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Highlights along the (Third) Way

20 May 2016

THIRD WAY inaugurated its High Profile series of in-depth interviews in May 1993,with a rather formal examination of the then Lord Chancellor. Here, we reproduce some of the most illuminating moments from more than 240 hours of conversation

Elke Wetzig/WIKI

Desmond Tutu at the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in Cologne, 2007

Desmond Tutu at the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in Cologne, 2007

Desmond Tutu spoke to Michael Schluter in February 1994.

What is the role of prayer in your life?

For me, it would be impossible to engage in the kind of public life I have had if this was not undergirded by an attempt at a spiritual life. . . One’s life would be a shambles if I didn’t have that as a kind of anchor. When I do not pray, or do not have a meditation, it is like not having brushed my teeth. It’s almost physical.

David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, spoke to Roy McCloughry in May 1994.

You have said that your biggest mistake was supposing that people would assume you were asking questions from a position of faith, not doubt. Do you think you have been fundamentally misunderstood?

In the beginning — the episcopal beginning -— yes, it really amazed me. It was a shattering experience.

I can remember a public occasion in Birmingham Cathedral where I expounded what I had to expound, and there was a reception afterwards with the Lord Mayor and a lot of pukka people, and them saying quite condescendingly, “Oh, I see, you believe, do you? You believe in the resurrection?” I almost felt like saying: “Do you think I’d bother with you lot if I didn’t?”

I suddenly tumbled to the fact that I was absolutely furiously angry inside — furiously angry with the fact that, for instance, fellow bishops, many of whom I know hold the same views as me, didn’t put their heads over the parapet. Very angry that people who alleged that they were concerned with the gospel and with grace and forgiveness didn’t give me the benefit of any doubt at all. It wasn’t until I realised that I really hated the Church in some ways that humour came back and depression went away.

Ian Hislop spoke to Martin Wroe in January 1995.

A lot of people get into that church groove when they get older, have children. Are you a churchy type yourself?

Oh, yes. I always have been. I am the sort of Christian that Evangelicals get very upset about. I go at Christmas or maybe at Easter. My children are baptised.

Sometimes, I sit in church and think, “This is complete bollocks, all of it, and always has been,” and then a month later I’d sit there thinking: “This is all there is.”

You are on record as saying, “I am not a Christian,” but now you’re saying you’re a sort of one.

[Someone] said to me on the radio, “You’re not a Christian,” and I laughed and said, “No”. But I felt, “Oh dear, there’s a cock crowing,” and the reason I didn’t admit it was because it’s really uncool.

But, well, I’m not sure I am, really. I end up just saying I believe in belief, and I keep wanting. I believe in other people’s belief, in being genuine. I believe in the possibility of belief.

Richard Dawkins spoke to Nick Pollard in February 1995.

Suppose some lads break into an old man’s house and kill him. Suppose they say: “Well, we accept the evolutionist world view. He was old and sick, and he didn’t contribute anything to society.” How would you show them that what they had done was wrong?

If somebody used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose . . . I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds. I think it would be more: “This is not a society in which I wish to live. Without having a rational reason for it necessarily, I’m going to do whatever I can to stop you doing this.”

They’ll say, “This is the society we want to live in.”

I couldn’t, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious. I think I could finally only say, “Well, in this society you can’t get away with it,” and call the police. . .

John Stott spoke to Roy McCloughry in June 1995.

Some people might divide your ministry into two halves: one focused on pietism, and one concerned with the very broadest social, cultural, and economic aspirations of society. What caused this change?

I think it was reading the Bible. As I read and studied and meditated, my vision of God grew, and I came to see the obvious things: that he is not just interested in religion but in the whole of life, and — in the old phrase — in justice as well as justification.

I don’t see any dichotomy between the “pietistic” and the cultural and social. To me, they’re two aspects of the same thing: a pursuit of the will of God. I have always been moved by the phrase “to hunger and thirst after righteousness”; but righteousness covers both personal holiness and social justice.

Gerry Adams spoke to Nelson González in August 1996. . .

Would you call yourself a Christian?

Yes. . . I’m pondering on the question because I think labels are quite problematic. I like the sense of there being a God, and I do take succour now from the collective comfort of being at a mass or another religious event where you can be anonymous and individual — just a sense of community at prayer, and of paying attention to that spiritual dimension which is in all of us; and I also take some succour in a private, solitary way from being able to reflect on those things.

So, I would shy away a wee bit from being put into any religious category, but I —without being too pious — couldn’t get through life without being prayerful.

