Friday, 29 January 2010

Between the Monster and the Saint

I've just finished reading Richard Holloway's Between the Monster and the Saint. Holloway is pretty much the only religious person mentioned positively by Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion", mainly because of his self-description as a "recovering Christian". However, while Dawkins has little feeling for religion, and refutes his own caricature of it, Holloway has lived a life immersed in it. As a lifelong Anglican priest, former Bishop of Edinburgh and author of over 20 books on religious subjects he has spent decades wrestling with the Christian faith, so while he no longer seems to believe it in an orthodox way he understands it intimately, is sympathetic to it and has been deeply influenced by it.

In this book Holloway is searching for an answer to those perennial questions - why are humans so cruel? Why do they suffer, and make each other and other creatures suffer? Is there an ultimate purpose to life? "The human herd," he says, "when collectively aroused, is the most ferocious beast on the planet.... Sadly there always seem to be charismatic monsters around who are brilliant at rousing the herd and hypnotising it into obedient servitude to their terrifying visions. Fortunately, there always seem to be a few rare individuals who are impervious to all the pressures....these alone are capable of consistently speaking the truth and naming the lie. The rest of us crowd ourselves uncertainly between the monsters and the martyrs..."

He suggests that there are four basic postions from which people answer this question, each of which shades into the one next to it. The first he calls "strong religion", in which people believe they have a revelation from God which definitively answers these questions once and for all - essentially fundamentalism. This view breeds an arrogance which Holloway clearly distrusts, and often turns religion into a monstrous instrument of power. The second is "weak religion", in which people believe in a religious creed or world view, but acknowledge that humans have a limited capacity to understand divine revelations so there are always new things to be learned, mistakes to be corrected, adjustments to be made, and a need to live humbly before others knowing they may be wrong. I think I'm in this camp.

The third position is one he calls "after-religion". People who take this position view religion as an entirely human construction, but nevertheless useful as a set of metaphors or aids to understanding the human condition and working out how to live. The fourth and final position is that of atheism, where religion is held to be irrelevant and life is lived in the understanding that it is a purely material, biological process. This view includes those who are relaxed about other people being religious as long as they don't have to follow suit, as well as those who are actively hostile to religion.

Holloway is reluctant to commit himself to clearly to any point of view, but it seems fairly clear that he is an after-religionist. "I have found it helpful to think of (religion) as a product of the human imagination," he says. "If religion is a human invention, an examination of it will give us valuable information about ourselves and our strange story. This understanding of religion need not reduce its value to the user....We will be less interested in the alleged divine authority of its origins, than in the gifts of interpretation it offers us for understanding our own lives."

He then goes on to share his view of the help this gives in understading our suffering and our capacity for harm. I wish I had room to quote more, because he really does write with passion and beauty. I can hardly do justice to that here, but I will quote a bit of his final paragraph.

"It shows ingratitude and a lack of imagination to spend the life we've been given stamping, literally or metaphorically, on the lives of others, or sneering contemptuously at how they have chosen to make sense of theirs. It is a harsh world, indescribably cruel. It is a gentle world, unbelievably beautiful. It is a world that can make us bitter, hateful, rabid, destroyers of joy. It is a world that can draw forth tenderness from us, as we lean towards one another....It is a world of monsters and saints, a mutilated world, but it is the only one we have been given. We should let it shock us not into hatred or anxiety, but into unconditional love."

Holloway may have abandoned his formal profession of Christianity, but he has avoided throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and has retained a sense of Chrstian love and charity which puts so many Christians to shame.
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