Are people with high moral beliefs more likely to act them out?


It has always been a bit of a strange thing to me how followers of Jesus came to be seen as collectively ‘holier than thou’. How over the millennia we serially get caught up in elaborate morality systems, measuring others by how much they share the same code and punishing those who do not.

It is not as though this was the model for life that Jesus gave us. As far as we are able to understand his way of teaching, way of living, he seemed to react against those in his time who lived this kind of religious life. Remember all those exchanges with the Pharisees, who had a rigid rule to measure everything against. By total contrast, Jesus seemed much keener for his disciples to live deeply and fully, opening themselves up to the wild ways of the Spirit and subjugating all sorts of rules to the overarching principle called love.

Having said that, let us not pretend that morality has no place within the life of faith. It is not as if anything goes. Choices we make in life have consequences – even passive choices. But those outside the holy huddles will often accuse those inside of rank hypocrisy, suggesting that we do not live according to our principles, let alone live up to the life of Jesus. Remember these words attributed to Ghandi?

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.

Or these, which he wrote in his autobiography;

 I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.

All of this starts for me to highlight the fact that although shaping our souls towards love may involve a constant processions of moral choices, morality itself should not be the starting point.

There was a story in The Guardian yesterday that made a rather different point about morality- suggesting that there might be an inverse relationship between highly developed ethical/moral belief and ethical/moral action. In other words, perhaps those who have rigid moral belief might be LESS likely to act on these beliefs.

Ethical philosophy isn’t the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who’s spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren’t very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They’re also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.

One take on this is that ethicists are terrible hypocrites. As Schwitzgebel points out, that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds: if philosophers were obliged to live by their findings, that might exert a “distortive pressure” on their work, tempting them to reach more self-indulgent conclusions about the moral life. (And there’s a case to be made, after all, that it’s better for people to preach the right thing but not practise it than to do neither.) But another possibility bears thinking about. It’s plausible to suggest that ethicists have an unusually strong sense of what’s right and wrong; that’s what they spend their days pondering, after all. What if their overdeveloped sense of morality – their confidence that they know what’s what, ethically speaking – makes them less likely to act ethically in real life?

Hmmm, what if our churches carry a similar kind of ethical corruption? Later the article describes something called  “moral licensing”, the deep-seated human tendency that leaves us feeling entitled to do something bad because we’ve already done something good. It explains why people give up plastic bags, then feel justified in taking a long-haul flight, obliterating the carbon savings. It’s also why, if you give people a chance to condemn sexist statements, they’ll subsequently be more likely to favour hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.

How might this play out in our religion? A focus on those parts of us that are good so we can blind ourselves to those parts of us that are not? A compartmentalism that means we can live externally moral religious lives whilst compromising on some of the most basic ways of loving our neighbours.

One reaction to this (a very common one in our churches) is the call from the pulpit to be MORE moral. The call to purify, to get our moral codes sorted and organised. The degree to which this ever works is rather doubtful, to my mind at least. We are all of us a complex mess of aspiration and failure at the surface and subliminal levels; old sinful habits die hard in me.

What we need to do then, we followers of Jesus, is to return to trying to understand his relationship with morality. We have to remember that the moral leaders of his day clearly regarded him as immoral. He drank, he mixed with the unclean and ungodly, he broke religious rules, he disrupted churchyness, smashed up tables, upset good people and seemed to prefer low-lifes.

Morality was something to be challenged, to be tested, to be subjugated towards love. Morality was not to be seen as the goal, or the most valid measure, not even of righteousness.

Just as well, otherwise we are all screwed.

A bit of McCaig…


Thought it was time for Norman McCaig’s poetry…

I often talk to people who tell me that they struggle with poetry. It is as if someone contorted the language it was written in and mixed it into some other dialect- more rarefied, pretentious and elitist. Thinking about it, perhaps this is exactly what was done to it at school…

Perhaps too they have read the wrong poems. Or even never really read any at all. Or (even more significantly) they have never written any.

I too struggle with reading some poetry- this may be because it is never instant. Poems are all about the gift of slow reading- immersing yourself in the opaque ink bath, knowing that some stain will remain. Poetry is about feeling more than understanding. It needs time, and most of us have little patience for time.

Back to Norman McCaig. Here are two of his poems. Think of them as two love poems, at desperately different parts of life.

In which poem was love the strongest?


