25. 7 February 1987


Dear Nancy,

For some reason I can't concentrate on the trivial pursuits that usually preoccupy me; so I turn to the profundities of theology as a welcome diversion. And instantly I'm plunged into my usual stupefaction; I can't even understand the basic vocabulary, let alone the questions posed therein. My consolation is that the theologians themselves seem essentially – indeed, manifestly – in the same predicament. And it may not matter too much how far out of one's depth one is if everyone has the same problem, namely seeing how near they can get towards the surface. For all the pontifications and pretensions of the specialists, there's little enough real difference between having one's head just hidden and lying full fathom five. Seen from above, in the light of reason, the only vista is the level unbroken expanse of personal nescience. Öd' und leer das Meer. And no doubt it's logical enough in its way that invisible things should be studied by invisible people. But wouldn't it honestly be better for all concerned and the world in general if they just stuck to a few simple basic predicates to which all can subscribe, such as good works, instead of exercising their brains and jaws on such intractable and very likely nonsensical puzzles as – well, to take the first example that comes to hand and therefore to mind, the prime point you raise about whether one has to retain Christ as defining the difference between good and evil, no matter what the content of other religions may be. I can see that this seems entirely meaningful to you, and to Alan Race, and that the answer is `yes' or `no' as the case may be, which leaves me more convinced than ever that 'don't know' is the appropriate category. I can't even tell what the question means; it looks to me very like an empty vessel the main function of which is to be brimming and foaming with the heady wine of one's own opinion, which is then duly quaffed.

   Still, I don't see why I should be excluded from these festivities; so here goes. The answer is this: 'yes' if you define good and evil solely or mainly in Christian terms and 'no' if you don't. As my ex-colleague in the Ministry of Labour became famous and rich for saying, 'it depends what you mean by ...' etc. It would certainly be hard to deny that Christianity is (not just has been) violent imperialistic and exclusive. My Jewish friends are just as terrified by the cross as Dracula was. Not even Islam, try as it will, has unleashed such hellhounds. I don't see that these unlovable traits are much palliated by the fact that Jesus washed his disciples' feet. That sounds to me like Christianity washing its own hands. Besides, those same feet were hardly dry before the same Jesus was reported as saying `no man cometh unto the Father but by me'. That's not in the least, surely, like a chap who says `you're the only girl in the world for me'? It's a man who says 'I'm the only man in the world for you', meaning both this world and the notional and nebulous next.

   It's good of you to say that my transmitter-receiver analogy helped this communication problem, but I certainly wouldn't see it as any kind of Christian formulation. We all use the telephone that works; but I bet Jesus wouldn't have seen himself as wearing an 'out of order' sign, or even `emergency calls only'. He says, in the plainest possible terms, that he's the only telephone in the world that can give you a direct line. The minute that claim is objectively submitted to the pragmatic tests of the market-place and open competition, it is seen to fail. From the standpoint of all other religions, if there is anything of substance at all in their most deeply-felt and cherished beliefs about the nature of deity, the claim made by Jesus is not merely false but fraudulent (as the Jews have been pointing out for some 2000 years). As soon, therefore, as Christianity deigns to mingle with the mob, i.e. the rest of the world, and for that purpose steps down into the market-place, it will be accused, and with good cause, of hectoring not to say huckstering. If I were any kind of Christian, I should view dialogue with the gravest disquiet. It seems to me that Karl Rahner has omitted the fourth stage in his perhaps all too prophetic history of Christianity: first Judaistic, then Romano-European, then in dialogue with Islam, and finally non-existent. It's perfectly possible to fit the Terry Waite story into that sequence too; alas.

   On that basis I can offer a comprehensive and (I think) rather compelling answer to your crunch question about how old chums can agree about works and not about faith — it's because those two have nothing whatever in common. 'Operational values' as you call them are surely social and intellectual, not specifically religious? Indeed I'd be prepared to argue that religion, as its history shows, is a powerfully anti-ethical force. Would the sum of human happiness and achievement in the Western world have been greater or less if Jesus had never lived? What other criteria of our raisons d'etre are there?

   I don't mind agreeing, on the other hand, that human values would, if God existed, have something God-like about them. And, very well, if you insist, there's no apprehensible objective reality. But I must in my turn be allowed to say that the reason is solely our infinitesimally limited mental apparatus, not at all (as you seem to feel) that the universe itself is somehow basically confused. I agree in this context too that the fault is not in our stars, in any sense, but in ourselves. Then from both our standpoints, yes, I quite agree, there's nothing for it but to do the best we can as individuals, often in very difficult circumstances, to brighten the corner where we are according to our own lights, like so many fireflies. But the hope of thereby illuminating the obscurities of theology, or even seeing through glass slightly less darkly, strikes me as decidedly over-ambitious. God, I feel, is likely to remain above my head. So far as I know we've never exchanged any communication, telephonic or other. I shall just continue with my share of the proper studies until it's my turn for annihilation. Meanwhile I know of no objective formula for distinguishing between Christian theology and self-deluding folly, though I hope to remain open to approach and discussion on that point as on others. I've attended the course with all the patience and diligence I can muster (no doubt not enough of either) yet I can discern no spark of response to speak of: I infer that any rapport among those of differing faiths and non-faiths must be essentially humanist and secular; and I can't help further inferring that it is therefore in human as distinct from religious values that any such rapport resides. Ordinary experience tells me that religion, which by definition binds together certain ethnic or social categories, by that same act exerts a powerfully (and I would say malignantly) divisive influence and effect among larger categories. Wherever I look in history or the actual world, I see people killing or maiming or torturing each other in the name of strongly-held personal beliefs and opinions, not one of which is clothed in even the flimsiest fibre of objective evidence and many of which are nakedly insane; and this disposes me to wonder whether one's very first duty is not to abjure any such beliefs one already has and then to persuade others to abandone theirs.

   It seems ironic, in such a frame of mind, to hear Christ claimed as a touchstone because he gave us a new commandment to love one another. But that wasn't new, was it? It's just plain Judaism, for a start and no doubt found in other faiths as well; it's among the many things, some of them very bizarre, that the Lord spake unto Moses, in Leviticus; 'thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. I see what you mean about this commandment's incorporating a value so high that it equates with God, namely that it remains inconceivably remote from any human reality. But what, in practice, is the use of that?

   All this is intended to be without prejudice to the values and delights of music, poetry, chess (and of course cricket) and so forth. But isn't it really rather apparent that these are all quite specifically human interests and activities — like love? Even when we subscribe, in all earnestness, 'with love, as ever', we still know, don't we, that the `ever' part is, alas, something of an overstatement of the case?

   With love, as ever,

   yours E.