The Bridge on the River Chaos (full text)

Conference proceedings
Keynote address
The resolutions
Closing prayer

‘Imagine the world without bridges. The smallest river would become a barrier, only to be crossed by boat or at a place where the water is shallow enough to wade through. Journeys that are just a few miles as the crow flies, would have to follow a roundabout route to avoid difficult streams and rivers. Without bridges, all communication would slow down, and without swift, reliable communications, civilization would not be able to develop beyond the stage of small and mainly isolated settlements.’ So writes Jerry Kingston in his book How Bridges are Made.

The human compulsion to build bridges is so deep-rooted, it can be classed as archetypal. One such archetypal story comes from the book of Genesis. Jacob, the Patriarch, dreams of a ladder linking earth to heaven. There are angels ascending and descending on this ladder, which is, in effect, a bridge. This archetypal story is immortalized by William Blake’s sublime painting of Jacob’s ladder as a staircase, and by Francis Thompson’s soaring poem – situating Jacob’s ladder in London. I quote:

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)

Cry – and upon thy so sore loss

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder

Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,

Cry – clinging to Heaven by the hems;

And lo, Christ walking on the water,

Not of Gennesaret, but Thames!

God does not need a bridge. Jesus can walk on water. But because human beings need bridges, God condescends to build bridges with us, in creation and in redemption. The concept of bridge-building is archetypical because it is rooted in the divine act of God building bridges. The compulsion to build bridges is deep-rooted in the divine nature. The Bible begins with the act of God ‘building bridges’ over the waters of chaos.

Paradoxically, bridge building is fiercely contested. Not everyone wants to build bridges. The compulsion to build barriers and to blow up existing bridges is also deep-rooted in human nature. The monumental clash between the conflicting compulsions to build a bridge and to blow up a bridge is what makes Sir David Lean’s movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, one of most gripping movies of the 20th century.

The movie, an excellent piece of fiction, sadly takes unwarranted liberties with historical facts. For a more accurate account, I would suggest reading Prof Peter Davies’ meticulously researched book The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai. During the Second World War, the Japanese force British prisoners of war to build a railway bridge, as an essential part of the railway line linking Bangkok to Burma. More than 16,000 POWs die building this railway line.

In the movie, Colonel Nicholson (the fictionalised version of Toosey) is fixated upon building the bridge, convincing himself that the bridge is a monument to British character and should be constructed as a symbol of British morale and dignity in adverse circumstances. As the movie progresses, he seems to be building the bridge as a monument to himself, and his insistence on its construction becomes a subtle form of collaboration with the enemy. Unknown to him, the Allies have sent a mission into the jungle to blow up the bridge. The dénouement of the movie is when Nicholson, who has successfully built the bridge is trying to prevent the Allied commandos from blowing it up. He is shot and stumbles over to the detonator plunger and falls on it, just in time to blow up the bridge and send the enemy train hurtling into the river. Major Clipton, the British medical officer who has witnessed all the carnage unfold from his vantage point on the hill, shakes his head incredulously saying, ‘Madness! Madness!’

In the historical account, Colonel Toosey is forced to ponder the realities of life and death when he is placed in charge of the POWs. Toosey understands from the very beginning that the only real issue is how to ensure that as many of his men as possible should survive their captivity. He knows that the bridge will be built with or without his cooperation and sets himself to mitigating the terrible conditions under which the work is to be completed.

To build, or not to build, that is the question, we are posing to the Conference gathered here this morning. My task is to present to you the theological and moral blueprint of the bridge we intend to build and leave wiser minds and braver hearts to go ahead with the actual building (or blowing up). I am not pretending to be a structural engineer, but inspired by Richard Symonds, the man who has made this Conference possible, and the stalwart supporting Bishop George Bell, I am using bridge-building as a metaphor that will, I hope, situate the main concerns of the Bishop Bell group for discussion and debate.

