issue 155 | January 1986
issue 155 | January 1986
The deeper journey
THE world's news media provide a daily diet of varied stories to satisfy our appetites. Each event, whether a murder, an election or the falling dollar, is like a bead tossed at random onto a pile. There is no attempt to connect them up, to thread them onto a string of meaning. But if the stories engage us at all, we want to know more. And the questions we ask lead back into the past.
If we go far enough asking 'How' and 'Why' we end up in the sphere of religion. 'Why do people behave the way they do?' 'Is it worthwhile struggling to help others?' 'Is history going anywhere?' 'Why has this happened to me?' These are all religious questions.
Some people seek answers to find a framework for ordinary living. It could be the day's news which sets them searching. For others it's a personal experience of loss or anxiety that is the driving force. Faced with a child's serious illness, parents will suddenly ask questions that have never troubled them before. They may cope with their personal tragedy through a faith which is big enough to interpret sickness and untimely death. On the other hand they may find nothing but an abyss of meaninglessness and then struggle to rebuild their lives around that perception. There is no way of proving which picture is true: both are 'faith positions'.
The same kind of questions arise when we become aware of current threats to human survival. Is it possible that history might come to an end because of nuclear war, or through human damage to the earth's life-support system? Does that mean history is the product of random chance? Or does some kind of purpose lie behind it? And if there is a purpose, can it be thwarted (by, for instance, our choosing to blow up the world)?
As people begin to probe the depths of meaning religion acts as a kind of magnet on the soul. Whether you call it a story or a framework, people need something that helps them fit into a wider context than their own lives. So in every culture in history a form of religion has emerged alongside other developments in art or government.
The sustaining religious stories that different peoples believe tend to shift and adapt to historical change. For example, the national identity of the Jews and the laws which expressed it were embodied in the account of the Covenant made between them and their god in the desert. Sustained by this belief, they were confident that he would protect them against their enemies.
But when Jerusalem was sacked in 587 BC, their temple destroyed and the people exiled to Babylon, the original story was no longer sufficient. They had to think again. The response was voiced by one poet who wrote a new song of creation in which he pictured the whole world, the Jews and their enemies, all created by one god and therefore together being part of his purpose. This poem eventually found its place as the opening chapter of the Bible. Instinctively, through disaster, the Jews had been led back to an ultimate story which could help them cope with whatever happened.
In a similar way, the tribal religions of Africa have stories which provide a framework for life experiences like drought and famine or disease amongst the cattle. As the people became aware of a wider world than their tribal territory, their framework of belief had to expand as well.
For other people, faith is not an intellectual exercise and has no interpretive stories. They are content to accept without question a belief system which others have handed down. In this case faith is something you are born with - a kind of shared community identity. For instance, the British working-class culture at one time was supported by a philosophy summed up in such phrases as 'You must always be loyal to your mates or 'You've got to help one another out'. These sayings could be traced back to deeper roots in folk memory or explicit belief but nobody bothered. In themselves they were sufficient to give a badge of belonging which helped people know where they were.
For those who believe, however, religion is more than a mere story holding us together. It relates to a truth which not only sustains us in times of questioning, but forms our attitudes and directs our action.
The word 'religion' is drawn from the Latin and has something to do with 'binding together'. There are three aspects of this. First of all, faith helps each of us cope with ourselves. Many people find it difficult to accept the whole of their personality - there is a shadow side which each individual tries to split off and deny. Through ritual cleansing, through an understanding of forgiveness, religion makes it possible to live at ease with oneself.
Second, religion is about human belonging. Sometimes for a tribe, group or nation it provides a sense of belonging necessary when the wider world is felt to be a threat.
And third, at a universal level, religion offers us an image of humanity as one family and by the process of reconciliation seeks to bring us all into one. A religion which takes creation seriously is also about the human race taking its place within the total system of the universe. The more we realise the intricacy of the universe, the wider our vision is expanded by science, the deeper are our questions about the part that human beings play in all this.
In such a context the 20th century Christian, for example, believes God created the world and continues to be involved in its life in order to take forward his purpose to its completion. We expect to discover the same truths that are told in the Gospel reflected in different modes, in the discoveries of science. In order to do this, however, there has to be an openness of mind which looks for reinterpretations and makes connections.
Believers in other faiths can make similar claims for the transforming power of their creed, as it relates everyday experience to a transcendent truth about God's activity and purpose.
It must, however, be acknowledged that every religion should carry a 'governmental health warning'. Instead of giving individuals or societies the courage to grasp new possibilities of letting go outmoded security, the name of God has been invoked on occasions against new thinking or social change. Religion has become a refuge for the frightened. Since frightened people also become vicious, repressive regimes and intellectual persecution have been justified as being faithful to the tradition. The danger comes when fidelity to a living god is equated with obedience to a fixed system of belief or morality.
Human history is a process of growth. Almost every religion in one way or another includes in its story the dream of the journey. Where this is denied, there are danger signals that what was meant to be liberating is becoming an imprisonment and that human anxiety is hijacking the one resource which makes fresh movement and discovery possible.
Michael Hare Duke is the Anglican Bishop of St Andrews in Scotland.
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
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