would ‘peace’ mean in Northern Ireland?
Well, I think you have to go back to the New Testament. There is no peace without purity. You can’t build peace on a compromise. You can’t have peace with God until you’ve turned from your evil ways and indicated by your acts that it’s real repentance.
The only hope for Northern Ireland is a spiritual revival … and I’m glad to say that we have seen manifest marks of that coming in our generation.
Andrew Dunnett spoke to MARY WARNOCK in January 1997.
What are the principles on which a shared morality should be based in a pluralist society?
I think that on the whole people exaggerate the pluralism of society. Of course, they have good reason if they think in terms of Muslim fundamentalists, or indeed Christian fundamentalists. But if you think, just by way of example, of a school with a whole lot of children, some of them Muslim, some Christian, some Jewish, I don’t think it makes the least difference what religion any of them adhere to, they all have a common need to be taught common societal values: not to bully one another, not to steal, to pay respect to the law and so on.
I think the real gap is not between Jew, Muslim and Christian in the plural society but between people who are, on the whole, willing, even anxious, to be good and the people who don’t give a damn. That’s where the huge gap is. Nobody refers to this when they talk of the plural society, but I think it’s very important.
Jim Skillen and Michelle Voll spoke to NOAM CHOMSKY in October 1997.
Anyone who sees what is happening is going to try to do something about it. The question is: What keeps people from seeing?
Where does your passion for justice spring from?
I think it’s the same passion everybody else has, and it comes from the same place. Our moral nature is just as much a part of us as our arms and legs. …
What keeps you campaigning against the odds?
I don’t really know. It’s like if you see a starving child in the street, what makes you want to do something to help? Well, how could it be otherwise? Indeed, the question is: Why doesn’t everybody do it? I assume that we all have the same instinct and it’s mostly a matter of what you perceive, or allow yourself to perceive. Anyone who sees what is happening is going to try to do something about it. The question is: What keeps people from seeing?
People say that the crux in Northern Ireland is a matter not so much of decommissioning arms as of decommissioning hate. Is that something politics can deliver?
Nothing can deliver that alone. Weapons can’t, religion can’t, politics can’t, social structures can’t. It’s a combination of all. That’s why we need the talks, we need public opinion to grow and become stronger. We need the economic change, we need social progress. They all work together to bring about a change in attitude.
What is the role of the churches in that?
I think the churches have an important role to play, in their tolerance, their moral beliefs, their understanding of others, their humanity and their compassion. Northern Ireland needs all those…
…and to MARY McALEESE, then President of Ireland, in July 1998.
What does prayer achieve in public life?
I think it achieves the most extraordinary amount of things, and yet I couldn’t tell you one thing that it’s achieved – and I couldn’t tell you how you measure it. Kofi Annan, I thought, said it brilliantly: when he came back from Iraq [after negotiating the readmission of UN weapons inspectors in 1998] and the journalists asked him, ‘How come you were able to bring this off?’, he replied, ‘Never underestimate the power of prayer!’
And I cheered, I just cheered. Because at times in my own life, when I’ve looked at my own inability to bring about whatever I felt had to be done, the only way I have been able to achieve it is to hand it over to God and say, ‘Please will you help me with this, because on my own I’m incapable of doing it?’ And it has come about.
John Polkinghorne spoke to ROGER PENROSE in November 1999.
[Do the truths of mathematics exist only inside our skulls?]
No, they are absolute and independent of us. Their existence is not within any individual.
And they existed before any individual did?
Absolutely. Physics accords so wonderfully with mathematics … and how can you say that it was doing that before there were any people if you think that mathematics requires people to conjure it into existence? … It’s got to have been there already.
Now, someone like me would go further and say, ‘OK, this means that we recognise some form of reality which is “spiritual”, which is not materially located.’
I wouldn’t dissent from that. I slightly worry about the word ‘spiritual’ –
I can see that that’s giving it a bit of a push…
Would you describe yourself as agnostic or atheist?
