reasonable bus journeys

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I recently attended some training for trustees and one statement took me back many years to when I did a Law Degree. The trainer said that trustees of a charity have to act reasonably. And I was reminded of just how much ‘reasonableness’ is embedded in English Law.

In Law there are many occasions when the standard of behaviour is judged by the ‘reasonableness test’. The standard for that was originally defined as “the man on the Clapham omnibus” and this was first used in a 1903 libel case. This person was deemed to be an ordinary, everyday, reasonably intelligent, reasonably educated person – against whose presumed action or behaviour the actions of a defendant would be judged.

There have been a lot of amendments to this: you don’t judge whether a surgeon has acted reasonably by the standard of the man on the Clapham omnibus, but by the actions of his peers. You don’t assess whether a soldier has acted reasonably under fire by the standard of the man sitting safely on the Clapham omnibus but by the actions of soldiers in similar circumstances.

But the reminder about the ‘reasonableness’ test got me thinking (after the training had finished, I did listen to it all – honest!). Do we judge other people by our own standard of reasonableness? Do we think that if we would not have reacted in a certain way then nobody else ought to? Or if we would have done something then it’s reasonable to assume that everyone else should do so too? I think we often do, and that’s not, erm, reasonable.

It’s unfair because our expectations of ourselves are often unrealistic. We imagine how we would have reacted to something when we might, in the event of it happening, react very differently. I imagine that if there was someone getting ready to fire a gun at someone I would heroically jump in front of them, but the reality might well be very different. And it’s also unfair because if we make assumptions about how other people ought to behave without telling them what we’re expecting then we are setting them up for a fall. There have been times when someone has been unwell in the churches I serve and they (reasonably) expect that their Minister (aka me) would check to see how they are and perhaps come and see them. But if nobody has told me that the person is unwell, it’s not fair to expect me to get in contact and get huffy when I don’t.

It’s heresy time again, folks, so get ready with those virtual stones…

God is not reasonable. By that I mean that he doesn’t treat us in the way that we deserve, he responds to us with grace. He doesn’t limit himself to our low expectations he is generous. He doesn’t just want to be friends with the nice people in the world, he wants all of us to know him. He doesn’t conform to our expectations, he exists well outside the box and thinks well beyond the blue sky! He is extraordinarily unreasonable! If you doubt that, read one of the Gospels and look at Jesus. He was SO unreasonable it was brilliant – going out of his way to mix with the wrong people, breaking the religious rules that were like a straightjacket on people and loving in a self-sacrificial way that has never been seen before or since.

And I am so glad he is unreasonable. Because he can cope with my unreasonable behaviour, whether or not I am sitting on a Clapham omnibus!

Be blessed, be a blessing

is God unreasonable?

Yesterday’s bloggage about difficult questions got me thinking about a question I got asked at a University interview. I was applying to study Law at Bristol University and had somehow been offered an interview. I travelled up on a coach in my new M&S suit without any idea what I was letting myself in for.

When I arrived I joined the other nervous-looking candidates. I can’t remember too much about the day except for two things from the interview itself.

One was the layout of the interview: it took place in what was obviously a lecturer’s study. There were two staff members seated as I entered. One was in a low armchair, the other on a desk chair. I sat on a chair that was halfway in height between those two chairs. And the two interviewers were seated about two metres apart. This meant that when I was talking to them I had to look down and to the right to speak to one and up and to the left to speak to the other. It was a bit discombobulating. I am not sure if it was deliberate – to see how we coped in awkward situations – or accidental – because there was not too much room in the study.

The second thing I remember is a question (yes, there is a link with yesterday’s bloggage – it’s almost seamless!). One of the interviewers (I don’t remember if it was ‘low, comfy, righty’ or ‘high, upright, lefty’*) asked:


“You buy a pet tiger. Before you buy it you do some research and discover that tigers can’t jump higher than 12 feet. So you build a 13 foot high fence around your garden. However, it turns out that your tiger is a super-tiger who can leap higher than 13 feet and one day he jumps the fence and mauls your neighbour. Discuss.”

I was thrown. I had no idea what to say initially, so I made it look like I was considering my answer. In the end I think I came up with a decent enough response. I said that I thought I had taken all reasonable steps in the circumstances so I was not liable. I said the tiger’s ability was so unexpected that it would be like if I had a dog on a chain and it bit through the chain and attacked someone.

I suspect it would have been better if I had talked about whether there is a strict liability for those who have wild animals in their gardens. I suspect it would have been better if I had discussed whether I might face criminal charges or even a Health and Safety investigation. I suspect it would have been better if I had discussed whether it was reasonable to keep a wild animal in a suburban garden in the first place. But none of these came to me at the time (partly because I had not studied Law at the time: after all, that’s what I was applying to study).

I did not get offered a place at Bristol University.

I am not sure it was because of my tiger-related answer. It may have been the M&S suit.

‘Reasonableness’ is at the heart of our legal system. Many cases revolve around whether someone acted reasonably, or whether someone could reasonably expect someone else to act in a certain way. It used to be that the test of ‘reasonableness’ was related to a hypothetical ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’. This was assumed to be a normally-educated and intelligent non-specialist bloke, against whose presumed conduct the actions of a defendant could be measured to see if they have been negligent. If it can be established that the man on the Clapham omnibus would have done it like that, it is reasonable.

The reasonableness test has undergone a lot of revisions. It has all sorts of caveats attached to it now, but if you are ever sitting on a bus with ‘Clapham’ on the front I hope you will take your responsibility seriously.

The problem is that when I look at God I think he is unreasonable. He requires perfection and gives us free will to choose whether or not to live up to those standards, and we fall short every time.

I think one of the problems is that you can’t apply a ‘reasonable-ness’ test to God. You can’t consider a ‘god on the Clapham omnibus’ to discern whether or not he has acted reasonably. We can’t put ourselves in his position no matter how high an opinion we have of ourselves.

But actually (and before you start lobbing abuse at the screen) the paragraph two up from here does not contain the unreasonableness. It’s quite reasonable that God’s all-consuming perfection would consume the less-than-perfect beings we become when we reject him. It’s an act of reasonable love that we are separated from him in order that we might survive, at least temporarily.

The unreasonableness is that he loves us so much that he does not want us to suffer the consequences of our actions – separation from him. The unreasonableness is that God has sorted out the problem we have caused. the unreasonableness is that he allowed his son to be executed so that we need not die. The unreasonableness is the extent of his grace that knows no limits. The unreasonableness is all to do with his generosity and love and positive attitude towards us.

I am so glad God is so unreasonable.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Obviously these are descriptions of the seating arrangements and nothing to do with their church preference, social standing or politics