On Cyborgs and baptism

Sermon Pentecost 2018

The film Terminator is now a thing of the distant past. Even the future it predicted has been and gone-the date that Skynet went rogue being imagined as 2004.

But still people discuss that possible moment when artificial intelligence will slip into consciousness and become a danger to humanity. But what if something like that has already happened.

The Games designer and philosopher Chris Bateman thinks that it already has, but that it has gone largely unnoticed. But in his theory, there are no killer cyborgs about to go on a rampage. We are the cyborgs.

He argues that we have come a long way since we invented simple tools like hammers.

We are now dependent upon AI- in our cars, in all our new household gadgets, but above all in our phones and ipads and computers.

We talk to them, we play games with them and we feel a little bit lost without them. The so- called smartphone zombie is among us- in Hong Kong they invented the nickname- ‘the head down tribe.’

Bateman doesn’t get all moral panicky about this, but suggests we need to be a bit more aware of what is going on and act more cannily.

For the gadgets influence us and the applications they offer to us influence what we think and what we do- the role of Cambridge Analytica and Russia in shaping opinion being just two well known examples.

Bateman argues that we need to practice cyber virtues to negotiate the new world which AI is opening up.

Restraint for example and liberty to avoid being sucked into compulsive activity or the many forms of tribalism and all the echo chambers which confirm us in all our opinions.

Time is such that we are always poised at the beginning of a Brave New World. And we have to repeatedly find ethical, spiritual and creative ways to respond.

Whether that is the disciples we hear about today, at Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit manifests itself as a powerful force giving them courage and voice.

Or any parent with children, wondering what the future will bring, but determined to help them navigate that world, secure in their love.

Or any of us indeed who listen to the news from Gaza, or about Iran. Or hear the latest reports about species extinction.

Or worry about the cost of housing, the education system ;or how care for the elderly will fare in the future.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is described as if it is some kind of celestial magic potion, which God arbitrarily provides to his own to help them thrive- you might have noticed me drawing on video game language there!

But that is not the way the church has seen it. In John’s Gospel we heard Jesus say this.

‘ When the Spirit comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’

And although we rightly see that the energy, unity and self- belief that the first disciples felt gifted to them, to face an in-comprehending world.

And the courage and steadfastness and God- guidedness of people like Martin Luther King is part of that, it has not generally been thought that is the end of it.

The resources that people have within them to be compassionate and actively so. Not just to care about people but act with generosity towards them.

The conscience and the compulsion which makes us seek the good. That is seen as the work of the spirit.

In the Old Testament, the word, translated as spirit, is close to the idea of a life -giving breath.

And it is used to describe the force that shapes the universe, and brings life into being, and inspires human artistic invention and moral engagement.

And inspires the quest to understand a world which is immensely rich and mysterious, but one that we believe can reveal to us truths we can grasp.

And there, as in the New Testament, it is seen as a gift from God Himself. Who created all that exists, with the potential to realise the same degree of love that he has shown from the beginning.

Whatever age we live in, whatever our religious or philosophical takes on the world, and whatever the new circumstances that we face, we can’t evade issues of truth and how to live well.

For Christians being part of the church and welcoming new members through baptism is how we explore together those very same things, united in the conviction that life has intrinsic meaning and value bestowed by God.

And that Christ through his life and death revealed to us the how and why to living.

And that through the Holy Spirit all people have the capacity for profound love and truth seeking.



Good Friday Sermon by Jonathan Brown. Vicar of St Andrews Earlsfield



Last week I managed to get to see the film Mary Magdalene, during its ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ run in London cinemas.


It’s a thoughtful portayal of Mary and her relationship with the other disciples and with Jesus, much of it necessarily apocryphal, but nonetheless believable.


It concludes with the Passion – dramatic scenes of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem and the crowd going wild with excitement; but soon after, bloody scenes of the crucifixion, in which we are reminded that Mary was one of the few who didn’t run away. Then, finally, Jesus appears to Mary outside the tomb, making her the first witness of the resurrection.


