As we approach a second possible lockdown to deal with the coronavirus crisis – but this time with different local, regional and national characteristics – it reminds me of my experience of the first lockdown last March. Back then, the UK government advised the over-70s to self-isolate and Rachel and I did so in a hamlet of four houses just outside the city of St David’s (population 1800) on the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales.
Even when the sun was shining the days following lockdown had an eerie quality. Shops were closed. No cars on the roads. Empty streets. Most shocking was the fact that the 11th century cathedral had been closed. This was the place where St David established a Christian community fifty years before St Augustine came to Canterbury (AD 597) and the place from which St Patrick left to go back to Ireland as a missionary in the 7th century. It has been a centre of pilgrimage for centuries. The cathedral is our parish church when we are in Pembrokeshire and the service sheet always reminds us, ‘Prayers have been said in this place every day for over 1,000 years.’ Not any longer; the doors were locked.
On the financial markets asset prices were tumbling, businesses were scrambling to obtain cash, the US Federal Reserve was pumping billions of dollars into the world economy to create liquidity and UK national output was plummeting, the worst recorded for 300 years.
For the days immediately following the lockdown I felt disorientated, confused and adrift. In an interview in The New Statesman, Grayson Perry said that everything in his world felt a bit irrelevant, which was exactly how I felt. A completely empty diary added to the strange feeling. Would we ever return to normal? What relevance would the FTSE, the Nasdaq and the Vix have now?
What value were the skills I had built up over a lifetime? Might we live in a stationary state agricultural economy? I was humbled, forced to listen and not in control.
As it happened when lockdown occurred, I was writing a review of Sir Paul Collier’s book, The Future of Capitalism. It is well-written, with policy recommendations based on evidence, analysis and pragmatism. It is worth reading but for me it had one great weakness. It was at best indifferent and at worst hostile to religion. Alongside his proposals for reform, there was no mention of how a Judeo-Christian ethic might influence the spirit of capitalism, as it had done historically (Weber and Wesley). Similarly, while not hostile to
religion, Nick Timothy’s acclaimed book, Rebuilding the Nation, also had little place for religion because for him the dramatic decline in the number of those professing and practising the Christian faith made it irrelevant. The closed doors of the Cathedral seemed to show that the church itself lacked confidence in what its message could contribute at this time of crisis.
Then I received a letter from a good friend, checking on how we were coping. He had been responsible for building up a highly successful UK business in the second half of the twentieth century, which had become a household name. He recognised we were at greater risk of serious illness because of our age but said that the lockdown gave us time for reflection in a period when faith (he is Jewish) and old values were daily challenged. He recommended Jonathan Sacks’ new book “Morality”, which argues that our future depends on being guided by a philosophy of “We” not “I”, and insisted that it was “a must-read for bankers and tycoons”.
And then came the hammer-blow in his letter: “With God on another of his extended holidays we will have to prove we can live without him”. The idea of God being on an extended holiday took me back to the first time I went into my friend’s office and my shock at being confronted by a large black and white painting which dominated the room. It is of a railway junction in Continental Europe, a signal box and level crossing, but with no people, trains or any sign of activity, just railway tracks disappearing into the unknown.
To believe that God exists, that He is in control and that He cares for His world – “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” – goes against the grain of an enlightened, scientific world view. The default view of our society is a soft atheism, a moral relativism and unending confusion over class, gender and language. Without God, is there any ultimate framework or meaning to our existence or any purpose in living?
