If there’s a king in Heaven high

Attention conservation notice: just under 8,000 words(!) on varieties of religious experience, the size of the universe and the work of Jeremy Deller. Includes three pictures, one audio clip, one virtual gallery link and two hymns. Hat-tip to Ken Macleod.

1. Nobody knows who they were

The other Sunday we went here:

Sacrilege

It was just about as good as it looks. It was in Preston, for one day only – the day being the final day of Preston Guild, which we also saw a bit of (although we weren’t around for any of the processions). We booked a holiday in Guild Week the last time it came round – in 1992 – so I was glad that we’d showed our faces this time.

I’ll say a bit more about Sacrilege – the “bouncy Stonehenge” created by Jeremy Deller – a bit later. (If you want to skip straight there, find the next mention of Deller’s name.) Now, though, we’ll break for a hymn.

2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

God is working His purpose out
As year succeeds to year;
God is working His purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

I love that hymn. It’s completely barmy, but I love it. There’s that amazing, exorbitant image of the world being completely transfigured by the glory of God – just as wholly, just as ubiquitously as the sea is wholly and everywhere wet. I think what makes this verse really powerful, oddly, is the combination of that visionary image with the calm plod of the first six lines, which take quiet confidence to a new level of placidity: it will happen, it will definitely happen, and what’s more it will happen within a finite, countable period, such that we can actually say that the passage of time is bringing us nearer to the time when it will happen, as it definitely will. Sorry, drifted off there for a moment – when what will happen, again?

When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

Oh, that. Fancy me forgetting.

The traditional Christian view of time was built on some definite fixed points at beginning, middle and end – all with Biblical warrant. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had sinned and been kicked out of Eden and into the real world, setting the whole thing going; in the middle, Jesus had redeemed mankind through His sacrifice; at the end… well, people weren’t sure exactly what would happen at the end, but it would certainly involve the end of time, the heavens being rolled up like a scroll and so forth. Now, we were somewhere between middle and end. We probably wouldn’t live to see the end, but as long as we died as Christians we could be sure that we would be there on the big day (or end of days). In between death and the end, depending who you talked to, was oblivion (which would be OK) or Heaven (which is nice).

If you took a few steps back from it all, the fixed points looked a bit different: all you really had was the need to put your faith in somebody who lived a very long time ago, to save you from the consequences of something that had apparently been done by somebody who lived an even longer time ago, consequences which would supposedly take effect at some unknown point in the future, almost certainly after you’d died. (The part about you dying, though – that definitely would happen.) As soon as you let doubt in on one corner of that picture, the whole thing goes a bit awry. What strikes me now about that hymn is how blithe its confidence is, how closed it is to any doubt or questioning. God – our God – has a purpose for the world; He’s putting it into practice, and when He’s finished the results will be (literally) heaven on earth; and this is definitely going to happen, possibly quite soon. It’s positively enthusiastic (OED: “Pertaining to, or of the nature of, possession by a deity”; “Pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of mystical delusions in religion.”).

From its tone I assumed initially that the hymn had found its way into Church of England hymnals either from a Methodist source or from even later revivalists, perhaps the Great Revival of the first decade of the twentieth century. I got the period about right, but otherwise my guess couldn’t have been more wrong. “God is working His purpose out” was written in 1894 by Arthur Campbell Ainger, who was a House Master at Eton. There seems to have been quite an appetite for under-the-counter millennialism in the nineteenth-century Church of England; for example, Lewis Hensley’s Thy Kingdom Come O God (1867) doesn’t just see the end of days as coming soon, it asks for it to hurry up (“Apocalypse now, please!”). There’s an anxious edge to Hensley’s hymn, as well as a weary Arnoldian pessimism (“By many deeds of shame/We learn that love grows cold”); his fixation on the end of the world is mildly desperate where Ainger’s is calmly confident. In their different ways, they both have a preoccupation with eternity which seems quite at odds with their comfortable social and theological position (Hensley was Vi­car of Ip­o­lyts-with-Great-Wy­mond­ly, no less).

As for Ainger, among his few other composing credits is “Carmen Etonense”, the Eton school song, whose chorus translates roughly “For as long as England’s shores are bathed in kindly sunlight, let Eton flourish! Eton shall flourish!” “Until the sun goes out” is a curious way to say “forever”; perhaps it was at the back of Ainger’s mind that the heavens would eventually be rolled up like a scroll, and that this would change things even for Eton College. It seems more likely, though, that Ainger saw God working His purpose out and Eton flourishing as very much the same thing. Perhaps the confident tone of the hymn came less from a sense of personal contact with God, more from the sense that Ainger and his class had always been blessed by God and always would be.

To be fair to Ainger, although his socio-cultural situation was more comfortable than most, the security he expressed in that hymn has been available to every other Christian since the second century AD. Existentially speaking, feeling that the whole of human history is put into its proper context by two irruptions of the divine – Christ’s sacrifice (firmly in the past) and the end of days (firmly in the future) – makes quite a comfortable framing for one’s own life. (You’re still going to die, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.) But how would it be not to have those anchor points? Or rather, how would it have been?

