Monday, October 5, 2009

A love story

Did you see that fine programme about faith on Channel 4?
I say that it was about faith, it might be more accurate to describe it as being about religion. As the presenter, Antony Thomas, said in conclusion, the tenets of the world's great religions, movingly expressed through the thoughts of their leaders, seemed to have more in common with each other than with many of their followers.

It's ironical, isn't it. The leaders grow closer whilst the fundamentalists seem to lurch ever further apart. What I've noticed, and I'm sure you'd agree, is that it's growing increasingly common for people to express a belief in God - in a spiritual basis to life - whilst having little or no faith in organised religion.

Yes, I know, the word 'religion' can be interpreted in a far wider context, but the general understanding is pretty limited. 'Religion' . . . a box to tick on a questionnaire. A tick that will indicate which, if any, of the world's great faiths gets your vote. Whichever box you choose to tick, you are segregating yourself from a vast proportion of the world's population. 'Religion' . . . a grouping by faith that has been demonstrated by history as disruptive, divisive and the cause of practically every known act of war or terrorism.

Where do I stand on this controversial issue . . . ?
My mind places me alongside those who, convinced of one divine source, would wish for unity. Thereby seeing an end to all sects and divisions, despite the undoubted good and charitable work that the individual religions undertake.
And my heart . . . ?
This is where life gets complicated! My heart over-rules logical argument and, for reasons of its own, supports the Church. It supports the Church because of my lifelong love-affair with its glorious places of worship, in particular its cathedrals.

Is this a trivial reason to over-rule logic? I don't think so.
Have you stood, as I have, spellbound under the dome of St. Paul's? Or driven across the Fens in the early morning, entranced by a distant mirage - the cathedral at Ely, shimmering on its unlikely hilltop in the distance? Have you been captivated by the phoenix that is Coventry . . . or mesmerized by the dazzling splendour of the east window at Salisbury . . . or discovered, in the crypt at Winchester, the holy well that drew pilgrims to the site long before Christianity ever reached these islands?

Nor is that all . . . far from it. Over and above these qualities of beauty and fascination, sacred buildings have another and far greater dimension to offer. They offer us the spiritual nourishment of the numinous . . . of sanctuary . . . of coming home.

Please don't think I'm ignoring the human component to these sacred buildings. To do that would be both foolish and ignorant. They didn't design or build themselves. Their sense of transcendence is not inherent in the stonework, it comes from centuries of worship, rite and ritual from devout religious bodies. It comes from people, like you and me, who go there in search of an encounter with the divine. Not only that, these buildings have been loved - and love, that most fluid of commodities, has seeped into their very structure.
But - and this is the critical question - how to keep the cathedrals and churches alive and active? A sacred building rapidly looses its spiritual component if it becomes no more than an historic tourist attraction. To foster the sense of the numinous you undoubtedly need a body of worshippers, you need a Church.

However, I mustn't get carried away by what the Christian tradition has to offer. In talking of wonderful, treasured buildings, I'm certainly not thinking exclusively of cathedrals and churches.

Just look at the glorious synagogues . . . the exquisite mosques . . . the temples . . . the shrines . . . all potent symbols of man's innate desire for worship, and his recognition of divinity in matter.

What's more, as we drive through our crowded towns and cities, the occasional glimpse of a spire, minaret or dome can - if only subliminally - remind us for a moment that there is more to life than the current traffic jam.

So, yes . . . we need the focal point of sacred buildings and shrines to feed our spirit. The forms they take are as imaginative and diverse as the cultures known to man. The same cultures who, through divine inspiration, have acquired a multiple means of praising their single, all-pervasive, divine source.
Shouldn't each facet of this diversity recognise and honour all the others?
'Religion' . . . the world's multi-faceted, mutually-enhancing belief system?

And, who knows, if the dictionary gets it right, might all the facets of that belief system finally fall silent in their sacred buildings and recognise their divine unity . . . you never know, they might!