Our first task is to name the river across which we intend building our bridge. Colonel Toosey was tasked with building his bridge on the River Kwai. We are tasked with building our bridge on the River Chaos. Why chaos? If you have been following the meteoric rise of clinical psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson and his Channel 4 debate with Cathy Newman that went viral with over five million views, you will know that for Prof Peterson, ‘chaos’ is a central symbol. In fact, his book is called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Order and chaos are the constituent elements of this world. ‘Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and co-operative. It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity.’[1] If we lived in a world of order, we would not be having this Conference. If the hierarchy of the Church of England had conducted its investigation into Bishop Bell on the principles of order, we would not be battling to clear the slander against his reputation. We are here, because order has been overwhelmed by chaos.

‘Chaos, by contrast, is where – or when – something unexpected happens. …It’s the new and unpredictable, suddenly emerging, in the midst of the commonplace familiar.’[2] ‘Imagine someone betrayed by a trusted lover. The sacred social contract obtaining between the two has been violated. …In the aftermath of disloyalty, people are seized by terrible emotions: disgust, contempt (for self and traitor), guilt, anxiety, rage and dread. Conflict is inevitable, sometimes with deadly results. Shared belief systems – shared systems of agreed-upon conduct and expectation – regulate and control all those powerful forces,’ observes Peterson.[3]

Peterson could well be describing the betrayal of Bishop George Bell. Bishop Bell was betrayed by a ‘trusted lover’, the Church of England. Chaos has prevailed in the aftermath of his accusation, conviction and exoneration. People have been seized by terrible emotions of disgust, contempt, guilt, anxiety, rage and dread. Most importantly, shared belief systems of order – structures of justice and truth have been dismantled, discarded or chaotically reinterpreted.

Order and clarity are indispensable features of the logos, God’s Word and are essential in the war against chaos. In the opening verses of the Bible, the river of chaos is an ocean of chaos. The Hebrew text invades our imagination by painting for us pictures of mythological sea monsters or dragons of chaos, intent on devouring God’s potential act of creation. God subdues and defeats the monsters of chaos through God’s Word. The sequential acts of creation following this Chaoskampf can be understood as God bringing order out of chaos and building bridges with the cosmos. Chaos is also marked by ‘darkness over the face of the deep’. God’s first act is to dispel darkness by creating light. Light is God’s first bridge-building act.

Over the last two years, the Bishop Bell group has been fighting this battle between chaos and logos. Finally, logos has triumphed. Hundreds of thousands of words, written and spoken by dozens of historians, lawyers, clergy, columnists, churchgoers and choristers, have prevailed. The Lord Carlile Review, a leading manifestation of ‘order’, even though restricted in its brief, has found a way to pronounce Bishop Bell ‘not guilty’. People of the logos have fought the Chaoskampf and brought light where there was darkness, clarity where there was confusion, and truth where there was falsehood. The prayer from the ancient Indian Upanishads: Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma amrytam gamaya – lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality – has been answered to a very large extent.

But the bridge over troubled waters is yet to be built, even though the building material is ready and at hand. In biblical mythology, the forces of chaos are never entirely subdued until the very end in the book of Revelation where ‘the sea is no more’ (21:1). These dragons of destruction raise their heads in the prophetic writings of Isaiah, in the vigorous poetry of the Psalms and the wisdom literature of Job. ‘Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? (51:9-10)

Justin Welby doubts the logos and rejects the light and clarity of order. He returns to the darkness and disorder of chaos in his insistence that a ‘significant cloud’ still hangs over Bishop Bell’s character. While the supporters of Bishop Bell desire to build bridges, the Archbishop of Canterbury seems bent on preventing its construction or even, God forbid, sabotaging the bridge.

Thus, we may not be able to build this bridge with Welby, even though we are desirous of so doing. Our chief task then, if may I humbly suggest, is to build the bridge between present and past. We build our most strategic bridge with history. History held Bishop Bell in the highest honour. As our magnificent seven historians write in their letter to the Archbishop: ‘We are all academic historians of the twentieth-century who have, over many years of university research, made our considered assessments of Bishop George Bell. …credible historical analysis and interpretation has been central in our careers. We regard George Bell as a significant historical figure and our assessment of his life and career has been an important aspect of our academic work. …We believe that your statement offends the most basic values and principles of historical understanding, ones which should be maintained firmly by those in positions of public authority across society.’