3. And Christ receive thy soul

The Harrowing of Hell is a traditional Christian belief; it’s not in the Bible, and can be seen as a bit of folk embroidery to patch up a hole in the Bible story. The thing is, Moses was damned. Great man and all that, met God and took down the commandments and so forth, but if you’re a Christian none of that’s going to get you saved. Faith in Jesus Christ is what you need, and that’s a tall order for people who were born several hundred years before Bethlehem. Bad luck, Moses – for the want of any alternative, he must have been damned to Hell, along with Aaron, King David, Abraham, old Adam and all. Of necessity this wasn’t spelt out in the Bible – the writers of the Old Testament didn’t know they were writing the Old Testament – but it was a logical deduction from the facts of salvation as set out in the Gospels (John in particular). This belief in turn gave rise to a folk belief that, before rising from the dead, Jesus had visited Hell and liberated everyone who was there purely because they were born at the wrong time – everyone who would have believed in him if they’d had the chance, in other words. Hell was ‘harrowed’ in the sense that it was thoroughly searched – combed, we’d say now – for righteous souls, who were permitted to ascend into Heaven.

That’s fine – well, it’s a bit of a hack, but it can be made to work – if you’re talking about a relatively limited number of people and a finite period of time. If you take into account what we now know about the number of different ways people have lived and the number of different places they’ve lived in, it starts to get a bit Horrible Histories…

JC: Greetings! I bring the good news of salvation through My death and resurrection to save all mankind, past, present and-
Aztec Priest: Sorry, could you repeat that? I was a bit distracted, what with all these demons gnawing my entrails and sticking knives in my – Ow! Look, stop that for a moment, will you? Sorry. You were saying.
JC: [sighs] Greetings-I-bring-the-good-news-of-salvation-through-My-
AP: Salvation? You’re going to get me out of here? Good man! I thought Quetzalcoatl would have sorted it out by now, to be honest, but I suppose he must be busy. Hang on, you’re not-
JC: No, I’m not Quetzalcoatl. I’m the Son of God. Well, I say ‘son’, I’m actually God in my own right as well. It’s quite interesting actually, God has three persons but at the same time-
AP: Son of a god? Which one? Not that I mind – if you’re going to get me out of here that is – I’m just curious.
JC: No, no, no, not son of a god, son of God. Look, can we get on with it?
AP: You’re the son of a god who thinks he’s the only one? Sounds a bit weird, but whatever. So which way did you say the exit was?
JC: No, it’s not quite that simple. Look, when you were alive, you didn’t believe in me, right?
AP: I’m not sure I believe in you now, mate. No offence, but the hallucinations you get after a few centuries of mind-numbing torment are something else.
JC: So, OK, you didn’t believe in me, but what I’m interested in now is, were you good?
AP: Well, I was a pretty good Aztec priest. It wasn’t always easy, though – I had to make a lot of sacrifices. Sacrifices! Get it? Oh, suit yourself.
JC: Yes… That’s actually not quite -
AP: No, I know what you mean. I think I was a pretty good bloke, really. Ask these guys, they all knew me. If you can get the demons to lay off long enough, that is. Look, will you stop that? We’re talking!
JC: Oh, this is ridiculous, I’ll never get round at this rate. Hold still for a moment, would you, I’ll just look into the secrets of your heart.
AP: Help yourself – with the work these demons have been doing you can probably see my heart from there already.
JC: Yes… yes… and it’s… yes. What do you know – apparently you’re one of the good ones. Off you go to Heaven. Over on the right – you see that dazzling light? Just head for that and keep going, they’ll sort you out when you get there. Come on, chop chop – I’ve got another three million to get through just in this corner, and that’s not counting the Incas.

The depth of the past, and the sheer geographical breadth of the past, are a bit of a problem for this model, at least in terms of surface plausibility. The problem’s compounded if we take into account the number of people living since the death of Christ who, with the best missionary will in the world, (will) have lived and died without any exposure to the Good News. Presumably they’re also Hell-bound, at least on a temporary basis, and presumably some kind of sorting-out operation will rescue the good ones at the end of days. If you put it all together, an awful lot of people are getting temporarily misfiled, and condemned to centuries or millennia of excruciating torment as a result.

And people aren’t the half of it.

4. O’er heathen lands afar

The observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 46 billion light years. (You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.) There are, on the latest estimate, in the region of 3 x 10^23 stars in the universe. I don’t know what proportion of those are Sol-like, but with numbers that high it doesn’t matter a great deal; even if the proportion’s one in a million, and only one in ten of those stars have small (non-gaseous) planets (which itself is a very low estimate), we’re still looking at a multiple of 10^16 rocky extra-solar planets. Not only that, but the universe is 1.4 x 10^10 years old – ten billion years older than Earth. (Which makes the idea of a ‘year’ a bit notional, but never mind.) Space is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, and so is time – and my God, they’re full of stars.

What that means, though, is that there are innumerable times and places that the Good News of Christ’s resurrection doesn’t and cannot reach, thanks to the finite lifespan of stars and the limit imposed by the speed of light. As speed limits go, the speed of light is quite a high limit, but it is a hard limit: nothing in the universe can travel any faster. Which has some significant effects.

