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About this episode:
People in the West increasingly identify as ‘nones’ – having no religious commitments. But where does meaning and happiness come from in the absence of God? Is the story of Jesus Christ still relevant to people searching for meaning in a modern world?
Derren Brown is an illusionist and mentalist, famous for his TV and stage shows. He’s also an author of books such as Tricks of the Mind, which both reveal his love of stagecraft and psychology and tell the story of how he lost his faith in Christianity as a young adult. His latest book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine brings the wisdom of Greek stoic philosophy to bear on how to lead a content, fulfilled and meaningful life.
Rev Richard Coles is a priest in the Church of England and a well-known media figure on radio and TV. He presents Radio 4’s Saturday Live show and has starred programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing. He also had a highly successfully (and often wild) pop career as part of The Communards. He’s told the story of his Christian conversion in books such as Fathomless Riches and Bringing in the Sheaves. He argues that following Christ won’t necessarily bring happiness, but has personally found it to be the path to ultimate meaning.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: The psychology of belief: Do we need God to make sense of life?
- Episode 2: The future of humanity: Have science, reason and humanism replaced faith?
- Episode 4: Science, faith and the evidence for God
- Episode 5: Mind, consciousness and freewill: Are we more than matter?
- Episode 6: Evolution, morality and being human: Do we need God to be good?
Justin Brierley (JB), Derren Brown (DB) & Richard Coles (RC)
JB: Welcome to The Big Conversation here on Unbelievable with me, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is a series of shows exploring faith, science, philosophy, and what it means to be human, in association with the Templeton Religion Trust.
Today, our conversation topic is the pursuit of happiness. Can we have meaning without God?
And The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Derren Brown and The Revered Richard Coles.
Derren Brown is an illusionist and Mentalist, famous for his TV and stage shows. He’s also an author of books such as, ‘Tricks of the Mind’, which both reveal his love of stagecraft and psychology, but also tell the story of how he lost his faith in Christianity as a young adult.
His latest book, ‘Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine’, bring the wisdom of Greek stoic philosophy to bear on how to lead a content, fulfilled and meaningful life.
Well, The Reverend Richard Coles is a priest in the Church of England and a well-known media figure on radio and TV, presenting Radio 4 Saturday live and star turns in programmes such as ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. He’s also had a highly successful and often wild pop career in the past as part of The Communards.
And he’s also told his story of his Christian conversion in books such as, ‘Fathomless Riches’ and ‘Brining in the Sheaves’, both of which feature him on the cover with his beloved dachshunds.
So, welcome along to the programme Derren and Richard. Great to have you here.
It’s nice to have you, and I know you two gentlemen do know each other a little bit. So, it’s not the first time you’ve spoken together.
DB: I was a guest on your radio show.
RC: And I was a guest for breakfast at yours.
DB: And you came over for some really terrible scrambled eggs.
RC: They were lovely scrambled eggs.
DB: No, they were really hard. I do them in a bain-marie, which I was really excited about, but they just kept cooking…
RC: You completely dazzled me with your bain-marie work, I thought that they were the most sophisticated scrambled eggs I’d ever had.
DB: I shouldn’t have said a thing!
JB: Well, in any case, sorry there’s no breakfast items on this occasion, but it’s good to have you both here for this conversation, which I’m not sure either of you have really had in this kind of environment; talking about faith and your different worldviews, and the search for meaning. And, in a way, it was really great that you were both available because you’ve got stories that, in some ways, are the mirror of each other.
Perhaps we could start with you, Derren, and just remind us of the fact that you were actually, at one time, a Christian when you were a young man. A younger man I should say.
What kind of drew you towards Christianity to begin with?
DB: I was six, I think, and I had a teacher at school that I really liked called Mrs Whitaker, and she asked me if I wanted to come to her Crusaders classes. And I didn’t have any religious friends, my family weren’t at all religious. But, I was six, and I liked the teacher, and I kind of presumed everybody does that, everybody goes to Crusader classes.
So, I went, and by the time I was old enough to realise, oh no, this is a sort of a belief now that I have, this is a thing that not everybody has. And it was a bit too, sort of late, well, I say late, but I believed it and that was that. And it was certainly too late to rethink it from any kind of other viewpoints.
So, I just sort of found myself in it. And then I went to various churches, still didn’t really have any Christian friends particularly. And then at university, so sometime later, I got into hypnosis and close-up magic, and the sort of career that I am now in, and it started to drive a bit of a wedge between me and the Christians that I knew. I was surprised at their reactions. I could sort of understand it, but I thought, well, all I’m doing, I’m fascinated by the mind, and presumably the mind if the pinnacle of God’s creation, if that’s the story that you have?
So, I couldn’t quite understand the sort of immediate fear and hostility. At the same time, I had – the other thing that magic tends to sort of teach you is a scepticism towards things like psychic abilities and tarot cards and all that – and I was going to churches where the was a huge amount, again, of a sort of fear of that sort of New Age thing that was creeping in – lots of talks of demons and so on.
But because I could see how they work, just as a sort of psychological trick, again, a little sort of question mark went up. And I had a good friend who was a psychic healer, and we had endless talks about how that was just a bit of a circular belief system that she was caught in. And gradually I just started to think, well I’m sure I’m just doing the same, but I’m doing the same with something that’s far more institutionalised and harder to sort of poke fun at.
JB: More culturally acceptable in a sense?
DB: Exactly, then something like psychic ability. So, I went through a period at university of really trying to question it and trying to unpick it. I hoped that if I – what I did know for sure, was that me sitting in pub and telling my friends why God must exist and why Christianity must be true, with all the certainty of a 20-year-old student, I knew that must be nonsense. Because it’s a question that has puzzled people for so long. So, I thought I need to undo some of that certainty, and maybe if I’m less certain, there’ll be an honesty in that, and may be from that I’ll build a more rigorous faith.
But that second bit didn’t happen, it just sort of fell apart.
JB: As I understand it, you did sort of try and see if there were some sort of objective evidence as you did look into sort of the case for the resurrection and things like that, but it never quite came together?
DB: No. So, at the time, my sort of feeling was, well, I sort of had this thing in my head – which I think is not uncommon – that if the resurrection didn’t happen, it all falls apart. And if it did, it’s all real. You know, I think perhaps there are richer ways of approaching it than that, but at the time, that was sort of a binary thing. So, when I realised that it couldn’t – despite being told again and again as a Christian, that there’s, you know, ample evidence for it – and realising, in the end, there sort of isn’t, that’s not really what it’s about. I, yeah, that’s sort of, in order to just be honest with myself, I sort of had to let it go.
JB: You let it go. Did you adopt another label like atheist or anything like that? Is that a badge you’re happy to wear, in a sense?
DB: Strange… do you collect stamps?
DB: No, so you are an a philatelist.
JB: Right. A non-stamp collector.
DB: Yeah, exactly. Which is fine, I suppose, in a sense, it’s an accurate label. But if I would suggest that was, in itself, had some sort of agenda to it on your part, or meant anything, you might grow a bit tired of it. Or you might want to put your hand up and say, this just doesn’t mean anything. You’re just defining something in terms of what it isn’t.
