Generous Love in Multi-Faith Ireland – Suzanne Cousins

Last week was a book launch at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI). The book in question was by Suzanne Cousins and called Generous Love in Multi-Faith Ireland: towards mature citizenship and a positive pedagogy for the Church of Ireland in Local-Muslim Mission and Engagement.

Speakers included the Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson, Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri, the Head-Imam of Al-Mustafa Islamic Education & Cultural Centre Ireland and Suzanne.

Suzanne is a friend and an excellent theologian. She was ordained in 2015 and is parish ministry in Moville, Co. Donegal. The book is published as part of the CITI’s Braemor Studies Series – the best MTh dissertations of each year gets chosen and I can see why this one was in that category.

What I like about the book is that Suzanne faces head-on theological, missiological, relational and historical questions around Christian-Muslim relationships. In other words this is robust theology, backed up by detailed research (20 pages of bibliography for a 90 page book). Some of the issues addressed include:

  • Facing the reality of fear of syncretism by engaging in inter-faith dialogue
  • A call to “mature citizenship” for Church of Ireland Christians that equates to “challenging narratives of non-love” (10). Suzanne engages with Paul Ricoeur’ theology of generous love and Volf’s wonderful Exclusion and Embrace (1996) – which gave me the theme for my PhD back in the day. In other words, how can Christians counter public feelings of suspicion and antagonism towards Muslims in the West, and in Ireland in particular?
  • Is inter-faith dialogue incompatible with Christian mission?
  • If shared worship is beyond the bounds, is shared prayer syncretistic? (Anglican guidelines say that Christian participation is conditional on Christ being honoured. Christian worship is trinitarian and Christ centered)
  • Is Islam a religion of peace or of war?
  • Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Suzanne engages here particularly with Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response (2011) which argues yes they do, but understood differently. This is a critical and controversial question and Suzanne engages with critiques of Volf. However it is answered, another follows “”Must the Church resolve these theological issues before mission and engagement is undertaken?” (53). Suzanne’s answer is no.
  • Does the Bible itself open up the possibility that “true worship may emanate from worshippers who are redeemed through Christ but not explicitly Christian”? (63)
  • Does the Bible point to a possible doctrine of universal reconciliation?

You can see what I mean about not avoiding tough questions.

The passion of the book is to resource (C of I) churches in building positive, hospitable and generous “partnerships of difference” with Muslims in Ireland that involve building relationships, conversation, collaboration and education. Referring to David F. Ford’s “Muscat Manifesto” Suzanne writes

Such partnerships do not require theological agreement, much less homogeneity, but mutual respect and mature co-operation. They do not require theological compromise that Christians and Muslims alike may fear. Not do they involve religious syncretism. Rather, the Partnership concept is based on Trinitarian Christian ethics and love. It offers Christian eschatological hope (Romans 8:21) being realised in local situations.

Such relationships may be challenging, risky and uncomfortable, but, Suzanne argues, are essential in a fragmented world. They also mirror something of God’s risky, love-filled action in the Incarnation.

Suzanne concludes her book with this – which is worth quoting at length.

The Christian virtues of faith, hope and love are ideally the defining marks of Christian people and the antithesis of cynicism, scepticism and fear (Romans 5:5; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). The Church’s relationships with local Islamic communities should be distinguishable by these counter-cultural marks. The anticipated outcome for Christians engaging in positive Christian-Muslim encounters is of growth in grace as well as in knowledge, growth in the ability to anticipate joy in encounter, in the ability to truly embrace the other as oneself, and so to participate in God’s bringing of healing, wholeness and salvation to individuals and communities. Remembering the Resurrection, the source of hope at the centre of the Gospel, reminds us tha it is not foolish to expect the unexpected. Reconciliation between polarised groups happens. There is hope because of grace and the economy of gift, and because there is God, who is generous in love. (98)

I was involved in the first meeting of a inter-Christian church dialogue group last week. Having happened to read Suzanne’s book just before it was a reminder that the principles of engagement she articulates can apply not only to Christian-Muslim encounters, but to many other contexts where two groups are separated by theology, history and fears of the other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


St Patrick on love and obedience

On this St Patrick’s day a quote from Patrick’s Confession:

I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.

It is hard not to read Patrick and think of Paul. His passion for the people he was called to serve. His single-minded focus on mission. His Christ-centered preaching. His self-distrust – in terms of a deep awareness of God’s grace and his unworthiness.

In this quote some of those themes emerge. He faces both internal and external opposition.

The internal is both physical and spiritual. Physically he is mortal and faces death. He is weak and finite. He faces temptations to act in ways that likely pursue short-term ‘this worldly’ pleasures that will lead him astray.

He also faces external opposition of some sort – those who attempt to destroy his faith – in the next paragraph he talks of those who laugh and insult him.

He knows he is far from perfect. He has failed. Others lead more Christ-like lives. But his understanding of grace means that this is not a cause for shame or pretence – he comes honestly before God without blushes, dependent on his mercy and forgiveness. He knows he needs the Lord’s help.