Picture a star as a dot, and picture a ring around it: we can call that the distance travelled by light in a second. Now imagine a whole series of concentric rings, representing the distance the star’s light will travel in one second, two seconds, three and so on. Now, as simple as it is, that diagram is overloaded – we’re using the distance between concentric circles to represent two different things, the distance travelled by light in a second and the second it takes to travel it. To remedy that we’ll need to use the third dimension: picture those concentric circles coming up out of the paper, each widening circle higher up than the one before. Height now represents time, while the horizontal dimensions represent distance in space. The shape you’ve got, if your visualisation is the same as mine, is a cone. As you move away from the star (the point at the bottom) you simultaneously move upward (the passage of time) and outward (movement in space). The angle of the cone represents the speed of light – the distance in space (horizontal) it can cross in a given time (vertical). Most importantly, light cannot reach any area outside the light cone, because doing so would involve a flatter angle – more horizontal movement (in space) for the same vertical movement (passage of time), which is to say a speed higher than light speed.

In reality, of course, stars emit light in three dimensions; real light cones are four-dimensional and hence quite difficult to visualise. The main point is that any localised event has a future light cone – a region of spacetime which it’s physically possible for information from that event to reach – and a vast region outside that light cone: all the places that light (or radio waves, or by extension any form of information) cannot reach, or rather cannot reach yet. Equally, any point in spacetime (such as the one you’re at now) has a past light cone – a region of spacetime from which it’s physically possible for information to have reached an observer at that point. Anything outside your past light cone can never have had any effect on you. If Mark and Q had been equipped with high-powered radio transmitters, the Good News might have travelled getting on for 2,000 light years by now; that’s quite a long way, but our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide.

Suppose that, a thousand years from now, radio broadcasts from Earth reach a solar system a thousand light years away, one of whose planets supports multi-cellular life. Suppose that an intelligent (and religiously-inclined) species had existed on that planet, but had destroyed itself a couple of centuries earlier, dying unsaved in their millions for want of the Good News. Now multiply out by all that time and all that space. Even if only a tiny proportion of life-sustaining planets harbour intelligent life, the likely numbers of alien civilisations that exist, have existed or will exist somewhere in those 4 x 10^32 cubic light years within the lifespan of the universe are – there’s no other word for it – astronomical. And, given light speed as a hard limit, the proportion of all alien civilisations that can ever be reached by the Good News is astronomically tiny. There will be an awful lot of catching up to do at the end of days; the Harrowing of Hell starts to look a bit parochial.

Not only that, there’s been plenty of time for a star to halt over a stable somewhere else, before we came along – even before Earth came along – and plenty of places where it could have happened. The believing Christian (whose persona I’m borrowing for a lot of this post) would shrug this off: we know it could have happened like that, but we also know it didn’t, because it happened right here, in Bethlehem. But what if we can’t be so sure?

5. You’ll remember Mercury.

As Gary Gutting (via Ken) says, one solution to the problem of evil – the question of why an omnipotent and benevolent God permits pointless suffering – is an appeal to our own ignorance. God, on this argument, is not only all-powerful but all-knowing; our knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, so it may well be that events which make no sense to us have their place in a divine plan. Or, in a stronger version of the same point: we know our knowledge is imperfect, while God’s is perfect; as such we know that we cannot know the mind of God, cannot understand the divine plan. Seeing suffering as incomprehensible, on this argument, is a sign of our humanity; we should not aspire to understand tragic events better, only to be reconciled with them through prayer.

The Harrowing of Hell fits neatly into this framework, despite the sufferings involved being mythical. Being born in the time and place that he was, Moses had no way of knowing the true nature of God; he and all his followers lived all their lives without ever having a full revelation of the divine, and consequently died without being saved and went to Hell. This is an unpalatable thought: surely no benevolent and all-powerful God would condemn the Fathers of the Church to the torments of the damned, even temporarily. (I say ‘temporarily’ – after the first couple of centuries I imagine it wouldn’t feel very temporary.) They would effectively be condemned for being born in the wrong time and place – and, what’s worse, for being born in the precise time and place where they needed to be born in order to lay the groundwork for Christ’s coming and hence fulfil the divine plan. Moses, in short, copped a millennium of Hell for doing everything right.

We can understand this – or rather understand our failure to understand it – by invoking God’s superior (perfect) knowledge: there are things in the divine plan that we don’t understand and never can understand, and presumably this is one of them. (If you think this sceptical argument is unpalatable, incidentally, you’re not alone. From a believer’s point of view it’s very unsatisfactory, not least because it opens up the possibility that the nature of God is unknowable and may be entirely different from what we believe it to be. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the argument was formulated by somebody – David Hume – who was at most a theist. On the other hand, it’s the closest thing I know to a good answer to the problem of evil.)