Dramatisations of the Passion have a long tradition – the medieval mystery plays, Oberammergau, and a succession of films. They go a long way towards capturing the emotional intensity of the events. But however vivid they may be, these dramatisations always have something missing. We can re-enact the horror of the crucifixion, the lifeless body being taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb, and then the risen Christ reappearing on the third day. But what we cannot possibly capture is the cosmic transformation of those 36 hours.


There is a gap between Good Friday and Easter which is beyond our comprehension. It crosses the boundary between life and death, so that we can never penetrate it. But it is in this gap, in the apparent emptiness, where the universe is changed.


In this gap, not only are Pilate’s corruption, Judas’s betrayal, and Mary’s grief overcome, but all corruption, all betrayal and all grief. As one of our Anglican eucharistic prayers puts it: ‘He opened wide his arms for us on the cross, he put an end to death by dying for us, and revealed the resurrection by rising to new life.’


This cosmic transformation embraces all the horror of the world –

the latest atrocities in Syria, and all who are victims of forces beyond their control. Nailed to the cross, Jesus gathers together all this agony, and takes it with him to die.


The gap between Good Friday and Easter is important. Jesus does not simply get down from the cross, as the bystanders encouraged him to. That would have been too easy, and an insult to all who suffer. The hours of silence between Jesus’ death and resurrection take seriously the pain and the suffering of the world. This is the time when Jesus ‘descended into hell’. But in this time in hell, in a way that we cannot comprehend, hell has its power taken from it.


Suffering and death do not have the final word, however devastating they may be. In the gap between the crucifixion and the resurrection, human mortality and corruptibility are overcome, and God’s kingdom of justice, peace and integrity is opened to us as the way that leads to eternal life.


The events we commemorate today took place 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. They have been re-enacted countless times since. But their effect is for all times and in all places, for us and for all creation.


This can never be re-enacted, as it can never be fully comprehended – but it is our assurance that today is indeed Good Friday, the beginning of the salvation of the world. Amen.

Some thoughts for the Civic Service on 18th March

There is post going around on twitter this weekend, inspired by it being St Patrick’s day tomorrow. On one side it has a couple of pictures of St Patrick pointing at snakes, which according to myth he banished from Ireland, but on the other some photographs of people indicating the position of potholes.

A great way to bring ancient traditions and today’s civic challenges together.

Although like all medieval saints St Patrick had all sorts of legends attached to him, the banishment of snakes and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity using a shamrock leaf, being just two of them, we do actually have contemporary evidence about his life and even some of his own writings.

One thing that is certain is that he was a victim of human trafficking and another is that he was not Irish. He was a teenager when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates, from his home near modern day Bristol. And we know his faith and his self- respect sustained him during his period of captivity.

Later escaping and returning to Britain, he did return as a missionary to Ireland , where he was moderately successful at spreading Christianity but  undoubtedly contributed to the remoter parts of Ireland becoming places of Christian spirituality and learning- redoubts of faith , education and learning during the so called Dark Ages in Western Europe.

Quite an impact for a victim of child exploitation.

I invited the children of Riversdale school to do a short presentation on how they understand being a Rights Respecting school because I was so impressed at a meeting with assessors to judge the progress being made. How creative and practical the staff and children were at integrating the values at the heart of children’s rights into the fabric of school life- not only about how they behave, but how they learn, and how they think about each other; other local schools, such as, Burntwood follow the same programme.

Of course, the United Nations declaration of children’s rights echoes the declaration of human rights from which it derives, which is revealed by the principles the declaration on children outlines at the very beginning .

Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of the all members of the human family in the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

There is a long and complex argument about how the idea of human rights came to be. Some have sought precedents in Hammurabi’s famous Babylonian Law code or in the Vedas, or the analects of Confucius, or in the Jewish Scriptures, such as in that passage from Isaiah that Ravi read earlier.

Others have seen it as a unique project from within Western Liberalism  and ,depending on which side of the religious/secular divide they sit, an achievement of Christianity or a triumph despite Christianity.

The discussion of origins will, no doubt, continue.

But I think there is a case for the role of disgust and horror at making people declare enough is enough- It was the horrors of war, genocide and the plight of refugees that compelled people to set up the convention for human rights in the 1940’s.