And, like Paul, he sees that the heart of living a life pleasing to God is not merit, or pay back or external behaviour motivated by fear or a pursuit of self-righteousness.


Rather the heart of being a Christian is love. If is from love that obedience flows. It is out of love that he is willing to suffer. It is love which orientates his heart towards God and away from that which would lead him astray.

In other words, we might say that the core of discipleship, according to Patrick, is a deep love for God that issues in a faithful life of joy and gratitude.

Or, to put it in reverse, unfaithfulness, a pursuit of ‘worldly pleasures’ (money, sex, power), a lack of thankfulness, an arrogant self-defensiveness coupled with a lack of passion to share the good news of the Gospel are all merely symptoms of a life where love for God has either evaporated or never existed.

So a good question to ask ourselves this St Patrick’s Day – is ‘how is my love life?’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Berlin, repentance and thoughts on Ireland

I had a few days in Berlin recently. Had never been before and had wanted to visit for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole history of Germany is there on display, from its monumental impressiveness, its awesome technological efficiency to its unimaginably dark past. A visit leaves much to think about.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Alongside the visit I read Neil MacGregor’s brilliant Germany: Memories of a Nation (2014) and the history parts of this post owe a lot to his book.

Way back in my PhD I studied nationalism and national identity, particularly the belief structures that are characteristic of ‘hot’ nationalisms.

They tend to construct a simple, glorious narrative of the past that legitimizes present political goals of ‘freedom’, ‘self-determination; ‘respect’, ‘autonomy’ and national pride. Alongside such political objectives are cultural markers like language, music, art, literature, food, and so on. Such a combination forms a potent mix that gives a sense of destiny, hope, unity and willingness to suffer – and inflict suffering – in the pursuit of the utopian nationalist myth.

Such memories are everywhere in Berlin. We stayed in Moabit, just outside the city centre in an apartment up 113 steps (!) with a great view of a huge prison across the road which is also Berlin’s central criminal court.

01 prison Moabit

Why mention this? Well, with a little bit of reading (i.e. wikipedia), I found out that this prison was rebuilt after the demolition of an older one just down the road. The memories of the Gestapo and prisoners murdered in the original prison were too awful – the old site is a now a memorial garden. The stories of two murdered prisoners stand out.

One is Albrecht Haushofer who wrote the ‘Moabit Sonnets’. Jailed for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, he had formerly been involved in the rise of the Nazis. He was executed by the Gestapo just as Berlin was falling. One of his sonnets was this one:

I am guilty,

But not in the way you think.

I should have earlier recognized my duty;

I should have more sharply called evil evil;

I reined in my judgment too long.

I did warn,

But not enough, and not clearly enough;

And today I know what I was guilty of.

The other was Klaus Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s older brother, executed just two weeks after Dietrich’s hanging because of his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and just as Soviet troops were entering the city.

Germany only became a united Empire in 1871 under Bismarck. The Siegessäule (victory column) below commemorates this short glorious period of German unity.


Yet, defeat in the first world war, subsequent humiliation, the rise of National Socialism and the evils of the Third Reich destroyed any narrative of national glory. The catastrophe of Hitler bequeathed immeasurable suffering on the Jews of Europe, cost millions of other lives and led to invasion, defeat and division of Germany between the Allies and Stalin’s Red Army.

Nowhere was this disaster more graphically played out than Berlin with the building of the Wall in 1961 – on one side a working democracy, on the other dictatorship, the Stasi and communist brutalism.

Berlin’s most famous building, the Brandenberg Gate, stood on the east side of the wall. This is where Napoleon entered Berlin in 1812, where the Nazi’s organised mass rallies and where the Russian conquest of Berlin reached its limit.



Not much remains of the Wall. The longest section is in the east of the city and is decorated on its eastern side by art from a 2009 festival.



Brezhnev and Honecker

What struck me is how pathetic a wall it was. Ugly, low and thin – it represented everything bad about Communism. Its cheap brutalism dividing people by pitiless and inhuman slabs of grey concrete.


Modern Germany is therefore unlike any other Western European nation in its relationship to its past, present and future. What is, I think, tremendously impressive is how it has sought to reflect honesty on its shameful recent past – a past that implicated in some way pretty well every German family. As MacGregor says, that past is still highly charged, often silently so. Yet, there has also been a huge effort to deal publicly and corporately with its legacy.

As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe …. I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame. (MacGregor, Germany, xxiii)

The memorials include this one


IMG_8532And this one to the Jews of Europe

Holocaust memorial berlin

Another striking theme is the public commitment towards openness and transparency in government. I visited the Bundestag museum telling the political story of Germany, warts and all in how Hitler was democratically elected and his plans for the Jews known by all.