Now bring all that space and time back in. If a tiny fraction of the planets orbiting other stars have produced or will produce intelligent life, that will amount to millions of alien races – the vast majority of which will realistically never get to hear about Bethlehem, not least because most of them are, were or will be physically incapable of doing so (light cones again). To begin with we can trot out the same response – yes, it seems a bit rough, but there you go, all part of the plan, nobody said the plan would be comprehensible, and so on. But then it gets worse. Think of all those hypothetical intelligent alien races, whether past, future or outside both our light cones. Presumably they have some conception of the divine or numinous – it’d be a sod to convert them to Christianity otherwise – and presumably they’ve made some sort of fumbling semi-contact with the divine and had some sort of glimmers of revelation. (Somebody spoke to Moses in that bush; he still went to Hell.)

Now the trap shuts: how do we know that our revelation was the real and complete one, the one that’s true for all time and all space? The sceptic answers: we don’t know and we can’t know. If we believe in Christ as the incarnate son of God, we’re committed to believing that untold millions of people – and other intelligent beings – lived or will live without any possibility of a true and complete apprehension of the divine. This may seem a bit tough, but our knowledge is imperfect, so we have to trust that it’s all in God’s plan. If we are serious about our belief in the imperfection of human knowledge, however, we have to concede that the Christian’s belief in Christ as the incarnate son of God may not be a true and complete apprehension of the divine. God’s true revelation may have taken place three billion years ago, on a planet orbiting a star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; the good Good News may not reach our area until the sun’s a red giant. Christians, as much as Jews or Buddhists, may only ever get a glimmer or half a glimmer of the divine – and this too may be part of God’s plan.

6. “God is dead,” Nick said. “They found his carcass in 2019.”

Still with me? Brace yourself; this is where things get strange.

Hume’s argument from imperfect knowledge has been answered by an appeal to a different kind of knowledge. Human reason may be imperfect, this argument runs, but there’s no gainsaying human experience:

There are two ways to learn that something is possible. One way is to form a clear conception of the possibility. The second way is to discover that the thing is an actual fact. For example, I know that it is possible for bumblebees to fly because I have observed them actually flying. I can know that bumblebees actually fly without first having proved to myself, independently, that it is really possible for them to fly

Similarly, the Christian knows that it is possible for God to communicate with her because she knows it has happened. By happy extension, she also knows that it is possible for the God whose nature we know to communicate with her, and hence that God’s nature is the nature we know. Collapse of stout sceptic.

There are two ways to answer this argument. The short answer – and, I think, the one Hume would have used – is that the argument assumes its own conclusion. What our Christian knows is that she has had a certain experience; when she sets about understanding that experience she’s necessarily thrown back on her own knowledge and reason (including her knowledge of the Christian religion), and we’re back to square one.

Gutting offers a longer (and stranger) answer.

Their confidence in salvation, [believers] say, comes not from philosophical arguments but from their personal contact with God, either through individual experience or a religious tradition. But what can such contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that there is a very powerful being who promises to save us. But there may well be — and many religions insist that there are — very powerful beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us away from salvation. How could we possibly know that the power we are in contact with is not deceiving us?

The inevitable response is that an all-good God would not permit such a thing. But that takes us back to the previous difficulty: there is no reason to think that we are good judges of what God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

Got that? Direct, immediate experience of contact with God might turn out to be a quite genuine experience of contact with something else. This is a monstrous possibility (literally), but remember, our human knowledge is imperfect; and if our knowledge is imperfect, then God’s plans are unknowable. And, if God’s plans are unknowable, He may make it possible for demonic entities to exist, and for people to make contact with them while believing they’re in touch with God. It’s a bit like the (apocryphal?) preaching of Buddha that Brahma wasn’t the creator of the universe, but a misguided spirit who had come to believe that he was the creator of the universe. Indeed, given that God has all of time and space to work His purpose out, He may make it possible for entire civilisations to gain their only experience of the divine from contact with demonic entities – which would condemn those civilisations to damnation even at their highest levels of religious exaltation. And, if God’s plans are truly unknowable – and what other kind of ‘unknowable’ is there? – we can’t know that our civilisation isn’t one of them. Pulling back out to the cosmic scale, we can’t know that our entire planet – what the hell, our entire galaxy – isn’t doomed to this kind of counterfeit revelation. We can trust that things will be sorted out at the end of days – assuming that at least we’ve got that right – but the God who does the sorting may not be what we expect at all.

We can put the same argument in slightly less alarming terms – and beat a retreat to the short answer – if we say, more simply, that many people through the ages have experienced what they thought to be direct contact with God and been mistaken about the nature of the experience, to put it no more strongly than that. As sceptics, we can accept that God may exist and genuine contact with Him may be possible, while leaving open the possibility that everyone who has ever believed they have made contact was suffering from enthusiasm. We can doubt, if we feel like it, that contact ever will be made from Earth, or from any other planet out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy. (I say “the Galaxy”; obviously I mean this galaxy.)

7. Against principalities, against powers

As I said earlier on, the Humean sceptical argument is unpalatable to believers. I think bringing in deep space and deep time has made it clear just how unpalatable it is. Whether the alternative to a true revelation is the machinations of powers in the air or simple human delusion, the result is much the same. The believer would be committed to holding two mutually antagonistic beliefs simultaneously:

  1. I believe in God: an omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe, loves His creation, makes Himself known to believers and will grant salvation to them.
  2. I am human, and consequently acknowledge that God’s nature may not be as I believe it to be, God may not have truly made Himself known to me and may never do so, the tenets of my religion may have no connection with God’s true purpose and my faith may not save me from eternal damnation.
  3. But GOTO 1.

