New Internationalist

Mixing it

Issue 370

As part of her BBC radio series Devout Sceptics Bel Mooney interviewed novelists Ben Okri and Amy Tan. They talk here of their eclectic spirituality and how bereavement affected their beliefs.

ROB MCDOUGALL / PHOTOGALLERY SCOTSMAN
ROB MCDOUGALL / PHOTOGALLERY SCOTSMAN

I was born in the north of Nigeria, but my father and mother are from the mid-west of Nigeria. I came to London around the age of a year and a half. I was here until about seven. While here I lived, in spiritual terms, on three levels. School and its [Christian] religious education. My parents’ [African] traditional and religious beliefs. And then there was the world of my childhood, my reading and thinking…
My own form of spirituality is different from religion. One has to do with an institution, and the other with the self’s quest for the highest meaning that life can offer. It’s also quite eclectic and had to do with travelling between cultures. This made me open myself up to other religions and to other spiritual ways such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism. I took an interest in all these eastern forms. Much later I took an interest in some aspects of Judaism, and Islam, because I found something that runs through all of them and they all seem to resonate with one another…. It’s very hard to know where to seek comfort when great pain, great tragedy falls upon you, because it tends to turn your world upside down, it bursts it wide open. All the certainties that you had, and all the places that you thought could help you, don’t. And many, many things are exposed for not being deep enough in the way they were meant to help us cope with the more extreme vicissitudes of the human experience. When my mother died, for example – it was such an appalling experience, an appalling moment in my life. It was like there’s an earth inside the soul, inside the spirit. It gets taken away completely and you're standing absolutely on air, on nothing… It is quite the most emptying experience I have ever been through. I remember at the time finding myself having to hold on to solid things like walls and lampposts, and found they weren’t solid enough. I’d lean against a tree and find it wasn’t solid enough…. All the physical things, all the things we turn to for sustenance and support,

I found to be quite hopeless and quite empty.

What it actually did was make me ask questions again about the true sustainers of the human spirit. What is it that, when these things befall us, we can rely on, we can turn to?

And it’s a really difficult question… It stripped me apart utterly, and it began a new and important journey in my spiritual and intellectual life. The religious structures, the church, helped, but not as deeply as I thought it would. This is a terrible thing to say. The reason is because at the time I experienced something very peculiar. I realized that the pastor, the priest who was speaking to me about grief, spoke to me from a book but not from experience, so he could not speak to the grief in me. He couldn’t speak to the emptiness in me because, at the time, he hadn’t gone through it himself. I can say this now with a certain amount of tranquility because about four years later his mother died and he wrote to me and said: ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t know. That’s what you were going through at the time.’

Ben Okri’s books include the Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment, Dangerous Love, Infinite Riches and Arcadi.


Reuters
Reuters

My father was a Baptist minister, as were my grandfather and all my aunts and uncles. Twelve of them, all evangelists in China… My mother was a typical Chinese woman from Shanghai, meaning that she had an eclectic background of beliefs which I call ‘ultimate pragmatism’. She went to a Catholic girls’ school but also believed in Buddhism, ancestor worship, ghosts, curses, whatever worked. The beliefs that my mother had, particularly in ghosts, were kept hidden from me and she didn’t speak about them in the family until after my father died. Well, actually, when my father and brother became ill with brain tumours. That’s when she believed that the curses had fully come into force in our family, and so she couldn’t help but speak about them…

Up to that point I was very, very much involved with the Church. And I used to go to the beach on Saturdays, to Santa Cruz, and try to recruit children – and other students, teenagers, lying in bikinis, kissing boys – to come and discover a better life…

I think it was a good period of my life to have gone through that experience of absolute faith, as a truth that’s handed to you, because then I can compare with the other experience, when I lost my faith so completely.

I had believed so completely that I actually thought the miracle would happen. I felt the miracle had been promised me, that my father and brother would live… Being 15 years old, I was at that ripe age when I would become a cynic about anything. So religion was the prime thing for me to reject. And I had all the reasons to reject it. When I lost my father and my brother, I realized I could not trust in any set of beliefs or absolute truths that had simply been handed to me. I had to ask questions too.

I have to discern what the truth is for me. And whatever my truth is, it’s not one I would try to impose on anyone else, because the questions are very, very particular, very specific to me. That’s what I think.

All of us have to pay attention to how we impose our ideas on others in the belief that the consequences will be better for the rest of the world. After 11 September we all know what this means. As Americans, we can see how our views on how to improve the world – which perhaps we have imposed on others – have led to a backlash. As a writer, I don’t have any general beliefs that I would want to give anybody, any bits of advice, any absolute truths.

Amy Tan’s books include the international best-selling The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses and The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Reprinted with permission from Devout Sceptics: Conversations on Faith and Doubt with Bel Mooney, by Bel Mooney, Hodder and Stoughton, 2003.

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