One fascinating model was of Albert Speer’s planned Great Hall of the People – a vast monument to the glory of the Third Reich. That’s the Brandenberg Gate in the foreground. If built it would have dwarfed even the mighty neighbouring Reichstag.


Given the history of National Socialism and of a police state in the East, there is a deep public sense that government needs to be kept in check. Unlike surveillance UK, there are very few CCTV cameras on the streets and when there are there are signs to indicate you are in a CCTV zone (like the underground).

But the most symbolic image of transparency is the re-built Reichstag, the seat of the unified German Parliament after the fall of the Wall in 1989. The huge building has a complex history. It was redesigned by British architect Norman Foster in the early 1990s. You queue up to get a ticket to visit – you need ID but there is no charge – the building belongs to the people (Dem Deutscher Volke). Foster erected a vast glass dome above the parliament chamber, a cupola where via a series of mirrors and glass panes, the public look down on the political process below. It is literally transparent – the imagery that of accountability of power to the people.




Some thoughts and questions stayed with me:

It was Hannah Arendt who talked about the “banality of evil” – how ordinary people do extraordinarily bad things. The Third Reich is one stark reminder (among many) of the accuracy of Genesis 1-11’s diagnosis of the human condition. Created in God’s image, we have an inbuilt turn to autonomy, pride, violence and injustice.

Haushofer and the Bonhoeffer brothers all lost their lives in standing up (in quite different ways) to a ‘hot’ nationalism gone toxic. As one of the great Christian theologians of the century who died for his faith, Dietrich’s refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler stands as a challenge for all Christians if their national identity starts to claim ultimate allegiance. Christ is Lord, and that means Hitler and the Third Reich was idolatry.

The importance of public national recognition of past failures: of how rare it is for there to be a sense of humility and repentance in politics.  It takes huge political courage to confront the ghosts of the past. There are good reasons it happened in Germany, but what about nearer home?

What might be issues or events in 20th Century Ireland that need airing, discussion and some sort of ownership of past failures – not just past ‘glories’?

I’m not thinking of the failures of ‘others’ – the British Empire has rather a lot of its own past to deal with. I’m thinking of 20th Century Irish history – South and North.

Some starters for ten since we are in the decade of centenaries.

  • The “right to take life” by unelected republicans inspired by Pearse’s toxic brand of religious nationalism in 1916 was generally glossed over in the 2016 commemorations.
  • The Civil War was dealt with in silence for most of the century.
  • A consequence of 1916 was deep political ambiguity in the South about the IRA campaign in the North. This, I think, has never really been acknowledged or openly discussed, let alone owned.
  • And then there is the ‘dark side’ of Catholic Ireland, a culture that was freely chosen and almost universally embraced by the people as a whole. These days the Catholic Church gets all the blame, as if it staged a coup and took over the country like in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet such shifting of blame is too simple and too easy.
  • And year by year, month by month, day by day there are ongoing revelations of a deeply entrenched Irish culture of elites, secrecy, and ‘golden circles’ of business, bankers and politicians where practically no-one is ever held accountable.
  • Nowhere is the failure of the transparency of the Irish State more visible than the shambles that is the Garda Siochana. When the State Police force is itself involved in massive falsification of millions of pieces of evidence where no-one is held accountable (the breathalyzer scandal) it is a symptom of deep dysfunctionality. And that is just one scandal of a very long and very bizarre list. The current Charleton Tribunal heard eye-popping evidence this week of the then Garda Commissioner, his deputy (later Commissioner) and Garda Press Officer all conspiring to lie, misuse power and betray their duty (and country) in deliberately blackening the name of Sgt Maurice McCabe in order to discredit him and his allegations of Garda incompetence and illegality. No-one is holding their breath for anyone to be made accountable or for admission of failure or for the emergence of a deep-seated political will to effect reform and openness.

Then there is Northern Ireland.

Yes, there have been people of great courage and huge progress has been made. But the political culture is frozen. The past looms over the present. The Good Friday Agreement was a pragmatic deal that avoided deeper issues of reconciliation. That avoidance worked for a while but has run out of space. It will take acts of real political courage to confront failures of the past. And by courage I mean taking ownership of ‘my side’s’ participation in injustice. It is only humility and repentance that can unlock the future.

In terms of churches and Christians in the North – many have been outstanding and inspiring examples of courageous peace-making who have challenged their own ‘side’. But I am not at all so sure that Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) have really grappled with their relationship with political unionism. Back in that PhD (later published by OUP) I called a chapter on the PCI ‘At Ease in Zion‘ which concluded with this comment.