So where is all this going? The point is simply this: the version of Christian belief we’ve just ended up with is monstrous and untenable. Hume’s scepticism leaves open the possibility of genuine revelation, genuine contact with the divine, but at the cost of introducing radical uncertainty as to whether any given experience of the divine is that genuine contact – and by extension whether any known experience of the divine has ever been genuine. In the Humean view, it’s entirely possible that nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian has ever had a genuine contact with the Christian God, or ever will. Not only is it possible, it’s entirely compatible with belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, working His purposes out as year succeeds to year. And yet nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian could believe that: it would undermine everything they believe.

So where does religion go if we take this argument seriously? I don’t believe that it disposes of religion altogether, although it does make things a bit difficult for certain kinds of religious belief (and not only Christian belief). One possibility is that the divine retreats to a kind of abstract realm of unknowability. God may or may not exist; this or that revelation of the divine may or may not have been valid. Whatever the answer is, though, it can never be proved and will never affect us either way. Hume himself leant towards this position; at one stage he described the argument between theism and atheism as a purely verbal disagreement, or as we’d say a difference that makes no difference. This way of thinking about religion clearly doesn’t include an eschatology – even Hume could hardly miss the Last Trump; more broadly, it tends to erode religion’s purchase on the present-day social world, reducing the numinous to an aesthetic experience and differences of belief to philosophical debating points. In practical terms this may be no bad thing, but it’s a substantial scaling-down of the claims of religion.

Another answer, which I think is more interesting, gives scepticism the field and then goes somewhere different. But first, another hymn.

8. Everywhere all the time

Every star shall sing a carol,
Every creature high or low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

When the king of all creation,
Had a cradle on the earth.
Holy was the human body,
Holy was the human birth.

Who can tell what other cradle
High above the Milky Way
Still may rock the King of Heaven,
On another Christmas day?

Who can count how many crosses
Still to come or long ago.
Crucify the King of Heaven?
Holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other body
He will hallow for his own?
I will praise the son of Mary,
Brother of my blood and bone.

Every star and every planet,
Every creature high and low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven,
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

“Every star shall sing a carol” (1961) by the great Sydney Carter. Cards on the table, I’m not a Christian, but I think that’s absolutely brilliant – and it points to a different way of dealing with Humean scepticism. The problem that deep time and space poses for believers is the same problem that was originally patched up by the Harrowing of Hell, and it’s the problem of singularity. (The state of being singular, that is. Nothing to do with that singularity.) If there is one true revelation of the divine, what becomes of all those people who could only have a glimmer or a distorted half-revelation? And – the Humean adds – how can we know that we aren’t among them?

Carter’s answer is to reject the premise of singularity. (I don’t know if Carter read much science fiction; you could see this hymn as a riposte to C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, in which the inhabitants of Venus say how privileged Earth was to be the planet Jesus chose.) This hymn – and, from what I know of it, Carter’s own religious faith – points us to a world in which Moses wasn’t damned in the first place, and a universe in which there are many different revelations of the divine. Some of them are false, predictably, but many of them are true – equally true, and true in different ways. Encounters with the numinous then cease to take their bearings from one true revelation, and simply become something that happens to people – and would happen to other intelligent species.

Consistently with this idea of multiple revelations, you could see religious observances in all their variety as just something that people do – or rather, something that societies do, and quite possibly something that the societies formed by other intelligent species would also do. Religions would then be different ways of attending to the numinous things in life, different ways of adopting a reverent attitude to phenomena that deserve reverence (birth, death, community, that kind of thing). As for the experience of the divine, perhaps that could be situated at the end of the process rather than its source: not the phenomenon to which reverence needs to be paid, but an emergent property of the practice of reverence.

9. Sweetness follows

A couple of things follow from this way of looking at religion. Four, to be precise.

Firstly, (almost) all religions are (more or less) equal. If you believe that you should do this when somebody’s born, this when somebody dies and this at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, annual, whatever); if you can look around you, at least occasionally, and see other people who believe the same; and if you believe that those commitments are involved with your relationship with something immaterial or intangible; then the chances are you’re doing religion, practising reverence to things that deserve it.

Secondly, religion is a shared practice of life. Religions may start with a single enthusiast (somebody like George Fox), but they only take root in groups – people who do things together. They grow through groups, as well, or at least recruit through affinity networks. Show me a religion that recruits by ones and twos and I’ll show you a religion that’s either very new, struggling to survive or both. Raymond Williams defined – or insisted on defining – ‘culture’ as a ‘whole way of life’. Religion has something of that quality: it’s part of how people do what they do, together. And, I think, the quality of religious experience comes out of that common practice, rather than being something that existed prior to it and which it was constructed around. Insisting that the religious experience takes priority over the common practice can have some odd results. My mother was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their communion services, the Brethren would break and share actual bread rather than the wafers they use in the Church of England, this being what the Disciples had done at the Last Supper (“this do in remembrance of me”, remember). According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but no matter; from then on he brought along his own supply of unleavened bread, wrapped up in greaseproof paper, and communed with himself.

