Of divine sparks and serious talks
Very many years ago, my mother and I were out walking. We did that a lot, she and I, and we would spend most of our standard circuit talking about this and that. That day, we were talking about faith. My mother grew up believing in God, but when she was fourteen, her mother fell ill with hepatitis, and six years later, after years of suffering, my grandmother died. My mother had major problems forgiving God. It was easier to decide He didn’t exist, than to accept He’d be cruel enough to subject someone to so much meaningless suffering. I guess that’s an argument people still find valid when discussing whether God exists yes or no: how can He, if He exists, turn a blind eye on the squalor, the misery, that blights this blue-green planet of ours?
Anyway, years went by, I was born, and one day I fell very sick – so sick my mother despaired of my life. For the first time in almost ten years she prayed, and even if she remains sceptical to the notion of me surviving due to a miracle, if nothing else that moment of desperation opened up a channel of communication between her and God that had been blocked for a very long time. She laughed a bit as she shared this with me, somewhat embarrassed, I believe, at talking about something as private as her faith.
These days, my mother is very ill, and I don’t think she finds much comfort in the notion of God or the hereafter. She is a firm believer in this life being the single most precious gift we get, no matter what comes later. I have no idea if she speaks to God – or rants at Him. Other than that time when we were out walking, we have but rarely touched upon the subject on a personal level.
We have, however, often discussed whether the generations that preceded us truly believed in God or simply chose to conform to expectations. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, and if seven out of ten people raise their fingers to point at a comet while yelling it is a divine portent, it is difficult to be among the three who consider it no more than an astronomic event.
Believing in God was a given in European societies a couple of centuries back. To voice an opinion that one didn’t, was to play with fire, and so those whose minds now and then touched upon the “what if He doesn’t exist” question generally chose to keep a low profile. A God-given order of things had a lot of benefits – especially for those who’d ended up at the top of that order. The priests, the nobility, the rich merchants – to them upholding the word of God, the promise of Heaven as a future reward for those who humbly accepted their lot in this life as servants and peasants, as serfs and underlings, had a lot going for it.
When John Ball back in the 14th century had the balls (eh…) to question whether God truly intended things to be so unfair, with some having so much, other having so little, this caused a shudder of fear throughout the wealthy classes.
“When Adam Delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” John Ball asked, and people nodded and thought that was a very good question. So good, in fact, that suddenly there was a Peasants’ Revolt, the downtrodden arming themselves with pitchforks and spades and demanding their rights.
As we all know, this particular revolt didn’t achieve much – beyond scaring the daylights out of those who had everything to lose should the oppressed start questioning the fairness in the God-given order of things…Not that those loud peasants questioned God. They most certainly did not – God was a fixture of their world, an axiom. But here and there, the savvier among them began to ponder the question whether God truly did intend that some people should have it all while others scraped a living off a plot of land so barren children starved to death every year.
Some centuries later, along came Luther. Bam, bam, bam and he’d nailed his theses to Wittenberg’s Cathedral (only two years to go to celebrate 500 years since that oh, so festive occasion). Now, the important thing about all this was not so much (in my opinion) the theses as such, no matter how much they criticised such deplorable activities as selling indulgences and the like. Nor is the truly important thing the division of Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism. No, the single most important contribution of Luther to all of us was that he insisted people had to learn to read (not so much write). Why? Because Martin Luther preached that all men – and women – had to read the Bible so as to find their faith.
One of the main buttresses of the Protestant Church is that faith, and faith alone, paves the way to heaven. You can do umpteen good deeds a day, but unless you have faith, St Peter will wag his finger at you and not allow you across the threshold to those rolling green meadows beyond. (If we’re going to be picky, Protestant heaven doesn’t really have St Peter, seeing as Protestants don’t hold with saints, even if we still celebrate quite a few of them – but discreetly, like)
Protestant rulers therefore encouraged schools – boys and girls were taught to read their Bible and the Catechism. Thing is, people start reading, and suddenly they discover there is other stuff to read. A lot of stuff. For those keen on promoting a political or religious platform, people’s literacy was a major boon. Instead of having to talk to all and sundry, one could write a pamphlet or two, print them and distribute them. The PR profession was born, so to say.