So, I suppose I am in the sense I don’t believe in God, but I don’t for a second, maybe at first – I think if you come from a position of strong belief, your natural swing is going to be to, a sort of a strong disbelief, and a bit of a kind of, you know, you’re sort of gathering yourself psychologically – so, for a while, I think I really enjoyed that, I enjoyed the kind of the attack on what I’d held to be true, for a short while.
Now, I think that’s sort of irrelevant and kind of misses the point. So, no, I don’t happen to believe, but that’s sort it, that doesn’t carry with it any agenda beyond that.
JB: Okay. And it’s interesting, though, that it was something that obviously was important to you, but once you let it go, you found that it didn’t particularly impact your life in terms of, you know, some existential crisis or something?
DB: No, there was no crisis. I am – apart from the bubbles in my throat that would occasionally appear – I had one moment waking up feeling down and had that moment of going, oh, I don’t have that sort of objective yardstick anymore of somebody going, a little voice going, it doesn’t matter if you feel down, you are loved objectively and irrespective of how you feel. I had a moment of going, oh, so it’s sort of up to me now to make my, my sort of psychological robustness is going to be up to me.
And I remember that moment, and I sort of thought, oh, that’s actually quite a good thing, that’s quite liberating. And that was the only moment I remember of sort of hiccup, and it was sort of a good one.
JB: I mean, obviously, you’re now well-known for your TV and stage shows and people enjoy the entertainment and everything else. But you often do weave in a sort of a critique of superstition or religion generally.
So, in a sense, do you sort of feel that you have a duty of kind of critique those sorts of ways of thinking from the standpoint you now have?
DB: I don’t know if I have a duty, but I – magic of any sort, and what I do is sort of rooted in magic, is a very childish pursuit. It’s the quickest route to impressing people. It’s a fraudulent route to impressing people. So you do it if you don’t feel very confident or impressive as a kid, and that’s most people’s roots into it.
If that remains your agenda, then, like most magicians, I think you become a figure of fun after a while. And it misses, actually, the interesting and really rich stuff about magic – which isn’t really about how you’re doing the tricks, it’s the fact that we tell ourselves stories and that we get caught up in a story that we are being told, and all those thing that an audience member does – magic doesn’t exist unless it happens in the mind of the spectator watching it. Unlike a play that can go over your head, doesn’t mean the play has failed, but if you don’t follow up a trick, you know, it’s certainly failed.
So, what I’ve tried to do is hold on to what’s interesting, I find interesting about magic, and bring that to an audience. So, because of that, those areas of belief and belief systems and charlatans and confidence tricksters and all that, it very naturally falls into a kind of a world of going, let’s look at these. I don’t think that debunking for its own sake is that interesting because it’s a negative thing and ultimately it just sort of, it strikes the wrong note. What I’ve tended to do is recreate things, like in the last show I recreated a faith miracle (JB: A miracle healing show) That’s right, which you kindly came to see.
So, I find that by doing something – and if you do it yourself you can recreate the entertainment value, which is important – otherwise, if you are just going, no, no, this thing’s nonsense, then you’re not hitting that note of sort of emotion that the charlatans do have so, you know, it’s a losing battle.
So, that’s the closest, and I do a lot of that sort of thing. And I suppose the feeling is; if you present people with the information at least they can see, oh, this can be done without recourse to that explanation. Then that feels like a valuable thing.
JB: Thank you very much for joining me to talk about your story and this question of can we have meaning without God?
And to join us in this conversation today is the Revered Richard Coles. Richard, thank you for coming.
Your story, in some ways, as I say, is quite different to Derren’s in as much as you went through a period of great fame and success as a pop idol in your generation. But in the Communards, you know, you did have this extraordinary journey, quite a wild journey as you relate in the books that you’ve written as well.
Tell us, sort of, first of all, what that life was like; what was going on for you at that time and how you eventually actually came to faith.
RC: Well, I don’t really remember that much about it, which I suppose tells you something about the qualities of the experience. I thought – I had this feeling I bought a speedboat in Ibiza, and apparently I did. I checked this with somebody recently and I did buy a speed boat in Ibiza which is rusting in some neglected lagoon at the moment, maybe being used in drug running or something.
So, it was all the things of, you know, sex and drugs and rock and roll and all that kind of thing. Or sex and drugs and 80s synth-pop, and gender politics and all that, at a particularly kind of exciting and dynamic time. Identity politics; that was all sort of churning up.
When I had this sort of period of great success, which coincided with the best of times and the worst of times, because of who I was, and where I was and when I was. HIV and AIDS came along at the very, sort of, height of our success and we were completely out as a gay band. And so the catastrophe of AIDS hit my circle of friends and that created more turbulence. And it was kind of in that turbulence that I started getting – I was a chorister when I was a kid, so I grew up in the Anglican choral tradition. Loved the music, adored the dressing up, scratched and clawed my way to be head chorister and loved that too, but was certain that it was a fairy tale and that nobody with their wits about them could seriously believe this stuff. Although, I think I was impressed by people who did seem to seriously believe that stuff. And did so with some integrity and honest and that sort of took up residence somewhere within.
But I do remember when I was young, in spite of that, feeling that churches, chapels, holy places, sacred places, were distinctive. And you could take stuff there that somehow belonged there that belonged nowhere else, or not in the same way. And then after that period of turbulence in my late0twenties, that’s what I sort of, I wanted to return to that… I think it was partly also – and this is very common I think for gay men of my age – a sort of desire to connect with a childhood that had felt rather abandoned and left behind. Because you needed to, you know, if discovering you were gay in Kettering in 1977 was not something that suggested a life rich in opportunity lay ahead. So, I wanted to reconnect to my past. And this all sort of came together, and then it was a sort of curiosity and then it became an appetite, and then it was a hunger. And I remember very reluctantly going to church at the suggestion of a friend, and, I mean, I went into it as a sort of sceptical, critical spectator and came out a participant.
And I had a moment of conversion in there which was decisive and powerful, in retrospect, of course, it had been coming on forever, but at the moment it did, it really did feel like this utterly decisive and fundamental profound change. And I’ve not looked back as it were.
JB: Right. It’s obviously led you eventually to the path to ordination and the ministry you have now, as well as obviously your career in the media and all that goes with it. But did you, sort of, at some level, find something that you had been looking for during your, sort of, days as a pop star and the life that will entail?
RC: Well, I think we had a very preachy sort of pop style. So, if you look at a video of me in the 1980s, it’s obviously a vicar struggling to get out. So, I don’t think it really – I remember I announced it people, you’ll never guess what I’m doing now, they were like, oh yeah, right. Maybe not such a surprise.
And I ran into my former school chaplain, who I’d given hell to when I was at school and said well, you won’t believe this, but he said, of course you are. So, I think there was a sort of looking for something and a response to certain kind of song if you like of liberation and inquiry that when I kind of tuned into that particular frequency and tuned into that particular temperament, I kind of recognised it. It was not quite déjà vu, well, it was more than déjà vu, it was a sense that here was something that had been there all the time and I would just, my circuits weren’t firing and then all of a sudden they were.