Not an ounce excessive, not an inch too little,
Our easy reciprocations. You let me know
The way a boat would feel, if it could feel,
The intimate support of water.

The news you bring me has been news forever,
So that I understand what a stone would say
If only a stone could speak. Is it sad a grassblade
Can’t know how it is lovely?

Is it sad that you can’t know, except by hearsay
(My gossiping failing words) that you are the way
A water is that can clench its palm and crumple
A boat’s confiding timbers?

But that’s excessive, and too little. Knowing
The way a circle would describe its roundness,
We touch two selves and feel, complete and gentle,
The intimate support of being.

The way that flight would feel a bird flying
(If it could feel) is the way a space that’s in
A stone that’s in water would know itself
If it had our way of knowing.

Visiting Hour

The hospital smell
combs my nostrils
as they go bobbing along
green and yellow corridors.

What seems a corpse
is trundled into a lift and vanishes

I will not feel, I will not
feel, until
I have to.

Nurses walk lightly, swiftly,
here and up and down and there,
their slender waists miraculously
carrying their burden
of so much pain, so
many deaths, their eyes
still clear after
so many farewells.

Ward 7. She lies
in a white cave of forgetfulness.
A withered hand
trembles on its stalk. Eyes move
behind eyelids too heavy
to raise. Into an arm wasted
of colour a glass fang is fixed,
not guzzling but giving.
And between her and me
distance shrinks till there is none left
but the distance of pain that neither she nor I
can cross.

She smiles a little at this
black figure in her white cave
who clumsily rises
in the round swimming waves of a bell
and dizzily goes off, growing fainter,
not smaller, leaving behind only
books that will not be read
and fruitless fruits.





One often cited description that Mandelbrot published to describe geometric fractals is “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole”;[2] this is generally helpful but limited. Authorities disagree on the exact definition of fractal, but most usually elaborate on the basic ideas of self-similarity and an unusual relationship with the space a fractal is embedded in.[2][3][4] [6][29] One point agreed on is that fractal patterns are characterized by fractal dimensions, but whereas these numbers quantify complexity (i.e., changing detail with changing scale), they neither uniquely describe nor specify details of how to construct particular fractal patterns.


Leeched like lime from this soil

The grains of me are gone


And falling away


Numbers swirl and tumble

Names all interchange

Heads of friends are hooded

Keys each night re-cut


In 66 we went to Spain you told me

The year before Charlene was born

Our wedding day was cloudy

Some song suggested



Am I portable?

Is there a jar somewhere to catch what is left?

Or do these memories become minerals

Feeding some darker place?


Hold me softly my love

For I am leaving


I am not much into Valentine’s day. It always seemed too plastic. But I am into love…

What more can be said of love?


What more can be said of love

That has not been said before?

You and I find each other


We curved a few moments about us

Like a blanket

Knowing that all of this would pass

This house, this car, this bank balance

These objects shaped from memories


But love is not mixed from dust

It makes a spark that leaps between here

And there

And the dark matter moves

To make room

For you

In me

Worship music remix 3- transcendence…

The first two pieces in this series are here and here.

We are just back from our monthly Aoradh ‘family day’. This is the closest we come to a ‘church service’ that we do regularly within Aoradh. It usually involves filling up one of our houses with people, then one of us will co-ordinate a period during which a selection of folk – kids and adults – will take turns to lead others through a song, a prayer, some meditation, a poem, a clip from you tube. It is simple, messy and lovely.

Then we eat together.

Today I was thinking about the distance I have travelled within the scope of what ‘church’ might mean. I was playing my guitar along with William and Rachel, and really enjoying it, because this is something I do fairly rarely these days.

There was a time when it was my whole life.

I was a ‘worship leader’ – one of those blokes (and they usually are blokes) who stand in front of people and whip up some spiritual fervour by the application of soft rock love songs to Jesus. I lived for those moments when the music took flight, and something kind of opened up. At such times, music was more than just notes. Performance became less about technique, and more about an attitude of humility and receptiveness.

But in the course of my journey from ‘organised’ church, other principles started to dominate the way I thought about worship. Primarily, I was convinced that the culture of ‘church’, with all its big and small liturgies, assumptions and traditions, easily came to be a black hole that swallowed people whole. It left us with no room for the other. It became about us, not about them. They were only important if they were willing to become like us. I was convinced that church should exist to send and to serve, not endlessly feed itself.