The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that our guts and emotions play, and rightly play ,a vital role in all our ethical and political convictions.

There is no doubt that empathy played a huge role in the abolition of slavery.

For Christians the state sanctioned murder of Jesus for crimes of which he was innocent is seen as a pathway to greater compassion.

So, I would urge us all to, literally, take heart. There are unfortunately horrific things all around us- my own church has been shockingly culpable for not protecting those who are most vulnerable- in which people’s sanctity/ dignity/ inalienable rights, call them what you will, are not being cherished.

And there are lesser evils, such irritants as potholes for example. In the face of them all it is right to be frustrated, horrified and angry, but that should only be the starting point. We can all make a difference.

As Eleanor Roosevelt, the driving force behind the movement which led to the Convention of Human Rights in 1948 famously put it

Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.


Ash Wednesday Sermon

On Monday I accidentally marked Shrove Tuesday a day early. I decided to us up all the egg in the kitchen so made myself something that approximated to a Spanish omelette. I had completely forgotten that in Spain they prepare for lent not by eating pancakes but by eating tortillas.

In Iceland yesterday has a splendid name- Sprengidagur- bursting day, as all the salted meat has to be finished off before Lent begins.

It is a bit of challenge that Lent and all our traditional ways of preparing our souls for Easter now get lost between the day we gorge ourselves on pancakes and the day we tuck into chocolate eggs!

Our modern obsessions with food do offer a challenge to what were once thought to be the core principles of Lent. Food was once simply the stuff which we ate to keep us alive. Now when we shop and eat we think of pleasure, of danger and of ethics. Is it tasty? Is it bad for us? Is it bad for the environment, or does it deprive the workers of their just wages?

No wonder there are increasing numbers of people suffering from eating disorders!

At one level this might make Lent more complicated, but it might make things more simple.

I have always been quite a fan of the Epicureans. They are my favourite school of ancient Greek philosophers and although people who are knowledgeable about the history of Christianity are well aware of the influence of the Stoics, Plato and Aristotle on the Church; many are oblivious to the Epicureans’ contribution.

Here are some of their key ideas.

Lots of possessions and stuff are not guarantors of happiness.

Friendship is the most fulfilling type of relationship- much more important in the long run than romance.

People are much more content when they live with others, rather than in isolation.

That being aware of your mortality gives you a sense of what counts. They practised meditation and awareness of their fragile condition.

That simple food is in the end most sustaining and satisfying.

Sound at all familiar? Although theologically the Epicureans were atheist, they seem to have paved the way for monasticism.

They lived in community, fostered friendship and practised a simple lifestyle.

I think it is instructive that their way of life seems to have been adopted by Christianity.

It might help us think again about why we give things up.

Why voluntary austerity came to be seen as essential part of the Spiritual life.

Not because God demanded it, not because God wants us to feel rotten about ourselves and not because it is a church tradition we must slavishly follow.

Courtesy of the Dean of Southwark I came across a brilliant quotation from the composer Mahler this week- one that might be worth putting above every door into church.

Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.

A question I have for myself and all of us.

Is do we think that Jesus was miserable?

This man who knew himself to be beloved of God his Father, who brought healing and joy. Who was serenely unafraid of bullying religious leaders and political figures. Who spoke with such wisdom and acted with such compassion.

And yet trod lightly and was more likely to be surrounded by friends than encumbered by possessions. Who drew crowds to himself not by demagoguery but by having something to say. And fed them with bread and fish, and spiritual nourishment.

All too often Christians are accused of looting the pagan past for their own ends, but I think they saw in the Epicurean way of life echoed the example of our Lord.

That is the fire we wish to re-kindle and preserve.

And we don’t have to make that leap against our wills and in the face of our inclinations. Lent is about finding ourselves again. What matters, what is essential.

The penitential prayer that we are about to say together is about

Shedding the collateral emotional and moral damage done to us and by ourselves, laying to one side the fruitless objectives we burden ourselves with,

That in the words of our confession tonight.

Have wounded God’s love and marred his image in us.

And getting things right, becoming whole, and pursuing  what give us a chance of real happiness.






Was Jesus Spiritual?

