It’s a “drych” Sunday morning, misty and wet, not a day for hillwalking, fewer distractions for me today then. I’ve slept well in a bed I appreciate every time I lie down in it, not just for its inherent comfort but also because I made the frame myself, another story, and because I am reminded frequently in the city centres that there are many people who don’t have the luxury of even a safe place to sleep, let alone a bed; luxury is a fragile and ephemeral thing, I try to remember that.
From my flat I can look down to the Salvation Army church hall opposite, where Sunday morning worshippers are making their way in for the service, it’s a fair range of people, mostly older but not all, a few families too, this one is busy and well-attended as far as I can see. It’s also active as a social assistance centre, providing cheap, possibly free, meals to people who need them, company too, other useful and constructive events. It reminded me of a few things I’ve heard in conversations, sometimes agreed with, at least in part.
I’ve heard people dismissing the variety of Christian churches, indeed all religions, as promoters of blind and superstitious faith, root causes of discord, persecution, prejudice and war, social & political tools of manipulation to keep people tolerating unjust and oppressive worldly conditions for now in the hope of future reward in an afterlife and meanwhile accepting the authority of a few, legitimising abuse of power and more. There are some truths in this, all religions, indeed all human organisations, have the traps that can tempt people to follow these harmful courses of action, as we see from the news on a regular basis in the continuing revelations of long term abuse of children in the care of nuns, behaviour of a number of film producers, business leaders in a London club, the list is endless and active. These problems have been evident since the early days of Christianity and very likely the other religions too, before and since. The common thread I see running through it all is the question of human problems, the real extent of some of which is only now becoming apparent and acknowledged. The pressing need now, I believe, is to examine the underlying causes of these problems, not to be diverted into the easy option of demonising either individual perpetrators or institutions, and to act on those causes.
What I see too, though, as I look down at the last of the congregation going in to the warm and convivial hall, is the very positive aspect of this place and activity for many people, indeed I’ve had a closer experience of this in the past, in relation to a Christian family I knew and used to visit, and recently, in a Buddhist setting, though I’m thinking here about the Christian context as they receive a lot of unfair criticism and ridicule.
I saw people having a very positive, uplifting and hope-filled shared social experience, even if it gave only respite, we all need a break from our problems and I’ve seen people gather strength and stamina from this, whatever their level of commitment to or belief in the doctrines. I’ve seen something of the wider social support and networks that can be available and accessible through meeting regularly in a setting in which the focus is, mostly and explicitly, positive. I’ve seen the way people, especially young people, can feel that they are capable of achieving and that they do have real potential, due to the encouragement and wider support and contacts that they have, leading to confident, clear-thinking and healthily active young adults able to make and maintain good relationships and pursue constructive livelihoods based on sound and compassionate values. I’ve seen genuine community developing around these things, all-too-rare islands of constructive social support and interdependence in a sea of fragmented and relatively isolated individuals, clinging to assorted and often toxic flotsam to stay afloat.
I’ve also heard, first hand, from people who have found the sense of a greater presence and possibility in the world helping them to endure deprivation, abuse, despair, imprisonment and torture; at school we had an inspiring talk from an East German preacher who had been imprisoned and interrogated for a long time by Stazi and Soviet police, as well as other persecution due to being an active Christian. My point is that there are very useful and desirable aspects to these activities and beliefs, as well as potential traps for those who do not examine critically the dogmas, rituals, creeds and actual behaviour of the followers.
I am not a Christian, I find the theology doesn’t fit with how I experience the world inside and outside my head, though the core values as exemplified by the teachings of Jesus are very good ones. My forced exposure to Church of England Christianity at school served to reinforce my negative perceptions of it, the sense that I still get if i sit in (rarely) on a service, a feeling that somebody is trying to stuff cotton wool into my head to stop me asking questions and seeing behind the scenery.
I have found myself drawn steadily towards the teachings of the Buddha in large part because I am explicitly encouraged to examine and question it and find the evidence of whether it works for myself, not just to accept it all on “faith”, a word I associate too much with “accept that this is true and don’t ever ask why”, or in other words, wilful delusion. Mostly I find it to be consistent with what I observe and I experience real benefits from the practices and teachings I have encountered so far; those that don’t fit or seem to work I leave aside for now, I’m responsible for my own “salvation”, or not, fair enough.
There are things which it is useful to approach with a willingness to have confidence in, a lifejacket, climbing rope, the brakes on my bike or car, the competence of the pilot to land the plane safely or the doctor to remove my appendix without killing or maiming me, the possibility that this set of teachings and meditation practices will be helpful. All of these things I can, if I wish, examine and test and review.
So when I see the people emerging, now, from the service and gathering (there are usually tea and cakes after, I think), I see something that is mostly positive and life-enhancing, useful in a fragmented society too. The proof, for me, is in the “pudding” in the sense of the observable results of this activity and there is good stuff there that, if it works for you, I’m glad and would encourage. I would also encourage, urgently, examining carefully the list of ingredients to discriminate between those that are genuinely nourishing for the individual and society, those that are innocuous flavourings and colours and those that are bad for your long-term health or even toxic to us all. You don’t need to give up eating cake but the recipe might need adjusting.
About a kilometer away I can see the steeple or tower of the “Faw Kirk” that gave this town its name, from back in the Middle Ages, beyond that, today’s mist obscures a splendid view to the Ochil Hills. It’s time for a walk through the nearby Callendar Woods and perhaps a welcome coffee, even some cake, in Callendar House, by the remains of the Roman frontier at the Antonine Wall. I shall examine the ingredients of the cake!