Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The God-question (1)
Somewhere along the course of my life I became “spiritual”, or perhaps it would be better to say that I realized I could never be an atheist. Till possibly now ...
In approaching this I must tread delicately. Let us not excite our brain-boxes with the wording of the “God-question”, not yet. Our brain is a toolbox of different instruments, and we need to know which to use and in what order. First we need to set aside our formal education. It has taught us to glue facts together using reason; to distort language by using strict definitions; to distinguish real from unreal, true from false. These are artificial constructs. They help us fit in to their own world of artificiality, which is the world of politics and universities and technology and law and sciences.
I wasn't introduced to God via reason, but through repetition: “Our Father, which art in Heaven …” But then I learned arithmetic the same way: "Once two is two; twice two is four; three twos are six ..."
None of this helps with the God-question.
I hope we can stay together on this exploration. Forgive me if it meanders, as if it’s somehow aimless. That’s only because it’s an honest reflection of life, yours and mine. In childhood, events fall upon our head like sunshine and rain. Or they are pieces of a puzzle, which we can only collect at first, for we don’t know what pattern they form. I would claim in fact that it is we, individually, who decide what pattern the pieces form. So I’ll set before us, in case we get separated on the journey, what I see as the final rendezvous, the place we can try and meet up if we get lost. I’ll express this rendezvous as a proposition, that sits waiting for us until we can understand it:
“What we need to know is stored within us, inviolate, unconscious, largely inexpressible.”
I won’t even formulate the God-question, except in the terms what we need to know.
Naturally, parents and teachers do their best to teach us what we need to know. The Australian aborigines used to draw diagrams with a stick in the sand, to illustrate the Dream-Time legends of their race. They would paint similar designs on their bodies and on rocks using ochre; they made music and dance: all for the purposes of passing on the vital traditions of their culture. For my part, I started Latin at the age of 8, conjugating “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant”. Latin was the language of the Romans, whose law and Empire Britain took as a role-model, with Greek there behind Latin as the poetic and philosophic inspiration of the Romans. That was part of the secular side. To teach us about the ways of God, we had lessons called Scripture.
From the age of 6½ till 12, I was at boarding-school. I’ve just worked out that I may have spent 500 hours in Scripture lessons, plus 500 hours in the village church (illustrated above), for attendance was compulsory: sometimes twice on Sunday, especially when I was in the choir. We went two-by-two into that Ark, “walking in crocodile”, as the English say, to St John the Baptist Parish Church in the village of Sedlescombe, a mile from our school. Apart from the rows of little boys in their Sunday best, all born in the Second World War, most of the congregation was elderly: survivors of both World Wars. Once a year, those cataclysmic events were recalled on Remembrance Sunday. We all wore poppies on that day and sang special hymns:
O valiant hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
But I think for the older villagers, every Sunday was for remembrance of those who had not returned.
My own headmaster had a glass eye and a permanent tremor in his hands, which made his writing jerky. He’d been a telegraphist in the trenches, jerking out Morse code on a key, and suffering shell-shock somewhere along the way. But he encouraged us to learn Morse ourselves and we played a game of talking remotely in the school grounds using police-whistles. He taught us Scripture from The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. The text was from the King James version, but it was laid out like a normal book rather than in double columns; so it didn’t have verse-numbers dominating the text. And so we read the stories as stories, rather than as Holy Writ; and I wondered if Monty Brummell-Hicks, headmaster, who caned me regularly on bare buttocks to stop me becoming homosexual (it seems to have worked) had this in mind. Was he really a Christian at all, I wondered.
We were a proper English school, fiercely loyal to the Church of England, observing all the rituals, such as the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, on the model of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge; starting with the processional “Once in Royal David’s City”, via “Adeste Fideles” and “In Dulci Jubilo” and ending up with the Christmas Day Hymn “Hark! the herald-angels sing” by Charles Wesley to the tune by Mendelssohn. You could say we lived those tunes and stories, as well as the mysterious tales of the Old Testament: Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar’s Feast, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego; the whole story of David, from his slaying of Goliath to the complicated relationships with Jonathan and Saul and beyond. This was the folklore of our tribe, it seemed, but I have not read it since. Later, at grammar school, we studied the New Testament, but more critically.
To be soaked in that Christian upbringing was like being a stone at the bottom of the sea: dredge it up, leave it in the sunshine a few hours, it will be utterly dry. For all the compulsory church attendance and study of Scripture, I didn't find God.
But I used to wonder about others. What was it like for those who went to Church as volunteers and prayed believing that someone was listening? What was it to believe?
Posted by Vincent at 6:09 pm