Volf has written that “the overriding commitment to their culture serves churches worst in situations of conflict. Churches, the presumed agents of reconciliation, are at best impotent and at worst accomplices in the strife.” Although it is apparent from my analysis that Irish Presbyterianism practised exclusion primarily through indifference rather than overt discrimination or domination, its spiritual bulwarking of the goals of Ulster unionism classify it as an accomplice during the Partition period and beyond. It can be said that the Church then represented a diluted form of belonging without distance. A significant reassessment of the PCI’s relationship with unionist identity has enabled Irish Presbyterianism to create significant distance from the ideology of its host culture. However, it seems that, as yet, the Church has only moved as far as a largely theoretical repudiation of a spiritual legitimation of national identity. As such, while no longer an accomplice, it continues to be, on this specific issue, largely impotent to confront the powerful emotive appeal of nationalism. It remains in open question whether distance, having once been lost, can be regained. (259)

Maybe you have your own suggestions?

Comments, as ever, welcome.


The Gospel and Capitalism – Daniel Bell

What do you think of this quote from Daniel Bell, Divinations: theo-politics in an age of terror (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017) on how the gospel confronts and overcomes capitalism?


Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.

This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.

An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.

A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What do you hope for?: why Christianity is eschatology and why it matters

If one scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri raises questions of what it means to die well, another asks a profoundly important question.

It comes in one of the very rare tender moments when Mildred, planting tubs of flowers under the billboards looks up to see a deer standing quietly in front of her.

3 billboards deer

Normally guarded and combative, Mildred softens and shares her heart with the deer. She wonders aloud ..

Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not.

In one sentence we have:

  • the reality of evil (the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter)
  • the posited non-existence of God
  • the meaninglessness of existence if God is a fictional idea
  • a consequential absence of justice where evil goes unpunished

This little soliloquy faces head on a problem all of us face in one way or another – whether Christian or not. How to make sense of the reality of the world we live in?

A world about which, in these days of global communication, we know too much. The suffering of the planet fills our screens on a daily basis. This is a world where, as NT scholar Richard Hays puts it,

history continues its grinding litany of human atrocities, and we see no compelling evidence that God is answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).

One response is to agree with Mildred’s question and face the implications head-on. So what if the universe is bleak, cold and empty? So what if there is no transcendent and good God? So what if notions of fairness and justice are fantasies? So what if nothing we do, for good or ill, has any enduring consequence beyond this life? Just get on with life as best you can. Find meaning where you can – whether in hedonism, materialism, relationships, power, experiences etc

Mildred’s question is a very 21st Century one. The 20th did a very good job of destroying centuries of Enlightenment optimism about human progress and the power of reason.  World wars, the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the Cold War and an exploding world population competing for scarce resources sort of does that to utopian progressivism.

Add to that developments in the 21st Century of a mounting ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, neo-liberal fueled economic crashes, and the development of artificial intelligence where robots may soon threaten millions of jobs – and you have the seeds of a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-progressivism that does not hope for the future to be better than the present.

As with Mildred’s first sentence – we are on our own and making a mess of things. And that is not a very comforting thought.

All this makes her second sentence all the more interesting.

‘I hope not’.

Now those three words are perhaps vague wish-fulfillment, but they express a longing for hope beyond the injustices and pain of this world.

What might a pastor have said to Mildred if sitting beside her, surrounded by the flowers planted in memory of her daughter? (and what follows is not a suggested counselling conversation!)

First, perhaps that she is exactly right. Dale Allison, a NT scholar, puts it this way,

… Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying … If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Second, here is exactly where Christianity says ‘Yes, there is hope’. And this hope speaks into the realities of suffering and death. It is not a vague hope that things will get better. It is grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Richard Hays, says this

The church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about suffering and death. The New Testament’s vision of a final resurrection of the dead enables us to tell the truth about the present, including its tragedies and injustices, without sentimental sugar-coating, without cynicism or despair. It allows us to name suffering and death as real and evil, but not final.

Christian hope is not ‘going to heaven when I die’, but a realistic hope that faces death head-on. Hays again – this time about Paul in Thessalonians

The striking thing is that Paul does not seek to comfort the grieving bereaved Thessalonians by telling them that their loved ones are already in heaven with Jesus. He acknowledges that the dead are dead and buried. The apocalyptic hope is that in the resurrection they will be reunited with the living in the new world brought into being at Christ’s return. These are the words with which Christians are to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18). These same considerations apply on a larger scale to Christian theology’s reflection about the terrible tragedies that violent human cultures bring upon the world. In the face of mass murders, non-apocalyptic theology is singularly trivial and helpless.

In other words, Christianity is eschatology. It is nothing without the future hope of resurrection, of God’s justice being done and that one day death, pain and grief will be swallowed up in a glorious new creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-4).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] The Allison and Hays quotes are taken from Richard Hays, ‘”Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” New Testament Eschatology at the turn of the Millennium.’ Modern Theology 16:1 January 2000

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love


Photo: Merrick Morton / AP

I went to see Martin McDonagh’s latest in the best cinema in Dublin (The Lighthouse) with some good company who are also good critics.

This isn’t a review – there are far better reviewers than me out there who can be read with a couple of clicks. It is a reflection on one particular scene in what is a pitch-black look at life, death and hate in small town Missouri.