. . . as did Ian Paisley in October 1996.

What would “peace” mean in Northern Ireland?

Well, I think you have to go back to the New Testament. There is no peace without purity. You can’t build peace on a compromise. You can’t have peace with God until you’ve turned from your evil ways and indicated by your acts that it’s real repentance.

The only hope for Northern Ireland is a spiritual revival . . . and I’m glad to say that we have seen manifest marks of that coming in our generation.

Mary Warnock spoke to Andrew Dunnett in January 1997.

What are the principles on which a shared morality should be based in a pluralist society?

I think that on the whole people exaggerate the pluralism of society. Of course, they have good reason if they think in terms of Muslim fundamentalists, or indeed Christian fundamentalists. But if you think, just by way of example, of a school with a whole lot of children, some of them Muslim, some Christian, some Jewish, I don’t think it makes the least difference what religion any of them adhere to: they all have a common need to be taught common societal values: not to bully one another, not to steal, to pay respect to the law, and so on.

I think the real gap is not between Jew, Muslim, and Christian in the plural society, but between people who are, on the whole, willing, even anxious, to be good, and the people who don’t give a damn. That’s where the huge gap is. Nobody refers to this when they talk of the plural society, but I think it’s very important.

Mary McAleese, then President of Ireland, spoke to Roy McCloughry in July 1998.

What does prayer achieve in public life?

I think it achieves the most extraordinary amount of things, and yet I couldn’t tell you one thing that it’s achieved — and I couldn’t tell you how you measure it. Kofi Annan, I thought, said it brilliantly: when he came back from Iraq [after negotiating the readmission of UN weapons inspectors in 1998] and the journalists asked him, “How come you were able to bring this off?”, he replied, “Never underestimate the power of prayer!”

And I cheered, I just cheered. Because at times in my own life, when I’ve looked at my own inability to bring about whatever I felt had to be done, the only way I have been able to achieve it is to hand it over to God and say, “Please will you help me with this, because on my own I’m incapable of doing it?” And it has come about.

John Peel spoke to Steve Turner in March 2000.

Would you describe yourself as agnostic or atheist?

I don’t know, really. If I believed in a god, it would be a rather vengeful and capricious old fellow, lurking in the roof of a rather nice old building waiting to zap you for some imagined crime, rather than a Cliff Richard type of god who lets you beat him at table tennis.

Jane Goodall spoke to Huw Spanner in March 2001.

David Attenborough has said that the more he studies nature and witnesses its violence and suffering, the more convinced he is that there is no God. Do you think, perhaps, that what the Church Fathers called ‘the Book of Nature’ tells us neither one thing nor the other, but we project our own beliefs on to it?

Well, I don’t know. That gets so deep, doesn’t it? If you look around the world at the beliefs of humans through the ages and now — I find it strange that all our amazing brains, by and large, should have projected the same picture on to it. To me, the wonder of nature and its complexity convince me more and more that there is this great spiritual power moving behind it and giving reason for our lives.

It has always seemed to me that the universe is a deliberate design. But I know a lot of it doesn’t fit in.

Naomi Wolf spoke to Kristin Aune and Martha Crossley in September 2001.

How do you define feminism?

To me, feminism is the logical extension of democracy. Also — you know, it’s such a kind of relief for me to have a conversation with a publication that acknowledges that spiritual life is legitimate, because, to me, feminism is also inextricably linked with the core spiritual values that are common to all religions. To me, whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Jewish, feminism is the conclusion of what every religion at its best preaches: that we all have a divine spark, we’re all made in the image of God, we’re all equally valuable and precious to God.

Philip Pullman spoke to Huw Spanner in February 2002.

Throughout His Dark Materials there’s a strong sense of “ought”. Where in a world without God does that sense of “ought” come from?

I’m amazed by the gall of Christians. You think that nobody can possibly be decent unless they’ve got the idea from God or something. Absolute bloody rubbish! Isn’t it your experience that there are plenty of people in the world who don’t believe who are very good people?

Yes. I’m just curious to know where it comes from.

For goodness’ sake! It comes from ordinary human decency. It comes from accumulated human wisdom — which includes the wisdom of such figures as Jesus Christ. Jesus, like many of the founders of great religions, was a moral genius, and he set out a number of things very clearly in the Gospels, which if we all lived by them we’d all do much better. What a pity the Church doesn’t listen to him!

Ken Loach spoke to Nick Thorpe in July 2002.

