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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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