“I still think they believed in God, though,” my mother would say when we discussed this. “In a world so full of hazards, of children dying young, of plagues and famine, God must have been something to hold on to – a hope that somewhere down the line there’d be justification for all this suffering.” She’d smile sadly. “Sometimes, I can envy them their faith. It was rock-solid, the base upon the world as they saw it was built on.”
Hmm. I imagine quite a few developed a cynical approach to God. All those soldiers who fought first for one side, then the other, in the Thirty Years’ War, for example. Both sides claimed they had God on their side, both sides won – and lost – and won – and lost. Squeezed in between were the civilians, first pillaged by one side, then the other. Did they truly believe in God? Or did they screech in rage, wondering what sort of God allowed this to happen to good, hardworking people?
Religion (which is not necessarily the same thing as God – at times, God probably groans out loud at stuff that’s done in His name – assuming He does exist, assuming He does groan) has always been an excellent tool for repression. In most European countries, Conventicle Acts were introduced during the 17th century, laws that had as their purpose to define just what Church the populace was allowed to belong to. In Sweden, one could only be a Lutheran, member of the Swedish Lutheran Church. Foreigners who were Catholic were tolerated for diplomatic reasons, but woe betide the little Swede who one day woke up and decided they really needed the Virgin Mary in their lives. Anathema, blasphemy – and in itself sufficient to have you accused of heresy. If found guilty, there was only one outcome: death.
In England and Scotland, Charles II’s ministers introduced the Clarendon Code which essentially was a more complex version of a Conventicle Act. As per this legislation, one could belong to the Church of England. Full stop. Well, if you wanted to be a Scottish Kirk member, fine – as long as you recognised the king as head of your church. The Scottish Kirk has no head other than God. The more practical aspects of managing the church is handled by a General Assembly. Obviously, the Clarendon Code led to a fraught relationship between the Lowland Scots who were firm members of the Kirk, and those pesky ministers in London (The one thing they agreed on, the Anglicans and the Presbyterians, was that lowest of low were the Highland Catholics. Well: all Catholics)
Conventicle Acts attempted to monopolise God – something that must have amused Him as He relaxed in a cloudbank up there, somewhere. In the long run, Conventicle Acts didn’t work, and one by one the various European countries did away with these laws. I am not proud to share that Sweden was among the last countries to repel these laws, somewhere in the 1870s. In church, Swedish men and women would sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” (penned by Martin Luther, no less) and the question was if it was a protective fortress or a repressive fortress…
These days, Sweden is one of the most secularised societies in the world. In fact, most of Northern Europe is pretty relaxed when it comes to God nowadays. No one really takes Him seriously. These days, a person expressing a belief in God may expect to be met with a condescending little smile. Our modern world is ruled by facts, by things we can prove. There is a risk, of course, that such a world leaves us spiritually starved. After all, belief in God, in something greater than us, has inspired some of the most impressive expressions of human creativity. Cathedrals, paintings, music…an endless list of master artists who composed and designed and drew so as to honour that which cannot be seen or proved, but which must be taken on faith alone. Faith: a risible concept to many of us modern human beings…
Except, of course, that modern man does have gods. Where before it was blind faith and lack of knowledge that restricted our thinking, these days an almost religious approach to science sets the boundaries for what we may – or should – believe in. Peer pressure is as hale and hearty now as it was then, and so those who do believe in God rarely voice it, not wanting to expose themselves to ridicule.
Personally, I believe there is more to us humans than the bones and flesh and blood and tendons and all that yucky stuff between our ears. We have it in us to rise above ourselves, to become more than the sum total of our parts. A divine spark? Yes, I think so. Or maybe I just hope so. After all, I am sucker for those Sunday school pictures of lambs and lions lying side by side in verdant pastures – one of them is surely Aslan, right? Besides, I am assuming that God, if he exists, has one mean chocolate cake waiting for me on the other side. I guess I’ll have to wait until I’m dead to find out. Not that I’m in any hurry to do so, because if there’s one thing I wholeheartedly agree with my mother on, it is that this life is the icing on the cake, the most precious gift we’ll ever get. Is it always easy? No. Is it always fair? Definitely not. But it is life, that roaring in your veins, that thudding in your heart that confirms that right now, right here, you exist. Not a bad thing, all in all.