Many of your characters start out as idealists but their idealism is gradually eroded. How do you yourself keep the inner fire burning?

Well, it’s not difficult, because your observation of what is happening day-to-day just constantly feeds your outrage. The best way to get your blood pressure up is to listen to the Today programme for an hour in the morning and you emerge rampaging through the streets with rage at what’s going on and the people who are getting away with things.

And then when you do meet people who really are on the front line, who really are engaged in the struggle, their courage and determination are endlessly inspiring.

Maya Angelou spoke to Nelson González in September 2002.

You’ve said that you’re taken aback when people tell you that they’re Christians. Why is that?

Because I think, “You’re that already?” You know, being a Christian is being engaged in a process: it’s not an ambition you achieve and say, “Okey-dokey, I have no more to do now.” No, it’s really ongoing. In the morning you get up and think, “Lord, help me! I want to live a Christian life which is kind. I want to be soft-voiced, I want to be peace-searching, I want to be generous, I want to be healing. Lord, help me!” And then in the evening, when you check yourself out, you think, “M’mmm. I only blew it 80 times.”

Omar Bakri Muhammad spoke to Anthony McRoy in February 2003.

What is the agenda for al-Muhajiroun in Britain?

The call of Islam is to command good, forbid evil, and expose man-made law. We believe the problem is man-made laws, whether in the shape of capitalism or communism or so-called Islamic republics. We believe that sovereignty and supremacy belong to God, and wherever we are we have one aim: to invite people to Islam and to establish an Islamic state — the Khilafah, where people choose a leader and he executes the command of God in the Qur’an. This is what all Islamic movement is for, to establish the Caliphate where Muslims and non-Muslims can live together under Islamic law.

So, yes, I am working to see Islam implemented in Britain instead of the capitalist ideology which is dominant. Christianity is not in power here. We know some Christians say, “Leave what is for God to God and what is for Caesar to Caesar,” but what if Caesar does not implement God’s commands?

Thom Yorke spoke to Brian Draper in October 2004.

You once said that the most important thing about music is the sense of escape it gives us. Popular culture seems to be all about escapism, but is that what we really need?

“Escapism” isn’t really the right word. A good piece of music is like knocking a hole in the wall so that you can see out on another place you didn’t know existed. If your consciousness is not constantly evolving somehow or other and you just keep going round the same room again and again, then you’re sort of trapped — and every good piece of music — or art or writing — stops you feeling trapped. Maybe that is what religion is as well. . .

James Lovelock spoke to Pete Moore in March 2005.

In 1999, you wrote: “We can put our trust, even faith, in Gaia, but this is different from the cold certainty of purposeless atheism or an unwavering belief in God’s purpose.” What did you mean by “faith”?

I didn’t. . . If they put “faith”, they misquoted me. “Faith” is too strong — it means “blind belief” to me.

Gaia has looked after this planet for at least 3.5 billion years — that’s about a quarter of the age of the universe. Again, if theologians want to see that as the hand of God working, I can’t see why they shouldn’t. After all, in their terms the Earth is God’s creation, isn’t it? So why shouldn’t it have been created as the sort of planet that will look after itself?

I’d love to get the message across to the Church that the most awful thing we can do is to destroy God’s creation.

Tracey Emin spoke to Simon Jones in October 2006.

You said once that when you are making art you feel as if it makes you a better human being.

Yeah, you know what? I worked this out. For me, art isn’t a job, it isn’t what I do: it’s who I am. So, if I’m not making the art, I’m not who I am, and then I lose direction and I start to feel lost. I start to feel unworthy — not justified in even being here. I’m all at sea, intellectually, emotionally, socially. Whereas when I’m being creative, I’m anchored. I feel solid and I feel good. It sounds like a really basic thing, but it’s taken me years to work that out.

Tariq Ramadan spoke to Anthony McRoy in November 2006.

How would you describe your relationship with God?

All my personal experience is not only to believe in God but to be close to him, and at the end to love him. I think this is what we are missing today in Islamic discourse. We are so pushed to be on the defensive — Islam is not this, Islam is not that — that we are forgetting the essence of Islam. It is really a love story. Sometimes myself I have to forget everything else and come back to this essential spiritual journey. So, this is what I’m asking him, for myself: it’s just to love him and to try to be loved by him.

Julie Burchill was interviewed by Simon Jones by email in April-July 2007.

Do you still take drugs? I understand you have embraced Lutheranism, and there is a kind of abandon in taking drugs that seems to me to be at odds with that serene kind of faith.