The present zeitgeist blew the bridge of historical record to smithereens. It adopted a scorched-earth policy to the memory of this heroic man of God and obliterated his name from institutions and buildings that had sought to etch his memory in stone.

This is the bridge we are rebuilding. It is impossible to bring order to the present when the past is distorted and returned to a state of chaos. History serves as ‘our laboratory, and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings. This, fundamentally, is why we cannot stay away from history: it offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives,’ says

historian Peter Stearns.[4] It is of paramount interest to all of us that the historical record must be set right and so our most strategic bridge over the River Chaos will be built with the bank of historical memory.

Structurally speaking, the most important part of the bridge is the beams that support it. I would like to suggest that our bridge with history would be built on the twin beams of truth and justice. The torrential waters of the River Chaos threaten both beams of truth and justice. We live in a post-modern and post-truth age. Postmodernism dismantles truth as relative and perspectival. Philosopher Richard Rorty unapologetically proclaims, ‘There is no truth. We should give up the search for truth and be content with interpretations.’

Listen to these incisive words from Professor Allan Bloom: ‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative…. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it…. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all (secondary and) primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating…. The true believer is the real danger.’

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary chose the term ‘post-truth’ as its Word of the Year. It defined post-truth as ‘relating to, or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

In its handling of the Bell enquiry, the Church of England has revealed its first postmodern and post-truth archbishop, for whom there is no truth, only interpretations; for whom the only virtue is openness, and for whom personal experiences are more influential than objective facts in shaping public opinion. Part of Welby’s truth is to be seen as indestructible on safeguarding. This might be the exercise of responsibility – but it might also be the placing of his ego before the integrity of George Bell.

‘What is truth?’ Justin asks Jesus. Jesus does not need to give him an answer. The Greeks and Romans would have readily accepted Plato and Aristotle’s definition of truth, where ‘truth is correspondence with the facts’ or ‘truth is agreement with reality.’ Truth is the agreement between a statement of fact and an actual state of affairs. Truth is inextricably intertwined with the logos. The prologue to John’s Gospel beings with a soaring portrayal of the logos, who was in the beginning with God and who became flesh and dwelt among us, ‘full of grace and truth’.

The second beam that will support our bridge across the River Chaos is justice. If Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’ and didn’t wait for an answer, he certainly wouldn’t risk asking Jesus the more vexing question, ‘What is justice?’ The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality? speaks of ‘different and incompatible conceptions of justice’ and of ‘conflicting conceptions of justice’.[5] He argues, for example, that for the ancient Greeks there was a conflict between the justice of excellence and the justice of effectiveness.

Is this what is being played out in the drama of Bishop Bell? There is one school that historically defines ‘justice’ as that which is ‘right’, and another more recent school that defines ‘justice’ as ‘rights’. ‘Rights’ are the obligations society is said to have towards certain social groups, and it is a status of a person in the organised hierarchy of such groups that decides what is ‘right’ according to the ‘rights’ granted to that group. In other words, justice is now re-defined as the ‘rights’ of a victim; these rights may even trump what is ‘right’, because postmodernism defines all claims to ‘truth’ and what is ‘right’ as claims to ‘power’.

In this radical conception of justice, those who claim to have suffered, qualify by default, for privileged status. They are right because they have the right to be right irrespective of what is empirically right. This, of course, is not to dismiss ‘Carol’ and her claims. It is simply to argue that the Church of England has moved considerably in its conception of justice. It is a very different conception from those who conceive of justice as ‘right’ because it is part of the right order of the logos, and its features are truth and light.

The traditional conception of justice derives its methodology from time-tested principles of jurisprudence and not more recent principles of expedience, pragmatism and the canonical authority of collective victimhood. This conception of justice dates back to Mosaic jurisprudence in the Torah: Thou (You?) shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. ‘You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice,’ says the Book of Exodus.

‘If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days,’ says the Book of Deuteronomy. Even if Bell’s accuser was not a malicious witness, there was no way both parties could appear in court.

‘A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established,’ states Deuteronomy. ‘Do not admit a charge against a presbyter except on the evidence of two or three witnesses,’ writes the apostle Paul to Timothy. The Church of England did not bother to corroborate accusations against Bell.

