It says something about our times that just about the most plangent critiques of the state we’re in are coming not from political leaders but from Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile we’re told our prime minister, who has kicked off his election campaign with an unprecedented series of unabashed lies, took his place on Easter morning in church near his home in Oxfordshire.
Perhaps he believes sincerely that he’s building a society in which people take better responsibility for their lives, and that this is somehow in keeping with the Christian message. I know conservatives with an upper and lower case “c” do believe this sort of thing, though it’s a position that can only be sustained by ignoring quite a lot that Christ is reported to have said. But the lies are inexcusable by any Christian standard. An “h” word comes to mind for Mr Cameron, and it’s not humility.
I wouldn’t call myself a Christian these days, though was I brought up as a Catholic and indeed until about ten years ago was a practising member of the Church. Even when I was practising I thought Catholic ideas about life after death were at best ridiculous, and I wanted no truck with their bigoted ideas about women or homosexuality, or indeed sexuality generally. After many years these contradictions became too difficult to bear and I went my own way.
I’m still on that way, even if I can broadly welcome signs that the Pope wants to set the church on a different course from his predecessors.
But the contrast between our political and religious leaders also bears thinking about.
It’s worth thinking about in the light of the good things that most religions have in common. I’m well aware in saying this that historically and still in many ways today religion can foster crude judgementalism and some crazy ideas about how things are, that it can be divisive and full of hate (even while preaching love). I don’t want to excuse any of this. What’s more, because we can say nothing sensible about life after death, and because the eschatological ideas religions have put forward are apparently driven by a mixture of self-interest and wishful thinking the only sensible thing we can do is say nothing at all about heaven, hell, reincarnation or whatever other stories we’ve made up to comfort ourselves or give us power over others.
The “good thing” I want to focus on is a kind of disposition towards experience, common to all major faiths from Buddhism to Islam. It could be summed up by the notion of “love” though I think that notion needs some unpacking. It’s an openness to the needs and diverse nature of others, an acceptance of our responsibilities towards others; it’s a joyful sense of wonder at the world, a wonder rooted in an awareness of that world’s indifference to us.
There’s a paradox here. We need to embrace our own irrelevance in a bigger scheme of things while seeing the being of others as insistently important. This contradiction is more apparent than real though it’s difficulty has some bearing on the frequently twisted knickers of religious thought.
It feels very like a sense of gratitude, though gratitude requires an object, a being we can be grateful to, and perhaps this is part of the reason why we have had to construct a notion of a creator in our own image (because we need a human-like object to carry this kind of emotion, an entity which at least in our imaginations could offer the reciprocity on which our moral feelings generally depend). But then we can understand this emotion as being like gratitude, without it needing to be gratitude; it could be better understood as a kind of gladness.
Clearly you don’t have to be religious to feel these things, and some religious people don’t seem to feel even this much. There are other good aspects to religious feeling which go beyond or deeper than this generalised disposition to love, and specifically to love the fact that the world is bigger and more enriching than the small circles of our own lives. But it is one of the defining characteristics of good people, including religiously good people, and it carries obligations to other people which our neo-liberal political orthodoxies have tried to sideline.
It stands too in opposition to crude materialist or mechanistic views of how we see ourselves: this is not to usher in any kind of mysticism, but to note that a crude materialism certainly under-describes common human experience. We need a better answer to that crudity than fantasies of universal connections; we need to be careful to describe our experience fully while being mindful of the limits of what can be sensibly said.
This disposition underpins the way Pope Francis and Justin Welby see the world, and it’s taken them to a place of opposition to the political mainstream.
You might say that politicians need to concern themselves with more practical things. I’d argue that their approach to practical things (at least in the West) in the last thirty years has been dogmatically detached from reality. Moreover, the separation of personal ethics from political decisions has very clearly not improved those decisions. I don’t suppose the Catholic Tony Blair would ever pick up a gun and start shooting strangers, and yet he was prepared to support a chain of events where this slaughter was always going to be part of the outcome.
As for Cameron and his lies, no doubt he’d see them as part of a game that must be played for what he believes is a greater good. But in this he is as deluded as he is deluding. We need our politicians to throw off their blinkers. Perhaps then they might start offering us an authentic vision of how even the political world could be inspiring.
This is a big (and important) subject. Your ideas and comments would be very welcome.
The image, by the way, is a painting by my brother Mark, which he presented as an Easter greeting to his many loved ones. If you like it you can find more of his work at https://markbrasington.wordpress.com.