Thirdly, religion happens (or doesn’t) in the life you’re living. Pace Robyn Hitchcock, it does matter what you was – what you is is what you are, but what you was is how you got here – how you came to be what you is. Are. We think of conversion experiences as wiping previous religious (or non-religious) commitments completely, like a wave coming in and washing away the scribbles on the sand, and I dare say it would feel like that, to begin with at least. Personally I’m a kind of not-quite atheist agnostic, which is a bit of an uncomfortable, liminal position – you could say I’m the kind of person who doesn’t actually believe in anything but doesn’t want to commit to not believing in anything. If I converted to Catholicism tomorrow I can imagine the tide of faith coming in like a comfort blanket. But there are habits of thought I’ve acquired over the years, not to say habits full stop, which would be very hard to shed – and that includes habits which go back to my rather distant upbringing as an Anglican. Like people who settle in rural villages and find themselves referred to as newcomers twenty years later, I’d be a Catholic convert for a long time before I was simply a Catholic. Even then I’d be an ex-Anglican, formerly-atheist Catholic. And that’s a belief system not very far from the one I grew up in; becoming a Buddhist would be the work of a lifetime.

Religion is a big commitment: it takes people sharing ways of living for it to happen; it takes time and patience to make it a reality in your life. Anything short of that is just playing at it. People play at religion a fair bit, if you look around; a lot of what people ostensibly believe in most strongly seems to be awfully dilettante and and-a-pony-ish. The stall at a local church fund-raiser selling prayer flags – how would that work? The woman we saw at a stone circle in Cornwall, staggering and holding her head from the sheer power of the vibrations – didn’t it seem at all odd to her that nobody else could feel a thing? (Then again, as Ben Goldacre points out, electrosensitivity has real and often distressing symptoms; megalithosensitivity may be something similar.)

On the other hand, grumpy sceptical reactions like that often suggest something being disavowed or studiously ignored. I think what’s nagging at me in this case is that (fourthly) playing is really important. Play starts in the ‘potential space’ that infants first start to explore under their parent’s gaze, and it goes on for as long as you’re making new discoveries, learning how to do things, making other people laugh or just messing about with ideas. Play is exploratory; playing is a way of finding new meanings, new connections, new ways to act or live. Playing with religion as such may not be a great idea, if only because it puts the idea of a religion ahead of the practices that make it happen. (Think of that Plymouth Brother with his flatbreads in greaseproof paper; a less earnest approach would, if anything, have cut him off from the rest of the Meeting even more completely.) What does make sense is the idea of playing with shared practices of life – playing with ways (finding new ways) to offer reverence to things, events, experiences that deserve it. And that’s where, at its best, art comes in. Art and religion are quite closely related, in this way of thinking. Art is a way of playing with images, symbols, practices; a way of directing a concentrated, reverent attention to everyday social life; and a way of bringing out the unnoticed meanings of the lives we’ve been living.

10. The marvellous revealed

I’m convinced that Jeremy Deller is a genius. In 2006 he co-curated the Folk Archive, the catalogue of which is now available online as a kind of virtual exhibit. I didn’t see the real-world show, but the virtual gallery is quite wonderful. Head over there now, I’ll just put some music on until you get back.

The Folk Archive

You back? Great. (Good, isn’t it?)

In 2009 Deller organised Procession, a work which I still haven’t made my mind up about – by which I mean that I’m still not sure what it was. It was an artwork in the form of a procession; it was a tribute to the social practice of holding processions; it was a satirical comment on past processions; it was a sincere attempt to envisage a procession for contemporary Manchester; it was all the above. It was a really good procession, in any case. It was led by a Boy Scout band (playing “Hit the North”); bringing up the rear came a float carrying a steel band (playing “Love will tear us apart” – and if you haven’t heard “Love will tear us apart” played by a steel band at the tail of a procession, you’ll have to imagine how good it sounded). In between there were Ramblers, goths, a celebration of fish and chips, a series of hearses carrying floral tributes to defunct Mancunian nightclubs, a group of Unrepentant Smokers… and, as they say, much more. Each group had an embroidered banner in the old style – I worried to begin with that the cumulative effect would make the banners look arch and silly, but they were such magnificent pieces of work that they simply gave greater dignity and impact to the procession, as banners always have done. It was one of those works that look rather weightlessly ironic on paper, but in reality turn out to be powerful and genuine: it was called Procession, and it was a procession. The silliest element was supplied by reality. As well as their own, the Unrepentant Smokers carried a small additional banner with a health warning. I assumed this was a satirical reference to the elf-n-safety hoops that march organisers have to jump through these days, but it turned out that there was no satire about it: the City Council wouldn’t allow them to march unless they carried it.

And did I mention, lots of people came and watched. We all stood, lining the street, and we watched the procession go by. It was great.

It brought people together; it created strange and unexpected moments of beauty; it celebrated the lives people were and had been living. I’m not saying Procession was a religious work, but I do think that what remains of religion – if you forget about looking back to a singular revelation and looking forward to the end of history – has very similar qualities.

