I had a phone conversation with my father a few days ago, and the subject of the troubles in the world came up. My father reacted by saying “It’s all the fault of religion”. Now, what should I have said? Should I have tried to tell him to make distinctions, for example between fundamentalist and liberal or whatever? I felt as spiritually exhausted as he does in his late eighties but managing extremely well since my mother died nearly three years ago. What does “religion” mean? It can mean “re-tie” (re-ligare our relationship with God through a system of belief, prayer, sacraments and community worship). It can also mean man’s desire to apprehend and appropriate the mystery of what lies beyond our understanding.
If I’m honest with my father, or with anyone else expressing this reproach, I can hardly contradict him. The three most intolerant religions in the world are all monotheist. They (at least Christianity and Islam) expect everyone in the world to join them on pain of eternal hell because their existing belief systems are bogus and graceless, and because they need to be brought into conformity with the religion’s moral principles. From this point of view, mankind would be better off without these root causes of historical and present-day religious warfare, slavery, colonisation and extermination of indigenous populations, etc.
Then we can retort that much more suffering was caused by atheistic or neo-pagan ideologies like Soviet Communism and Nazism. Could Christianity be justified because it makes people suffer less than under unredeemed human nature in all its cruelty? Should Christianity be allowed to cause any suffering at all to remain credible? I don’t think there are any convincing answers.
One big problem I find with Christianity (since I am myself a Christian and a priest), is that it claims to be the only way, whether through an infallible Pope and Church, an infallible Bible (complete with passages that are just as bad as the equivalent or comparable passages in the Koran) or via some imaginary relationship with Christ. What do we make of the claims of Christ himself saying things like “I am the way, the truth and the life…”? What do we make of the mandate to go and convert the world and that those who refuse the Gospel will be damned? Are we not bound to these words, or are we not bound to reject them and everything else in that belief system?
Whilst doing some research to see if anyone had ever come up with a convincing argument that Jesus was insane, I came across a description of Lewis’s Trilemma. This is an apologetic argument by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity to claim Christ’s divinity with the only two alternatives being that he was evil or insane. It is an interesting one. I have to admit that I find many things I read in the Gospels deeply disturbing – for example the claim to be the only way to heaven, some of the eschatological imagery he used like the fig tree, or sending demons into pigs. Surely the narrative of these words and events has allegorical meaning, like the interpretation of the Old Testament, but they still leave us wondering.
Was Christ a control freak in opposition to the establishment (Temple, Sadducees and Pharisees, etc.) or was he the “cynical” anarchist we prefer to see in the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount? This is what it boils down to. The real problem is how one goes “through” Christ, in the same way as you would go through your local Bishop, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Pope: an application letter and an interview (if you’re lucky enough to get a reply) – or in some allegorical and metaphorical way. It would seem to me that the only way to defend this notion of Jesus’ way being the only way is his divinity. He was speaking as God, not as a mere human figure, the incarnate God. This God, the God above God, is the one divinity of all.
It gets worse when we start to dismantle and criticise as biblical scholars have been doing since at least the nineteenth century. There have been men like Bultmann and Harnack who sought to debunk and deny the very possibility of miracles and wonders. There have been more intelligent exegetes since then like my own Old Testament professor, Fr Dominique Barthélemy OP (his obituary). There are discrepancies, failed prophecies, something completely incoherent about many things we read in those pages. Unless we reject the Bible as junk, we can make some sense by different levels of reading and understanding as Origen proposed. Much can be read as allegory or poetry, or as analogy to explain myths that are too distant in the past to be remembered. Christianity itself has evolved over the centuries through its various compromises with human power and ambition.
I have already criticised the notion of an eternal hell and its being the means to force everyone into a single system through blackmail. That Jesus would be the only way out of the cosmic “concentration camp” seems just to be a means of political control. Is it possible to be a Christian whilst believing that everyone else is also right or in good conscience? If not, Christianity itself, like certain forms of Islam, is to be blamed for human suffering like the political ideologies. We can’t be black-and-white about this. Christianity is true, but so is Hinduism, Buddhism and tribal religions. The liberals of the early nineteenth century had a theory of a “primitive revelation” made by God (just one name for a universal consciousness) to all people, whether they were monotheist or whatever. The Bible contains wisdom and beauty, but so does the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, not to mention the recently discovered texts of Nag Hammadi including many Gospels to add to our New Testament. We all have our “dark side”, and so do all these holy books. What these books really reveal is man’s quest to understand our life and search for meaning. We live in history and a vast human context involving traditions and collective consciousness.
