6 min read

Even the best have their limits: Jürgen Klopp’s lessons for life

A famed football manager’s resignation tells us a lot about human nature. Jonny Rowlands explores both his and our limits
A football manager stands on the touchline and stares hard, dressed in a black coat and hat.
Klopp faces the future.
Liverpool FC.

10.36am, Friday 26 January 2024. A video is posted by Liverpool Football Club. It’s an interview with Jürgen Klopp himself. They only do this if it’s something big. Maybe he’s going to extend his contract at the club? Maybe they’ve found a replacement hamstring for Mo Salah?! 

“I will leave the club at the end of the season.” It is an absolute gut punch, and the sentence hits me like a truck. A feeling of shock washes over me. I’m reminded of a video of a young lad in Liverpool in 1974 being told Bill Shankly has resigned. He is in complete denial and just flat-out unable to accept the truth of the matter. Fifty years later, at 10.36am on Friday 26th January 2024, I am that young lad. This can’t be real. He’s not really going. This is one of those AI-deepfake things. Jürgen’s not leaving. Is he? I knew this was coming, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. I’m not ready.  

My mind is chaos, and I am a mess of contradictions. My wife is out and the only other person in the house I can talk to is a cat who does not understand the gravity of the situation. All too quickly it becomes painfully clear that this is real. He is leaving. And soon

The seeming mundanity of Klopp’s decision to leave, and his reason for doing so, speaks to his own philosophical nature.

When I return to reality, more questions emerge. Why is he leaving? Is he okay? Has he been offered a better job? Has he been sacked?! “I’m running out of energy,” he says. Jürgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool Football Club, has the best job in the world, is outstandingly good at it and, at only 56, feels as though he doesn’t have the energy for it anymore. What a thought. Surely there has to be more to his leaving than this? It can’t be that simple. 

But no; it really is that simple. It’s something unheard of in modern football. Jürgen hasn’t been sacked for poor results; Liverpool are flying at the moment and, at the time of writing, could still win every competition they’re in. He hasn’t been offered another job somewhere else; he says he won’t manage anywhere else for at least a year. He just hasn’t got the energy to do this anymore. Despite what everyone at Liverpool wants – himself included – he feels it’s the right time to acknowledge that he has simply reached his limit. He can do no more. 

Jürgen shares many similarities with the pantheon of great Liverpool managers, of which he is now a part; the likes of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Daglish, still sung about on the kop to this day. One characteristic, however, strikes me above all others.  All of Liverpool’s greatest managers have been deeply philosophical, both about football and about life itself. Klopp is no exception. The seeming mundanity of Klopp’s decision to leave, and his reason for doing so, speaks to his own philosophical nature. It also speaks to something seldom noted about human nature more generally: our finitude.  

There is goodness in finitude. Our creaturely limitations remind us that we are not God; our finitude reminds us that we come from infinitude. 

By finitude, I mean our inherent limitations are created beings. Put bluntly, one day, we will die. We are finite, not infinite. This finitude is an inalienable part of being human: to be human is to be limited rather than limitless. We encounter our finitude at all moments of our lives. In our need to sleep, rest, eat, drink, and so much more besides. Any moment at which we are not wholly self-sufficient (if we are ever wholly self-sufficient), when we rely on something beyond ourselves, we are faced with our own finitude. 

This finitude can certainly lead to difficult moments (like, for example, having to watch one of your footballing heroes suddenly announce he’s leaving your club). But despite this, there is goodness in finitude. Our creaturely limitations remind us that we are not God; our finitude reminds us that we come from infinitude. It reminds us that we need those around us and, in turn, that they need us. These are good things to be reminded of, that we always live in a complex web of dependence on one another, as we navigate our finitude together.  

Jürgen’s resignation is such a shock because it speaks directly to this often-unnamed aspect of our nature; this inter-dependence we all rely upon due to the limitations built into our human nature. He has simply recognised his finitude. It comes as such a shock, in part, because it is rare to see someone acknowledge their humanity and their limitations so plainly. Jürgen is running out of energy. Aren’t we all? 

It is also striking, as the UK endures the slow run up to what is likely to be an unedifying general election, that when faced with his own finitude, Jürgen has sought not to consolidate his own power and position, but freely to give it up. He could have had the run of the place for as long as he wanted. If he had asked for a life-time contract, few would have wanted to say no. This is part of what makes him such a compelling leader; his willingness to vacate positions of leadership when the time is right. Because it is this very vulnerability that makes him so authentically human. 

In the end, then, it is an act of love from Jürgen. Clearly the decision has weighed on him somewhat; he is clear that he doesn’t really want to go, but that he feels it’s the right thing to do. Faced with his own finitude, with the limitations of his own creatureliness as a human being, the most loving thing he can do for the club is to walk away, to admit his human fragility. There is something reminiscent here of the apostle Paul, who claimed he would boast in his weaknesses, because that was how Christ dwelled in him. “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong”. Jürgen, too, a devout Christian himself, has displayed immense strength in his weakness. I do not speak lightly when I say it is a deeply Christ-like decision on his part. 

To acknowledge our dependence on others, to acknowledge our inability always to be dependable; these things are acts of love born from recognition of our finitude. To love one another is not to pretend we can fix each other’s problems, nor is it to avoid being a burden on other people. In depending on others and being depended upon, we become more and more like that which God has called us to be: finite, limited creatures in need of those around us. Our limitations are an opportunity to display love, not a hindrance to it. 

In all this, Jürgen acknowledges his own finitude in a way that is rare to see and, clearly, difficult even for himself fully to come to terms with. Like Jürgen, we are all running out of energy. This need not be a cause for sadness; it merely points us towards the one from whom that energy comes and reminds us of our dependency on Him, and on those around us. Our finitude is a gift, releasing us from the burden of being all things to all people. I still wish Jürgen was staying, though. 

7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.