I don’t know, really. If I believed in a god, it would be a rather vengeful and capricious old fellow lurking in the roof of a rather nice old building waiting to zap you for some imagined crime, rather than a Cliff Richard type of god who lets you beat him at table tennis.
David Attenborough has said that the more he studies nature and witnesses its violence and suffering, the more convinced he is that there is no God. Do you think, perhaps, that what the Church Fathers called ‘the Book of Nature’ tells us neither one thing nor the other, but we project our own beliefs onto it?
Well, I don’t know. That gets so deep, doesn’t it? If you look around the world at the beliefs of humans through the ages and now – I find it strange that all our amazing brains, by and large, should have projected the same picture onto it. To me, the wonder of nature and its complexity convince me more and more that there is this great spiritual power moving behind it and giving reason for our lives.
It has always seemed to me that the universe is a deliberate design. But I know a lot of it doesn’t fit in.
Can you imagine yourself in church?
Yes, I can.
What would stop you from becoming a Christian?
No real belief in a personified deity, no belief in a teleological deity – no belief in the Trinity whatsoever.
So, you’d have to join a very liberal denomination…
Kristin Aune and Martha Crossley spoke to NAOMI WOLF in September 2001.
How do you define feminism?
To me, feminism is the logical extension of democracy. Also – you know, it’s such a kind of relief for me to have a conversation with a publication that acknowledges that spiritual life is legitimate, because to me feminism is also inextricably linked with the core spiritual values that are common to all religions. To me, whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Jewish, feminism is the conclusion of what every religion at its best preaches, that we all have a divine spark, we’re all made in the image of God, we’re all equally valuable and precious to God.
The gall of Christians! You think that nobody can possibly be decent unless they’ve got the idea from God or something
Throughout His Dark Materials there’s a strong sense of ‘ought’. Where in a world without God does that sense of ‘ought’ come from?
I’m amazed by the gall of Christians. You think that nobody can possibly be decent unless they’ve got the idea from God or something. Absolute bloody rubbish! Isn’t it your experience that there are plenty of people in the world who don’t believe who are very good people?
Yes. I’m just curious to know where it comes from.
For goodness’ sake! It comes from ordinary human decency. It comes from accumulated human wisdom – which includes the wisdom of such figures as Jesus Christ. Jesus, like many of the founders of great religions, was a moral genius, and he set out a number of things very clearly in the Gospels which if we all lived by them we’d all do much better. What a pity the Church doesn’t listen to him!
Many of your characters start out as idealists but their idealism is gradually eroded. How do you yourself keep the inner fire burning?
Well, it’s not difficult, because your observation of what is happening day-to-day just constantly feeds your outrage. The best way to get your blood pressure up is to listen to the Today programme for an hour in the morning and you emerge rampaging through the streets with rage at what’s going on and the people who are getting away with things.
And then when you do meet people who really are on the front line, who really are engaged in the struggle, their courage and determination are endlessly inspiring.
You’ve said that you’re taken aback when people tell you that they’re Christians. Why is that?
Because I think, ‘You’re that already?’ You know, being a Christian is being engaged in a process: it’s not an ambition you achieve and say, ‘Okeydokey, I have no more to do now.’ No, it’s really ongoing. In the morning you get up and think, ‘Lord, help me! I want to live a Christian life which is kind. I want to be soft-voiced, I want to be peace-searching, I want to be generous, I want to be healing. Lord, help me!’ And then in the evening, when you check yourself out, you think: ‘M’mmm. I only blew it 80 times.’
What is the agenda for al-Muhajiroun in Britain?
I am working to see Islam implemented in Britain instead of the capitalist ideology which is dominant. Christianity is not in power here
The call of Islam is to command good, forbid evil and expose man-made law. We believe the problem is man-made laws, whether in the shape of capitalism or communism or so-called Islamic republics. We believe that sovereignty and supremacy belong to God, and wherever we are we have one aim: to invite people to Islam and to establish an Islamic state – the Khilafah, where people choose a leader and he executes the command of God in the Qur’an. This is what all Islamic movement is for, to establish the Caliphate where Muslims and non-Muslims can live together under Islamic law.
