Theo Hobson

Here’s what Tim Farron should have said to John Humphrys and Cathy Newman

Here's what Tim Farron should have said to John Humphrys and Cathy Newman
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Three interesting bits of theology in the media last week, two of them thanks to Tim Farron.

Interviewing Farron, John Humphrys noted that he has said that he seeks ‘guidance from God’ in prayer, on important decisions. Shouldn’t voters be concerned about this turn away from normal evidence-based decision-making? A foolish question. Farron rightly replied that it surely wasn’t so shocking if a Christian said his prayers. What next?

Humphrys: So, Mr Farron, you were heard just last Sunday publicly expressing the wish that ‘God’s kingdom’ should come, and I quote, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. That would surely be a total change to Britian’s political system, and to our secular way of life, and it’s something that the voters have not been consulted on. How do you square that with your much-boasted liberalism?

Farron: Well, it’s a very conventional Christian prayer…

Humphrys: That’s irrelevant surely! The fact is, is it not, that you yearn for a radical change to our politics, and a rolling back of the pluralist advances of recent times?

Well ok, I exaggerate, but not much. Humphrys was displaying his middlebrow secularist arrogance, a clumsy handling of religion that thinks itself fearlessly honest. When it comes to religion, mastermind he ain’t.

Later in the week Farron was asked by Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News whether gay sex was a sin. He replied that we’re all sinners, which according to the Guardian was dodging the question. But it was the right answer. Christianity gets away from the question of whether this or that form of behaviour is or isn’t a sin. This is hard for its critics to grasp. It’s pretty hard for its adherents to grasp as well. How can a religion emphasise the concept of sin, but also undermine the distinction between morally acceptable and sinful action? For if we’re all sinners, doesn’t that mean that no one is? It is indeed a paradox, as he should have told Ms Newman. Christianity rejects the strict moral law-code of Judaism and Islam. It treats morality in a new way that resembles vagueness. But it’s a vagueness born not of indifference but of perfectionism. We must all be morally perfect – in the light of that absolute ideal, the old question of what godly rules to follow falls apart.

Finally Matthew Parris. Who, much as one loves him, can be a bit of a Humphrys. Forgiveness is a meaningless concept, he argued (provoked by the 94-year-old convicted Nazi). For we can never really ‘wipe the slate clean’ and stop feeling aggrieved at someone who has hurt us.

This is clumsy. Forgiveness is an ideal that we can strive for – even though it goes against human nature. And it’s not the inner purity of our heart that matters, it’s the general attitude, and the behaviour. If I try to forgive someone, whom I still half-hate in my heart, and refrain from retaliation, then that’s not inauthentic, it’s forgiveness, in messy human practice. It’s easy to portray the high idealism of Christian morality as hypocritical, because of its perfectionism. But Christianity is wiser than its critics. It knows that ‘honesty’ is not straightforward. It knows that serious moral striving brings a sort of benign dishonesty – the ‘dishonesty’ of trying to be more than we are.