I remember once hearing a young father tell me that he would not influence his children to believe or to not believe that God exists. When the children reached adolescence or at least the age of rational choice based on rational argument they could make the decision for themselves. Since they had no experience of church or Sunday School it turned out they had no decision to make; they just refrained from doing anything different from what they had always done

The father was not a philosopher but no doubt he would have agreed with the nineteenth century liberal and utilitarian J.S. Mill:

The most important quality of an opinion on any momentous subject is its truth or falsity, which to us resolves itself into the sufficiency of the evidence on which it rests. It is indispensable that the subject of religion should from time to time be reviewed as a strictly scientific question and that its evidences should be tested by the same scientific methods, and on the same principles as those of any of the speculative conclusions drawn by physical science.

J.S.Mill “Theism”

Science may be useful or helpful when considering religious beliefs. Consideration of the world and what it tells us of God has been part of natural theology at least since Aquinas. One-time atheist philosopher Antony Flew has written an interesting work There Is A God (HarperCollins 2007) in which he explains why he changed his mind on God on the basis of recent scientific research. But in what way can science focused on religion make a judgement challenging the truth of God one way or the other? Mill points to “scientific methods” presumably referring to the empirical idea of the detached observer considering evidence impartially. But what evidence? Can God be known by the detached observer?

As Ian Robinson explains:

“Existence” as Mill uses it at once transfers the discussion to the wrong science, and to the kind of evidence we would demand for the existence of the planets or the elements. If the existence of God is the same kind of question as the existence of uranium or Uranos it can be investigated by physics. Scientists do occasionally discover new celestial objects but God has never been spied through a telescope. Therefore, thinks Mill, with what I had to call startling naivety, the existence of God is at best not proven. No, all that follows is God is not a celestial object. The methods of physical science apply to physical things, but we are told that God is spirit.

Ian Robinson The English Prophets Edgeways 2001

Religion does not start from the Mill’s rational viewpoint. As Robinson argues the Creed does not begin “I believe that God exists therefore….” ; it starts from an inside commitment. “I believe in God …”

So that the fact Mill in his essay thinks on balance the existence of God as first cause is more likely than not does not mean he commits to God as the “light of the world or saviour”. He questions whether Mill is speaking about religion at all. For what is religion?

Religion has to do with things like certain practices called sacramental, associated with the divine, with absolutes in morality, with credal belief in revelation, with prayer. It also gives us a picture of human life though not a picture to be contemplated in an art gallery. The central Christian image derived from the Old Testament, is walking in a way. That is how Christians prove the existence of God. “If ye love me keep my commandments”. I do not go as far as Wittgenstein that it makes no difference whether the crucifixion actually happened. What concerns religion is the attitude of the soul to the event, and the consequences for living.

Ian Robinson ibid

Conversion, repentance, a changed life, may have physical effects but strictly the measurement of such is not something science can yield; only a sense, within and perhaps in community, of a changed life. Curiously Mill as he describes in his Autobiography goes through a kind of conversion from the kind of desiccated education he has been subject to as a child by reading Wordsworth’s poetry -but this does not leads him to prioritise the inner life in his philosophy. Nor does he ask in what way Science proves the existence of poetry-though clearly, for him, poetry creates a “momentous” change.

So the young father was as deluded in his idea as he would have been in denying his children the practice of reading poetry, until they were of an age when such a choice could be made rationally. And while natural theology may make interesting reading religion is closer to poetry than it is to science.


In the 1920’s D. H. Lawrence wrote the following clever poem. It may not be one of his best but it is witty and challenging, probably more to us now than when it was written. There used to be a conception of something called “liberal education” which was very different from education as vocational training or as developing skills or preparing us for the “real world”- which is separate from the world discerned from what is often mockingly dismissed as the “Ivory Tower”.

Liberal education was to do with the “enlargement” ( Newman’s word) of the mind and its cultivation because that cultivation, in itself, is a good both for the individual but also for Society which, for its good, needs not only people who are well trained but people who are deeply conscious and widely read.

What does our society really think university education is for.? The orthodox view of government these days appears to that universities are tied to the economy, a good investment designed to make us all better off. That is conception that Robinson and Maskell discern and expose in their New Idea of the University (Haven Books 2001) contrasting it with Newman’s idea of the university providing a liberal education.

You will see then, when you read it, why the poem is prescient.


In Nottingham that dismal town
where I went to school and college,
they've built a new university
for a new dispensation of knowledge.

Built it most grandly and cakeily
out of the noble loot
derived from the shrewd cash-chemistry
by good Sir Jesse Boot.

Little I thought, when I was a lad
and turned my modest penny,
over on Boot's Cash Chemist's counter,
that Jesse by turning many

millions of similar of honest pence
over, would make a pile 
that would rise at last and blossom out
in grand and cakey style

into a university
where smart men would dispense 
doses of smart cash-chemistry
in language of common-sense!

That future Nottingham lads would be
cash-chemically B.Sc.
that Nottingham lights would rise and say
-By Boots I am M.A.

