I’m conscious of writing on Christmas Eve, as across the world billions are hoping for a happy and peaceful festival and all of us want a safer, healthier, better 2022.
It was above the River Wye that Wordsworth wrote his remarkable lines about
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man…
I believe in that presence, that oneness which ‘Impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought / And rolls through all things.’ Only ‘belief’ may be the wrong word. For, in truth, this is not a belief but an experience. It touches us in many ways, whatever our faith: in nature, poetry, kindness, love, silence, music, prayer. It’s the spirit which, even as we feel it, we cannot name. Afterwards we may say, ‘that was a moment of wonder,’ or, ‘there was a grace, there was something spiritual, to that,’ as in the dancing of Rose Ayling-Ellis in Strictly.
To this oneness, this palpable yet invisible vitality at life’s core, Judaism gives the unutterable name of God, ‘I am that I am.’ The same four Hebrew letters rearranged form the word havayah, ‘being.’ This is the sacred essence of all existence.
I believe the experience of this oneness is the source and soul of religions. Through all their serious forms, distinctive as they are, through ritual, discipline, moral teaching, seasons, celebrations, philosophies and mystical practice, they reconnect the individual life with this same spirit of being. This heart of life, this God we call by various names, seeks after us in turn, calling, teaching, purifying and guiding.
Yet religions differ in almost every way, from our stories of origin, through our sacred texts, professed beliefs, modes of worship, cultural practices and, tragically often, political allegiances. Religions have gone to war, and been misused to justify war, so often that it’s hard to say whether they’ve been a blessing or a curse to humankind. God may have been used to justify more violence than any other cause.
This is the most terrible violation, first and foremost of God, but also of religion. God, being within all life, cannot want one life wilfully to destroy another.
Where then does religious hatred come from? Often faiths are cynically conscripted in nationalist causes, the megalomanic interests of cruel leaders and exploitative suppression. But there is another reason, too, closer to home, intrinsic. Religious texts together with their interpretations haven’t fallen straight from God, as God’s unadulterated word. They are also human. They have histories and contexts. They too reflect cultural conditions, political motives and conflicts. Furthermore, they are constantly subject to misapplication and deliberate abuse. They must be treated with extreme care, respectfully but critically. Weaponizing them is a form of idolatry. Those who practice gratuitous violence against the followers of another religion perpetrate violence against their own.
Therefore, it is all the more important to honour and work with those who teach their faith with integrity and respect for others and who reach out to us. Often, our very differences can bring us the fellowship and perspective to travel to the heart of our own faith and look into the core of each other’s. From those depths, we can form spiritual bonds and work together practically for the urgent common good. In these difficult times, it matters more than ever to return to the oneness at the heart of our faiths and seek one another as we seek God’s presence.
For we hold the same ultimate interest: a world of justice and kindness, sufficiency and integrity; a globe across which we perceive and protect what is precious and sacred in each other, nature and all life; an earth at peace.
With these thoughts in mind, I want to wish my Christian colleagues and friends a joyous festival and all of us a peaceful, worthwhile and hope-filled 2022.