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Our earthly home

05 August 2016


NO LASTING habitation. Wander­ing Arameans. Strangers and pil­grims. The concept of our having on this earth no permanent home is shot through the scriptures, helping us to empathise with our neigh­bours for whom this is no mere theological model, but the lived day-to-day reality. And if anyone could be thought to have no sense of a place to settle, it is surely refugees driven out by the war in Syria.

Yet, as we saw in the two-part documentary The Refugee Camp: Our desert home (BBC2, Thursday of last week), the corollary is also true: give human beings a minimum of shelter and security, and they will build a city. Four years ago, Zaatari was an empty space in the Jordanian desert. Now, it is a bustling metro­polis with 80,000 residents. What was set up as a short-term, tented transit camp has become a home with schools, hospitals, and shops.

It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and to some heroic lives of self-sacrifice, as many highly qualified professionals who could make a good living in any country have chosen to remain there, to devote their lives and ener­gies to working with their dis­placed and more unfortunate compatriots. It is a testament to what can be done when the UNCHR, charities, and a host country are willing to work together — and give large sums of money and expertise: the total cost is £10 million a month. The big question that hung over all the success is: to what extent should this, can this, be permanent?

It is a stop-gap, a short-term solution. All the people want to go back home, to a newly peaceful Syria, where they can rebuild their lives and communities. Only time will tell if for them this will become no more than a bitter and forlorn fantasy.

Making as much sense as possible of our earthly home provided the theme for the four-part series Forces of Nature with Brian Cox (BBC1, Mondays). The predominant mode was wonder: Cox moves almost in a trance of open-mouthed delight at everything he sees. But the purpose was serious. Although Cox is, to an extent that scientists are not really supposed to be, enraptured by the beauty of the universe, he constantly pro­claims something other than the surface beauty: the laws of nature that underlie the particular mani­fest­ations, this or that example.

The true beauty lies not in seeing but in understanding, in compre­hending why things are as they are. As he led us through the marvels and mysteries of natural shapes, space and time, light, and colour, he sought to impart what science can tell us about the deep patterns that give rise to all that is. Understanding is a key theological concept. We might add a further depth to his project: the more we apprehend about the structure of this aston­ishing universe, the more profound is our sense of the creator God.

Anyone wishing to savour, on the contrary, a spectacularly high level of disorder will raise a cheer for the new series of Friday Night Dinner (Channel 4, Fridays). This entirely dysfunctional north-London Jewish family provide us, as they gather week by week for the only part of their religion that they still observe, with a delicious feast of weirdness. Small errors, each more or less reasonable, compound each other, inexorably creating a lunatic tower­ing structure that threatens to knock the universe off its axis.

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