The right to face your accuser is best illustrated in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul is awaiting trial and is brought before King Agrippa II and Porcius Festus, Procurator of Judea. The chief priests and the elders petition the Roman rulers for a sentence of condemnation against Paul. Festus reports to Agrippa his response to the Jewish leaders: ‘I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone, before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defence concerning the charge laid against him.’

It is a devastating indictment of the Church of England that the judicial process conducted by the pagan administration of ancient Rome against the apostle Paul proved to be more just and fair than the judicial charade conducted by the Church of England against Bishop George Bell.

The problem with grounding this beam of justice, so as to build our bridge, is that it is constantly threatened by chaos. In his Republic, Plato seems to think that people are pushed into the path of justice only by coercion and force of law. People choose to act in their own interest, given the opportunity to commit injustice, because that is what nature deems good. Rehearsing the tale of Gyges, who one day finds a magic ring which confers on him the power of invisibility, Plato (as Glaucon) concludes ‘that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.’[6] ‘Of course, Plato (as Socrates) ultimately rejects Glaucon’s proposition, arguing instead that humans submit freely to justice and law because they profit by doing so. There are ample rewards for those who restrain themselves in the face of temptation and make amends in the case of transgression.’[7]

But making amends requires great courage and it is ‘courage’ which Aristotle called the greatest of all virtues, because without courage it is impossible to practice any of the virtues. It is courage which will drive the building of our bridge across the River Chaos, and it is this courage which comes across in one of the most moving scenes from the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Ten prisoners return to the prison camp in the evening, put their shovels by the guardhouse and line up for inspection. The guard counts the shovels and finds one missing. There are only nine shovels. The furious guard screams at the prisoners, “Where is the extra shovel? Who sold it to some Thais in the jungle, in order to get some extra money for contraband? Who stole the shovel?” The soldiers are silent. The guard then puts the barrel of his rifle against the forehead of the soldier who is first in line and threatens to kill him unless the soldiers confess who stole the shovel. There is a very long pause.

And then a young Scottish soldier steps forward. In a fit of rage, the guard smashes the face of the man with the butt of his rifle, knocking him to the ground. Using his rifle like a baseball bat, he pounds his prisoner’s body into the mud. He then barks an order and the nine soldiers pick up their fallen comrade and carry him to their barracks. The guard, still furious, returns to his guardhouse and counts the shovels again. There are ten. TEN. He had miscounted. One soldier stepped forward and died, so that one of his friends would not have to. He not only ‘covered’ for his friend, but also ‘covered’ for the ‘mistake’—for the sin of his Japanese captor.

There has been a terrible miscounting in the case of Bishop George Bell. But there has also been tremendous courage when dozens of his ‘friends’ have stepped up to ‘cover’ for him. ‘The story of bridges is as much the story of outstanding individuals as it is of improvements in available materials and structural design. Building a bridge requires a person with a special heart, an all-consuming drive and determination, and, above all, a vision,’ writes Steven Ostrow in his book, Bridges.

As Christians we ultimately celebrate the logos who was made flesh and, with truth and justice, covered for us all, through his death on the Cross, built the most important bridge of all between God and sinners. The Book of Common Prayer succinctly sums it up in the prayer of consecration when it says that ‘by his one oblation of himself once offered’, Christ Jesus made ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’. In today’s idiom, we would say, ‘Christ covered for us’ and built an unshakeable bridge over the troubled waters of chaos between God and humanity.

As a tribute to Bishop George Bell, I can do no better than conclude with these words from Romans 8: ‘What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, with him, graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered”. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

The Rev’d Dr Jules Gomes

Rebuilding Bridges Conference

Church House, Westminster


1 Feb 2018


[1] Jordan B Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Toronto: Random House, 2018, xxii.

[2] Peterson 2018: xxii.

[3] Peterson 2018: xxiv-xxv.


[5] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, ix.

[6] Quoted in Elazar Barkan & Alexander Karn (Eds.), Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006, 3.

[7] Barkan & Karn 2006: 3.

Conference proceedings
Keynote address
The resolutions
Closing prayer