keeping the heart

“The heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated, and the best afterward; it is the seat of principles, and the fountain of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be, principally fixed upon it. The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God. Here lies the very force and stress of religion; here is that which makes the way to life a narrow way, and the gate of heaven a strait gate.”

This is how John Flavel begins his little book, On Keeping the Heart. This is apparently one of the most popular books he wrote (first published sometime in the 1600s), although I somehow only came across it the other week.

(My other quotations from Flavel’s writings here.)


a conversation event

On Tuesday evening I went with a couple of friends to hear Margo MacDonald (the Independent MSP) and Ewan Aitken (Labour councillor and Church of Scotland minister) discuss the “right to die” proposals which Margo is putting forward in Holyrood at the moment.

The format of the evening wasn’t so much a debate, as whatever you might be forgiven for expecting from a “conversation event.” Ewan Aitken conversationally lobbed things at Margo MacDonald, who responded in a conversational manner, and from time to time they opened it up to the floor and a roving microphone allowed the other people present to participate, conversationally. So it was all awfully chummy – with the advantage, of course, that things stayed civil and courteous throughout, but it did leave me wondering if the seriousness of the issues was perhaps clouded over, and the public debate which everyone agreed was absolutely vital maybe wasn’t conducted as robustly as it could have been.

Margo MacDonald spoke calmly, firmly, and with clear conviction about what she sees as the need to give individuals such autonomy that their wish to truncate their end of life suffering would be acted upon. Her guiding principle seems to be the right of the individual to choose when their life should end, in situations where they felt their life was intolerable. According to her proposals, if someone conveys to a suitable doctor a wish to be assisted in dying (where suitable is defined in part as not someone with a moral code which wouldn’t allow it), then that wish should be respected.

Ewan Aitken was clearly uncomfortable with what Margo MacDonald was saying. From time to time he offered some broad-brush considerations which gently nudged at Margo’s position at key points. He was keen, for example, on the idea of sacrificial love – that a person’s family and friends should never cease reaching out with care, and should never allow them to develop unchallenged such a negative view of themselves that they see themselves as a burden and their death as the only solution.

But unfortunately I can’t say that Aitken was fired by the same degree of passion or conviction as Margo MacDonald. Whether he was constrained by the chatty atmosphere of the evening – or afraid that without the personal perspective of having a diagnosis of a debilitating illness his views weren’t so worthwhile – or hampered by his dual role as both the challenger to the ‘assisted dying’ proposals and the chairperson for the evening – it’s hard to say, but I did come away with the feeling that the assisted dying proposals got much more of an airing than the opposite view, and with much less scrutiny.

The consultation on Margo’s bill is to open next week, and the signatures of 18 MSPs are required for it to make progress. There was some scepticism on Tuesday as to whether this many MSPs could be persuaded to support it, but in any case it is indeed essential to have a public debate.

What adds to the necessity of discussing these proposals is of course the ongoing consultation for the SNP MSP Roseanna Cunningham’s bill, which proposes to “require needs-based palliative care to be available on demand.” Margo MacDonald on Tuesday evening was very dismissive of these proposals (perhaps just because she didn’t see how they could be funded? surely she can’t be opposed to more and better provision of palliative care on a Scotland-wide basis). But the two bills side by side do expose a fundamental difference in principle. While both sets of proposals agree that suffering at the end of life is something that should be avoided if at all possible, under Cunningham’s proposals, the suggestion is that we should tackle the immediate cause of the suffering, and MacDonald’s proposals offer it as a solution that life itself should be ended.