I’d rarely turn down a nice line of coke. But needles, funny fags — forget it! I don’t need encouragement to relax. I express my faith by being extremely generous to others, particularly those in need — not censorious of myself, which I see as a kind of useless, tight-fisted vanity.

Khalid Mish’al spoke to Huw Spanner in May 2008.

When Third Way interviewed Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi [in September 2004], he told us: “The enemies of the Palestinians are more interested in life than in sacrifice.” Does that mean that you are more interested in sacrifice than in life?

This is surely a rather sophisticated concept that needs clarification. We, like all human beings, love life, but we love life with dignity. We do not like to live in humiliation, under oppression. Perhaps — and this is what the sheikh probably means — there are people who do not care how they live; they want just to live, even if it is in humiliation. People in this region — Arabs in general, and Muslims — do not want to live like that.

But when we say, as Palestinians, as Arabs, as Muslims, that in order to free our people from injustice and occupation we are ready to die, we say this not because we hate life, no, but because we want to die so that the rest of our people can live in freedom and dignity. It is a matter of some people sacrificing themselves so that the rest of the people may live. It is because we have a responsibility — not a hatred of life, or a death wish.

Camila Batmanghelidjh spoke to Keith J. White in October 2008.

[It has been said that at Kids Company] you are creating “a haven of safety and joyful opportunities”. Can you identify with that?

Yeah. I think we provide a sanctuary and a place of loving care for children who have none in their lives. . .

But I’m only picking up the pieces when the model has failed. I want something more than that, which is for the failing to stop. And the only thing that is standing in the way of that happening is lack of moral courage. I’ve had politicians tell me: “Social services is not fit for purpose, child mental health is not fit for purpose, but none of us dare touch it.”

If it was terrorism, you know, or if it was climate change so they were all going to drown, they would all get going; but because the lone child who doesn’t have a competent carer can’t threaten any of them with anything, it gets left. Because there’s no threat, there’s no effort to do anything. So, I’m going to create the threat.

Paulo Coelho spoke to Brian Draper in March 2010.

There is a tension between dying to yourself and taking up your cross and at the same time becoming the person you were created to be. How do we live with that?

Well, that tension is what guides me throughout my life. But I never forget that Jesus’s first miracle was not “I’m going to heal this sick person” or “I’m going to exorcise this demon.” It was very mundane, and it was not politically correct:

“Ah, there’s no wine!”

“Come on, man! It’s not my time yet.”

“But, my son, there is no wine — and we are celebrating.”

So, Jesus turned water into wine. And this is what makes him human, I think: these moments of doubt and anger and joy, and his inner tension.

Michael Gove spoke to Jenny Taylor in March 2010.

So, Islam is a noble faith. But is it wrong?

Well, I worship in a Church of England church, and I do so as someone who was brought up in the Church of Scotland and believes themselves to be, you know, a Protestant. And therefore I have a particular set of beliefs, but they’re mine and I have a particular respect as well for people who have sincerely held religious belief in other areas, and some —

But would you say that your religion is true?

I believe it.

You believe it to be. . . ?

No, I believe it.

Ellen MacArthur spoke to Brian Draper in February 2011.

[When you were sailing solo across the Southern Ocean] did you feel at one with what was going on around you?

You are absolutely insignificant out there. You are a very, very small speck in something that has no interest in your presence. You know, we think we’re actually quite important, and you put yourself in that environment and you think: “Crikey! I’m actually irrelevant. There’s a lot of other stuff that lives out here, and here I am and I’m just nothing.” You’re part of something, and you feel like you’re trying to understand it, but. . . At one with the ocean? I’m not sure that’s how I would put it, but you’re connected to it, and totally tuned into it.

And you get off the boat and that stops. Entirely.

People say, “What’s it like to come back to the real world?” and it’s like “Which is the real world?”, because actually that world was pretty real.

Annie Lennox spoke to Nick Thorpe in October 2011.

Who, or what, is God to you — if anything?

“God” is a word. It’s a word that describes — just give me a minute — that describes or represents the source of creation. Now, you can take that in different directions — you can say: God is love, God is Allah, God is Buddha, God is many different things. God is a man in the sky with a beard, all kinds of things. But I like to sum it up and say: It is the source of all living things.

And have you [ever] felt some connection with that?

I don’t — I don’t look to any book to give me the key to that. I think for me it is. . . This is tricky, this is really, really tricky to discuss, because I don’t have the answer. You know, I don’t have it in a sentence.