So yes, I am working to see Islam implemented in Britain instead of the capitalist ideology which is dominant. Christianity is not in power here. We know some Christians say, ‘Leave what is for God to God and what is for Caesar to Caesar,’ but what if Caesar does not implement God’s commands?
Was there a political element in your upbringing?
Yes, very much so. There was always a great deal of political discussion when I was young – my parents had met at a Communist Party meeting where two different groups of Young Conservatives had gone to heckle…
Do you know any poor people?
I don’t know any rich people! Not seriously rich.
You once said that the most important thing about music is the sense of escape it gives us. Popular culture seems to be all about escapism, but is that what we really need?
‘Escapism’ isn’t really the right word. A good piece of music is like knocking a hole in the wall so that you can see out on another place you didn’t know existed. If your consciousness is not constantly evolving somehow or other and you just keep going round the same room again and again, then you’re sort of trapped – and every good piece of music – or art or writing – stops you feeling trapped. Maybe that is what religion is as well…
In 1999, you wrote: ‘We can put our trust, even faith, in Gaia but this is different from the cold certainty of purposeless atheism or an unwavering belief in God’s purpose.’ What did you mean by ‘faith’?
I’d love to get the message across to the church that the most awful thing we can do is to destroy God’s creation
I didn’t… If they put ‘faith’, they misquoted me. ‘Faith’ is too strong – it means ‘blind belief’ to me.
Gaia has looked after this planet for at least 3.5 billion years – that’s about a quarter of the age of the universe. Again, if theologians want to see that as the hand of God working, I can’t see why they shouldn’t. After all, in their terms the Earth is God’s creation, isn’t it, so why shouldn’t it have been created as the sort of planet that will look after itself?
I’d love to get the message across to the church that the most awful thing we can do is to destroy God’s creation.
You said once that when you are making art you feel as if it makes you a better human being.
Yeah, you know what? I worked this out. For me, art isn’t a job, it isn’t what I do: it’s who I am. So, if I’m not making the art, I’m not who I am and then I lose direction and I start to feel lost. I start to feel unworthy – not justified in even being here. I’m all at sea, intellectually, emotionally, socially. Whereas when I’m being creative, I’m anchored. I feel solid and I feel good. It sounds like a really basic thing, but it’s taken me years to work that out.
How would you describe your relationship with God?
All my personal experience is not only to believe in God but to be close to him, and at the end to love him. I think this is what we are missing today in Islamic discourse. We are so pushed to be on the defensive – Islam is not this, Islam is not that – that we are forgetting the essence of Islam. It is really a love story. Sometimes myself I have to forget everything else and come back to this essential spiritual journey. So, this is what I’m asking him, for myself: it’s just to love him and to try to be loved by him.
Do you still take drugs? I understand you have embraced Lutheranism, and there is a kind of abandon in taking drugs that seems to me to be at odds with that serene kind of faith.
I’d rarely turn down a nice line of coke. But needles, funny fags – forget it! I don’t need encouragement to relax. I express my faith by being extremely generous to others, particularly those in need – not censorious of myself, which I see as a kind of useless, tight-fisted vanity.
You have said, ‘I’m a liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing.’ What does that actually mean?
Of course there are limits to tolerance. It’s quite reasonable for a liberal democracy to say: You’re not part of our moral discussion
Well, it means lots and lots of things, but probably the core of liberalism for me is tolerance. I mean real tolerance – a profound antagonism to prejudice of all sorts.
There are some profoundly intolerant forces in our society. Do we tolerate them?
Of course there are limits to tolerance, absolutely. When I say ‘tolerance’, I don’t mean relativism. I don’t mean a sort of moral free-for-all. Far from it, actually. Liberalism – muscular liberalism – should be, and is, very antagonistic to creeds and ideologies that espouse an intolerant, narrow-minded approach to things.