JB: It’s great to have you tell that story and, in a way, the search for meaning is obviously the topic that we’re going to be talking about during the rest of today’s programme.
RC: Really it’s like catnip to me.
DB: Love a drop of meaning…
RC: Well, I think you do too, Derren.
JB: I mean, the book you’ve written is called ‘Happy’, Derren. Is there a difference though between happiness and sort of meaning, would you say? Or are they one and the same?
DB: Yes, I think so. And I think meaning trumps happiness ultimately.
The book I wrote, I sort of was very interested in the Stoics and still am, and spent about three years writing that book when I was on tour mainly, doing the shows in the evening, it was a lovely, sort of, rhythm to that. And I think – and stoicism is, was, the predominant school of philosophy for five hundred years before Christianity sort of took over really, to the extent that is sort of had to win over the Stoics and a lot of stoic ideas, like being a dutiful citizen and so on, can be traced up through Christianity now.
So, I think it still, sort of, sits perfectly well with it – obviously it’s a secular school of thought – but I think there’s by no means a sort of clash. And at the end of writing the book, I sort of also realised what it was missing; I realised there was a big sort of gap – and I’m sort of beginning to get my head around what the next book would be to sort of continue that thought into another area – and I think the gap, I think the bit that’s missing is where religion sits very well. I think it’s a very nice compliment to it.
So, stoicism is very much about sort of a personal robustness. And it’s great, I mean, it’s a very, it’s a phenomenal recipe for avoiding anxiety and avoiding those feelings of disturbance, which is how they saw happiness back then; as a sort of tranquillity. It’s about only controlling what you are in control of, which are your thoughts and your actions, and deciding that everything else, what other people do, what they think and so on, is fine. Is absolutely fine as it is. Not only is it fine, but it’s absolutely the best way things should be.
So you move in a much easier accordance with fate, as they used to call it, as opposed to nowadays we’re told, you know, set your goals and believe in yourself and you make everything exactly how you’d like it to be, which, of course, creates a lot of anxiety; and that was the reason for writing the book. And I think that’s a hugely valuable thing.
JB: Something we need to rediscover today?
DB: I think it is. What is misses is things like – it’s quite a self-centred thing, and it isn’t really because when you look at the Stoics they were very interested in, as I said, being a good citizen, and you do all that in order to give out – but they don’t really have a lot to say about things like kindness and community.
And also the value of anxiety. I think that’s the big thing that’s missing. I think the value of disturbance, the value of, you know, you only move forward, you only find meaning, your life only gets larger, it moves forward, if you pay attention to what makes you anxious.
JB: I mean; stoicism isn’t the same thing though as being sort of emotionless. I think a lot of people think of it as a sort of, you know…
DB: Yeah, it’s got a bit of a bad rap. Like Epicureanism has nothing to do with really what Epicurus was saying either. No, it really is about differentiating – and this is grossly reducing it – but, first of all realising the things, your problems are not really created by events in the world, they’re created by the story you tell yourself about those events. That’s first of all, I mean, it’s sort of a bit glib to us because we’ve heard it, but actually it’s a big thought.
And the other big thought is; there are those things you’re in control of and the things you’re not. And so there’s a certain amount of detachment, I guess, from things like wealth and all those kind of, you know, the things that a Buddhist would say you detach yourself from, but they’re not seen as bad, they’re sort of seen as indifferent. And they’re not bad thing to have, but certainly not at the expense of this kind of robust virtue.
JB: And even death ultimately, there’s a sort of stoic attitude towards death as sort of not seeing as something to be feared but as just well, you won’t be here anymore and that’s okay too.
DB: Yea, it was certainly a time when a lot of those things were being discussed. And there were lots of sort of slightly unconvincing arguments as to why we shouldn’t fear death, like, you’re not going to be there when it happens. Well, okay, that’s true. Or the idea that, well, you’ve already been there. You’ve already been in this sort of abyss of nothingness before you were born, and that was fine, so it’ll be fine again.
And they’re kind of interesting sort of thought experiments to go through and realise why they don’t quite hold up. But they don’t quite solve the – I think the thing that is missing, and one of the reasons why death is frightening, is much more to do with the lack of myth and meaning associated with it now. Which, again, is where something like religion would step in a lot more comfortably.
RC: I kind of love the Stoic virtues and would seek to cultivate them in myself, paltry little things that they are in me. But because – I think as a way of influencing your personal conduct; how you behave, how you can thrive, much to be admired in them. And also much to, I think, one of the great things about death is that you’ll never have to fill in a form again, which is one of the things that tempts me…
But I think what’s different about it, or one of the things that’s different about it that strikes me, is that it seeks to realise meaning and value and how we consider ourselves and how we conduct ourselves through reference to our own resources; thought, action.
Whereas, I think what Christianity does, and other religions do, is suggest that there’s an axis beyond ourselves, the transcendent reality beyond ourselves, in which we are implicated but has a bearing on all those things. And because of that can make things which seem counterintuitive or contrary to our own benefit or goodness, valuable. Suffering, I suppose, would be one.
Stoics accept suffering, I think, and endure suffering, but I think sometimes in Christianity it’s given a positive evaluation to it as a means of transformation, as a means of living a new life which exists because of the death of God on the cross. And that’s, all of a sudden, something that’s available to us, to live in anticipation of that in this life. And I think that changes, that’s one of the differences between Athens and Jerusalem.
DB: Yes. Well, I certainly agree and – was it Aeschylus, probably the first great tragedian, said that only from suffering comes wisdom, or words to that effect. Which, again, I think the stoics, I think they sort of lack that thought. And I think as we become psychologically sort of more aware – as we certainly have in recent years, generally – I think that dialogue; the dialogue with the self becomes, you know, that being aware of your own growth, and moving forward, and whether things in life make you smaller or larger, for example. This is the stuff of meaning. And I think it’s tremendously important. I think the role of suffering, the fact that – we used to say that if people were sort of at the bottom end of things they were unfortunates. Nowadays, the can be called losers. And the big difference is the idea of fortune; that there is something, life events that throw back at us, and over and over again, a lot of the things I found as I was researching for book that I wrote, is this idea of an x = y line. So, one axis you have your aims, your desires. At the other axis is stuff that life throws back at you. And, actually, what life is and living well and flourishing, seems to be about navigating an x = y diagonal.
Freud, when we created psychotherapy, wasn’t doing it to make people happy, he was doing it to restore what he called a natural unhappiness; that life is basically sort of unhappy, but you don’t want to be unnaturally unhappy, but there was a natural unhappiness.
Schopenhauer talks about when you start off a game of chess, you might have a plan, but you can’t stick to that plan throughout the whole game, that doesn’t make any sense.
Joseph Conrad talks about, you can spend your life climbing a ladder and get to the top and realise you had it against the wrong wall.
And even some of the work on happiness, there is a sociologist called Michael Csikszentmihalyi who did this project on flow, as he called it. Time and time again, when people are in their best state, they report – whether it’s chess or surfing or anything – they report sort of a balance between what you’re trying to achieve, the skills you have, and the challenges that you face. And when those things match up, so if your challenges are too much you become anxious, if the skills are too much you become bored. Again and again this sort of feeling resonates that, actually, there’s something in that x = y line, but to do that we have recapture and I suppose respect again the idea of fortune. But we don’t read tragedies so we’ve sort of lost that. But we believe instead that you can just crank everything to your own desires.
