It was sad news to wake up to this morning. John Hull was admitted to hospital on Friday, after a fall, and died in the early hours. I expect obituaries from the great and the good to follow – they certainly should! – but I felt like penning my own reflections too.
Those of us who knew John only in his years at Queen’s Foundation might not realise he was a lauded professor of RE for most of his academic career. It was John Hull and John Hick really – those were among the people who most shaped our ideas around a philosophy of religious engagement from a Christian perspective.
When he retired they wanted to keep him around and made him ‘Emeritus’ which is latin for ‘we wanted to keep him around’. John described this experience as like being “a ringwraith” loitering the corridors without any power or role so many years after retirement he decided to relaunch his career as an agitator of clergy: hence his journey to Queen’s Foundation.
Marilyn had asked him “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” and John had replied something like, “I want to transform the church and save the world.” Thankfully for the rest of us she had told him, “Well then, you’d better have a chat with [principal at Queen's Foundation] David Hewitt.”
And John set about doing exactly as he intended. Queen’s was the first college to include credits in political engagement as part of the core syllabus for Methodist and Anglican ministerial students.
It is, I’m sure, the only college to see staff members and students blockade Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland and to take a whole coach-load of staff and students to the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston to repent and lament our manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction.
Queen’s staff and students have dressed up as Robin Hood (you know who you are!) to support the Tobin Tax, had postcard campaigns, and engaged churches across the Midlands with Justice Mail. As well as a regular vigil at Elbit factory that makes drones used against civilian populations.
All this has been agitated by John Hull.
However, most people will not be thinking fondly of John for any of these reasons or because of his many books.
They will be remembering his humour, his compassion, his story-telling in which he willing offered of his personal stories of love and struggle and in doing so solicit other people’s stories and willingness to experiment in radical compassion too.
I will remember John with a glass of wine in his hand and throwing his head back in mischievous laughter or suddenly becoming prone with an idea – his hands in the air, ready to pounce on whatever new possibility for agitation it involved.
When it comes to the ‘Gods of this age’ John Hull encouraged us to be heretics – not to give in to the greed and fear that the Money-God engenders in our lives, whether it’s a false sense of charity or treating shopping as an ‘experience’ instead of a function he saw in our culture and idol worship of capital and capitalism that was at the shadowy heart of what was wrong with the west.
Today, in a small way, I blasphemed the money God, it’s a great way to honour his memory. Why not do that today too?