Personally, I think that if you live in a liberal democracy there are certain ground rules that everyone has to respect: you know, human rights, respect for the individual, gender equality, democracy. If you explicitly flout or confound those values, I think it’s quite reasonable for a liberal democracy to say, ‘You’re not part of our moral discussion.’
[Has your celebrity in some ways been an advantage to you in your work for human rights?]
If you have a famous name it can open doors, but just opening a door is not the important thing – it’s what you do when you cross that threshold that matters…
I think celebrity is a two-edged sword. Like everything in life, you have to be aware of the good and the bad, when it can help you and when it can damage you. … I think that there are many people who have used their celebrity well and [who] have substance. But celebrity without substance doesn’t mean anything.
When we interviewed Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi [in September 2004], he told us: ‘The enemies of the Palestinians are more interested in life than in sacrifice.’ Does that mean that you are more interested in sacrifice than in life?
This is surely a rather sophisticated concept that needs clarification. We, like all human beings, love life, but we love life with dignity. We do not like to live in humiliation, under oppression. Perhaps – and this is what the sheikh probably means – there are people who do not care how they live – they want just to live, even if it is in humiliation. People in this region – Arabs in general, and Muslims – do not want to live like that.
But when we say, as Palestinians, as Arabs, as Muslims, that in order to free our people from injustice and occupation we are ready to die, we say this not because we hate life, no, but because we want to die so that the rest of our people can live in freedom and dignity. It is a matter of some people sacrificing themselves so that the rest of the people may live. It is because we have a responsibility – not a hatred of life, or a death wish.
Because there’s no threat, there’s no effort to do anything. So, I’m going to create the threat
[It has been said that at Kids Company] you are creating ‘a haven of safety and joyful opportunities’. Can you identify with that?
Yeah. I think we provide a sanctuary and a place of loving care for children who have none in their lives…
But I’m only picking up the pieces when the model has failed. I want something more than that, which is for the failing to stop. And the only thing that is standing in the way of that happening is lack of moral courage. I’ve had politicians tell me: ‘Social services is not fit for purpose, child mental health is not fit for purpose, but none of us dare touch it.’
If it was terrorism, you know, or if it was climate change so they were all going to drown, they would all get going; but because the lone child who doesn’t have a competent carer can’t threaten any of them with anything, it gets left. Because there’s no threat, there’s no effort to do anything. So, I’m going to create the threat.
When you look at some of the things that are happening in our world, do you feel a sense of outrage?
I think it’s a minimum requirement of all of us. It’s very hard to live in a world in which there’s so much affluence alongside so much poverty and deprivation and needless agony, children undernourished, people dying without medicine that could be produced very cheaply if the world was organised better, and not to have a sense of outrage. And those people who don’t have that sense – if they were to reflect on these issues, are they likely to feel outrage? I would answer: Yes.
If you don’t have that sense of outrage, if you can’t even understand why others are outraged, I think it’s not just an ethical limitation but an intellectual limitation. I think epistemology and ethics are very close to each other, and the kind of watertight compartments in which they are often placed by people who see that distinction, that dichotomy, is a confusion.
There is a tension between dying to yourself and taking up your cross and at the same time becoming the person you were created to be. How do we live with that?
Well, that tension is what guides me throughout my life. But I never forget that Jesus’ first miracle was not ‘I’m going to heal this sick person’ or ‘I’m going to exorcise this demon.’ It was very mundane, and it was not politically correct: ‘Ah, there’s no wine!’ ‘Come on, man! It’s not my time yet.’ ‘But, my son, there is no wine – and we are celebrating.’ So, Jesus turned water into wine. And this is what makes him human, I think, these moments of doubt and anger and joy, and his inner tension.
So, Islam is a noble faith. But is it wrong?