And it’s the intentional ending of life that makes the issue so serious. As a sense of the value of human life fades from public and personal consciousness, we lose the imperative to care for one another in all the difficulties of living – old people with terrible dementia in all their desperate physical frailty are still our grannies and grandads, people with Downs and cystic fybrosis are our brothers and sisters … If they’re a burden, why are they not a burden we can shoulder? And on the other hand, it’s also a failure to give due respect to the value of human life when people come to be unconcerned about disposing of their own life. There’s no instinct for deliberate self-destruction in our natural constitution – coming to regard your own life as easily disposable is the product of an unwholesome atmosphere which shirks to some extent or another our responsibilities towards ourselves (strange as it might seem to say so in our otherwise narcissistic society, although narcissism itself is a perversion in the opposite extreme). If people in Scotland are routinely finding themselves in situations where the care and support that’s available to them is so poor that they can only see the hasty end of their own life as the way out, this is a shameful black mark against those who could be caring and supporting and aren’t. But the way forward is not to allow the lack of support to flourish, but to supply that lack so that people can live, and live out their days, with as much of the dignity that should be afforded to a human being as possible.


I’m back, and will get round to responding to all the contributions made over the weekend sooner or later. Incidentally, I’ve come back a total convert to the wonders of hyoscine hydrobromide – I was never much of a believer in travel sickness tablets, but this time I was prevailed upon, and the effects of a force 6 in the Minch were, I must say, vastly less harrowing than they otherwise would have been. I’m never sailing without them again!

weekend away

A couple of things in the news recently, which I’m going to link to for your general information – I’m heading off shortly for a long weekend and don’t expect to be online much till Tuesday.

on revelation

It’s been hanging over me since summer, the fact that I promised to revisit some issues relating to scripture. But now that several attempts to write out something nicely coherent/cohesive have had to be scrapped as miserable failures, I’m only going to flag up the general topic and let anyone who wants to discuss anything do the running. Feeble I know, but here are some loosely worded, loosely connected thoughts which should hopefully give an idea of where I’m coming from – accompanied with the invitation to all to chip in if they’re so minded, as well as the caveat which should really be stamped across every post I write: layman’s views voiced here.

  1. Our understanding of scripture has to begin with God – and God communicating. It’s not that people wrote texts which the religious community came to agree would be treated as sacred; rather, God had a message to convey to human beings, which he inspired specific people to write down (and which was presented to the worshipping community to be received as what indeed it was, ie the Word of God).
  2. Saying that people were inspired to write down God’s message means at least this – that the Holy Spirit made use of these people (and their individual gifts, graces, circumstances, and experiences) in such a way that whatever they wrote under his inspiration is exactly what he intended them to write, unique as they were and unique as their circumstances were
  3. His inspiration of what they wrote is not only what gives Scripture its divine authority but also guarantees that it is (i) timelessly true in every matter it mentions, ie whether promises of salvation, threatenings of punishment, narration of history, testimony to the being and nature of God, the state and condition of mankind, the scheme of salvation, etc, and (ii) consistent with itself – ie, however multi-faceted its contents are, there is one single coherent message running through the whole, and the parts do not clash or conflict with each other
  4. As well as being true in every matter that they treat of, the scriptures are also a complete guide to (i) what we need to know about ourselves and God and how God and human beings relate, and (ii) how we are to behave (before God and in relation to our fellow human beings)
  5. As well as being true and complete, the scriptures are comprehensible. Part of what’s involved in saying that “God communicating” is behind the scriptures is that what he communicates is in principle accessible and understandable to human readers, needy and sinful as we are
  6. We absolutely must be acquainted with what is revealed in the scriptures; this is indispensably necessary to salvation. We can only know God as he has revealed himself; we can only know his purposes towards us to the extent that he reveals them; and he has clearly and definitively revealed himself and his purposes in the scriptures. Without the scriptures, we would have no way of making sense of ourselves, or of what our environment reveals about God, or of what God reveals in events in providence (including events such as the incarnation of God the Son and Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection). Nor could we have any idea where to start in making our approach to God as guilty sinners for forgiveness and reconciliation
  7. Prioritising the scriptures in this way as the source of our knowledge of God and the basis of our penitent/believing approach to God does not undermine the fact that Christ is the ultimate revelation of God and that we must be saved (and can only come to God) through him. This is because the scriptures bear witness to him, and reveal and announce him for what he is. Just as we cannot know God except by Christ, we cannot know Christ except by the Scriptures
  8. Indeed, the theme of the Scriptures is best summarised as Christ and him crucified. The various threads of scripture are all designed, one way or the other, to lift our minds to Christ as the only Saviour for sinners such as we are. Himself, or his work, or his dealings with his people, are displayed more or less vividly in every part of the scriptures
  9. The most appropriate response we can give to the scriptures is to recognise the authority of God behind them, treat them with reverence, adore God their author for what they reveal about him, accept their verdict on us as sinners, pray to be instructed in them by the same Holy Spirit who inspired them, and above all accept their invitations to embrace Christ himself manifested there in his glory as the one who God has ordained to be the Saviour of sinners from their sins.

