Having children is like planting seeds; we lay down the foundations but may never see the end result. That is the difference between the architect, and the worker. We are workers, not architects; doers, not leaders. We do our best, and then pass on. “We are prophets of a future not our own”1.
You only live once, rational men have told each other since the earliest times. Accept the fewest possible restrictions imposed in the name of an ethical code devised by others. Run free and make your own decisions2. Humans have argued about the unprovable assertion that there is, or is not, a deity and that this somehow gives purpose to human life, and that by transcending that which is simply relative to the well-being of the individual, create a moral code. Like a civil war our deeply-felt convictions split families and communities apart. It seems that it was ever like this. The psalmist could sing that “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God”, while many would argue that only a fool would believe in a God. This is difficult stuff!3
What is life is a question that looms large when we bury a loved one, or marvel at a new birth. Maybe most of us don’t get much further than the Saxon nobleman (Th. 23) who saw the life of man as like that of a sparrow that flies from the dark into the brightly lit hall, circles around for a bit, and returns to the darkness. What might come before, or what comes after, frustrates our Western minds moulded as they are by the Platonic insistence that there can only to be one right answer, and that answer has to be scientific, logical, rational and untinged by any sense of emotions. “Do not go gently into that good night…”, declared Dylan Thomas in 1952 while Doris Day sang “Que Sera, Sera”… “what ever will be, will be”.
Was that simply fatalism, or a reassuring ‘do the best you can’? Probably half a century back a significant proportion of the population still believed that their futures were not entirely in their own hands4. They should do their bit, but in a very matter-of-fact way, accepted that their reward would be in the hereafter, not in the here-and-now. Was that an illusion, or a reasonable basis on which to live a responsible life? More realistic than the generations which have followed, they simply accepted that life deals some people a bad hand. They recognised that there was no such thing as ultimate fairness; plastic surgeons and psychotherapists not withstanding, some girls were simply born “prom queens”, and others wallflowers; some people would be hospitalised for years, and others damaged by years of caring for a relative. Life would only be tolerable if we were good neighbours, not as a result of government dictat, but of our own personal humanity5.
It is not easy to truly comprehend what were people’s deepest beliefs in times past, but without some understanding of these then the actions of earlier generations make little sense. Hindsight is always fraught with danger, but so to is a projection of current values onto earlier ages. There has come to be in recent years a generally accepted explanation, taught by many English secular historians and philosophers alike, that morality in the post-war world was artificially shored up by the conscious decision to include religious education in the 1944 Education Act, and that the happiness of subsequent generations has increased the further away society has moved from a restrictive set of Christian values6. This has to be a highly questionable assumption, and ignores the reality that many non-practicing Christians still aspire to live by Christian and other altruistic values.
But that historical explanation for religious education in the 1944 Education Act is fundamentally wrong. In the last, prolonged days of parliamentary negotiation of that Act, R. A. Butler acknowledged that without the intellectual, practical and political support of Archbishop William Temple the Bill might never have passed. That it did, Butler acknowledged, was due to the Archbishop consciously surrendering some of what the churches had long been arguing for so as to make it possible for Butler to get parliamentary approval for what Temple believed was paramount, namely the raising of the school leaving age. Temple told his biographer shortly before he died, “I’m putting this crudely, but I believe that Our Lord is much more interested in raising the school leaving age to sixteen than in acquiring an agreed religious syllabus. I prefer stoical ethicism rather than that”7.
Stoical ethicism, moral principles that enable one to endure pain without complaint, remains an essential component of an intellectual Christian or Muslim belief. It seems that a country that has become caught up in go-go capitalism needs a good dose of stoical ethicism, with or without the prospect of a life hereafter. The economic and social achievements of the past fifty years have in some ways brought undreamt of improvements to our standards of living, but at a high price. This price has now to be addressed. As archaeologists and anthropologists seek to understand the ways of our early ancestors they seek evidence amongst the ancient bones for religious practices. The development of religious thought has come to be seen as a measure of advanced consciousness8.
Conventional religious practices, however, no longer satisfy significant sections of the population but, not withstanding, we should be careful because ‘mystical, symbolic and religious thinking (all those ways of thinking that the rationalists would condemn as irrational) seem to characterise human thinking everywhere and at every time’9. Maybe humans can’t deal with too much rational thought, and there really is an advantage in the way religious beliefs spur us to actions that go beyond our own ambitions and-self-interest. Thesis 93: 28th August 2006