McDonagh’s dialogue is brilliant, profane, darkly funny and utterly depressing all at once. Someone I was with said she’s seen the film a few days before and the audience in Belfast laughed throughout. There was hardly a peep in Dublin … the tragedy trumped any comedy it seems. Now what to make of that inversion of caricatures of dour sober-sided northerners and fun-loving southerners?!

I digress. Here’s why this post.

Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and has months to live. Much is made of how he is practically the only main character who is not in some way consumed by hate and bitterness. His nemesis is Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a scorching performance as a mother engulfed with grief and driven by rage at her daughter’s killer, the police, her violent ex-husband and very possibly herself.

Compared to her, Willoughby is a saint. He’s done his best on her daughter’s case but has no leads. He’s an older husband to his picture-perfect young wife Anne (at least 20 years his junior, over the top on the schmaltz here) and a doting dad to two lovely young daughters. There is time given to an idyllic family picnic; of the girls left to play a fun game set up by their dad beside a lake while their parents sneak off to make love (one last time as it turns out).

Willoughby (as we later learn) shows remarkable grace to, and belief in, Sam Rockwell’s vicious racist, homophobic and stupid policeman by writing him a letter (they must still do that in Ebbing Missouri) telling him (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that he is at heart a good man who needs to learn to love rather than hate. He also makes peace with Mildred despite her hounding of him in the in final weeks of his life (the three billboards of the film’s title ask why Willoughby has made no arrests for the murder and rape of her daughter). He writes her a letter too, hoping she catches the killer and regretting that he was not able to. He even pays for her three Billboards for another month.

I mention all of this because it sets Willoughby up in maximum sympathetic terms. Which all goes to make the scene which follows all the more horrible. After writing a third and final letter – this time to his wife after their day at the lake – he goes out to the stables, puts a black bag over his head, and shoots himself in the head. A message for Anne is written on the bag – something like don’t look, and call the boys at the station.

The letter to Anne is voiced by Harrelson. In it he explains why he has killed himself. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he won’t have her watching him waste away and die a slow death. He wants to spare her that. He acknowledges she may hate him but he hopes only for a while. In time, he hopes she will come to see it was the best thing. The tone is tender and loving.

I gotta say I detested this scene. It made me feel sick. It was not only manipulative and fake, but the whole narrative arc was set to make Willoughby’s suicide a heroic act of love, wanting to spare his wife and children suffering. The note on the bag was obscene – as if it was one last act of kindness. Yet she still finds a bloodied corpse of her husband with his brains on the stable floor – an executioners bag over his head hardly makes a difference to the brutality of the act.

In Ireland, rates of suicide, especially in young men, are shocking. The impact is devastating. Somehow it is seen as ‘a way out’ of a hopeless future. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri plays right into that destructive narrative by dressing up suicide as a brave act of altruistic love.

Yes I know it is a film. Yes, it is ‘just’ telling a story and it is not necessarily ‘endorsing’ or promoting suicide. Yes, it shows the subsequent agony of Anne who asks ‘What are you supposed to do the day after your husband shoots himself?’ Yes, it advances the plot, because it raises the question in the public mind of whether Mildred’s billboards drove him to take his own life.

But, for me, McDonagh’s script glorifies suicide. The context portrays Willoughby as beyond reproach. He is not mentally disturbed or depressed. He calmly and almost naturally takes his own life, as if it was an obvious next step. The reading of the three letters after his death all portray him as noble.

Yet his supposed act of kindness was one of the most aggressive and violent scenes in a very aggressive and violent movie. Anne is left not only not knowing what to do for one day, but for the rest of her life as the widow of husband who blew his brains out. His children are left with the trauma of a daddy who killed himself. His suicide robbed them all of the time to love him, care for him and be with him when he died. To say goodbye and grieve with dignity. It left them victims of a violent crime. It was far from a loving, kind, considerate act.

I have known someone die from pancreatic cancer. It was awful but that person died with joy, faith and love, surrounded by family and friends. The Christian funeral was suffused with hope and thanksgiving for a life well lived. Pancreatic cancer, and the death it caused, did not, and does not, have the last word. There was no need either to play God by taking life, or grimly clinging on to life at all costs.

I hope, that when I die, I can do so with a little bit of that person’s faith in the God of life.

In other words, to be able to trust that dying is not the worst thing in the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

An essay on why Jordan Peterson is worth listening to

img_9823-1024x683Time to come out. For most of a year now I have been watching many of the University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s large collection of You Tube lectures and videos. I’d never heard of the guy until a year ago but such lack of awareness is becoming harder to achieve as his popularity and influence continue to grow.  His new book is bound to be a best seller.

It’s been hard to miss the massive kerfuffle arising from his first visit to the UK last week and particularly the car crash of an interview of Peterson by Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news which you can watch in full. It is worth reading Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic for an analysis of the interview. I think it should become a classic in teaching journalists how NOT to interview someone.