RC: We had to do a thing recently, it was a diocese thing, where we had to do a strap line for our church. So, at first I said, preaching the gospel and celebrating the sacraments. But we know you do that, we need something that’s kind of… so, in the end I came up with, ‘The Church: welcoming losers since naught’. But they wouldn’t have that. They didn’t like the word ‘losers’ unfortunately, which is bad because you’d think if anyone should be kind of okay with the notion of losers, it should be the church really.
I think that’s a very fundamental. And also, one of the points where we have a real purchase in a world which so hugely values success, prestige, wealth, that kind of thing, the stuff that comes with that, self-realisation, is – the centre of the Christian gospel is this notion that you have to efface that, to step away from that (say’s the vicar on strictly), in order for something else to begin to be born I think.
That’s a very counterintuitive gospel…
JB: What about the question that we began with, which is can we have meaning without God? I mean, I’m guessing you’re not going to say, no, you absolutely can’t have any kind of meaning without God, Richard?
RC: I mean, well, no. Of course you can have… I’m always sort of struck by how many people I – I mean, most of my friends are not believers. In fact, they would describe themselves as a philatelists I think or quasi philatelist or something, but they are not committed, they are not people of faith – and I don’t see anything in them which suggests to me that they live life of impoverished personal morality. On the contrary, I think lots of them live their lives very much with a view to living decently.
I think there’s a certain kind of life that you live that’s constant with Christian tradition and teaching and doctrine. There’s different and distinctive and, as in my own life, I think it introduces a richness to it which wasn’t there before. But the other interesting thing is, of course, most of my friends grew up as I grew up in Britain in the late 20th century. And whether we like it or not, that’s a place, a time, and a culture that is hugely influenced by Christianity, because Christendom prevailed for so long, our institutions were shaped by it, and by extension, what we think, what we say, what we do, what’s important to us is hugely shaped by the distinctiveness of Christianity. And it takes a long time, I think, before you can consider yourself no longer shaped or influenced by that.
I remember saying – a friend of mine, he’s a really good guy – and I remember saying to him once, we were having an argument, in the days when I used to argue such things, and he said, no, I can live a decent moral life without any recourse to Christian tradition at all. I said, okay, sum up your beliefs in exactly that way without having anything to do with Christianity. He said, exactly, do unto others as you would have them do to you.
DB: Except though, I mean, it’s been said if you were to look through any biblical content with any sort of moral message – some of which clearly is going to be abhorrent to us nowadays – the bits that you discard because they’re of their time or whatever – and then you say, which I think is perfectly valid, not pay attention to those bits and pay attention to these bits, because they’re more useful now. But the criteria that you use to separate those two has to, there has to be something outside the religious teaching because that’s the very thing that… which does suggest, ultimately, our kind of moral sense lies outside of that, otherwise how would you be able to look through the Bible and go, well that’s not relevant and that is. Does that make sense?
RC: Well, I wouldn’t make a distinction of relevance, really. I mean, I wouldn’t edit the Bible in terms of its, kind of, immediate utility to me and how that accords with my sense of myself in the world now. Marcion did that in the second century, one of our most prominent early heretics, in fact. Because I think we need to have, I think that the religious tradition needs to preserve something distinctive and enduring against which you measure precisely your own objective experience.
The extent to which you do that and how far you find that challenges your sense of where authority might lie, is an interesting question. But it’s not, I mean, I wouldn’t edit the Bible to suit the sensibility of someone who was born in the late 20th century in somewhere like Britain, because it needs to be something that’s bigger than that, I think. It needs to be a narrative which involves more than that. And a narrative which holds you to account in ways that can sometimes be extremely uncomfortable.
The most persuasive thing about Christianity, for me, is not the niceness, it’s the nastiness. It’s the toughness, it’s the taking you to places you don’t want to go. It’s the echo it sends back which makes you feel bad. It’s the realisation of the very, very narrow limits of your own competence and fitness and ability, that kind of thing. That’s the stuff which for me ultimately becomes persuasive, I think.
DB: Yes, and that’s also where we have to search for meaning, isn’t it? It’s on the edges of – when we’re infants, we scream and the world provides, you know, our mother or caregiver comes and gives us what we want and part of growing up is realising that that doesn’t happen and can’t happen. Part of a mother’s job is to let go and let us be disillusioned so we grow up. And tolerating, and ambiguity, and ambivalence, and uncertainty and all those things become part of growing up. And I think any sort of mature spirituality or belief or sense of connection with anything transcendent, which I think is vital that we all find in some sense – not in an overtly spiritual sense, but just that connection with transcendence – I think is what we both agree is…
JB: When you say transcendence, though, in what sense do you mean it? Because when I think of transcendence, I think of something that transcends the physicality of our world, the sort of, if all that really ultimately exists, let’s say, is matter in motion and physical forces, when we have a transcendent experience, it’s almost something that takes us beyond that and says there’s something more than this.
But – and I think we’re all looking for the transcendent, that seems to be a universal search across human culture – for you though, Derren, presumably, you don’t feel that that needs to find it’s ending in God or something beyond the physical world that we do find ourselves in. Whereas, I presume for Richard, it does?
DB: I’m sure we’d probably connect greatly on it. I think the problem is maybe the word ‘God’. The problem is any noun. I think what happens is we actually live in a world of messy, active verbs; things are happening, and they are complex, they are ambivalent, and to navigate all of that, this sort of infinite data source, we have to reduce and tell ourselves stories and make up clear narratives as the only way we can move forward.
And when you do that and you take – like happiness, for example – you know, happiness is suddenly a word, and it’s a noun, and actually the reality is, it isn’t, it’ much more about searching for meaning, it’s much more about this and that, all of which are verbs. So, I think the problem is, maybe, that worlds like the ‘soul’ and words like ‘God’ and so on, can get, on the one hand sentimentalised by the kind of New Age thinking, but also become dogmatised and too rigid by some religious thinking. I suppose my feeling towards it is that at some point in history, these ideas, where they’re connected around a person, or whatever made a society into a community, whatever bonded them together, had a certain sort of energy to that, for want of a better word. There was a feeling and a knowledge and thing that did give you that feeling of transcendence.
And then as time goes on, that becomes, it sort of moves out of living memories, so the group tries to maintain that by certain practices and certain things that will recreate that feeling of transcendence. And then, gradually, that turns into an experience of sort of a belief, which is quite different from what it originally was. Belief and images and dogma and signs and things that are pointing back, but they’re not the thing itself. And then that is part of then what becomes, sort of, institutionalised and what becomes, defended and sort of becomes the modern image of that religion. But it’s – and you can even argue it’s a sort of idolatry because it’s the images that become paramount. Whereas, actually, it’s the thing back there that was most important and, sorry, just to finish, and the – I think part of the problem with a lot of modern atheism is that it’s very easy to knock down those things at the end. To knock down some of those sort of claims. Whereas, actually, what it’s missing is, well, if you go back to what it’s trying to articulate, that is something that’s valid. But the problem is, even when we say the word ‘God’, when Nietzsche said, ‘God is dead’, he was sort of making that point that it’s by giving it that name, the sort of stuff of it, the energy of it, is being too contained.