We don’t hear of him going on a retreat to find himself?

We certainly don’t hear much about his inner life? What we do glimpse of it is nothing like the harmonious psychological balance that is the goal of experiences or practices that we immediately think of under the modern umbrella term spirituality.

A new translation of the New Testament has just been produced by David Bentley Hart, who is one of the most learned, but also most interesting Christian writers on the planet at the moment. One of his avowed intents with his new translation is to bring out the strangeness of the original Greek- we are so used to the beauty of the King James translation and its modern derivatives- that we are often unaware of the jagged, fragmented and earthy nature of the original.

It has all been smoothed over by committees of learned men who have turned the simple prose of fishermen and tent makers into sophisticated and orderly literature.

Even St John, who is often thought of as the best writer of the bunch, is not as smooth as the translators trick us into thinking.

The wedding feast at Cana story, literally goes something like this.

And Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and the disciples were invited to the wedding. And there being a shortage of wine, Jesus’ mother said to him,’ they have haven’t any wine, and Jesus said to her- what’s that got to do with me and you woman.

When we read the other gospels this is even more apparent. Even when the story is like this of a miracle, or a parable or teaching, we read something spare and gritty, not other-worldy.  Jesus is in the midst of the fray, not floating above it. He is eating with friends, literally debating in the public square, confronting politicians and religious leaders, and what he says is packed with emotion. Urgency is more prominent than serenity.

This year we are developing a new Mission Action Plan, and at the core of it the Church Council has decided that there should be an exploration of Christian Spirituality; so throughout this year there will be guest preachers, special events, and opportunities to talk together, to help us to think about what ‘ Christian Spirituality is,’ and why it is important for all of us.

This morning I am just trying to provide some first thoughts about it.

And I have 4 to make this morning.

Firstly that we need to start with Jesus himself as I just have, and keep coming back to him again and again as a reference point.

One really helpful and simple definition of spirituality, that I like is answering the question ‘to what do I commit my life?’

When we contemplate Jesus life and teaching we see someone who centres his life on his relationship with God, his Father- one of the things we think about in the period after Christmas, in the Epiphany, is how Jesus manifested God throughout his life, in the world, as he grew up and became known.

Jesus commits his life and eventually surrenders it to revealing God to the world.

Compassion, deep challenging, healing, life bringing, truth telling are all aspects of how he did that.

His was a life of deep contemplation and action.

One of the first incidents from his adult life that St Mark reports is when he slips away from his disciples in the middle of the night, to go out into the desert to pray. They take an age to find him. I believe this is scene setting rather than a description of a one of event- this is what he did.

But to counter-balance that we read much more about his acts of healing, his parables , and his disputes.

My 2nd reflection is that when we see how Christians have orientated their lives since, one or other of these 2 poles of Jesus Spiritual life- the inner and the outer- have often become pronounced.

An example comes from 2 of the saints that the church has remembered in the last few days.

On Friday we had Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester, who was a Saxon bishop who staid in post when the Normans invaded. He moved in high circles and is remembered for sticking up for his people in the face of the conquest and for one of the earliest attempts to abolish the slave trade.

Yesterday it was Richard Rolle’s turn. He lived in the 14th century

2 quotations will give a flavour of his thoughts.

As far as my study of Scripture goes, I have found that to love Christ above all else will involve three things: warmth and song and sweetness. And these three, as I know from personal experience, cannot exist for long without there being great quiet..

Drawing on Rolle, my third point, which I also alluded to when I mentioned Jesus is that emotion is a vital component of Christian Spirituality.

Action to change the world, deep contemplation of the world and ourselves, and feelings- care, righteous anger, love- are all involved.

My fourth and final reflection.

Christian Spirituality is about both I and us. As individuals we are unique, not just in our character and personality , but  also our experiences,- so one person’s spirituality might be another person’s poison. But we are not alone- we are part of a community too- family, culture and church.

So that simple definition of spirituality I mentioned earlier is not quite adequate. In the context of the Church we ask ourselves, not only ‘ to what do I commit my life,?’ but to what we, as a Christian community, ‘ commit our lives?,’





Sermon on Sin and Glory, featuring Oedipus Rex

Probably the best known play from Ancient Athens is the C5th BC tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles.