As, in its own way, did Sacrilege. One of the starting-points of this post (if something the length of an academic paper still qualifies as a ‘post’) was my perversely-maintained conviction that playing on a life-size bouncy-castle Stonehenge, set up on a recreation ground in Preston, is actually more ritually appropriate – more real – than holding a Druid ceremony at the real Stonehenge. That’s not an entirely serious point – I’ve done one and not the other, apart from anything else – but I think I can make a case for Sacrilege, and one which relates partly to its fairly ostentatious inauthenticity.

Stonehenge, if it’s anything, is singular: we all recognise it, and we don’t know anything else like it. (In point of fact, I’m not sure there’s any other stone circle like it anywhere; those triliths are extraordinary.) This singularity is accentuated by Stonehenge’s close association with Midsummer: not only is there only one Stonehenge, there’s only one time to go there. Stonehenge also tugs us back to a distant past that we know little or nothing about. About the people who originally used Stonehenge, Nigel Tufnel was right: Nobody knows who they were… or what they were doing. Any attempt to recreate the ritual significance of Stonehenge now has to be fairly speculative and voluntaristic; contemporary Druid practice springs out of a prior commitment to a certain kind of religious experience, rather than the experience emerging from a practice and the practice growing out of a shared life experience. They’re playing at it, in other words – and playing seriously, rigidly, adhering to rules they believe were revealed to them and shutting out all non-believers.

Compare Sacrilege. Nothing singular about it: it was set up and taken down in a whole variety of places all around the country. It’s not about the distant past; it takes the very contemporary form of a bouncy castle (so contemporary that I’m too old ever to have been on one before, although for some people reading this they were probably a childhood memory). It’s not about playing by the rules and restricting participation to an elect of believers; it’s about admission for all, and it’s about playing. It’s also – and this is the genius of the work – unavoidably about the numinosity of Stonehenge itself. Play in such a setting inevitably takes on ritual aspects: I set myself to run around the inside of the outer circle touching all the ‘uprights’ once, then do the same around the outside of the inner circle, and by the end I felt I’d done something. (I also felt extremely out of breath. How do kids do it?) Play takes on ritual aspects, and then it sheds them again; I’ve got vivid memories of leaning back against a gently yielding monolith, squeezing between the uprights of a trilith, dropping to a kneeling bounce on the turf, then rolling over and watching the world bounce past… None of this meant anything – it didn’t derive significance from any kind of liturgy – but at the same time it meant a lot. It reminded us of the grandeur and beauty of the stones themselves, and evoked all the rather cliched images of mythic power that they’re linked with. At the same time it drew on the history of non-reverence towards the ancient stones and the contemporary rationality which disregards them, which it at once restated (there’s nothing very reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge) and playfully subverted (there is something irreducibly reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge – and there’s nothing very rational about bouncing, come to that).

The sheer playful excess of the work, combined with the sheer symbolic excess, produced something hilariously enjoyable and powerfully beautiful. As such, what Sacrilege did was something nearly, but not quite, religious; something much closer to Sydney Carter’s idea of religious experience than to traditional versions; and something it shared with Deller’s other work. Sacrilege doesn’t say “the ancients had Stonehenge; we have nothing but bouncy castles; woe is us”. It says “they used to have Stonehenge; we have bouncy castles; what now?” In just the same way, Acid Brass said “they used to have brass bands, we have acid house”, while Procession said “they used to have Whit Walks and Wakes Weeks, we have goths, outdoor smokers and a closed Haçienda”. (I’m very glad that Sacrilege hit Preston in the week of the 2012 Guild, incidentally; if it was a coincidence it was a remarkably good one.) Each time, the work doesn’t assert that this is the contemporary equivalent of that; instead, it brings out the elements of play and celebration in both, then asks, is this the contemporary equivalent? Is this where our contemporary rituals of sense-making take place, where we honour the numinous things in life? Is this where our traditions are being laid down? If so, what do they look like and feel like – how do they honour the numinous and strike sparks off the everyday? And are there any precautions we should be taking?

11. Careful now

Title credits: Trad., Nigel Tufnel, Christina Rossetti, Trad., Lewis Hensley, Edwin Morgan, Philip K. Dick, St Paul, Russell Hoban, Michael Stipe, Peter Blegvad, Dougal McGuire.

6 Comments

  1. Nich Hills
    Posted 3 October 2012 at 05:51 | Permalink | Reply

    A magnificent post, Phil.

    2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

    The hymn God is working His purpose out seems to me o capture the idea of the Kingdom of God. Not ‘kingdom’ as in a group of subjects but an activity, a state of being, that exists now but will come to greater fullness at some point in the future.

    3. And Christ receive thy soul

    The harrowing of Hell is an interesting concept. And one I was not familiar with until I saw a version of the Wakefield Plays in Hobart, Tasmania. The idea arose for much of the reasons you, Phil, gave but it didn’t need to be this way.