Well, I worship in a Church of England church, and I do so as someone who was brought up in the Church of Scotland and believes themselves to be, you know, a Protestant. And therefore I have a particular set of beliefs, but they’re mine and I have a particular respect as well for people who have sincerely held religious belief in other areas, and some –
But would you say that your religion is true?
I believe it.
You believe it to be…?
No, I believe it.
Ideally, what effect would you like your novels to have on your readers?
I would like the reader to have ideas that [they] hadn’t had prior to reading the book. I’m not in the least concerned what they might be – I have as little didactic function as I can manage to have. The idea of me having an idea and writing a book to illustrate it in the hope that other people will then have my idea is fairly repugnant to me. I see it as totally the opposite of what I would like my function to be.
It’s a terribly awkward moment, when I release a new book, the very first time someone asks me: ‘What is it about? What are your themes?’ ‘Well,’ you say, ‘I don’t know. What do you think they are?’
Do you think about God only in English?
No, no, not at all. In certain contexts I think about God in Arabic. In a literary context, in Persian. My mother tongue is Urdu. If I’m preparing for a sermon, I have to read the Hebrew and the Greek texts…
One thing that has really influenced me in thinking about God is the Psalms in Punjabi. They were translated by an ordinary man by the name of Din Shehbaz, who set them to folk tunes, and they are really the basis of the spirituality of the Pakistani church. I know nearly all the psalms in Punjabi and I can sing them to myself.
[When you were sailing solo across the Southern Ocean,] did you feel at one with what was going on around you?
People say, ‘What’s it like to come back to the real world?’ and it’s like: Which is the real world?
You are absolutely insignificant out there. You are a very, very small speck in something that has no interest in your presence. You know, we think we’re actually quite important and you put yourself in that environment and you think: ‘Crikey! I’m actually irrelevant. There’s a lot of other stuff that lives out here, and here I am and I’m just nothing.’ You’re part of something and you feel like you’re trying to understand it, but… At one with the ocean? I’m not sure that’s how I would put it, but you’re connected to it and totally tuned into it.
And you get off the boat and that stops. Entirely.
People say, ‘What’s it like to come back to the real world?’ and it’s like ‘Which is the real world?’, because actually that world was pretty real.
You have said you were ‘dumbstruck’ by the arrogance you encountered both at Cambridge and subsequently in Westminster. Is that something you are still sensitive to?
That goes to the heart of some of my strongest feelings. … I dislike arrogance wherever I see it, and what I find is that people almost use it as a marker, don’t they? They use overbearing self-confidence to lever themselves up over other people and put other people off. … You see it around a lot. And politics for me isn’t about arrogance – it can’t be. It’s got to be about listening to people and connecting with them.
Who, or what, is God to you – if anything?
‘God’ is a word. It’s a word that describes – just give me a minute – that describes or represents the source of creation. Now, you can take that in different directions – you can say: God is love, God is Allah, God is Buddha, God is many different things. God is a man in the sky with a beard, all kinds of things. But I like to sum it up and say: It is the source of all living things.
And have you [ever] felt some connection with that?
I don’t – I don’t look to any book to give me the key to that. I think for me it is… This is tricky, this is really, really tricky to discuss, because I don’t have the answer. You know, I don’t have it in a sentence.
Do I feel a connection? In the sense that I am alive and I have a consciousness and I am part of the human experience for this time that I’m on earth, yes, I do; but I don’t worship this, I don’t… I’m in awe, I’m in awe of the mystery of it, the magnificence of it, the extraordinary… I mean, you look at the human body and you cannot help but just be flabbergasted. Even the fact that each person has a unique set of fingerprints – and the billions of people before us and the billions that are yet to be born will all have individual fingerprints. That is the nature of God, if you like.
I have thought a bit more about God since nearly being killed in a plane crash in 2010. A bit more. A bit more
At what point did you decide [that there was nothing to religion]?
