Let the heart create for us…

Michaela bought me a present- a book I had loved in a former life and then lost/loaned.

It is this tiny book by Michael Leunig, written back in 1991;

the prayer tree, leunig

It contains one of the few poems that I can recite by heart- “When the heart is cut or cracked or broken, don’t clutch it, let the wound lie open….” I have quoted this previously here.

Today, with thanks to Mr Leunig, (and my lovely wife) I offer you this;

God help us to live slowly

To move simply

To look softly

To allow emptiness

To let the heart create for us


And for those whose heart is not quite ready to create, perhaps this will help you realise that you are not alone;


The forgotten histories…

Kilmore Chapel, Strathlachlan

Michaela spent a few days out at Castle Lachlan, the other side of the Cowal peninsula. They are doing a lot of work to reveal the history of their castles, including the romantic ruined one, and as part of this they had a festival, full of Lachlans from the world over, all back to soak themselves in the ancient bloodlines of their ancestors. And hopefully to buy a few local arts and crafts…

craft tent

Castle Lachlan was apparently wrecked by a ship sent to cannonade it after the Battle of Culloden- the Lachlan clan having picked the wrong side. We know little about what actually happened, because history is told by the victors, and then mostly only about the rich and powerful.

I was reminded about this again as today I was playing cricket this side of Cowal- at the site of another pair of castles- again an old ruined one and a replacement Victorian one. This was Castle Toward. Here we are in front of the new Castle;


We all know about one Highland Massacre- the one in Glencoe in which 38 people were killed after offering hospitality to their murderers. Most have heard nothing of the one that was perpetrated on the men women and children of Toward in the brutal years around the 1745 rebellion;

Sir John Lamont, 14th chief, who had been knighted by King Charles; was pressured into joining Argyll, the Campbell chief and his Covenanting army in opposition against the King during the 17th century wars of Montrose. After the defeat of Campbell forces at Inverlochy, Sir John was taken prisoner and later switched sides opting to support Montrose and his general, Alastair MacDonald (MacColla), a bitter enemy of the Campbells. MacDonald along with Highlanders and Irish mercenaries, crossed Loch Long in boats provided by the Lamonts and landed at the Point of Strone. After defeating a Campbell force, Macolla’s army mustered at Toward and then decended on the Campbell lands. The Lamonts had their share in killing and plundering particularly in Strachur and Kilmun before returning home to Toward. 

In England the King surrendered and ordered his supporters to lay down their arms and cease hostilities. The Campbells took this opportunity to surround the Lamont castles of Toward and Ascog. Unable to withstand a long seige and with no hope of reprieve, Sir James surrendered the castles, having apparently reached honourable terms. The Campbells later ignored the terms of capitulation accusing the lamonts of being traitors, unworthy of terms.
The Lamonts where bound and kept within the castle, during this time several women were murdered. The survivors were taken by boats to Dunoon and in the church were sentenced to death. A large number of Lamont men, women and children, were shot or stabbed to death and they did ‘cause hang upon ane tree near the number of thirty six persons most of them being special gentlemen of the name of Lamont and vassals to Sir James’. the half-hanged men, both dead and dying were buried in pits. Sir James and his brothers were kept prisoner for five years and it would be 16 years before the ringleaders of the massacre were brought to justice and Sir Colin Campbell beheaded. 

The exact number of people who died is not known, but it is thought to be well over 200.

It strikes you- the uses we put our history to. It is a matter of how we employ it, who controls how we see it.

There is a lot of history being conjured up at the moment, because of the independence debate. The grubby awfulness of these fracture lines that are just below the surface of the Highland/Lowland relatively recent history are not relevant to these debates because they can not be easily applied to a binary Scotland/England simplistic version of history.

I fear these simplistic histories. They tend to ignore the small people, and the mess that power mongers make of it all. We are diminished by them.

So the next time we stand in the romantic ruins of a castle, perhaps it is worth remembering that we are still building them, and others are planning to knock them down. Small people will probably get hurt, but no one will remember their names.