I was struck by a passage in a Don Camillo film, where the good priest begins a hunger strike to protest against his Mayor’s decision to twin the village with a village in Soviet Russia. Don Camillo asks Jesus how he could approve a union with a godless place. Jesus answers that there is nothing and nowhere in the universe where God is not present – and this persuades Don Camillo to have the feast of his life. God can bring good out of anything, even ignorance and sin. This is the most profound message of another Christianity that has been drowned out by all the noise.
This presence of spirit and consciousness everywhere is a part of revelation in history and the experience of those who have told their tales. The Bible narrates many such revelations and experiences, but I imagine that most remain unrecorded.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Many people discover these ideas that transcend materialist understanding, and can find light in the doctrines and creeds of churches. Such formularies are teaching devices to convey ideas in simple terms, but they are not the limit or end of knowledge. Like the skeleton gives shape and form to a human body, dogmas are there to point the way and help us, but we don’t stop there. We have to accept the fact that that most people nowadays have no use for churches, either because they are materialists or because they expect light that is much more transcendent and deeper than what a church could give them. To say that one size fits all is simply not possible.
We priests often complain that there are only two or three in our churches, or none at all, but perhaps the complaint is “We go to all to this trouble and no one is interested” or simply that we are on our own to finance our “plant”! A church community unifies a group in shared beliefs, makes liturgy and sacraments possible, justifies a man who chose to become a priest and builds a whole culture around it. Many of us need this kind of support, or feel that they need to give this support to others. However, there comes a time when it is sloughed off like when the child becomes an adolescent, or it acquires a new and deeper meaning. This is a terrible responsibility for a church community and its priest. Perhaps what we can do for people is to offer them experience of the divine through the liturgy and some sign of our own transfiguration by Christ.
We in the Anglican Catholic Church are very lucky to be so small and marginal, because this truth is brought home to us. We were too big in the 1990’s, and the “bishops’ brawl” was the result, the split-ups due to hurt egos and frustrated politics. Lessons have been learned, but we know it could happen again if we let it happen. We have to be humble, and priests before being clerics! Being in a Church can give us a sense of structure, confidence and purpose, but it can close down our critical sense, close our minds and tolerance. It can become the phenomenon of the totalitarian cult. Churches bring out both the best and worst in people.
Many years ago, seeing the decline of churches in the west, I had a discussion with a priest and asked him the question – What if the Redemption has been undone? Could it be like before Christ, when – we are told – everyone went to some “temporary” hell to await the Messiah? I think that the idea of Redemption needs to be understood afresh, and this is not what Christianity was about. This would come over as a terrible heresy, but it is the one cause of the “our way or the highway” thinking and all the drifts. What difference did the events of Christ’s life make? Visibly, not a lot. We still hate and kill each other, we still get sick and die, we still suffer from accidents and natural catastrophes. A lion doesn’t lie with a lamb without eating it! Obviously it isn’t situated there.
It’s either nonsense or beyond our understanding. We all see things differently from each other and answers cannot be expressed with mere words. There are many things I experience without being able to describe them, mostly “flashes” of things that have no origin or obvious purpose. I have read the theory according to which a schizophrenic is not mad or sick, but perceives reality differently. Joan of Arc heard voices, dressed as a man, got burnt as a witch or a heretic – and is a Saint of the Church. If there is a Redemption, it isn’t automatic or given merely though joining a Church and getting baptised – it has to be found beyond everything we know and understand. It obviously concerns a world that is not the one we know. Ever heard of the multiverse theory? There might be an infinite number of existences like all the different radio frequencies in which we die old in one, die young in another – an infinite number of possibilities. We struggle with quantum physics, which seem to be nonsense, whilst giving us scientific data that flies in the face of Newtonian physics.
What is original in another way of seeing things is seeing Christianity as true, but Hinduism and Sufism too. Other religions bring people to supernatural life and goodness. Who are we to say that they are false or inspired by the Devil? But, doesn’t that say that Christianity has no meaning or purpose if it isn’t the one true lifeboat that can save the shipwrecked from drowning?
There is much wrong with the world, and we might even be on the way to World War III and our annihilation. On the other hand, diverse cultures and beliefs are something good and beautiful. God is present in our modern cities like in the Russian village with the Communist mayor. There is more light and goodness in the world than sin and darkness. Each person is on a journey, unknown to the rest of us. What right have we to stop that person, demolish his self-esteem and offer the remedy in the form of a spiritual straitjacket? I am sure they are better You-name-its than we Christians!