Well… I did get confirmed when I was 13 – that was a voluntary thing – but I think by the time I was 18 I was pretty much a non-believer. I think – funny, isn’t it? – that belief is one of those things that can wax and wane during your life. I have thought a bit more about God since [nearly being killed in a plane crash in 2010]. A bit more. A bit more.
I was curious to find out what went through your mind as you were facing death then. [In your book, Flying Free,] you say that pretty much all you thought was ‘Oh, fuck’ –
Well, I was very philosophical about it. But I have since thought about it a bit. You know, why was I so lucky?
Have you come to any conclusion?
No. No, I haven’t. I really, really haven’t… In a sense, after [that] accident, I think I am more reflective, I think I’m a bit more thoughtful, a little more grown-up. Not too much, I hope, but a little bit more.
You have said: ‘Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself.’ What did you mean by that?
He was a revolutionary. ‘Rebel’ is not the right word. I mean, he came to people and said, ‘Drop your nets and follow me!’ You know, as any great revolutionary does. Leave your material things and come with me! We have to, you know, find a way to free the people.
To me, his great contribution, even though it’s been misinterpreted and, as he predicted, false prophets have twisted it in his name, really was two things: he made God more accessible to the people and he gave the Eleventh Commandment, which is the greatest commandment, which is simply: Love one another!
So, as I evolved, I understood that I wasn’t rebelling against Christ, I was rebelling against religion and its concept of Christ; and when I finally understood that, I was able to appreciate him in a more holistic manner and really understand more about him as a man.
Many philosophers have said that preparing for death is one of the great tasks of life. Do you feel that you are prepared?
I have never been bothered about it. I’ve tried to bother myself from time to time and to think, ‘Well, what do you expect to happen?’ and I just say: ‘I don’t know.’ As [David] Hume says, either you’re not there, in which case it doesn’t matter, or you are and then you’ve got to tackle wherever you are – which we don’t know. I’ve got no further than that.
It’s pretty clear that religion is going to go through some cataclysmic changes. I think a lot of people are going to be very hurt
Do you expect that in another hundred years humankind will be living in even greater peace and concord?
I think there’s a good chance of that. I think we’re making progress. We may have some horrible backsliding – there could be a terrible terrorist catastrophe that could set us way back, we could blow up the planet – but if we don’t do that, I think the signs are good.
And I think that particularly on the frontier of religion. I think religion changed more in the 20th century than it did in the millennium before that, and this is my prediction: I think it’s going to change more in the next 20 years than it changed in the 20th century.
In what direction?
A lot of churches are simply going to go extinct, and those that survive are going to have to radically change. … I think it’s pretty clear that religion is going to go through some cataclysmic changes. I would like that to be as painless as possible, [but] I think a lot of people are going to be very hurt, and even, maybe, desperate. And that’s dangerous, and I want the world to be prepared for that.
If you have no religious faith, what are your values?
I suppose if I were to define myself it would be more as a humanist than anything else, because that’s – that’s all I see existing, really. We are not here for very long and it’s our responsibility to make things right. I don’t have a spiritual life at all. I have a very practical, deeply moral side.
Based on what?
Based on what I’ve worked out for myself, I think. That bitterness doesn’t work – it damages you more than it damages the other person.
For many people, an essential element in Christianity is resurrection. Do you have room for that?
Here, probably, we disagree. OK, with a little irony I will use harsh terms: all the finale of the Bible – Armageddon, the Second Coming – screw it! For me, the key is in the Gospels, when Christ announces, ‘I will die [but] I will come back’ and somebody says: ‘But how will we know?’ And then he says those famous words: ‘When there will be love between two of you, I will be there.’ That’s enough, I claim. The whole point, in my radical reading of resurrection, is that the community that is searching for Christ is the living body of Christ. It is for idiots to wait [until] he comes as a person again. No! He is here, in our love, already.
Looking back, are there major positions you’ve taken [over the years] that you think have proved wrong?
Proved wrong…? I don’t think so.
This collection of excerpts was originally published in the final issue of Third Way. Those predating March 2002 are © Third Way.