It behoves us oldsters once in a while to put aside the comforting toys of our second childhood and consider the state of the world we leave our children. Against a background of rising inequality and failing ecology that surpasses the foggy 19th century, we witness religious upheaval that seems to emerge from murky mediaeval mists. Wasn’t the Enlightenment supposed to banish the Dark Ages for good? And who in the egalitarian and optimistic 1960s would have predicted such a lurch into irrationalism and tribal conflict?
E.P. Thompson in his brilliant book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) suggested that history showed a desperate oscillation between periods of political activism and religious fervour: whenever one was seen to fail, the other would be tried once more. And as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm … if my own experience is anything to go by.
I was a churchgoer as a child and would sit in my pew searching for spiritual illumination through stained-glass windows with the best of them. Left to my own devices I would later climb tall trees to the sound of church bells, as if to gain a higher perspective. The voice that came to me in the wind through the leaves spoke a different truth than the preacher below. Two voices, then, and both of them in my head still …
“I am an actor mouthing another’s words, my days spent in drab rehearsal for the cavalcade that shimmers behind death’s parting curtain. I want to know nothing beyond scripture, for it is blasphemy to search out divine purposes. I seek only to assuage an angry deity, despising and even persecuting those who fail to observe the little rituals and shibboleths that may keep the wrath of heaven at bay. I think of Us and Them. I am generous to those whose ways I approve because I yearn for eternal reward. No matter what else I may say, my one concern is personal salvation.”
“I search for the voice that nature and experience will give me, each day until my last a new voyage of discovery. I want to know everything because I seek to become as whole as the world. My happiness and security are founded in the union of equals. I think only of Us. I study the ways of every creature and strive to be generous to all. I do not fear death because it brings value to life, which I hold sacrosanct.”
A third voice might point out that the other two are polar opposites, exaggerated and even caricatured. Most of us are strung out on a ragged continuum between those positions, with many believers more charitable and many non-believers more selfish. My only question in these turbulent times would be, which perspective is most conducive to peace?