RC: It’s a summary of Church history, in fact, which in a lot of ways kind of conforms to that I think, this extraordinary transforming experience that the people around Jesus of Nazareth had. But, of course, we don’t know about that, I mean, the first writings in the New Testament, as you know, are Paul, and that’s coming along quite some time after the events they describe. The first gospel, the earliest is probably around 75 AD, a generation after the events they described. Because, I think, the first followers of Jesus thought it would be consistent with the messianic teaching of that period; that the end of time was going to come within their lifetime – they would see it.
And then, of course, they start dying out and oh, hang on a minute, so, we’d better write this down. By the time they write it down, it’s not reportage, it’s not an account of what happened, it’s a theological treatise. They’re already brining to bear deep reflection on what those events might mean in a context of suddenly changing, becoming larger.
And then you get Paul who comes along, and there are all sorts of – again, a hugely reductive way of describing it, a gross generalisation too – but Paul, I think, represents the bringing together of the power of Greek thought and the power of Jewish monotheism. And those two things come together and that’s like an explosion. And you still get that now reading Paul; this kind of extraordinary explosive force in what he’s saying.
JB: Why has that remained, in a sense, such a potent thing though, 2,000 years later?
RC: Well, two reasons, I think. One, because the tradition has been curated so carefully, preserved so carefully. But partly also because I think people continue to encounter something in that, that is absolutely vital and dynamic and now.
That experience of encountering the reality of the risen Christ, as Paul had on the road to Damascus, it’s something which still continues to happen to people. And is persuasive in a way – I mean, I would never had been persuaded by a sermon or by Christian doctrine, as if I was ever going to read it. Even by the Narnia books – but that experience of an encounter with the reality of the resurrected Christ was life changing, is life changing.
And I still continue to live in the kind of, not quite the after burn of that, but the changed reality that you experience in that. And I think that’s something you encounter in lots of religious traditions.
JB: What do you think is going on though from your perspective, Derren, with Richard’s encounter that he says he had? Because presumably you don’t believe there was an encounter with a risen Christ. Presumably there is something psychological or something that can be reduced ultimately to a…
DB: I don’t think it matters. I think what matters is that it happened. I think various schools, various people might go, oh, I think it’s predominately this experience, or this, or that, or had its roots in this psychological thing, whatever.
I don’t think that’s interesting, I think what’s interesting is the richness and the truth, if you like, of something that makes us connect with that thing that is outside of ourselves. And I don’t, I can’t put a name on that or call it God. I don’t think it is a thing, the trouble is finding the very words for it.
But it’s an experience. And I sort of turn it back in on itself, I think it’s to do, for me, with a kind of how you live in a way that is coming to the edge of all the things you comfortably accept. I think that would also include a lot of religious teaching as well. Coming to the edge of those things, and in that kind of way Ying meets Yang, is where the sort of dialogue with yourself and where the individual meets the infinite, is where meaning happens. I just, I resist the idea of, you know, giving it a name.
I think it is a psychological experience, but I think the most important and valuable one that we have.
JB: You sound fascinatingly though, not very like an Atheist at this point, because you’re talking about something that is beyond yourself, that is, in a sense, the most important thing that there is?
DB: Well, beyond myself, but also entirely myself, and ultimately myself.
RC: Because you’re not sensing that with means beyond your cognition, are you? You’re unconscious, it’s not… I mean, I completely agree with you on that, that my experience of the encounter with the resurrected Christ is like my experience with KFC; it’s just something that’s there. I perceive that with the senses that are made available in order to do that.
But it’s the richness of that experience and the power of it, I think.
JB: Can I talk about death, because that is the place you end the book, talking about the fact that, you know, across time, in a sense, death has always been, as it’s put by St Paul, the last enemy and so on. And in a sense the Christian story is obviously about God becoming incarnate and experiencing death but overcoming death, ultimately, in the resurrection.
Is that, for you, an important thing in terms of where we get our meaning? A lot of people would say that it’s important to know that death is not the end, that somehow our life has a purpose that goes beyond a short span of years.
RC: Yeah, I mean, lots of religions would argue the same thing, that this is not all there is and there is something beyond our physical death.
Christianity, of course, does it in a very particular way, and, I think, one of the reasons why it was so explosive for those who were witnesses to the events of Easter, is because it was a total abject failure. That what happened was an absolute catastrophe. Everything went hideously wrong, and the person upon whom all had lain their expectation, however we understand that to be, ended up getting crucified and dying. And it was spectacularly game over. And everyone kind of scatters and runs off into the unknowability of history. And then, all of sudden, a dead man, you see, is alive again. That’s the kind of irreducible, I would say fact, at the heart of Christianity.
Unlikely, but then, of course, it would be, wouldn’t it? And I think one of the – in a post-Enlightenment world, when a scientific, our sort of way we in what we consider to be reliable, authoritative evidence is about a method which deduces patterns, and from that begins to make judgements about what’s reliable, what happens… We’re talking about a singularity. And if Christianity is right, and that God did become human, well, he had to become a human in our place in our time. So, this unlikely, completely insignificant dusty corner of the Roman Empire… it could have been everywhere, but it wasn’t, it was there, and so the unlikelihood is absolutely built into that.
So, the fact that it is extremely unlikely, the fact that it does not accord with the kind of instruments that we’d bring to making judgements about the veracity of something now, is, for me, actually again part of its persuasiveness rather than its un persuasiveness.
JB: I mean, you obviously weren’t persuaded when you looked into the resurrection. And I don’t know if whether, in all honestly, what you’ve described, Richard, is in a sense a, you know, you’re looking at the historical facts and making a deduction from it… I think, obviously, you’ve had an experience which you see in the light of that experience, that people claimed back then as well.
But for you, is the resurrection, in that sense, an important thing in which we find that meaning that allows us to hope, to have purpose to have.. I suppose, for many people who don’t have any kind of opportunity as the three of us have, to lead meaningful lives in a Westernised country with all the opportunities that affords, the idea of a day of judgement and justice in a world to come is the only hope they may have of meaning eventually?
RC: Well, I’ll just say that it is for me. Lots of people manage to live their lives quite successfully and happily without having that, but it is for me, in a way which is kind of unlike anything else, I think.
And lots of people, I mean, I’m not alone, lots of people would share that experience. And one of the kind of odd things about it is when you kind of read of people, come across people, who’ve had that experience in different – either in different moments in history or in different places – there’s often a sort of consonance about them that’s kind of interesting, I think.
JB: What do you make of people who do find their meaning in that particular way of seeing, and the resurrection in particular?
