“Another year’s gone by. I wonder what the new one has in store for us.” “About 365 days if we’re lucky.” The cartoon conversation made me smile when I saw it this morning after a night when many of us wished each other a happy new year, with variations on that of health, peace and so on.
Wishing such things doesn’t make them happen, of course. We can sit and let our lives ebb away wishing for things we don’t lift a finger to make happen. Nevertheless, change often begins with wishing or imagining things to be otherwise.
Those who regularly hear me speak in church will know that “dreaming” is one of my favourite motifs. By that, I am not talking about what we do when we’re asleep or even the daydream that Thomas Merton called an “evasion.” No, I mean that active dreaming, that active imagining that things can be other than they are, that they can be better than they are. For Christians, that ought to be part of our stock in trade although too many of us relegate that different reality to something that will happen to us when we die if only we believe the right things in the here and now. That seems to me an almost complete dilution of the Christian faith if once, and still for some, a useful way to control what people believe.
The Christian faith has too often been turned into a vehicle for individual salvation, an offshoot of which might be that on the way to the new post-death reality one does good to others. It is, it seems to me, so much more than that. The prayer said in most churches every time people gather and for many Christians their daily prayer has the disciple praying: “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Surely that’s for now, not after the pray-er is dead. The later request in the prayer for daily bread, and for forgiveness as the pray-er forgives surely roots the prayer in the day to day, the here and now. It demands of us that we imagine the divine will, dream that new reality and then set ourselves to living it, or as I often put it, to live with one foot in that new reality even if the present hasn’t quite caught up with it. One foot in a new world rather than one foot in the grave? That divine will is ever for me to be dreamed, imagined in the context of love. By love I do not mean some sort of wishy-washy, vague good feelings towards others, but the active seeking of the well-being of others. Such love cannot countenance hatred of another and must seek the well-being even of an enemy. The model is, for me, the servant love of Jesus captured in the image of him, as teacher, kneeling to wash the feet of his followers. The love that is demanded of the disciple is one rooted not only in service but also in humility. Such humility is necessary to our being able to attempt to walk in the shoes of those we seek to love, even though we must fail in that task again and again.
Despite my own faith, I have to admit that many, perhaps even some of you reading this, will want to say that religion is one of the aspects of human life that is preventing a new and better reality. You may even want to say that religionis the cause of some of our greatest ills. Undoubtedly, followers of religion have caused terrible suffering in the cause of their self-belief in their own brand of faith. They have slaughtered and continue to slaughter others of their own faith, if of a different denomination, as wellas those of other faiths or none. I do not seek to excuse that. I cannot, however, from my own faith position, even begin to understand what would make one want to do that, or feel that it is the correct thing to do. I can see it only as a result of fearfulness rather than faith. If I thought that the abandonment of religion might lead us to cease the slaughter of each other, I would be sorely tempted to abandon my faith, thinking it a small sacrifice for such great gain. I have been tempted to do so by the use of our holy writings as a weapon to oppress women or discriminate against gay people, for example. However, my denial of my faith would not prevent the continuing misuse of scriptures to support such actions which again, I am convinced, are borne out of fear. Better to stay and express my views, I think although I know that others have come to different conclusions.
On the matter of religion and world peace or even a more peaceful world, my abandonment of my faith would have no impact at all. How would it be, then, if we all abandoned it? Well, one has to ask, are people capable of terrible acts without religion? The answer is most certainly yes, although Pascal may have had a point when he said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” On the other hand Solzhenitsyn claimed that Stalin, no man of religion he, indeed violently, brutally opposed to it, may have killed up to 60 million people. I don’t know whether Stalin killed cheerfully, but he certainly did it effectively.
The reality is, I think, that human beings are capable of the greatest glory and the greatest shame, the noblest and the basest of deeds; and that is true whether or not we have religion. You can argue that we ought to be better who have religion, but you would also have to say that those who reject religion also ought to be better as having, presumably, rejected it for something they thought superior. Nonetheless, if we say we follow a religion of love, we ought at least to make some attempt at living it.
The problem lies in a failure of love and humility, and that is possible for any of us, religious or not. The problem lies in a world-view that is narrow and exclusive; that says I’m right (I or my tribe / group / religion / party etc.) and you (you or your group, party etc.) is wrong. Lennon, talking about his song “Imagine” called it the “my god is bigger than your god thing.” It can equally be my philosophy or my politics and be completely without religious content or influence. We all begin somewhere, with some world view. We all look at the world through our own set of glasses, if you like. We all begin somewhere in looking at the world and our neighbours; it’s where we go from there is what matters.
My faith story is, for me, a place to begin to explore what it is to live justly and lovingly in the world. It is not a matter of following some divinely ordained blue-print. The Bible is not a book of instructions but rather the experiences and views of others, and who lived in very different times and cultures, against which to set my own experiences and views. It’s a book of stories, letters and so on that if used properly will help me ask the right questions rather than provide a set of answers fixed for all time. The Bible is a window to look through, if you like, and for the church sits alongside the other windows of tradition and reason.
Those of other faiths and none will have other windows through which they look upon the world. Are we doomed to look from our separate windows, see things differently and believe ourselves and only ourselves to be right? I think not. I certainly hope not. Can we begin to imagine something better between us and then commit ourselves to building it?
In the Christmas story, the angels are said to have sung to the watching shepherds of “peace on earth, good will to all people.”
Perhaps that peace might begin with the people of good will, religious or otherwise, making common cause and doing each other the honour of listening one to another, of investing in each other’s views and ideas. That done well may build for us a secure place from which to be gin a more difficult yet even more important process. That task is to listen to those who seem to lack good will but who share this beautiful, but for too many dangerous, planet with us.
I cannot know you or understand you or love you unless I first hear you. So, if I have a New Year resolution, it is this, to attempt to listen more, and to let what I hear speak to me and my actions.
If you’ve read this, thank you and blessings for the year ahead.