This is where we have to baulk at the idea of converting people and bombarding them with Christian propaganda in the same way as a washing powder manufacturer tells us that its product washes whiter. How can everyone be right? Is there not a principle of non-contradiction, in which two contradicting propositions cannot both be right? One is right and the other is wrong, or they are both wrong. But mystery is above conventional reasoning, logic and epistemology. Different religions, philosophies and cultures seem to be so many facets of a single transcendent reality. Deep down, the various experiences of the divine do not contradict each other but compliment each other. It is because of this that I have been interested in Gnosticism for many years, reading the various available English translations of ancient texts, knowing about various unorthodox spiritual movements in history like the Cathars and the men of the Renaissance, modern depth-psychology. It brings many aspects of exoteric Christianity into perspective, and brings a new understanding. I have readily accepted the so-called Universalist theories expressed by many and even aspects of so-called Pantheism. One name given to God these days is “universal consciousness”, a kind of Platonic universal idea of us all containing an image of God or the wholeness of God. As a little boy, I wondered whether atoms were not little solar systems containing planets and life, and that our solar system was not an atom forming a part of a macrocosm. Reality transcends our little minds!
Why belong to a Church? One of the ideas I found in Nicholas Berdyaev was the notion that we need to have some constant reference, a discipline that gives us structure and which moderates us, bringing us to think and be self-critical. A balloon filled with hot air or helium needs a tether to keep it close to earth, and it uses weights to control its altitude. Otherwise it would rise to the top of the atmosphere and then explode due to the decrease of atmospheric pressure. Pure Gnosticism cannot survive in the world or in history. It isn’t made for the collectivity. We are all a part of humanity and we are social creatures. However imperfect the Church is, we need it, and in an ideal world it would need us. We can all too easily arrive at that Church’s limits of tolerance, and if the point of rupture is reached, the cycle has to begin anew.
How do we live our spiritual life? To begin with, it seems to be simply living and treasuring the moments that bring us something special and unexplainable. I am most likely to find this kind of experience in nature – on land or at sea. We begin to find that “hell is” – not – “other people” to give a contradiction to Sartre’s famous idea, but that they are finding their paths which may be similar to our own or so radically different we can’t imagine ourselves belonging to the same species. Many people are going to seek their way without having anything to do with a Church. Most people I know have nothing to do with churches, but few of them are really atheists.
I can make a case for multiculturalism in the west as we have, with different races and cultures having taken refuge for political or economic reasons. The objection would be made – what if they are Daesh terrorists come to kill us? Christians centuries ago did the same thing, and more recently to “savages” in those places we wanted for our empires. Europe could all become part of a caliphate in which public executions would become commonplace like the seventeenth century in Europe – but it is unlikely it would go that far. Even in Putin’s Russia, there are different immigrant cultures of people who have had to learn to live in Russia. We will just have to take what happens (hoping that the more unpleasant people will blow themselves up or get shot).
In every religion, there is a contemplative and spiritual tradition. There is the Kabbal in Judaism, Sufism in Islam, and various Gnostic resurgences in Christianity, invariably bumped off by Constantine’s goons or the Inquisition. It is amazing how similar these spiritual traditions are, and that is not to mention Buddhism in the Far East and the mountains of Nepal.
One of the heaviest weights man has had to carry is fundamentalism, whether in Christianity or any other religion. It destroys nations and persons, it causes war and untold misery. It is the conviction according to which “we” possess the truth and anyone outside of it is unworthy of life, happiness and freedom.
I have often thought I would like to visit countries like India and Nepal. My brother once did as a medical student and brought back some amazing photos and anecdotes. Many did in the 1960’s and certainly enjoyed smoking many a good joint of best Afghan or whatever the west forbids on pain of very heavy prison sentences! Seriously, even if we never get to travel very much, we can at least keep our minds open and wonder what it would be like for a white European or American to live in a strange culture and make the best of it.
I would like to take time and open my mind to new realities, which we can do next to our own doorsteps thanks to immigration. There aren’t too many possibilities in my village, but I have lived in Marseilles where I felt well in my cassock next to the Tunisian or Moroccan street trader wearing his jubba or thobe. Live in the East End of London, and you get an idea of Bangladesh or Pakistan. The cooking smells can be quite exotic! Perhaps a few of those would like to get back at us for the old British Empire – but most are open to those who respect them.
I am constantly brought back to Fr Charles de Foucault who went to Algeria and got knocked off by Muslims. His life seemed totally pointless and a waste, yet he found holiness and gave his life for God and kindness to his Muslim neighbours. Perhaps they beat the hell out of white Europeans for whom the world is just money and more money! Fr Charles did not seek to conquer or convert. He still got killed, but his message was one of love and compassion – and that is our Redemption through Christ.