From this I learn, though I knew it before
that culture has her roots
in the deep dung of cash, and lore
is a last offshoot of Boots.

D. H. Lawrence Pansies



D.H. Lawrence Pansies 1929

Sir Jesse Boot was born in Nottingham in 1850. After his father’s death he helped his mother run the family shop selling herbal remedies. The shop did well, business multiplied and Boots shops appeared all over the country from 1900 with the branding “Chemists to the Nation”.

Cardinal Newman “The Idea of the University” 1852


What do you understand by the phrase “Liberal education”?

University education can teach us in the “language of common sense”, develop our use of a specialised language or seek to provide “enlargement of the mind”? Discuss the aim of our education.

Should there be a distinction between vocational training and education?

What do you make of the meaning of the final stanza?

Is the poem snobbish? Is it fair to Sir Jesse Boot or is Lawrence’s target still relevant?


O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

“Charity” is in Latin “caritas”, in Greek “agape”, in modern English translations, simply, “love”. It is, for Christians, but not only for Christians, the essential virtue.

The prayer appears in Thomas Cranmer’s The Common Book of English Prayer 1549 rev.1552). It is a collect (a short prayer, in Cranmer of one sentence, read by the minister in the Anglican liturgy) used on the Sunday before the start of Lent, the period of forty days leading up to Easter in the Christian calendar.

I have many readers who are Christian but also readers of different religions and probably readers with no religion at all. To some the above prayer will (perhaps) be both beautiful and profoundly moving, to others perhaps interesting, but without stirring any form of commitment. Its theme, however, is universal.

In a recent post I named Cranmer (along with the King James Version of the Bible, the Authorised Version, and Shakespeare ) as a maker of the English language during its freshest, most potent and expressive phase, making possible an extrordinary flourishing of the language and representing a standard by which English today might be tested.

Cranmer’s prayer is simple, direct , powerful. Monosyllabic words predominate. We seem to be moving to a positive from “O Lord who hast taught us that all our doings” to anticipate a favourable effect, whereas what we get is the negative counterplay of the second half of the phrase “without charity are nothing worth” resulting in the surprising force of the conclusion of the phrase, empowered as it is by inversion. We, today, would tend to say “are worth nothing” which would flatten the rhythm (with a slack ending) ; “nothing worth” (with two beats on first syllable of “nothing” and “worth” makes both words powerful, giving climactic force to the declaration.

Notice again ” doings”. Again we would attenuate it “the things we do” or else we would make them “actions”: same meaning, but more abstract and distant than the physically active “doings”.

The words are given, where possible, physical force. Along with “doings” look at the verbs “taught, “Send” , “pour”. Where there is superlative “that most excellent gift” the gift is given further substance: “the very bond of peace and all virtues” – or what holds all the virtues together meaningfully.

Then another powerful and daring climax : “without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. After all those monosyllables a clutch of longer words marked by alliteration makes us pick out the words precisely before the shock force of the living being “counted dead”. How can the worldly great or the self-centred in general be so discounted? The daringness is to be given a God’s eye view presented as we know it through Christ’s teaching on the primacy of “Love”. If charity is a Heaven-sent gift, which gives us life then all that is contrary is counted dead. “Dead before thee” shows the damning force of God’s valuation contrasted to what the world values.

The prayer holds together a dramatic conjunction of two forces: one making for charity, one in negation of charity within the perspective of God, who in Love provides those with faith in His gift of charity the blessing of fuller life as opposed to those lacking the gift who are rendered as naught without it.

The prayer has, I suggest, still the power to shock. We may think ourselves the star turn- leading goalscorers, sexy singers, the richest businessman in town, a top academic-one whose actions leads to a sense of self- importance – but we are suddenly told, our “doings”, our achievements, our ambitions ” without charity” are “nothing worth”. Charity comes before everything else and has to contain our “doings”, not the other way about, as the “rich young ruler” also found out.

The power of the message of the poem cannot be distinguished from the power of the style of writing. It is true Cranmer and his associates are often translating traditional material from the Latin but Cranmer’s greatness is to create a distinctive English style that reads well in public for centuries.( I have heard reports it is regaining popularity in Anglican services). To do this he developed English speech rhythms where the beat would fall on the words that need it most “whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. (Probably the final two words read best as anapaestic, rather than equivalent beats, with a rise in emphasis on each syllable to the long e-sound of “thee” acting to perpetuate the eternal consequences of being before God as Judge. There is a strong emphasis on monosyllabic , physical sounding words of Anglo-Saxon origin, consolidating English as a language of muscular force rather than a more musical romance language, like Italian.

The critic Ian Robinson places Cranmer as the starting point of modern syntactic English prose:

“Cranmer developed an English prose syntax, the first time this had been done since King Alfred the Great insisted that translations from the Latin must be into genuine English”.(1)

Almost five centuries later we remain his beneficiaries.


  1. Robinson, Ian The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment Cambridge University Press 1998