The seduction of acquisition…

Emily, new car

My daughter Emily has bought herself a car.

Aside from the scary implications of having a daughter let loose on the open road, it has raised some interesting questions about how we relate to our possessions. Emily had decided not to put any pictures on FB as she had seen too many other ‘look what I have got, look at my lovely stuff’ kind of pictures.

We rehearsed the arguments; it is 13 years old, and you saved up to buy it and are working to run it. Living between Dunoon and Stirling, it makes economic sense. etc., but Emily still felt uncomfortable enough to want to shrink from public celebration of acquisition- she often makes me proud and hopeful like that…

Our intimate relationship with the stuff we own is rarely more intense than with our first car. Not just the fact that it is OURS, but what it represents- freedom, adulthood, the wide horizon of life. Forget the practicalities of insurance, running costs, repairs. Some of this feels good, wholesome, worthy even. It is symbolic of watching our children spreading their wings, making the world for themselves, setting off on their own adventure.


Like most of human endevour, good is shadowed by not-so-good.

There is the environmental impact of car ownership, and the fact that it is a normalised expectancy of all of us that our modes of travel should be individualised motor boxes.

There is also the seduction (soon to become an addiction) of acquisition. It is the means by which we make ourselves feel good, or to feel acceptable, or even to be a valuable member of our societies.

Our children have learned these things from us. And they start young. Check out some of the research here.

It is my hope, and my experience, that my kids have learned other things from us too however- including how we see ownership as responsibility. So if you have a car and others do not, there is a responsibility on you to use it not just for your benefit, but also for the benefit of others. I have not a shadow of a doubt that Emily will do this, and this makes me happy…




I have been doing some work on a new poetry project recently- a collaboration for Advent. Here is one that I do not think will make it into the final mix, as I am not sure about it. It is still in sketch form, and I am a bit worried about it being a bit too sentimentally ‘mystical’ rather than carrying some real honesty…



To you whose hope

Seems stolen

Know this tender thing;

The bruised old sky above you

(Which seems to yawn indifference)

Is, in fact, leaking light.


Particles tumble down

Like this promise;

I am here

Where you are


For I know what you know

I see what you see

The fences you built are no protection

From starlight


My stars leave no shadow

Only the gentle light

Of becoming.








Where your treasure is, there are your values also…

IMG_2895 I have been thinking about another one of George Monbiot’s brilliant articles over the past few days, in which he suggested that the left of centre political parties, both here and across the Atlantic, have failed to portray any sense of what they (and hopefully we) might regard as high values.

If, for example, your country has a public health system that ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it, without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them. If you live in a country where people are left to die, this embeds the idea that you have no responsibility towards the poor and weak. The existence of these traits is supported by a vast body of experimental and observational research, of which Labour and the US Democrats appear determined to know nothing.

Monbiot goes further than this however, to quote research into the way that extrinsic values (looking towards external signifiers such as fame, success, possessions, attractiveness) and intrinsic values (focused more on the self acceptance, and the desire to help others) affect our values and our politics;

Research across 70 countries suggests that intrinsic values are strongly associated with an understanding of others, tolerance, appreciation, cooperation and empathy. Those with strong extrinsic values tend to have lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders, and less concern for global justice and the natural world. These clusters exist in opposition to each other: as one set of values strengthens, the other weakens. They tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression than those at the intrinsic end. Societies in which extrinsic goals are widely adopted are more unequal and uncooperative than those with deep intrinsic values. In one experiment, people with strong extrinsic values who were given a resource to share soon exhausted it (unlike a group with strong intrinsic values), as they all sought to take more than their due.

