Monday, January 08, 2007

More of the big stuff: 2 - religion and faith

Anyway, back to me!

and an element I can identify - Religion

The Roman Catholicism which was a central plank of my childhood gave me a sense of wonder about creation, and creativity; a fund of stories about human goodness, kindness and courage; a system of values; and a sense of common experience with everyone who has ever lived in belief in the divine - in whatever framework – but also a disturbing knowledge of what people will do to themselves and each other in 'defence' of that framework.

It predisposed me to be on the one hand optimistic and proactive, and on the other to view the human race as deeply flawed and very very dangerous. That old good and evil thing. God and the Devil. The conflict that sits at the core of every one of us that makes sleep, gin, ganja, shopping, squash, sex, mindless TV and sitting cross-legged on a hillside contemplating our inner glow (Oh! Religion again!) so very appealing.

However flawed my particular framework might have been; however much I chafed at the restrictions and responsibilities it required; and however spurious its core might be (Dang!); it was a framework, and, as such, as much support as cage. When I rejected both Holy Church (religion) and – no half-measures here – God Himself (faith), it therefore left a large void in my life. Not just about what to do on Sunday mornings, and what to say when I dropped something big and heavy on my big toe, but about what it was all for. Existential angst is putting it too strongly, but Christianity, so central to western thinking, is essentially linear. A quick review of the first part of the catechism, by way of illustration:

Q. Who made you?
A. God made me.

Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and be happy with him forever in the next.

There! In two sentences, we cover the two biggies: who we are, and why we’re here. An ample and familiar lap to climb into with your blanket, and fall asleep in with your thumb in your mouth. It’s a good thing. The opiate of the masses………. Oh no!

Actually, oh no. As with most of history’s more resonant soundbites, it only tells half the story – but does it blindingly well. Marx had an agenda, after all, not that one could blame him.
Interestingly, Orthodox Christianity, particularly Russian Orthodox, is very much about stoic submission (Though I think Sto himself was a Greek.) , which raises the question, how far did Russian Orthodox Christianity shape the Russian character, and how far was it shaped by it? China and Russia, the two cultures where the centrally controlled, monolithic version of Communism took hold, were both part of the Mongol Empire for a large portion of its two hundred year history, and it was not the Mongol way to woo or cultivate local talent in any field: exclusion was presumably simpler than integration.

"The Mongol Empire (1206-1405) was the largest contiguous land empire in history, covering over 33 million km² at its peak, with an estimated population of over 100 million people….and at its height, it encompassed the majority of the territories from southeast Asia to central Europe.
One of the more successful tactics employed by the Mongols was to wipe out urban populations that had refused to surrender; in the invasion of Kievan Rus, almost all major cities were destroyed; but if they chose to submit, the people were spared and treated leniently. ………………………The Mongol Empire had a lasting impact, unifying large regions, some of which (such as eastern and western Russia and the western parts of China) remain unified today, albeit under different rulership."

Thereafter, these ‘unified’ regions continued to be highly centralised under their Tsars and the Emperors. Nature or nurture (if that’s the appropriate word)? Anyway, the Russian Orthodox Church (which was itself oppressed) preached submission (in common with Confucianism): persevere through earthly trials without complaint, and be with God in the next.

The Roman Catholic Church preached much the same thing but to the comparatively individualistic peoples of western Europe, who had their fair share of invaders, shifting borders and alliances, but did not, even though the Mongol Empire extended a finger as far as west as Venice, share the subjection of their neighbours to the east. I get the impression that the heart of Latin American Catholicism, imposed with fire and the sword (the original market forces) by Isabella's conquistadors and priests is closer in quality to Orthodox.

So yeah, to return from this dizzying digression, and facetiousness aside, RC is big on rights and responsibilities, yin and yan for Christians. (Oops! Facetious again!) The point is, if you're brought up Christian (whatever the specifics of title and tradition), you know where you are: you know there’s a master plan, and a Master Planner; you know that there was a Beginning, that there will one day be an End, and in the meantime, you’ve got comprehensive navigation tips, in handy user-friendly story format, to help you navigate the tricky bit in the middle. Sometimes it will be tough (disease, war, famine), but there’ll be fun stuff too (weddings, birthdays, children, friends) and the important thing to remember, what makes it all worth while, is that God loves you, and one day it will all be ……… heavenly.

And if you chuck all that, and embark on a new, officially Godless life, all that God-given purpose and direction has to go too, and it’s down to you, the Self-Help section in the bookshop, and your ‘Friends’ DVD collection. The whole of western culture is essentially linear: littered with terms like ‘the dawn of history’ and ‘the end of time’. (We’ve also got ‘the four corners of the globe’ but that is definitely beside the point.). We’ve had revolutions in the name of progress, of building a better future. All our fairy tales end Happily Ever After.

So then what?

The whole of Europe went through this once upon a time. They called it the Renaissance, the triumph of Humanism. I learnt that in History. Sorted.

O brave new world that has such people in it!

By the way, here's a map of the world's religions at the time of writing.


nzm said...

And despite you having renounced the faith, I don't see many self-help books appear on your library list!

So there's hope for the godless, yet!

Speaking of which, where's it gone?

MamaDuck said...

Those self-help books make me nervous, plus I'd rather buy embroidery and gardening books!

List gone. List back again. Who knows?

Anyway, this blog is the equivalent of thinking aloud, or tapping along a wall, listening for hollow places, and I found a few that require more thought.