(First published in the Clare Champion)
Previously I have written about holiness and how it may be found in surprising places; in the beating heart of a scruffy cross-breed dog who knows the saving power of love, but who admittedly still bears significant malice towards squirrels and pigeons; at the heart of the EU where politicking and the gravy-train go hand in hand, but also where the things of God may be found; and then there are ideas and images, like celestial navigation, that may have no basis in fact, but which can tell us much about truth and lead us home. But perhaps the hardest place to find holiness, to truly acknowledge it, is within each other, especially when we profoundly disagree, and especially about religion.
Many of the world’s religions share some fundamental truths; for example, the Golden Rule, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, finds expression across most traditions and cultures. One might feel that such consensus shows how wisdom and holiness are to be found in many places and many people. Sadly, too many religions of the world can impose, at times triumphantly and with an unpalatable relish, an exclusivity of mindset where only their judgements are valid and the intersections of insight with other faiths are regarded as mere coincidence; accidents to be brushed aside.
This, I believe, is when religions are at their very worst. The need to insist that our experiences, our culture, our ideas, our beliefs are so superior, God given, that they exclude and negate all other insights. It is what Bishop John Shelby Spong called ‘tribal religion’, a tendency for human beings to be ‘hard wired’ for tribal identity where we convince ourselves that ‘we’ enjoy God’s favour and ‘they’ his displeasure. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition we have inherited a foundational concept of God’s ‘chosen’ people. All too easily this can lead on to a sense of God’s ‘not chosen’ people, a slippery slope that insidiously degenerates into assertions of God’s ‘rejected’ people.
I remember some years ago I was on a retreat which was given by an Anglican nun from the Caribbean, called Sister Alma, who lived at the time in Walsingham, a Marian Shrine in the UK revered by both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. She told a story of her upbringing in the Islands, seemingly a paradise, but where hurt and human pain could intrude upon life as much as anywhere else. One day as a child she was sitting at the breakfast table before school, with the multitude of siblings who made up her family, and at the head of the table sat her mother. Her mother was built on exceedingly generous proportions, as was the strength of her personality, and her love for her children. One of Alma’s little brothers was crying, dreading the day to come, and when his mother asked why, he said that he was being bullied at school and that they were calling him hurtful names.
“Don’t you listen to them child, don’t you heed them now “ she said “God don’t make no rubbish.”
God don’t make no rubbish.
Ever since I heard that phrase I have been struck by its simple and elegant profundity. Indeed, in a way, Sister Alma’s mother goes with me wherever I am, and sadly too often in life I need to draw upon her. The theologian Peter Vardy in his book Good & Bad Religion comments that ‘…religion as a whole is not in decline, though worryingly its most liberal manifestations are’ and one can feel that the star in the ascendancy is that of the most certain, the most outwardly confident, the ‘proper’ Christians for whom most decidedly ‘… none shall come to the Father except through me’.
I confess that when I say the familiar funeral reading from John 14, I usually stop reading before I reach that phrase, because it can easily be misunderstood and inspire the most tribal and exclusivist tendencies within us.
Now some conservatively minded Christians will insist that I am wrong, and that every word of the Bible must be taken at face value, and furthermore that none but Christians are favoured and loved by God. But I cannot, could not, ever accept such an argument, nor can I, could I, ever believe in a God who scorns people for the accident of their birth across the rich variety of cultures and creeds that make up our world. Whilst I accept the notion that ultimate truth does exist in some form, in some way, and in some time, I am equally sure that none of us possesses it, or can ever understand it in full measure.
All human knowledge is partial, provisional and mediated. No one culture or religion can rightly claim to understand all eternal truths which by their very definition lie beyond the here and the now, and the limitations of language, culture and tribe to which we so vehemently cling.
But I feel the wisdom and the truth of Alma’s mother. It is in the mess, the inconsistencies, the variety, the imperfections, the contradictions, in all of us that the holy is to be found. Because God don’t make no rubbish.
Revd Kevin O’Brien