Our corporate worship was the same. It was all about music and preaching. Other ways if worshipping were not necessarily wrong (although some were guilty by association) but they were just not our thing. We knew what we liked and this was enough.

As I think about this now it is like a rainbow of only one colour. Still impressive, but monochrome.

It can also be so selfish, so self centred. Worship like this exists to make us feel good. The end we aim for is a spiritual/emotional high for us, dressed up in the clothes of adoration of the God that we make in our own image.

But I overstate my case. A monochrome rainbow can still be beautiful.

The word that came to sum up the change I was finding in my own aspirations in worship was this one;


By which I mean the experience of God in the ordinary. The incarnation of the maker of the universe within the temporal, messy world in which we live and love.

Transcendent moments fill our lives if we look for them. And the more we attune ourselves to the looking the more we see.

They are everywhere in the natural world; sunsets, new leaves, mushrooms in caves, the lick of new born fur, the light of the moon on still water, the smell of rain on dry earth, the sea that goes on for ever. All these things will happen whether or not we are there as witnesses. But when we look in a certain kind of way a hollow space opens up in the middle of them into which we can meet with something transcendent. Into which we can invite/be invited by the living God.

They are everywhere too where humans also are. In conversations, in touch, in the longing for justice, in the decision to forgive, in the deciding to repay hurt with love, in the listening and in the laughing. Because God is a God of communion. God commands love, and love requires direction. Perhaps above all, the transcendent God is immanent when we come together in community.

They are encountered in art, because art can become a bridge to something beyond our business. Films, books, poems, paintings, sculptures, music.

They can even be encountered in church – for me, especially when we sing, when the chordal voices find the vault of the building and make it vibrate.

I had become so trapped in a view of God that was limited to one colour of the huge spectrum from ultaviolet to infra red and beyond, that I needed to go cold turkey. The guitar needed to go away for a while so I could hear the birds sing.

So I had some time to speak to people, with no agenda other than love.

So I could be creative, and make art in service of the Creator.

How about you? Where might your ordinary space become pregnant with the extraordinary, capricious, magnificent Living God?

The law, or the Spirit?

It has been said that cricket was exported by the British Empire as a way of selling some kind of idea of ‘Britishness’- characterised by fair play, individual skills realised in a team context and adherence to rules. Cricket has moved on a long way since then- the seat of power has shifted firmly towards India, and there is a hard edged professionalism to the game.

However, the high drama of the international arena still has a way of throwing up controversies- there is a great test series being played between India and England at the moment- and yesterday one of the England players, who was batting brilliantly and playing his team into a potentially match winning position, found himself in the middle of a conflict with the laws of the game, and what cricketers still call ‘the spirit of the game’.

In case you are interested, this is what happened-

All very interesting if you are a cricket fan- but also, I think there is a useful theological parallel here. Much of the letters of Paul in the Bible constantly debate the primacy of the LAW as against the NEW KINGDOM- and the rule of love. More recently, this whole controversy has surfaced again with the discussions about what might happen to we sinners when we die (eg Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’) and also all this discussion about homosexuality (see yesterday’s post.)

Our ‘modern’ interpretation of the law is characterised by an idea of inflexible, unyielding black and white rules, and whilst many who practice the law might suggest that this may well be an illusion, we assume that this is the kind of law making that God adheres to also.

But what if the universe has a higher court- not of law, but of principle- you could say the ‘spirit of the game’? What if ultimately, the rule of love will indeed overcome all- not to condemn the law, but to fulfill it. Not to ignore the law, but rather to dwell in the midst of the laws purpose?

The power of we, revisited…

Saw a piece of research today into research into mortality rates-
Facilitating patient use of naturally occurring social relations and community-based interventions may be more successful than providing social support through hired personnel.
The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity.)
The overall effect remained consistent across a number of factors, including age, sex, initial health status, follow up period, and cause of death, suggesting that the association between social relationships and mortality may be general.

This is rather startling… the strength of our social network will have more positive effect on our health than all the other lifestyle things we are hit with repeatedly- the weight loss industry, stopping smoking, vegetable eating etc.

(Perhaps we should all get together to share a good smoke and to eat large amounts of chocolate!)

It was part of a presentation done at this conference that I almost went to-

So living in loving community is good for you- in every physical sense imaginable.

It is the way we humans were made.

And it is the best that we can become.