DB: I sort of don’t really consider it my business. But, I suppose, in as much as we are talking about it, I think the only thing that’s in a sort of value judgement anywhere in the mix, is that there’d be a difference between taking on board a religious belief because it’s sort of comfortable and – as I’ve heard from friends of mine, I don’t have to think about that. That’s kind of a nice, you don’t have to think… you can spend the rest of your life sweating and thinking over other things, and that, is just nice and comfy, which, of course, is fine too. Again, none of my business if that is what someone wants to do – and a sort of religious belief in which a person can grow spiritually, you know, in a wider sense of the word, and confront those, you know, the edges and the doubts and the things that make us bigger and grow larger.
Rilke has a poem about – I can’t remember the poem exactly, but, no, it wasn’t even a poem, it was in one of his letters – the idea of living in a large room or a small room. Some people live a large room, some people live in a small room. Some people just pace up and down by the window. I sometimes think if that were me, I’d probably be in that bit. So, it’s hard for me, because I’m quite introverted and a little bit shy, and I kind of have to really summon up something to do things that I know will actually make life larger rather than just comfortable and smaller and avoid stress, which is why I’m a good stoic, why that sits very comfortably with me.
I think, that’s the thing that’s important. And if it’s just the sort of religious belief that’s one of comfort – which again is fine and none of my business – but then it’s not much different from any number of other sort of uncomfortable things which ultimately don’t really feed the soul, to use the word soul.
And I think that’s sort of the difference to me, I don’t think it really matters too much where you find it. It’s just the quality of it; is it giving you a sort of energised connection to some sort of other – and I’m using words like that which sounds like I’m talking about God. I’m talking about a purely psychological relationship with yourself and with the idea of the transcendent.
I remember when I was a Christian listening to atheists that remotely used that kind of language, and thought, oh well, he’s obviously, you know, you can tell there’s a God-shaped hole, and you can tell he believes in all that… I’m trying to articulate a kind of a psychological right relationship to meaning.
JB: But, ultimately, if you find your meaning in religious expression or the resurrection, whatever it might be, that is great if it works for you, at giving you that sense of meaning. But other people can find just the same meaning, in a sense, in the activities they pursue or the family life or whatever if might be that gives them that sense of comfort?
DB: You sort of want to find the thing that’s bigger than you, and find the thing you love and you can throw yourself into that thing. That’s sort of ultimately how we find meaning. And then from that, in terms of how it makes you grow, then I think it depends on your relationship with that.
RC: I think what’s different about Christianity for me is, it’s not comforting or consoling. It can be. But actually much more than that, is its challenge, I think. And it’s what it returns to you is so not what you think you’re going to get, I guess. This is something that happens in prayer and awful lot. I spent two years in a monastery, kind of praying in a very organised sort of way – I’m fascinated by that – and what often struck me about that was the returns of it were just not what I thought they would be.
And I sometimes think people think that ‘spirituality’ – again, a gross generalisation, I don’t mean you, by the way – think of it as a sort of accomplishment. Things you master, that in order to achieve a kind of greater serenity of something. And I don’t think that’s what Christianity is at all, actually.
DB: It should be uncomfortable, shouldn’t it? All these things should be, ultimately, uncomfortable and challenging.
RC: I can remember once being in church on Good Friday, and there was a particularly gory crucifix standing on the altar, and a choir singing Allegri’s Miserere, heart wrenching stuff about the absolute desolation of a God abandoned to death on a cross. And I remember at the end of it saying to my neighbour, that was amazing, wasn’t it? And she said, yeah, it was very relaxing. And I thought, that’s interesting isn’t it? What have we done, as a church?
And I think another thing of why the stoic virtues appealed to me very much, is that they do seem to give you a very good defence against lapsing into complacency about the awfulness of institutions. And the church is, perhaps, the most awful of institutions because the stakes are so high, and it’s been doing it for so long.
I remember a Bishop – I won’t say which one – when I was particularly irked by something in the church, said, you must remember all institutions are demonic. Which, I think, is probably true. And to cultivate a bit of stoic detachment and a critical angle to that.
I’m very interested in what you were saying also about aspects of the smoke and mirrors stuff. I used to spend a long time in Lincoln Cathedral, which is, you know, in the Middle Ages was a great place of pilgrimage, still is now. It’s a spectacularly beautiful building. But I remember walking around it, and there’s this thing called the pulpitum, which is this incredibly beautiful carved 14th century screen through which pilgrims would go on their way to the shrine of Saint Hugh, kind of journey’s end. And you go through it, and it’s this wonderful evocation in stone, the absolute summit of the art of carving, of entering into a place of holiness and judgement. Then you look behind you, and it’s just a blank wall. And it’s so showbiz. And I’m very struck how religion, once it systematises and organises and seeks to mobilise people, begins to behave in that sort of way because that’s what institutions do.
And in order to do – especially if your offer is supernatural, then it’s good if you’ve got some smoke and mirrors to go with that.
DB: Yeah, I ended up at a very happy clappy church in Croydon for a while at the sort of peak of my religious experience. And there was – I remember we were all told to stand up and talk in tongues, which, obviously, only a small percentage of the congregation would have been used to talking in tongues. So he said, just start making (this is the pastor), just start making a noise and a sound and if you think, oh this is just silly, I’m just making a sound, that’s the devil telling you that. And I sort of stood there while, of course, there’s this general babble going on, thinking, it can’t just be me that thinks this is just creating a sort of sensation. This has all become reduced to a kind of a show, a sort of an experience that may not even be that convincing for the individuals, but somehow when you put it all together, you sort of tell yourself the story that something amazing has happened.
So, yes, it’s a bit of a shame isn’t it? I don’t know how you totally avoid that either because you need to appeal to the emotions too which religion has always been so good at.
RC: And then, I mean, one of the kind of interesting things about getting ordained is that you are ordained to serve this life-changing mystery that you’ve encountered. And you end up handing out hymn books and using green china a lot, that kind of thing.
Again, it’s in the nature of institutionalising and systematising something elusive and yet unforgettable.
DB: I’ve wondered this; once you become a vicar and you’re asked these sorts of questions, do you feel like a politician being asked questions? Do you feel like there’s a sort of party line that you have to tow and that actually expressing, presumably more of the interesting stuff like doubts, and it’s sort of no longer really appropriate?
RC: It is when I was dutiful and diligent. I think I would say, well, the church says, and then say, as best as I could… and I would still do that if people want to ask, but people don’t ask that sort of question normally. They ask something like, what have I to say about the agony that they’re experiencing or the joy that is kind of out of reach or perhaps overwhelming.
And so I try to talk to that, I try to avoid talking too propositionally about it. Also, I’m not very good at it. I’m a pretty ropey theologian.
Also, I find that people relate more readily – it’s an interesting one, I think. And, again, it’s because of where we are in our post-enlightenment cycle, putting it crudely, broad brush strokes. People don’t relate to doctrine, they don’t relate to sermons, they sing hymns without connecting the strangeness of the language or the distinction of the language. They relate to people who make a commitment to it. That’s even, I mean, people are very curious about that, and interested about that and they relate to personal stories. It’s sort of symptomatic of our time, I think.
And so I try to, if people ask me stuff, then I try to respond in that kind.
DB: Just be present with them as a human being.
RC: And also try to, I think, through your actions live a life which is consonant with the gospel you preach. I mean, St Francis said, “Always preach. Sometimes use words”. And for someone like me who’s careless and self-absorbed, shutting up could be a surprisingly powerful thing. Rare.