Like all great dramas it is about many things, but one of its most prominent ideas is that human intelligence is deeply limited. Oedipus is the great legendary King of Thebes, renowned for his problem-solving ability.

He was made King because he solved the riddle of the Sphinx-Gollum in the Hobbit was probably partly inspired by this creature.

The Sphinx was a fearsome monster which ate any traveller it met on the road to Thebes who couldn’t solve its riddle.

The actual riddle is not described in the play but from other versions that survive it went something like this.

A thing there is whose voice is one;

Whose feet are four and then become two and then become three.

It is the most changeable thing that moves in earth, sea or sky

And when it moves on most feet it is slowest.

Oedipus said the answer was man- who crawls when a baby, then walks up-right, but in old age needs the help of a stick.

When a plague hits Thebes Oedipus decides, in true detective fashion, to get to the bottom of it all and eventually discovers, shockingly, that he is at the bottom of it all, because he unknowingly killed his own father and married his own mother.

Oedipus assiduously searched for an objective and external cause for the plague but he found a subjective and internal answer- himself.

It seems that he never really solved the riddle at all.

He provided a notional and logical answer to it that satisfied the monster by saying man, but never really picked up on the continuity between the baby, the adult and the old man and the frailty and fickleness which links them all.

The play ends with him blinding himself, and going into exile. Signs that he realised at last who he has been all along, someone stumbling in the dark, and not as in control of the world and as secure in his place as he had long thought.

In the book of Genesis is a story, probably composed a few centuries earlier, which is even better known. The one about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

God creates the perfect environment for human life, and lays down one rule only. ‘ Don’t eat from that tree; it will destroy you.’

A serpent comes along and lies to Eve ‘ No it won’t do you any harm. God just doesn’t want you to be his equal, and as wise as he is, and know the difference between good and evil’

On eating the fruit Adam and Eve, rather than suddenly becoming God like geniuses, instead, for the first time, realise, like the Emperor in the famous Fairy tale, that they have no clothes on. Soon they too are in exile.

It is a much simpler and less developed story than Oedipus, because it has its origins in folk lore rather than in a sophisticated literary culture, but the message is very similar.

We humans are not as bright and omnicompetent as we sometimes think we are. We are always as naked and vulnerable as the crawling infant.

It sometimes strikes me as very strange that in our society, where the Christian talk of sin- which is what this awareness of fundamental human frailty is all about-is looked upon with disdain because it is perceived as running down humanity,  if you follow any on line discussion about, say, politics or the environment, it isn’t long before  you come across assertions that all politicians, businessmen, socialists,( take your pick) are knaves, fools and liars, and the human race is a virus which should stop reproducing itself immediately and the world could well do with an asteroid collision to get rid us all sooner rather than later.

In which we also witness of course, Oedipus’ mistake, that the problems are all the fault of other people.

Today is the feast of the Transfiguration, which not only celebrates the glory of God shining forth upon and through Jesus Christ, but reminds us that Christians believe that the glory of God shines within all people. Human beings are frail and changeable, but they all have the image of God deep within them.

We are all capable of thought, analysis and reason, but also of wisdom, creativity, self- sacrifice, compassion and the search for truth.

GK Chesterton was a fount of interesting and paradoxical ideas and he once said that his faith was ‘ less of a theory and more of a love affair.’ If so, it is not an un-requited love affair, although for many of us the beloved can be quite elusive.

In his poem, ‘ In love for long’, Edwin Muir, conjured up a kind of mystical attitude to the world which I have always found deeply evocative.

‘I’ve been in love for long

With what I cannot tell

And will contrive a song

For the intangible

That has no mould or shape,

From which there is no escape.

It is not even a name,

Yet it is all constancy…

It is not any thing

And yet all being is.’

One way of understanding the Christian journey of faith, from the cradle to the grave, is this wrestling with the world we live in.

Full of flawed and fragile people, just like us. But we watch out for the glory of God; for those brief transfigurations when people reveal to us the best, or we re-find it in ourselves, when we seem to be lost. Those moments sustain us on the journey.