Monbiot then considers how these extrinsic values are being promoted at present within our increasingly unequal and self-focused societies;

As extrinsic values are strongly associated with conservative politics, it’s in the interests of conservative parties and conservative media to cultivate these values. There are three basic methods. The first is to generate a sense of threat. Experiments reported in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggest that when people feel threatened or insecure, they gravitate towards extrinsic goals. Perceived dangers – such as the threat of crime, terrorism, deficits, inflation or immigration – trigger a short-term survival response, in which you protect your own interests and forget other people’s.

Here is the heart of the matter as far as I am concerned. The agenda that we live by, wittingly or not, has been set up by an extrinsic value system. We have been sold a lie that we are all under attack; from crime, economic disaster, immigrants, benefits scroungers, unaffordable health care. Our response to this seems to be to dig in, to get more for ourselves, to be less tolerant, less open, less forgiving, less motivated by altruism- all of which is totally incompatible with the Christian faith espoused by many of our politicians. Politicians- change the agenda. Change the value base- give us something to live for, not just a narrow me-first politics, but a politics of hope.

How does faith survive the loss of our religion?

footprints on snady beach


Like many of you, my faith has taken a battering. Or perhaps to be more accurate, my religion crumbled away in all sorts of complicated ways, and I worried that my faith would go the same way. I was right to worry perhaps, as for many faith does NOT survive this process.

Many of you will also have experienced times when the structure of our belief breaks down, or the vehicle in which our faith travels runs out of road, or the set of lens through which we view the world suddenly seems full of distortions. The technical word for these structures/vehicles/lens is this one; hermaneutic. The danger is that we often confuse a hermaneutic with finite truth.

So how do we let go of the very real fear that we are ‘losing it’- that something precious and real is being stolen bit by bit?

There is a brilliant answer to this question on Rachel Held Evans’ blog by Brian McLaren that was so good I thought I would re-post it here;

From Daneen: I love Brian’s books! They have been water for my parched soul. I want to ask him about an idea I’ve seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn’t a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that’s my question, and I’m sure he’s thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether?

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn’t be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely.

I think it’s worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn’t believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient.

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means “disbelief in the God of the establishment,” since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there’s a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward “the just and the unjust” as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel’s first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven’t followed Ryan Bell’s blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: “For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence.” I think that’s an accurate – and tragic – statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: “But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie.”

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with “new evidence” of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear.

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago.

And of course, it’s not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left? Will any concept of meaning, purpose, value, direction, and value come back? As my friend Steve McIntosh asked me earlier this year, “Can we get God back at a higher level?”

I think Ryan Bell is grappling with this challenge. In order to get God back at a higher level, we have to be willing to let the lower level conceptions of God go. Peter Rollins has been another courageous thinker in this regard. The process isn’t easy. The outcomes aren’t guaranteed. We have to make room for one another to be at different places, in different “time zones” if you will, which is hard for many people to do – and nearly impossible for some churches to allow, sad to say.

I have tended to do this kind of deconstructive questioning in private, and then write about the positive conclusions I’ve reached. But the deconstructive work must also be written about. Maybe my approach has been more pastoral, and Ryan’s and Peter’s more philosophical … but both are needed.

A philosopher who has engaged with this process in a very helpful way for me is Richard Kearney. The title of his book Anatheism suggests the recovery of God after atheism – not old theism, not atheism, but a new search for God after one has lost his or her old faith. Here are a few choice quotes from Anatheism:

So much depends, of course, on what we mean by God. If transcendence is indeed a surplus of meaning, it requires a process of endless interpretation…. The absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism. (xiv)

If the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics. There is no God’s-eye view of things available to us. For we are not Gods, and history tells us that attempts to become so lead to intellectual and political catastrophe. Hermeneutics is a lesson in humility (we all speak from finite situations) as well as imagination (we fill in the gaps between available and ulterior meanings). Hermeneutics remind us that the holiest of books are works of interpretation – for authors no less than readers. Moses smashed the written tablets; Jesus never wrote a single word (only a scribble in the sand to prevent a woman being stoned); and Muhammad spoke, after much hesitation, but left writing to others. (xv)