    A number of places in the Bible suggest that those who haven’t heard of Christ, or choose not to be in solidarity with him, may still be saved. Even in the arch Sole fida epistle to the Romans Paul suggests unbelievers can be saved (Romans 2:7-8) and the patriarch Abraham is described as righteous.

    The other thing is that the Church sees ‘salvation’ as an unfurling, if not evolving, concept. For the patriarchs the meaning and end of their lives was to face a personal oblivion but to have children as numerous as stars in the sky. That was immortality. And if the sinful behaviour of an individual – such as Achan in Joshua chapter 6 – put the tribe in mortal danger then the punishment must not just fall on him but be meted out to daughters and sons because otherwise, what is the point?

    6. “God is dead,” Nick said. “They found his carcass in 2019.”

    The question is, is God necessarily a being? Can He be something else; a non-being? Or both being or non-being? Paul Tillich is probably your go-to guy here.

    8. Everywhere all the time

    I love me some Sydney Carter, as I believe my cousins across the pacific would have it.

    I cam across this one from the Grauniad obit:
    Your holy hearsay is not evidence
    Give me the good news in the present tense …
    So shut the Bible up and show me how
    The Christ you talk about is living now.

    9. Sweetness follows

    I wouldn’t phrase it as “all religions are (more or less) equal” although I see what you did there with the parenthetical words. I see religions (and denominations and parishes) as having a collection and features and bugs, not all of which are shared with other religions.

    And as you point out, there’s the rural village problem. If the religion of one’s youth has more features than bugs, gives confidence to face the day ahead and helps answer the question, “How then should we live?” then why junk it for a different model.

    That’s probably a long enough comment. Oh, loved you points about the importance of experience, and the importance of interpretation of experience. In my awareness it’s not just the comfort of rituals that keeps some people bonded to their religion; it’s the reward mechanism of continuing religious experience. (Alright, experiences they interpret as religious.)

  2. mds
    Posted 3 October 2012 at 17:51 | Permalink | Reply

    Delightful ruminations. I’m obviously a bit late to the party, but while we’re on the whole subject of religion and wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, I thought I’d input what I picked up in my previous fundamentalist Protestant life as regards “the Harrowing of Hell.” Christ’s redemptive work propagated backwards in time to retroactively redeem the obvious “good guys” from the Old Testament. This is how Enoch and Elijah were so demonstrably able to get into heaven, and presumably how Moses and the rest of the crew manaaged it. In alternative terms, being followers of the Real True God, they were able to borrow salvation credit against the eventual death and resurrection of Jesus. (Even though we were of a Baptist strain that claimed to repudiate full-fledged predestination, there’s obviously still a strain of straight-up Calvinism in there.) No Aztec priests needed apply, because they weren’t already worshipping Jehovah. Likewise, there’s no subsequent re-harrowing for those who missed the message after Christ’s incarnation; they either have the decency to be born somewhere with access to Christian missionaries, or are shit-out-of-luck. (Note that this dovetails nicely with American fundamentalist views on Christian charity in general, which can be roughly summarized by taking the negation of everything in the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed most of the rest of the Gospels.) All this certainly has its own titanic consistency problems, but avoids having to pretend to care about alien civilizations, or indeed most of our fellow human beings.

    Also, despite this ostensible repudiation of the Harrowing concept, “He Holds the Keys” was still a pretty popular song with most of our fundamentalist Baptist crowd. (“Defying death and the grave, he takes their keys; and with them every captive frees.”) Go figure.

  3. Anthony Mayer
    Posted 8 October 2012 at 06:04 | Permalink | Reply

    Great post Phil.

  4. chris y
    Posted 8 October 2012 at 11:01 | Permalink | Reply

    God, to me, it seems is a verb, not a noun, proper or improper.

    – Buckminster Fuller

  5. mistermarco
    Posted 10 October 2012 at 16:22 | Permalink | Reply

    “What that means, though, is that there are innumerable times and places that the Good News of Christ’s resurrection doesn’t and cannot reach, thanks to the finite lifespan of stars and the limit imposed by the speed of light. As speed limits go, the speed of light is quite a high limit, but it is a hard limit: nothing in the universe can travel any faster. ”

    And this is the reason the harrowing of hell took THREE FULL DAYS to check the unbelievers (present, past and future) of the whole universe.
    Even heavenly bureaucracy has its limits.

  6. Posted 14 October 2012 at 14:43 | Permalink | Reply

    Not much to add, except that the only explanation I remember getting (the Apostles’ Creed was at the back of the Shorter Catechism) was that ‘hell’ there (and only there) meant ‘the grave’, in much the same way as ‘the holy catholic church’ meant the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (well, to be fair, ‘the invisible church’ of the elect, in whichever denomination they worshipped, even if these denominations had fallen away from the purity of doctrine and practice upheld by the FPs) and definitely not the Roman Catholic Church.

    I never got the impression that Moses et al were damned – far from it! You see, the OT ritual sacrifices were symbolic of salvation by Christ, so the faithful of old were saved by the sacrifice on the cross without necessarily knowing about it.

    To be fair again to the Free Presbyterians, they were concerned to turn the living away from the path to hell, but not at all given to claiming that anyone who had died had gone there.

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