JB: I mean, it’s probably worth saying that the meaning, I’m sure, is often bound up with purpose and with hope and those sorts of things. And I would imagine that in your sort of worldview, Richard, those are provided in a sense in some ultimate way by Jesus Christ and the resurrection and the things that Christianity says life is ultimately about.
Where, in a more atheistic worldview, would you say hope and purpose is found? I think it was Nietzsche who said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. There’s that sense that purpose is a prerequisite to being able to have a fulfilling life.
Obviously, as I say, Richard’s perspective sort of grants that at some ultimate level. Does an atheistic perspective have that? Is it just a case of finding purpose with, let’s say, a small ‘p’ rather than a capital, transcendent ‘P’?
DB: Well, first of all, you have to realise, if it’s not being given to you on a plate, I suppose, that meaning is important. That it is actually an important part of life, because that isn’t necessarily obvious. It isn’t obvious and the culture that we live in, as Heidegger said, “The old gods have vanished and the new ones are yet to arrive”, and we’re in this sort of mythologically quite empty point at the moment.
So, yeah, you have to find that for yourself. And that’s a different situation than having a belief in a life, in something that is ultimately providing that sort of framework. And, of course, it is hugely important. And where I differ probably from a lot of the sort of, what gets called the new atheists, is, as important as truth is, and as important as holding up claims to some kind of rigour is, I think that meaning, actually, is sort of more important, which is sort of a psychological truth. The subjective truth, which is probably more important.
It’s the people that don’t have meaning that throw themselves off buildings. So, yes, you have to find that. You do have to find it on your own, but I think some people will find that in their children, others will find it in their projects, others will find it, like me, more through reading and through growing up and being aware of those sorts of issues. We’re both in our forties, (RC: Fifties. But thank you for that) and what those issues are at that age will be different than when you’re in your twenties.
The best you can do is be aware of yourself as a growing creature, and explore…
JB: What about the person for whom there is really no purpose, who lives, perhaps, a miserable life? I don’t know what you made, for instance, of the atheist bus campaign slogan, ‘There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life’? That may not be possible for the war widow in Darfur who is facing, you know, at the very bottom of life’s heap, let’s say. It can sound rather trite, in fact, at that point.
And it may be that for that person, it is the only they have is that there will one day be a day of justice where, as it were, the world is put to rights and there’s a sort of a sense in which they will see ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose because they never had the opportunity that we had to experience it?
DB: I guess you could argue that there are other forms of finding meaning. But you’d have to work for them to find them. So, the one that’s handed to you isn’t necessarily doing its job as well as the one you suffer to find, you know.
And suffering, obviously, is entirely tied up with the Christian story, which is one of the reasons why I think it is so resonant and has value outside of that.
RC: And so problematic too, I think.
DB: Problematic? The idea of suffering?
RC: Yeah, I think giving a positive value to suffering is extremely problematic. And I think lots of people have kind of heaped upon themselves suffering unnecessarily, as a kind of virtue.
The other thing I’m very interested about is, an absence of meaning is what makes people throw themselves off buildings. Sometimes I would think a surfeit of meaning is what makes people throw other people off buildings. And that’s a caveat that I’m sort of constantly trying to kind of keep in front of me. It would be misleading, in the very least, to suggest that somehow religious affiliation and the meaning that comes with that necessarily produces something benign because it doesn’t.
One of the reasons for that is, I think, precisely because of death. I think if you do, if you’re signed up to a system in which there is an offer of something beyond your own existence, that can sometimes make your own existence something easy to parlay into something else.
So I’m really conscious, I don’t want to seem like a kind of someone who’s not aware that there are lots of ways in which belief goes bad.
JB: Yeah. I mean, in the end, you often talk about in your books and in your stage shows as well, Derren, the idea that we’re all storytelling creatures, is the way you put it. We have to live within some sort of a narrative, a story, to make sense of life. In a sense, that’s the way we get through life.
In that sense, is what Richard is describing, what Christians claim and other religions, just doing that, just sort of telling a story? Obviously it doesn’t necessarily make it true, but it works in a sense.
DB: Yes. Schopenhauer had this idea that actually all religion is a sort of folk mythology that everybody has to buy and to pretend that it’s true. No one can say it isn’t. No one can say it’s just mythology or the whole thing falls apart. Everyone has to play the game – Vicars included – of pretending that it is true in order for it to work.
JB: In a sense, do you feel though that we’re coming into an age where that is no longer the case – as more and more people obviously tick the non-religious box or whatever it might be – that they’re struggling to find a story to live in that maybe previous generations did?
DB: Yes, there was a time when we got up, we woke up one morning, well, we woke up every morning, and our meanings and our role in things were defined for us by the village or the tribe or our family or whatever stories were sort of in place. And we don’t have that now.
And we struggle to – first of all, we may not even know we’re supposed to struggle to find that. Since Kant, I suppose, we see ourselves as these sort of isolated atoms, these units. That the self is something that isn’t what it actually is, which is extended into other people and into situations that find ourselves in, and that creates, I think, a sort of hole whereby everything else, advertising, everything that comes at us sort of tells us, ‘No, you are this person and you need this’. It creates this sort of fabricated fantasy of demand and messes us up. How do you begin to step out of that and realise that those things aren’t actually what it’s all about?
If you watch a movie or read a book, that last chapter makes sense of everything that’s happened before. This doesn’t happen in life. And we get to the end of a life, things just sort of end, and it’s absurd and it’s meaningless. We don’t have – it’s a good sort of example of where our myths have abandoned us the last few hundred years – so there is no narrative around death. We no longer live with it is a companion through life, which, again, I think religion does that much more effectively.
So, unless you find that for yourself, what happens at the end? It’s scary and it’s lonely, you probably feel like a cameo in your own death because the main roles have gone to the doctors or your loved ones or people are making decisions for you. And that one time when you should be able to really take ownership of a story, and find closure for it in the way that you might do in a film or a book; forgive who needs forgiving, and just end those things in a way that’s meaningful, you’re normally being denied.
The only narrative we do have, that gets imposed normally on the dying person, is that of the brave battle. Which isn’t helpful to the person whose dying at all, it just adds failure…
JB: You’ve obviously got a lot of experience of directly counselling and burying people in your ministry?
RC: Yeah, I do deathbeds. One of the interesting things about them is how often people do want to have a meaningful moment there. That there’s a sort of reckoning there, or things that need to be said. And often it’s when people go for the cup of tea that somebody dies because, actually, they’ve got to get on with dying.
One of my favourite, most memorable moments in ministry was, I went to the deathbed of a parishioner, much-loved parishioner, who was a very devout and faithful man, and he was in a nursing home. And he was on a morphine drive, he was at the end of his life. And he was sort of not quite there, and on oxygen. And I went and I took the Book of Common Prayer because he was a traditionalist in that way. And so I read to him from the Book of Common Prayer, some of the Psalms. And I read them, I thought, rather beautifully, and I thought this was a suitable thing to do. And I’d anointed him and prepared him according to the tradition. And he sort of stirred, indicated and removed his oxygen mask and said, “yes’? And he went, “Shut up, you stupid twat”.