This post isn’t going to add to that noise. Rather, I want to reflect on what lessons can be learned from Peterson. Not just in the sense of ‘Why is he so popular?’ (popularity per se, as Trump has shown, is scarcely an indication of moral or intellectual virtue). But instead asking what can be learnt from both what he is saying and how he is saying it.

In a terrific article, written just before ‘that’ interview, Douglas Murray of The Spectator makes this point

Today, for at least one generation, … Peterson … has become a mixture of philosopher, life-coach, educator and guru. He has the kind of passionate, youthful, pedagogical draw that the organised churches can only dream of. Anybody interested in our current culture wars, not to mention the ongoing place of religion, should head to YouTube, where his classes have been viewed by millions.

He concludes his article with this rather remarkable statement for a journalist

‘What was that?’ asked an old friend I bumped into on the way out. Hundreds of young people were still queueing to get books signed. Others stood around buzzing with the thrill of what we had heard. I still don’t have an answer. But it was wonderful.


When I’ve told some friends about Peterson I’ve been warned that he is ‘extreme’ or a voice somehow supportive of the American alt-right. Such warnings baffled me because I had ‘got to know’ Peterson well through his own material before hearing of his supposed right wing reputation. I stay away from You Tube comments (mostly toxic) and don’t do social media. So they made no sense at all then – and still don’t.

It was manifestly apparent that Cathy Newman had this sort of ill-researched preconceived cartoon-strip image of Peterson as some sort of apologist for Patriarchy. It kept getting in the way of her actually listening to what he was saying. She was literally left speechless because the reality didn’t conform to the caricature. She, and the Channel 4 team, had not done their journalistic homework (or, worse, maybe they had and decided to try to do a hatchet job anyway). It was remarkable to watch such a blundering ideologically-driven binary approach to a potentially interesting conversation.

What is he saying?

This is a big question because, as he says himself, he talks a lot, often too much and often at speed. He also covers a lot of ground from psychology, to philosophy, to men and women, to the Bible, to politics, to the world of work and freedom of speech. What follows is a snap-shot, drawn from listening to Peterson over the last year.

And the fact that what he is saying is now seen as ‘provocative’ or ‘radical’ or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘extreme’ says more about a contemporary culture of relativism and victimhood than it does about Peterson. Finding out more about his ‘reputation’, I have had to keep asking myself, ‘am I missing something?’. ‘Is this guy a member of some secret right-wing network?’ For I can’t see the evidence in his academic lectures, written material or You Tube videos.

1. Individual responsibility

Sort out your own life before criticising the world. Clean your room – literally and metaphorically. Make a plan. Stand up straight and face the world. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. Take responsibility for what you can influence – mainly yourself. And, in very Stanley Hauerwas type language, tell the truth.

2. Meaning and significance matters

Read great authors – make them your friends. Get beyond the superficial narcissism of much modern culture and think about questions of meaning and purpose. Don’t buy into postmodern relativism and pessimism. Make a difference for good in the world. Values, integrity and hope matters.

Peterson has developed an entire lecture series on meaning within the Bible. He sees it as foundational to the Western tradition, containing mythic truths that describe the reality of our world and the human condition. The individual finds purpose in something greater, outside of themselves. He seeks to live as if God exists. Tim Lott in The Guardian puts it very well.

Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

It is doubtful to me that Peterson is Christian in any creedal orthodox understanding of that term, but that is not the point of this post.

3. Freedom of speech

Peterson shot to ‘fame’ by accident by stating, ahead of time, that he would not use speech compelled by an impending Canadian law, Bill C-16. Now law, it makes it compulsory for federal subjects – widened by most provinces to include personal and commercial interactions – to call transgender people by their preferred pronoun. This was an unlikely Lutheran ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ moment, but that’s what it turned out to be.

Any fair-minded observer would see that to call Peterson ‘transphobic’ or ‘homophobic’ is just being malicious. His consistent point is one of freedom of speech, standing against the right of the State to compel him to use certain words. His argument is that a free society has to have room for disagreement and offending others without the law intervening, and for the state to do so is fascistic.

4. Libertarian individualism

Linked to iii, Peterson calls himself a classic liberal. He is into empowering the individual – including many women it should be said (another point of surprise to Cathy Newman). Society is stronger the freer it is. Those that seek to control and manipulate through law, oppression, shame, and political bullying are enemies of freedom. Respect is earned and cannot be demanded. He is resistant to a contemporary culture of offence. It simply masks a power play to silence those with whom we disagree. It stifles debate and creates a climate of fear

5. Psychological well-being

I’ve hugely enjoyed his online lectures on psychology and philosophy. I’m not qualified enough critically to assess his approach, I suspect it veers towards behaviouralist. But, on a wider canvas, his lectures, clinical practice and now popularised book (12 Rules for Life) show a passion to enable mental and social well-being. It is here, perhaps that Peterson’s main appeal lies. He is intensely practical in giving advice, backed up by academic research and mainly to young people, on how to negotiate an increasingly complex and uncertain world. The Newman interview closes with him mentioning that he had received 25,000 letters in the last 6 months from people saying he had helped transform their lives. Whatever you think of Peterson, that is an astonishing claim worth serious reflection – another missed opportunity in the interview. Something is going on here and you would hope a journalist would be interested to investigate.