I started to read Ecclesiastes, one of the books of the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible. The author, Qoheleth (in Greek Ecclesiastes), is commonly translated as ‘The Preacher’ but could equally be translated as the ‘President’, the ‘Official Spokesman’, the ‘Philosopher’. It reads as if it were an autobiography and has certainly been influenced by, if not written by, King Solomon. An old man is writing to a young man, reflecting on his philosophical and theological insights. The book has the character of a complicated sermon with the bold opening statement:
“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless”
If we search for the meaning of life within the boundaries of the natural world, the world we can observe, the world we experience in living, the world against which scientific hypotheses are tested, Qoheleth says life will ultimately turn out to be meaningless, pointless, empty, inconclusive, ‘a vanity’. He explores this theme relentlessly, first in connection with the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, then pleasures from the sensual to the aesthetic, then the toil of work and wealth creation, and finally to the achievements which recognition and fame have brought. In each case the pursuit brought him no closer to understanding the meaning of life. Nine times he describes it as “chasing after the wind”. Life is an enigma. The only certainty we have in life is death.
James Packer, an influential academic and theologian, who died this summer, wrote: “The God who rules the world hides Himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it all. Often and often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes. Be realistic, says ‘The Preacher’; face the facts; see life as it is. You will never have true wisdom till you do.” (J. I. Packer: Knowing God)
Solomon was proud of his achievements. He had created a great public works programme constructing houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, orchards, reservoirs, had bred herds and tended flocks of sheep and organised choirs, orchestras and music. Yet, as he reflects, he concludes it was simply ‘chasing after the wind’!
I have always enjoyed my work, whether as a teacher, researcher, adviser, board member, creating an enterprise, leading a team or being a member of the House of Lords. Yet I read this at a time when it seemed that the world had stopped and I was forced to ask myself the question, how much of my work has simply been ‘chasing after the wind’?
Qoheleth argues that in all areas of life a purely secular perspective on the world, a belief that God does not exist, cannot answer our deepest questions.
For the first six weeks of lockdown, the whole of the UK enjoyed a memorable Spring: the sun shone daily, flowers opened, birds sang. At the same time, traffic was minimal and pollution was noticeably down; the clarity of the night skies without planes on their flight paths revealed myriads of stars. Locked down for weeks on end, unable to use the car to travel more than two kilometres, I paid attention to the natural world on my doorstep as never before. With time to think and reflect I asked myself the question: what if I did not have faith, would I be satisfied that the beauty and wonder of the natural world were simply an accident? Or would I rather endorse Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; For many people, lockdown will be remembered for the way people reached out to each other, the unexpected acts of kindness, the renewed sense of community and a restored faith in the goodness of people. Technology meant that despite lockdown, families could keep in contact and spent more time with each other. This was certainly our experience both with our family and with our local community in the countryside. The owner of the local petrol began delivering newspapers to us without being asked, a local farmer would leave half a dozen fresh eggs on our doorstep from time to time, a neighbour, driving into our nearest town fifteen miles away, phoned to ask if there was anything we needed from the supermarket, the local post master invited gifts of food which he would personally deliver to those shielding. We heard of similar experiences from friends and family in urban settings. We had weekly reports from our granddaughters of new (socially distanced) friendships made and a community brought together now that their usually busy road did not divide them.
Qoheleth’s answer to understanding life is to the point: “Fear God: keep his commandments”. The use of the word ‘fear’ here does not have the sense in which we use it today, with the idea of being afraid of some impending disaster. A better word in today’s context would be ‘revere’. To revere Jesus as God is to have faith in him as our Creator, Redeemer and resurrected Lord.
Nearly a thousand years after Qoheleth, a legal expert quoted the commandments to Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Jesus responded to him, “Do this and you will live”.
Reading Qoheleth during lockdown raised questions for me which needed to be confronted. I can never know the mind and purposes of God. I did, however, see the mystery and beauty of the natural world, the importance of family, friendships, community and work and I devoted greater effort to reading the Word itself. It was through these that my faith grew as I began to understand more profoundly that through the encounter with Jesus, I worship a triune God who, even during a pandemic, desires good for the world He created and has a purpose for each of us which gives meaning to our lives.
This was first published as part of the “Personal Reflections” series for Christian Responsibility in Public Affairs (CRPA).
Lord Griffiths is the Chairman of CEME. For more information please click here.