Guilt, prayer, love and worship

Continuing our What Makes Us Human series, the Right Reverend James Jones, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, explores our moral and spiritual instincts, our need to love and our spontaneous expressions of reverence.

What makes us human? Well, we’re different from other animals in the way we handle fire, write, draw, laugh, make faces and wear jewellery. But there’s another experience that marks us out – guilt. That might jar with some. But if a convicted rapist showed no remorse we’d think him less than human. Guilt proves we are responsible for our actions. Some people feel guilt unnecessarily and for that they need therapy. But when we’ve done wrong it’s good that we feel bad about it. Like the rest of the animal world we are driven by instincts. But being human involves other impulses that override those animal passions. There is a moral instinct in human beings.

Some of the first words a child says are: “That’s not fair!” Sharing sweets or playing a game, kids have an innate sense of fairness. Is that taught, caught, or part of our human make-up? When we say something is unjust we are behaving as if there is some law over us all that ought to be obeyed. The longing for justice is marbled into the human heart.

The survival instinct, so evident in the animal kingdom, is there in humanity, too, but with a twist. Human beings struggle not only to survive but to be free. The story of the human family told in the Bible is a saga that begins with enslavement and ends in liberation.

There is also a spiritual instinct. There are very few people who haven’t at some stage in their life prayed. Usually it’s when the bottom falls out of our world that we cry out to God. That said, I once met a man who was seeking God because, as he told me, “I’m getting married soon to a beautiful woman and think life’s wonderful and I just want to know if there’s anyone I’ve got to thank for all this!”

This spiritual side to being human has us wondering about our place in the universe. Sometimes you can hear a piece of music and you become aware of another dimension to life. These mystical moments take you by surprise. Maybe, on a walk or looking up into the night sky, you want to reach out and be at one with the rest of creation.

This spiritual intuition connects with that other basic instinct to find love. What we value most about our humanity is our ability to love and be loved. The Beatles rocked the world with “All You Need Is Love”. The fact there’s such a deficit of love doesn’t dull our impulse to go on looking for it.

And the search for love is coupled with the search for truth. John Lennon wrote a song about it – “Just Gimme Some Truth”. He was pretty cynical.

I’m sick and tired of hearing things
From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth . . .

I’ve had enough of watching scenes
Of schizophrenic, egocentric, paranoiac, prima donnas
All I want is the truth now
Just gimme some truth.

Lennon, like other songwriters, poets and philosophers down the ages, called out for some answers to the ancient quest for the truth about being human.

If God was listening (and I think He was) He gave His own unique answer to the question about what makes us human. Instead of giving us a set of statements He gave us a true human being, a perfect person, Jesus. He was passionate about justice, stood by the sick and up for the poor. He was so fuelled with love that when His enemies drove nails through His hands He found the power to forgive. He knew it was the only way to break the vicious cycle of hatred that has torn the world apart since Cain murdered Abel.

When our children were small, I would sometimes idle away the time by taking a coin and placing it under a piece of paper then shade over it with a pencil until the image of the invisible coin came through on to the page. So the image of true humanity comes through to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. He was so perfectly human that His followers deemed Him divine.

Jesus urged the human family to see ourselves on a journey where God is both our origin and our destiny. Finding a purpose to our life brings fulfilment to our humanity.

There’s a story of a little boy splashing about in the mud. His mum was about to shout when he looked up innocently and asked, “Mum, what’s mud for?” “Making bricks,” she retorted. “What are bricks for?” “Houses.” “What are houses for?” “People.” “And what are people for?”

Finally, to be human is to worship. There’s something deep down that forces us to shout out when we see something truly amazing. Imagine a football Cup final or a Wimbledon final, if at the winning shot all the people in the stands stood motionless and silent. It would be weird and unnatural.

When we see something extraordinary we have to acknowledge its worth. That’s worship. It’s natural. It’s human. When we see something good or noble or beautiful we have to worship it. And that’s the human response whenever we come face to face with the Divine. We’re bound to worship. And we do it with music. It’s only human.

James Jones is the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool This is the seventh article in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

A place in the universe: the beauty of creation can strike us suddenly. Photograph: Mikael Kennedy Title 'Kalen' South Rim, Big Bend National Park, 2012
Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war