You know, I was the person there who was trying to be a good, diligent priest and to kind of, you know, richly imbue with meaning what was happening, and the guy was dying. And it’s a thing that happens, and you need to get on with that.
And, you know, it’s not about those kind of moments where we feel it most necessary to kind of stand to attention and inhabit those things most fully. It’s actually the quality of the whole life and everything that comes with it.
DB: There’s that great scene in Ivan Ilyich, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, when he’s dying and desperately just wanting some honestly, and some sort of connection, and just to have some sort of authenticity to what’s happening. And the, I think it’s the judge or somebody comes in – he’s a lawyer this man that’s dying, if that’s right? Or is he a judge himself? It’s a while since I read it – either way, this person comes in with whom he works, and I guess to make himself feel comfortable he’s asking lots of questions about work, and Ivan, who’s dying, is sort of stepping up to that role, and they’re having a sort of officious sort of conversation.
And it’s just tragic, it’s absolutely tragic how he’s screaming out for a sort of authentic connection with somebody, and it’s constantly just sort of denied him.
Do you, I didn’t realise that was sort of, I guess it is part of your job isn’t it? Do you find, have found your way towards that, or is that not, do you not see that quite as your job in that position? Is it a human – does it ultimately feel like a human point or sort of a professional…?
RC: I think there’s something deeply mysterious about it actually. And I feel very conscious of the, I mean, I have a sort of sacramental function in those situations. I get there and I do stuff and there are words that were there before I was, and words that will be there after I’m gone, and actions, and things that you do, in signs and symbols and all that.
But it’s not like going to the theatre. I think one of the things is we want meaning to present itself to us as a sort of like the culmination of a boxset, you know what I mean, there’s a kind of the sense of an ending that will kind of tie up loose ends and all of a sudden, from that, you will look back and, you know, the pattern that has been hard to see will suddenly emerge. I don’t think it is like that, not really. Because, actually, the meaning is beyond ourselves, I suppose that’s what I would argue.
I completely take your point, though, about the lack of narratives. I was talking to some people recently in my parish at university, and I said, “how did you (we were talking about politics), how did you vote in the last election”? They said, “Jeremy Corbyn”. I said, “Why”? And they said, “Well, the obvious reasons why”. And I said, “Just out of interest, how did you vote in the election before”? And they said, “UKIP”.
And, I thought, you went from UKIP to Corbyn in one move, tells you something about the sort of context or perhaps the lack of context that people have in which they make important decisions about who they are and their place in the world. And maybe that’s symptomatic of that broader decline of the kind of grand narratives that did give us some sort of sense of where we were and how we were in relation to each other.
JB: Derren has talked about the idea of living in a story, and in sense, it is the Christian story that has given you that sense of who you are, and who God is, and what it means to live a fulfilled and meaningful life, Richard.
But is it just a story? I suppose, I mean, many people I think will say, well, that’s fine, that’s your story, I’ve got my story
RC: Yeah, but I don’t really have a fulfilled or meaningful life. I’m not interested in a fulfilled or meaningful life. I’m interested in trying to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. And that might not produce something which looks either fulfilled or meaningful in fact. That’s much more important, I think, is trying to be faithful to this, the fathomless riches as St Paul puts it.
JB: It’s not a self-help philosophy that we’re invited to in the Gospels?
RC: No, it’s not. It’s more self-harm than self-help.
DB: But actually, what’s (sorry to interrupt), I think, again, what’s valuable there in terms of psychological development, is the idea of serving, I think. And one of the things that we probably learn in our forties, if we’re attentive to those sorts of things, is the – and, again, it’s part of death and resurrection as a sort of mythological idea – that thing you have in your 20s and 30s when it’s all about you, and you want to know who you are, and what the real you, is and you’re setting all these things up. There comes a point in life when you have to realise that the sort of ego has to just step down a bit and serve something.
And, again, it’s hugely important. And I don’t think particularly that it’s a religious idea, but I think -again, if we sit in terms of myths i.e. things that are there to psychologically resonate with us and show us where we are in terms of a journey or in terms of what it is to live well and flourish – it’s very, very important.
RC: I think you often see it with people loving somebody else, beyond wisdom, or beyond what’s good for them, or even despairingly, but, nonetheless, still loving them because it’s important. More important to love them an to be faithful to that then the rewards or the returns that might appear to bring.
Again, that’s something which is not always attractive to see, or even advisable, but it is often surprisingly the case, I think.
JB: Just as we start to round up the programme, maybe starting with you, Richard, and then Derren, if you come back on this.
DB: Then will you decide who’s right?
JB: I mean, can you sum up, in some sense, Richard, why, for you, in the search for meaning, God is the answer? In the sense of, when you come to the end of the searching in all the different places, God makes the most sense, if you like, of that final search for meaning?
RC: Because at the edge of sight, all of a sudden, the miracle of the lit bush appeared and there was a bush on fire that was not consumed. I don’t know what that’s about, but that was there. It happened.
JB: And that’s, in a sense, an intensely personal perspective. Something happened for you…
RC: But that happens within a wider context of a bigger narrative, a set of relationships, a historical framework. But essentially it’s turning aside to the miracle of the lit bush. I’m paraphrasing R. S. Thomas, of course
JB: And what about yourself, Derren, why for you is – well, maybe it’s not for many people- but for you, finding meaning in God, ultimately, in something beyond ourselves, in that sense, is a dead end, as far as you’re concerned, in terms of the search for meaning and purpose and so on?
DB: I don’t think it’s a dead end, at all. I think it’s your relationship to the search that matters. I think it, one of the things that seems to come out of this for me is that, actually, the stuff that makes the search and the experience worthwhile are actually quite human things. The actual belief itself, the starting point, if you like, sort of, forgive me for saying, seems to matter less than the actual, the human experience of it, and the honesty, and the openness, and the tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty.
RC: And difference. Sometimes people say, “I’m really sorry, I’m not a believer”. And I think, why are you apologising? I don’t mind. It’s fine by me.
DB: And I think part of – the thing that you sort of intimated earlier on about whether atheism is just another story, and it isn’t. It is, by its nature, it isn’t a belief or anything, it’s sort of meaningless as a label – but what it can often do is narrow into a sort of rigid form in the same way that religious fundamentalism, say, narrows into a rigid form. And then what happens is there’s no dialogue, there’s no attendance to mystery. And that’s, I think, hugely important.
RC: I agree with you. I think you see symptoms of malaise when people live without that nourishment.
JB: So, you’re not a fan of a sort of very reductive form of atheism where we can boil everything down to the chemicals and neurons going on in your brain in that sense?
DB: It just means you don’t believe in God, that’s all it means. It means nothing beyond that. As to what people do with it after that, that’s up to them and wherever they’re coming from. And, of course, that can be unpleasant and reductive, as can a religious life too.
JB: Yes, indeed. It’s been fantastic having you both for this conversation. I’ve really appreciated just the generosity on display from both of you, in engaging with each other, and thank you very much for joining me on this edition of the programme.