Latest news about Ibba Girls School and Glassdoor Night Shelter

We have just received a thank you letter from the Ibba Girls School in the Southern Sudan for the £327 collected during Lent this year. Thanks to all who have generously helped to support that beacon of hope and education.

Last week we had a good review of our work with Glassdoor Night Shelter and we appreciated Ben’s time with us. We will start again in November and it seems likely that we will be welcoming women too this year and are considering helping with breakfast. Anyone interested in helping with what is the largest Night Shelter for the homeless in London do get in touch. you don’t have to be  a church member to get involved.

Sermon on the Kingdom

35 years ago I spent a day in Florence.

And I was dazzled, by the brightness of summer sun, by the intensity of the light reflected off the marble on so many of the buildings, and by the luminosity of the paintings of Botticelli in the Uffizi gallery.

I knew at the time that most of the beauty of the city owed its existence to the patronage of the Medici banking family, but what I didn’t realise was how that patronage worked. I had imagined that the relationship was primarily a financial one- between paymaster and artist.

But it wasn’t.

Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and other luminaries of what came to be known as the Renaissance were regular dinner guests of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and for periods of time actually lived in his palace. They also participated in the meetings Lorenzo organised when scholars discussed the political and philosophical ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and how they squared with Christianity and the challenges of contemporary life- which then were every bit as complex as they are now, with civil strife and international instability ever threatening.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it was the community of scholars, artists, philosophers and theologians- such categories were very fluid then- that Lorenzo- astute banker and shrewd political operator-  drew together which changed history and culture forever.

We talk easily these days about communities, when we often seem to mean groups or categories of people united by one defining characteristic only- communities which have real impact are usually smaller and have more in common; are able to meet, converse and break bread together.

Today we have 2 overlapping communities present, Oscar’s family and friends and the St Barnabas church community which he is about to enter at his baptism.

Due to the slippage of language it is easy to forget that a church is not a building but a gathering place- a place of meeting.

This is put so emphatically in the words on the order of service when we get to the baptising part of this morning.

First the whole congregation is invited to welcome Oscar, on the assumption that he is not here by whim; Hattie and Chris having  thought deeply about why they are bringing him, and because ultimately God is calling him- as Christians we are committed to the idea that God cares for all his children and welcomes them at any time they  turn to him.

But next the parents and godparents are addressed.

Parents and godparents, the Church receives Oscar with joy.

And your role is to pray for him, lead by example, and help him to find a place in the community of faith,

 To walk with him in the way of Christ.

So the church is not only the meeting place between Oscar’s family and friends and the congregation, but the place where we hope God in Christ can also be encountered.

That is where the responsibility shifts back to all of us who are regular members of the church. How do we do we ensure that is the case- honestly and truthfully? By our actions, our words and our ideals?

A few weeks ago when George Dillon performed his brilliant one man play inspired by St Matthew’s Gospel here, he portrayed the disciples, particularly St Peter, as being a dense bunch, inarticulate and very, very slow on the up-take.

His view was that Christ is the central character and the disciples are merely dramatic foils.

I would argue that they are not mere foils,; they are blundering human beings.

Like we see in the readings today. The one from the Gospel of John, when they simply can’t get their minds around the implications of the Resurrection, and the one from Acts when they are struggling to understand the continuity between what happened before and after Easter.

When St Peter, the erstwhile blunderer in chief begins, for the first time to find his voice.

There is an election coming up a bit sooner than expected. One of the questions that will be rightly raised by politicians and commentators alike will be ‘What thought of society do you want?’ But I think we all know that the party political system can only play a part in answering that question.

It will be, as it always has been in our communities, whether families, or churches or neighbourhoods, interest groups, or even businesses , where we connect in a meaningful way that the donkey work is done.

For the church with our certainty that there is continuity between the good news of Easter and all that Christ meant before, we need to pay particular attention to the kingdom of God; that aslant way of living and set of priorities that Christ pointed to  again and again in parable and action.

Put so powerfully into words by the poet R S Thomas over 30 years ago.

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

 By life.



