Some bloggers have asked for contributions to the discussion on the knotty problem of the faith they grew up with being challenged by the dreadful realities of life. I think this is especially real at the moment in the US with the so-called Christian Right loudly involved in their politics.
Firstly, to nail my colours to the mast. I was brought up in a family of sceptics who avowed no belief. We lived, however, in a small English village for a large part of our lives and the Church (Church of England) was both physically and emotionally the hub of the village. The graves in the graveyard went back hundreds of years and traditions were kept alive in the village concerning one parishioner, Matthew Wall, the Old Man of the Village, who had lived five hundred years ago. Each year his grave was decorated with brambles (to prevent the sheep from grazing on it) and a street was brushed clean of leaves in his honour. Yes, sheep grazed in our graveyard: apple trees blossomed there in Spring and Daffodils’ trumpets heralded the Resurrection at Easter. As children we played in the graveyard, cleaning up the head stones and reading the inscriptions. The old people, the young men who died in war, the young women who died in childbirth, the babies, the suicides in their special corner. On special occasions, on summer evenings on Sundays, All Saints Day and Easter, you would always find people in the graveyard tending graves, remembering the dead. The dead were part of the village.
Belief aside, what this gave to us children was a visual sign of the strength of love, the depth of feeling, the connections in a small community. And before my mother died she said that the only thing she could believe in was Love: not the romantic stuff on films and TV but the stuff as strong as ropes of steel, the stuff of the will, the intent, that was translated into concrete action. A great friend of hers who was high up in the church hierarchy, but as humble as they come, came to see her just before she died: we don’t know what he said to her but her face was transfigured with happiness when he left. And he believed that all you needed in life was love. In his creed, God was love, and if you loved, God was with you and you were with Him.
Some years ago Archbishop Basil Hume, the Roman Catholic Archbishop here in the UK, wrote, that ultimately all the different religions and creeds are unnecessary: they are created by humans who need security and who project their own feelings and desires on to a figurehead. We cannot know the unknowable so we give it a form and dress it up in clothes that we can recognise. He felt that the essentials of spirituality were one and the same, just expressed differently: however, he was not decrying faith or church structures, because he felt that they were needed so badly by people who struggled; just that they were a means to an end, not the end itself.
I believe that humans are unbelievably ego-centric: to feel good about ourselves we decide what is, and must be. Few people will look at things objectively. For example, for years we have decided that intelligence is measured by brain size, because we decided that our brains were the measuring stick. Now that is being challenged by recent knowledge of avian brains. We have denied the rest of the animal kingdom feelings, because to feel good about ourselves we must distance ourselves from our heritage, which is animal. I have seen horses cry, and grieve. Researchers know what elephants go through when other elephants are ill or die.
It is scary to think that we are not different and special, but are just on one part of a spectrum. In the same way do we distance ourselves from, and treat, many differences and minorities, whether by colour, creed, culture sexual orientation etc.
When the Northern Ireland conflict was at its height, both sides co-opted a religious dimension as camouflage for arms, drugs, racketeering and power play. When I was a Polling Clerk recently my Presiding Officer was a Moslem, a devout man. He bemoaned the fact that although his religion preached peace, and loyalty to the country in which you make your home, yet his religion was being hijacked by the fanatical few. The hot-heads make news, the good news stories are unpublished. Incidentally, it was a group of religious people who realised what Hitler was doing and tried to assassinate him.
Where does this leave me? A dear friend is gay: I know what he has suffered: abuse, threats, assault, and often by the so-called Christians. Ironically, of course, that is just what happened to Christ. Another dear friend is Jewish: I know what he and his family escaped and the quotas and restrictions he has suffered. To this day he fears Christians.
All power corrupts eventually: all institutions crumble and have to be re-built, renewed, re-constituted. It happens to everything in this world. ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ is not just a line from a hymn, it is the reality of recycling which underpins the universe.
I have no recognised belief, no association with any creed. But I do not dismiss the good that can be found in all creeds because of the dreadful few who claim to speak in a creed’s name. Nor do I dismiss the good that is done by people who vehemently decry religion. Nor do I dismiss the evil that is done in the name of religion and, incidentally, in the name of political dogma. I had great respect for a Bishop of Durham who said he did not know whether, and could not prove, that Christianity was true, but he would rather live a life based on the best principles he knew and be proved wrong, than vice versa.
People are people, whatever they profess. I don’t believe that their behaviour can change any ultimate reality, if there is one. But if there is a force for evil in the universe, what a joke to pervert the institutions set up to promote good.
As for Me? My background is scientific. I was interested to read about a poll of scientists and their faith, or lack of, which came up with the following:
Deepest Faith The Mathematicians and Physicists
Next level The Chemists
Lowest/None The Biologists
All quite logical I think: the glorious logic of the patterns underpinning the Universe, the wonder of energy being converted into matter, the beauty of chemical interactions, lead to awe if nothing else. But the ‘red in tooth and claw’ bit puts off many Biologists and Natural Historians. What all science shows is that everything is interconnected: these connections are fundamental.
I once had a waking vision: the whole Universe was spread before me like an electrical circuit board, with endless connections, spreading out and out. But at the very end of one section there was a tiny component, and it was me. My faith, if you can call it that, is that we are all connected and love is somehow the electricity that powers everything. For all we know, that power may be able to be converted into matter. But that is getting into fantastic speculation and I prefer to keep my feet on the ground!
Further than that I cannot explain. I don’t want to put my own clothes onto the ineffable and thereby constrict it: if it exists!