And that is, I think, a grace of philosophy. It opens a space for the questioning of God where theists and atheists may converse. It invites us to revise old interpretations and reimagine new ones. (xvii)

The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. (14)

… the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

The great stories of Israel are, I am suggesting, testaments to the paradoxical origins of religion in both violent conflict and peaceful embrace. This, in effect, makes every dramatic encounter between the human and the divine into a radical hermeneutic wager: compassion or murder. You either welcome or refuse the stranger. Monotheism is the history of this wager. (22)

Obviously, I could go on and on. But I want to mention two other quotes from Kearney that intersect with my own work.

First, Kearney asks, “So what exactly did Bonhoeffer mean when he advocated an ‘irreligious Christianity?’ … Religion was but a ‘garment’ tailored to the needs of different historical epochs over two thousand years. So the real question for us today is What kind of God could be the Lord of a nonreligious Christianity? .. Bohoeffer’s postreligious Christianity took the form of an atheistic rejection of the metaphysical God combined with a belief in the suffering God. (66-67)”

I haven’t spoken of this much, but this insight was very much behind my book Naked Spirituality. We need a spirituality that allows us to strip away old conceptions and welcome new ones … a faith that is (to evoke my new title) a road, not a warehouse or parking lot. A flexible (or naked) spirituality carries us, I think, when our bolted-down theology falls apart on us.

Second, Kearney says, “…one must, I suggest, abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of inteconfessional hospitality can be born. And, insofar as religious dogma has often served as vehicle of infantile fear and dependency, the interreligious God may be described as a postdogmatic God. That is why anatheism appreciates a rigorous atheistic critique of the theistic perversions of religion.” (52)

Obviously, this was a big part of my last book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In my new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I read the Bible not as a static revelation of God in a system, but as a dynamic narrative of human discovery as old conceptions of God die and new conceptions are born in the vacuum. To be a believer is not to stop or freeze the quest for bigger and better and deeper and truer conceptions of what is ultimate and true and beautiful and valuable, but to join it.

So … to get back to your question: Some forms of atheism, like some forms of religion, are also parking lots or warehouses. They mark the end of questioning, search, wondering, imagining, hoping, dreaming, opening. But I trust that for many, atheism is more like taking off of a suit of clothes that no longer fits. It is scary to be naked … especially when there are accusatory and mocking inquisitors out there ready to pounce, mock, criticize, and so on, motivated by the kind of fear that Ryan wrote about.

So, Daneen, we might say that good faith is at heart not becoming “impervious to new evidence,” but rather the reverse: a vulnerability to new evidence and possibilities, a nakedness of the kind we experience at birth or when we go to the doctor or when we make love, a confession that “I haven’t yet arrived, but am still on the road, still seeking, still on the quest.” Whatever God is, God must not be smaller than our questions! So for me, one of the meanings of the resurrection is that just after you think God has died, a surprise is in store. I would hope that whatever progressive/emergence/etc. Christianity is … it makes room both for the questioning and the surprise.






Save Dunoon Pier…

Dunoon pier, late autumn light

Dunoon has this lovely old wooden pier at it’s centre, jutting out into the Clyde Estuary – a relic from the golden age of Clyde Steamers, when half of Glasgow took their trips doon the watter. In fact, the pier is the last surviving one of it’s type.

We have been fortunate enough to use some of the old buildings on the pier for worship/art events in the past. Piers are lovely places- neither one thing nor the other and lend themselves well to art/worship/meditation. Check out this event for instance.

Out of the front door, Dunoon pier


A couple of years ago the pier lost it’s purpose as a working landing place for the ferries- partly because of a new linkspan, but also because there is not longer a car ferry link to the town centre. It needs a fortune spending on it, and we are watching it’s slow decline into the sea, despite it being a listed building of national importance.

You can help raise concern about this pier by signing the petition intended to put pressure on Argyll and Bute council to find the resources to actually do something with the pier- to bring it back to life again…