Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 9: Why Religion Doesn't Always Make Me Cross.

I’ve sought to explain and justify my persistent vexatious feelings about religion, but now I’ve said enough. Lets move on because, well, I’ve moved on. I’m positive, excited about the future, confident that claims to exclusive religious truth will fade in time, like an empty, irrelevant, and potentially divisive rumour. It’ll happen when it finally becomes clear even to religious people that the symbols that make up our languages and texts cannot really contain or express truth – religious or otherwise. Nevertheless, for now religion remains an inescapable ‘reality’, and I chose not to remain angry or demoralised about it. I wish to avoid the kind of excessive bile which could skew my perceptions, or distort my arguments. I am striving to be fair-minded, even handed, and capable of acknowledging the provisional and limited nature of my own words and hypotheses.

In that spirit, let me concede I like some aspects of religion (just as I might like some aspects of the American government’s activity in Israel or Africa, without being fond of American foreign policy as a whole): Despite myself I still like old Church buildings, and Anglican hymns whose words I learned by heart as a young choirboy: such familiar sights and sounds reliably counteract a kind of empty “home sick” feeling, whenever my surroundings seem ‘alien’ or threatening somehow. I also like kindly old ladies who bake for Church functions and spoil little children. I enjoy Christmas carols, and for me Taizé music can be ‘heavenly’. I even have affection for parts of the Bible – notably parables like ‘The Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10), and the one with the widow who gives away her last two copper coins while no one is looking (Mark 12). Further, if I were ever truly in desperate need, I think I might go to a priest or an imam, a church or a mosque – places where I know well-meaning individuals tend to congregate.

Religious or not, people tend to grow on me, once I get passed my preconceptions and appreciate their rounded individuality. In particular, I have a lot of time for religious people who honestly ‘don’t know’. These are open people who, it seems to me, gain much from not being sure about what they believe: they’re humble, and they don’t indoctrinate or force their beliefs on others. They are spiritual people whose spirituality performs a very real function in their lives; they tend to find solace in ceremony and constancy in the services, rituals, and festivals that break up their year. Hanging onto some kind of “open belief” can provide an avenue for genuine reflection, as well as relaxation and personal development – vital aspects of a life well lived, which many of us have lost. For others, notably “non-practicing” individuals who were brought up in the faith, God remains an important notion: few of these read or attempt to defend the Bible, and, for my own part, I’m disinclined to disapprove of them. We can’t all be philosophers, and people who are happy and harmless can’t all be expected to halt their daily lives in order to critically assess their unseen assumptions.

Clearly I’m making an effort to be kind here, and as a final gesture I’d like to mention two very important words – “love” and “forgiveness”. I’ll allow those words stand there alone, because they are strong expressive words that do not need to be borne up by philosophical explication or religious structure. Love and forgiveness have been working for a long time now, occasionally loudly or publicly, but perhaps more often quietly and privately. It appears Jesus and/or the gospel writers, like Gautama and Lao-tze, chose to use these words, and for that at least lets give them a nod. And spare a bow for people down the ages who may have read the whole Bible, but have nevertheless singled out and acted upon these two words. As Victor Frankl (author of ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’) discovered in Auschwitz, love allows us rise high, far above physical life and suffering – it is our salvation.

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