6. Understanding yourself

Peterson uses the ‘big five’ personality test – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It is one of many such tests. Our family enjoys taking them – not sure what that says about us! The big five is a very useful tool, we had fun doing it and comparing results. Peterson himself is very high on openness. The test says “high scorers tend to be creative, adventurous and intellectual. They enjoy playing with ideas and discovering novel experiences.” They tend to be unconventional and artistic. This is a long way from ideological group-think and may help explain why Peterson despises attempts to control and enforce behaviour whether from the left or the right.

7. Gender difference matters

It’s on gender that Peterson is seen as most provocative. But again he is quite careful and nuanced in what he says. Bottom line – men and women are not the same. It is not, as some conservative Christian commentators try to extrapolate, that there is a list of particularly ‘manly’ virtues (there is neither the data or a biblical foundation for such a claim). That is to generalise far too far. But the data, Peterson argues, is clear that, for example, women tend to be higher on agreeableness (tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to cooperate rather than compete with others) and on conscientiousness (self-discipline and control in order to meet goals). These are general tendencies, the differences are not great. They cannot be reduced down to individual cases.

One of his points is that differences between the genders cannot be reduced down to a single cause – say patriarchy. So, once patriarchy is overcome, full equality will follow. But in the most radically equal societies on earth (Scandinavia) data shows that given a relatively equal playing field, men and women make markedly different life choices regarding types of work (e.g. nursing and engineering). Against expectations, the gender gap actually widens rather than narrows. This strongly suggests inherent male / female difference, rather than simply being due to one all-embracing cause like ‘patriarchal culture’. One implication is that the current drive for full equality in the workforce is driving by unrealistic and mistaken assumptions. (For example, a friend of mine in an engineering firm has been given the target to achieve a 50-50 gender balance by xxxx date. But the task is proving far more difficult to implement than to set).

And it’s worth noting what he does not say – he does not defend unequal pay for the same work; he does not defend discrimination against women – he wants to see women empowered and successful; he does not say patriarchy is a good thing; he does not say women are in any way inferior to men or less intelligent.

He does say that there are only two genders, regardless of those who say gender is simply a social construct that can be chosen at will. Such social engineering is ideological dogma, biologically incoherent and psychologically and socially destructive.

8. The crisis facing men

Another area that Peterson has tapped into the zeitgeist is the crisis facing young men. Many men are not doing well – they are dropping out of school and university; they are withdrawing from the humanities; and rates of male suicide are truly catastrophic. The reasons are complex, but Peterson seems to be on to something in giving young men a challenge. Most of his online audience is male (although it is true that a lot of things online are mostly male). He treats young people with dignity and respect. He calls them to acts of meaning and courage. He rejects destructive cultural assumptions that young men by default are an insidious danger to a civilised society and that Western society is inherently patriarchal and oppressive. He believes that people can be responsible and free.

9. Realistic anthropology

Peterson is at his most Calvinist when it comes to human nature. In contrast to a naïve optimism that we are all essentially rational and good and just need to be given equal opportunity in life for justice to flourish, Peterson the psychologist tells us that we are a mess of competing desires, irrational decisions and damaging behaviour. We need to understand this truth about ourselves. We are all capable of being monsters. (Getting back to those toxic comments on You Tube, just look at what apparent anonymity does to people commenting on the internet for example).  The challenge is not to allow the monster control. Overcome it by choosing the light, living ethically, with courage and purpose. Happiness might come and go as a side-effect, but to pursue it is a delusion. Of far more importance is taking responsibility for our own lives.

10. Family and Social Capital

Again in psychologist mode, Peterson has a lot to say about the importance of friendship, family and the value of marriage. Marriage is not, as much modern romanticism has it, the ultimate source of individual ‘happiness’. It is a commitment to another person through which family emerges. We are social beings who need close relationships. I haven’t heard him talk of marriage in religious terms, but there are strong parallels to a Christian view of marriage as covenant love in which context children are born and raised. He does sound utilitarian at times in how choosing not to have children is to store up a relationally barren old age.

11. Thankfulness

From time to time Peterson observes how much modern political activism is relentlessly thankless. Despite living in relative wealth within the most advanced, equal and technologically advanced cultures in human history, there is a narrative of failure, oppression, injustice and victimhood. This fails to balance and be thankful for the extraordinary achievements of the West – by both men and women.

How is he saying it?

OK, if that is a summary of some of the sorts of things Peterson is saying, what about how he is saying it? It is here, I think, that his real appeal lies.

