Instinct tells me not to write a post about religion. Nothing provokes so much anger, so much disdain as religion. However, on Sunday I listened to a very thought-provoking sermon at church that I want to share with you, and with Christmas only three days away I thought it would be a pertinent topic to bring to the virtual table…
I suppose I should start by establishing my own beliefs, which are actually very simple. (You can skip this bit and head straight to ‘What we can learn from Virgin Mary’ if you like, I do waffle on a little here.)
What is god?
I used to talk to god (a blurry, compassionate, male sort of figure) in my head as a child. I used to ask for stuff like the health and longevity of the people I loved, and to have a puppy.
When we were very young, my mum took us to Sunday School at St Peter’s church in Muswell Hill. My only memories of going there are dreamy and fragmented. In one I’m staring quizzically at an embossed cow on my malted milk biscuit. In another I’m looking at a statue of the Virgin Mary thinking what a beautiful shade of blue her shawl was.
My connection with church never developed into anything stronger than these fleeting, inane images. I felt rather detached from it all. Accepting but detached. Just another place I was taken to – like school, or the shops.
At 11 I went on a school trip to Yorkshire and had a completely non-religious experience in York Minster Cathedral, in which I stared dumbfounded at the soaring vaulted roofs and the heavy, musty smell of immense age. It was an epiphany in the sense that I realised how moving architecture can be – how strongly it plays with our sense of perspective and reminds us, just as the idea of god does, how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
As a student I was fascinated by religion and philosophy. I saw the study of religion as the study of humanity – the very substance that makes us sentient beings. It seems so deeply ingrained in our DNA to believe in something bigger than ourselves.
Now, as a still (I’m sure) naive 25-year-old, I have whittled my beliefs down to a really simple concept. It helps for me to visualise this:
Life is a big ball filled with light and each living creature in the Universe is a pinprick on the surface of this ball, letting the light shine through. When our bodies die we return to the ball of light/source of energy and reincarnate – in fragments (atoms, quarks, whatever) – into other sources of energy or life (pinpricks). We don’t keep our sense of selves after we die obviously because that requires a brain, but our being (some might call it a soul) never expires. Energy is a constant.
God, the man I still sometimes talk to in my head, is the Universe’s energy in its entirety. Our instinctual belief in a higher being is the innate knowledge that we are all connected to something more significant than we could ever be by ourselves. The existence of different religions is the result of different cultural interpretations of this innate knowledge.
It’s sort of physics/religion for dummies. But I like it. It makes me feel content in my insignificance.
why do we need god?
The belief in a higher being – although I should really call it a higher purpose as some religions, like Buddhism, don’t actually worship a deity – is something that has helped control groups of humans for many thousands of years.
Have you noticed that we, as individuals, are quite prone to running away with ourselves and thinking we’re something pretty special? We’re thinkers, questioners, lovers of art and intellect. Sometimes our love of the world can turn inwards and we start loving ourselves instead, because that’s how we see the world – through our own selves. Narcissism, it’s called (after Narcissus in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ who fell in love with his own reflection). The introduction of a higher being that we’ve all got to try really hard to placate in some way or another helps us redirect our self-love and not get carried away by our own natural narcissism.
Our current society – the digital age, whatever you want to call it, is geared toward self-appreciation. It’s the age of the ‘selfie’, the individual, where social media is the reflection Narcissus fell in love with. It’s no wonder we’re like this after centuries of different forms of oppression – black people, gay people, female people, mentally ill people, Muslim people, Christian people, left handed people. People people people. In many ways living in such a liberal society is a wonderful thing. In many ways I can’t help but feel that we’re heading towards a terrible doom.
What we can learn from the virgin mary
This brings us back to the reason I started writing this post to begin with. On Sunday, my boyfriend and I went to church. It’s a beautiful church in a village in the South Downs with a young, highly intelligent rector. He’s so likable because he’s so honest, so quick to self-deprecate and so good at cementing Christianity in the present time. He recognises that the Bible is a series of stories – allegories that teach us how to live our lives as good people. He understands that the teaching of Christianity has to change if it’s going to continue resonating with future generations.
On Sunday he spoke about Virgin Mary – Jesus’ mother, the woman who started it all. He spoke about her humility – the quality of having a low or modest opinion of one’s own importance. Mary viewed herself not as a source of power (as you might, if an angel turned up and told you you’d be chosen to carry the son of god), but as a vessel through which god could shine his power.
She never let her ego take over. She never took advantage of the potential fame or fortune that could come with having such a well-known son. Not even a single smug Facebook status update.
Humility is something very few of us practice, and it’s not a quality that we seem to particularly value any more. Today we value drive, determination, ambition, wealth, the career ladder, the property ladder, a whole collection of metaphorical ladders apparently leading us to some higher plane of existence.
Today a young woman might cringe at the idea that Mary saw herself as a ‘vessel’ through which this male god could shine his powers through. Today young women are taught to be just as go-getting, ambitious and forthright as men have traditionally been taught to be. Today it’s all about who can shout the loudest, who has the highest qualifications, the most money, the most Instagram followers, the skinniest body.
By the way, it’s worth adding that humility is not a gendered thing at all. It just so happens that the traits associated with success and fortune have been gendered as masculine – somewhat unfairly to both sexes. Regardless of what shaped body part we happen to have between our legs, humility is something we should ALL practice to stop us from looking down on other people.
With humility you realise you are just as lowly as the most lowly person you can think of, whether you’re a high-flying socialite with a thousand friends, or a homeless guy with a drinking problem. We’re all equal really, when you get down to the nitty-gritty. We’re all blood and bones, little pinpricks of light that expire and sink back into that big fiery ball of energy, no longer divided by our bodies or our genitals or our skin colours or our beliefs. One mass, one energy. We’re all vessels so let’s get off our high horses and stop all this nonsense.
(I’ll go back to writing about being fat again soon, I promise)