And that’ll do for now.


PS – no longer sure what the original discussion was that sparked this off, but there’s some previous discussion here and here.

hfe reply

I wrote my MP about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (or more accurately, CC’d him into the email we all, I trust, sent to those members of the House of Lords suggested by SPUC).

Today in the post I get this response, reproduced here in its entirety.

Thank you for your e-mail.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has been debated extensively in the House of Commons and I am sure will be debated equally thoroughly in the House of Lords. That said, I don’t agree with your analysis of what the Bill seeks to do.

However, I am grateful to you for having taken the trouble to write.

Yours sincerely


I’m not sure whether to be miffed at the startling lack of substance, or just be grateful he went through the motions of replying.

book of the week

Dan Everett’s new book, Don’t Sleep There are Snakes is now available in the UK – and it’s been selected to be Radio 4’s Book of the Week for the week of 17th November. That’s all next week, Monday to Friday, at 9.45 to 10am, or else you can listen online for up to a week after the broadcast: Book of the Week.

Everett has worked on a Brazilian language known as Pirahã, and is most famous for his arguments about what the Pirahã data tell us about the nature of human language in general. One particularly controversial aspect of his claims is that this is a language which does not show the syntactic property of recursion, but many other aspects of what he reports about Pirahã have also provoked intense discussion among linguists.

He was interviewed on Excess Baggage on 8th November (not sure how much longer it’ll be available, but try listening again here.) And if you fancy a bit of clicking around to find out more, there’s a long but fascinating article in the New Yorker from last year (The Interpreter), a more recent interview in the Guardian related to the book, and a discussion on Language Log with a link to all their other posts about Everett and his work (The Straight Ones). Also of course there are his academic journal articles, including:

The endorsements on his new book according to its Amazon listing come from John Searle and Edward Gibson – both scholars whose work I find extremely valuable. Can’t wait to read it.

a public safety issue

Apparently Lord Joffe is making renewed attempts to have assisted suicide legalised (and see a couple of posts ago for similar concerns in the Scottish parliament).

There are of course serious considerations deriving from a commitment to biblical ethics which make it impossible to legalise assisted suicide – but it would be wrong to think that opposition to assisted suicide can only come from a religious perspective.

This is made clear in a recent letter in the Times by Lord Carlile of Berriew:

“Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying Bill was debated to its core and roundly defeated in the House of Lords in May 2006. Few of the speakers founded their objections on religion. The real concern was, and remains, public safety — the potential for collateral harm to the great majority of terminally ill people from giving a few individuals a “right” to prescription suicide pills. The so-called safeguards in Lord Joffe’s Bill were paper thin.

Lord Joffe claims that his Bill did not seek to encourage terminally ill people to ask for assistance with suicide but provided “an additional end-of-life option”. But laws aren’t like precision-guided missiles. Once a statute, they can quickly be used to encourage acts they were designed to enable and control. It’s easy enough to draft safeguards in the comfort of Westminster, but laws have to be real-world-proofed.
Lord Joffe says his opponents do not want a debate, yet criticises us for having held a full one. In the past five years there have been three debates, and a select committee. What has been in short supply is evidence that this significant change to our laws is safe. Already, in advance of another assisted dying Bill, we are hearing suggestions that people with dementia should consider whether they are a burden on their families. The slippery slope is no fiction: it is already well polished.
This is not about religion or autonomy or medicine: it is about public safety, legal certainty and the protection by the law of the vulnerable. It behoves Parliament to think very carefully once again, rather than be stampeded by highly emotional campaigns mounted by single-issue pressure groups.”

That’s only an excerpt; read the whole thing here.