Sermon on Thomas Aquinas

In the wake of the rise in numbers of people who are homeless there has been an increase in the numbers of people begging on the streets; in response there has been pressure in some circles to fine people for begging. To drive such unwelcome impoverished people further out public view.

Imagine though what you would think if one of your own children or a sibling made the voluntary decision to become a beggar.

The much admired St Francis of Assisi appalled his father when he did exactly that in 1207

Voluntary beggardom reached almost epidemic proportions over the next few decades, as the Franciscan and Dominican movements caught fire across Europe.

That was part of the deal for all those who joined movements we often see now as charming and admirable, if a bit eccentric.

At the time parents and families were horrified, by such appalling, counter-cultural behaviour.

Entering a monastery was seen as a perfectly acceptable career move. It provided warmth and food, an opportunity to become a scholar and pursue, in its purest form, the religious life.

It was what we might now call an aspirational decision.

To become a friar- a Franciscan or Dominican, was regarded for many decades as down-right scandalous.

So when Thomas Aquinas, aged 19, in 1244 decided to join the recently formed order of Dominicans, his family were so horrified that they kidnapped him and locked him up for a year.

Yesterday was the day the church remembered this particular drop out saint.

For those brought up within the Roman Catholic fold or who have studied philosophy at any level Aquinas is a familiar name, but otherwise he has become a bit of a blank.

So here are some good reasons that this medieval man who died over 700 years ago should still be celebrated.

The first reason is Reason itself.

We often think of Aquinas’ time as a benighted era- hence the dismissive term’ The Dark Ages,’ often applied to it- but it is becoming more and more apparent that it was actually the time when many of the building blocks that founded the modern world were first laid.

Thinking hard about the world and trying to understand how it works and has coherence, were all things that Aquinas endeavoured to do.

He was the first major Christian thinker to draw on the philosophy of Aristotle rather than Plato, which meant that he drew attention to the material world in which we live and the uncertain way in which we probe it via our senses and hazily get a grip on it through our experiences; and he constantly looked for causes- being certain that although everything ultimately had its origin in God, all the causes along the way were worthy of study.

He was convinced that anything that was observable as true in the world owed that truth to God, its ultimate source.

Truth really was for Aquinas sacred!

But my next good reason for attending to Aquinas is that he was clear about the limits of reason to.

We like to believe that we personally apply logic and the scrutiny of evidence and fairness when we go about our business; particularly when we make moral or political judgements.

The give-away should be that we frequently suspect that people who disagree with us have not thought things through properly or have suspect motivation.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done an enormous amount of work to show how out intuitions and other unconscious factors actually take the lead- my favourite anecdote of his being that if you interview college students about their political opinions and moral concerns they veer in a conservative direction if standing near a water cooler.

There seems to be some subliminal effect caused by water’s association with purity and cleanliness.

I wonder if I should try a similar experiment next to the font!

Having studied cultures around the world and interviewed thousands of people he has concluded that factors such as purity, attitudes to family, notions of freedom and tradition, and religious outlook have far more influence on all of us than what we consider as rational decision making.

Which is not to say that thinking and sifting evidence is not a good; just that it is not as automatic to us and straightforward as we would like to think.

Aquinas would have agreed completely.

My final good thing to celebrate about Aquinas is that he was not essentially a philosopher, he was a saint and a theologian, whose main concern was how to be a faithful Christian.

No one joins a religious order, especially one like the Dominicans, dedicated to begging, poverty and preaching-  to align oneself with the fundamentals of Christ’s life- unless deeply committed to following in His footsteps.

And one of his great convictions, which connects with what I have just said about how the irrational plays such a large part in our lives was that love was at the bottom of everything.

Absolutely immersed in the Scriptures such praise of God, as heard from the psalmist just now, would have filled his consciousness.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

 Your faithfulness to the clouds.

 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,

 Your judgements are like the great deep…

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

All people may take refuge in the shadow of their wings.

Bringing that exalted image down to earth; here a number of things he  wrote, which are worth chewing over and give a flavour of his character.

The things that we love tell us what we are.

There is nothing to be prized more than true friendship.

Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over it drives compassion out.

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have laboured in the search for truth, and both have helped us find it.

The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays his head against us.