Do I feel a connection? In the sense that I am alive and I have a consciousness and I am part of the human experience for this time that I’m on earth, yes, I do; but I don’t worship this, I don’t. . . I’m in awe, I’m in awe of the mystery of it, the magnificence of it, the extraordinary. . . I mean, you look at the human body and you cannot help but just be flabbergasted. Even the fact that each person has a unique set of fingerprints — and the billions of people before us and the billions that are yet to be born will all have individual fingerprints. That is the nature of God, if you like.

Nigel Farage spoke to Huw Spanner in December 2011.

At what point did you decide [that there was nothing to religion]?

Well. . . I did get confirmed when I was 13 — that was a voluntary thing — but I think by the time I was 18 I was pretty much a non-believer. I think — funny, isn’t it? — that belief is one of those things that can wax and wane during your life. I have thought a bit more about God since [nearly being killed in a plane crash in 2010]. A bit more. A bit more.

I was curious to find out what went through your mind as you were facing death then. [In your book, Flying Free,] you say that pretty much all you thought was “Oh, fuck” —

Well, I was very philosophical about it. But I have since thought about it a bit. You know, why was I so lucky?

Have you come to any conclusion?

No. No, I haven’t. I really, really haven’t. . . In a sense, after [that] accident, I think I am more reflective, I think I’m a bit more thoughtful, a little more grown-up. Not too much, I hope, but a little bit more.

Patti Smith spoke to Simon Jones in June 2012.

You have said: “Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself.” What did you mean by that?

He was a revolutionary. “Rebel” is not the right word. I mean, he came to people and said, “Drop your nets and follow me!” You know, as any great revolutionary does. Leave your material things and come with me! We have to, you know, find a way to free the people.

To me, his great contribution — even though it’s been misinterpreted, and, as he predicted, false prophets have twisted it in his name — really was two things: he made God more accessible to the people, and he gave the Eleventh Commandment, which is the greatest commandment, which is simply: Love one another.

So, as I evolved, I understood that I wasn’t rebelling against Christ, I was rebelling against religion and its concept of Christ; and when I finally understood that, I was able to appreciate him in a more holistic manner, and really understand more about him as a man.

Daniel Dennett spoke to Nick Spencer in May 2013.

Do you expect that in another hundred years humankind will be living in even greater peace and concord?

I think there’s a good chance of that. I think we’re making progress. We may have some horrible backsliding — there could be a terrible terrorist catastrophe that could set us way back, we could blow up the planet — but if we don’t do that, I think the signs are good.

And I think that particularly on the frontier of religion. I think religion changed more in the 20th century than it did in the millennium before that, and this is my prediction: I think it’s going to change more in the next 20 years than it changed in the 20th century.

In what direction?

A lot of churches are simply going to go extinct, and those that survive are going to have to radically change. . . . I think it’s pretty clear that religion is going to go through some cataclysmic changes. I would like that to be as painless as possible, [but] I think a lot of people are going to be very hurt, and even, maybe, desperate. And that’s dangerous, and I want the world to be prepared for that.

Jenni Murray spoke to Christina Rees in July 2014.

If you have no religious faith, what are your values?

I suppose if I were to define myself it would be more as a humanist than anything else, because that’s — that’s all I see existing, really. We are not here for very long, and it’s our responsibility to make things right. I don’t have a spiritual life at all. I have a very practical, deeply moral side.

Based on what?

Based on what I’ve worked out for myself, I think: that bitterness doesn’t work — it damages you more than it damages the other person.

Slavoj Žižek spoke to Simon Jones in April 2015.

For many people, an essential element in Christianity is resurrection. Do you have room for that?

Here, probably, we disagree. OK, with a little irony I will use harsh terms: all the finale of the Bible — Armageddon, the Second Coming — screw it! For me, the key is in the Gospels, when Christ announces, “I will die [but] I will come back,” and somebody says: “But how will we know?” And then he says those famous words: “When there will be love between two of you, I will be there.” That’s enough, I claim. The whole point, in my radical reading of resurrection, is that the community that is searching for Christ is the living body of Christ. It is for idiots to wait [until] he comes as a person again. No! He is here, in our love, already.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke to Huw Spanner in June 2015.

Looking back, are there major positions you’ve taken [over the years] that you think have proved wrong?

Proved wrong. . . daw? I don’t think so.


The last issue of Third Way was published in April 2016. The back catalogue of interviews, and much more, is available via the magazine’s website, https://thirdway.hymnsam.co.uk/, which includes an archive platform.

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