1. Love of learning

I mentioned earlier that being high in Openness means delighting in ideas. This comes through in Peterson’s lectures which are freewheeling enthusiastic monologues (whether monologues are the best form of teaching is a whole other debate). He is captivated by the transformative power of ideas to change the individual. And an associated abhorrence of ideology and identity politics.

In teaching, perhaps the most important quality of good communication, and subsequent student learning, is that the subject matter has first enthralled the teacher. There is nothing worse than a teacher bored by his or her own material. And there is nothing better than a teacher in love with their subject, overflowing with energy to pass that learning on to others. A personal example, thirty plus years after being taught the Gospel of Matthew by Dick France I sure don’t remember all the details of what he said, but I do remember his infectious love of the text and delight in passing that on to others.

2. Scientific method

As a clinical psychologist, Peterson utilises a lot of scientific data in developing hypotheses that interpret that data. Now, ever since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we should be aware that the way science works is not a nice and neat objective process. All sorts of variables are in play, including chance, personal and corporate agendas and so on. Assorted scientists can interpret the same data in quite different ways. But this does not invalidate the scientific process. It just means that hypotheses – and any claims arising out of them – need continual critical examination. I am not in a position to do this with Peterson’s use of science, but others are. He seems to be a serious and respected figure, widely published and peer reviewed and teaching in a major public university. In the past he taught at Harvard.

The point in saying this is that Peterson is engaging a young, well-educated and critical audience. He is not dumbing down, nor is he expecting them to believe assertions and personal opinions. He is, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, following the evidence to where it leads. If that means contradicting what he sees as ill-founded assertions of gender constructivism or identity politics or right wing nationalism, then let the dice fall where they will.

3. Respect of opponents

For me, one of the most impressive things about Peterson is the way he engages opponents. Watching him being baited by student ‘social justice warriors’ outside the University of Toronto was to witness exasperation and despair at their utter failure (and inability?) to engage in rational discussion. But that exasperation did not turn to bitter sarcasm. He genuinely wanted to discuss the issues and try to change minds. In the University of Toronto ‘debate’ with opposing colleagues on his position on Bill C-16, Peterson emerged as the one more interested in freedom of speech as opposed to shrill restatements of entrenched ideology. Similarly, with Cathy Newman, Peterson maintained composure, humour and grace despite being interrupted and almost comically misrepresented at practically every turn. He engaged her own willingness to offend him in positive terms – ‘good for you’ – stumping her in a good humoured way.

4. Empowering others

Some things are hard to fake. Another attractive feature of Peterson’s persona is what seems a genuine desire to empower and equip others for their own good. This comes through in his classes, in his clinical psychology and in Q & A with young people. Whether you agree with him or not, there is a passion to enable others negotiate the complexities of life as successfully as they can. Whether that means working with women not to be taken advantage of in the workplace or helping someone out of a cycle of depression, it speaks of an other-centeredness that is admirable.

5. Vulnerability and integrity

Peterson gives plenty of advice on relationships, work and success in life in general, often in strongly directional terms. Anyone doing so in a public space (whether a clinical psychologist or a Pastor or a self-help guru) is justifiably opening up their own lives to examination – does he or she practice what they preach? There is a need for (appropriate) transparency here. Of course, the reality can be hidden and often is. But with Peterson you do not get the sense that there is a mismatch. He shows critical self-awareness (on the Dave Rubin show, when asked, he listed things like over-work, talking too much, a potential addiction to alcohol etc etc). He talks about his wife and family in moving terms, deeply grateful for their love, support and presence in his life.

6. Language

There is a compelling attraction and power to language used creatively to express complex ideas. It is a rare gift and Peterson, I think, has it. Listening to his lectures is, for me anyway, a pleasure. Of course, such a gift can be used for good or ill. In general, Peterson is constructive rather than destructive. He values words. At one point, he said to Newman, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.”

7. Courage

Whatever you think of Peterson’s beliefs, it is hard not to admire a person who has the courage of his convictions. He took a serious personal and professional risk in speaking out against Bill C-16. He was warned he could lose his job, was threatened with bankruptcy by the potential costs of a court process and found himself at the centre of a storm of abuse and vilification. His health suffered under the stress. He has said he will never use compelled speech even if that means going to jail – where he has claimed he will go on hunger-strike. You might think this is over-dramatic, but it is rare these days to find conviction in public life that comes with a tangible personal cost.

Concluding Clarifications and further issues

A couple of points of clarification. These are simply my takes on Peterson and as such are subjective observations that may well misrepresent things in some way. Neither do they mean I am an uncritical fan. I am trying to unpack why and how he has become an iconic cultural figure.

While there are obvious parallels to themes of Christian belief, it would take further posts to analyse and reflect critically on the theological content of Peterson’s worldview. It would also take further posts to consider what, if any, lessons can be learnt from Peterson by churches who have a heart to communicate the breadth and depth of the Christian faith to young people today.

Comments, as ever, welcome.