Sunday, 14 September 2014

'So what do you really believe?'

the river at Meanwood

'Everything flows, nothing stays the same.'

My heart sank momentarily the other evening, while enjoying an evening out with my dearly beloved, Ray Gaston. I had just popped out to the ladies - before I got up, he and a couple we didn't know, sitting alongside, were harmlessly chatting about living in the Midlands. I came back just as the guy leaned over, purposefully, and said to Ray, 'so what do you really believe?' How they made that jump in the space of a few minutes, I don't know, but I felt it would have been better to stay with nice easy subjects, like football. For people whose whole life and work is wrapped up with questions of theology, philosophy, and the dynamics of engagement with the diversity of faiths in the world today, it's not an easy question to answer lightly on an evening off, over a curry.

reflections, Meanwood park
I get asked it too; I find it a very difficult question, a slippery kind of question. Asking it, I feel that the questioner often wants to get a hold on me, catch hold of something that allows them to label me and put me in a box of their own making, and then, quite likely, find something that either seems to be the same or different, in order to form an alliance or start a disagreement. It's a game I never want to play. I say, 'what do you mean by believe?' Or if they've asked the slightly different question, 'do you believe in God?' I ask, 'What do you mean by God (or Gods)?' Or, when asked, 'Are you a Christian or a Pagan?' I ask, 'What do you mean by Christian? What do you mean by Pagan?' We can then, all being well, get into their issues instead of mine - which is probably what they really want to talk about anyway.

 My feeling is, that people who start by putting one on the spot with such a question, actually, often unconsciously, really want to talk about what they believe, and there's often a chip on the shoulder or a frustrated need for a soap-box in there somewhere. perhaps there is sometimes an insecurity, a desire to check for conformity too - 'are you safe for me to associate with? Are you going to help me stay in my comfort zone or are you going to disturb me and make me have to rethink everything?'  It's a different phenomenon, a different game, to the one played by people who don't even bother to ask, and start out with the massive assumption that there is already a shared understanding: 'We believe ...' which of course almost invariably elicits the response, 'please speak for yourself.'

sycamore trunk under the bark
Really, and simply, at heart, I believe - or I find value in the idea of - trying to explore what it means to be a human being: the meanings and implications of 'humanity', and the inevitable shadow, 'inhumanity', and that is my starting point. It's essentially relational and experiential. More broadly, I 'believe in' exploring what being human means, in the context in which we find ourselves, in our communities, on this planet, with the other life-forms and existences with which we co-exist, in this century, with the history we know to be behind us and the possibilities that lie ahead of us. I think I am happy to say, and always have been, that I have a feeling there is more to all this than meets the eye; there's something deeper, something bigger, something intangible and mysterious. That's a feeling, an intuition, based on inexplicable experiences, I'm not sure it's a 'belief' as such. I would not call myself a materialist, that I'm sure of, but I still have to base my exploration on personal experience and observation of the 'real' world around me, natural and tampered with, and my own intuitions and impressions, and I appreciate these are highly subjective. Sure, I have some stories, significant role models and guidelines that were given to me, early on, that I often go back to as an interpretative filter as I try to make sense of things, but sometimes other stories and expressions of wisdom beyond my childhood framework, make more sense in a given moment. There are undoubtedly those who would like me to sound more loyal, more vociferous in defending my foundational faith, but it's not something I feel needs defending by me, particularly, it's been doing fine for centuries - or not, depending on how one views world history. Sometimes, at the end of the day, there is just no need to try to construct a meaning, a framework in which everything is neatly wrapped up. It just 'is'. Perhaps, one day, all will become clear, and perhaps not.
water droplet, Meanwood
In a sense, the only constant is change. What I 'believe' faith-wise is a shifting thing because I am on a journey through life. If I make an emphatic statement one day, I know I am likely to find, some way down the line, that I don't think like that any more; I wish I had used different words. Words, in a sense, are the problem - and I say this as the author of seven books (the seventh is in the pipeline right now). How can they articulate something that is beyond the cerebral? I used to play a lot of music, clarinet and saxophone and other things; I used to just improvise, letting the melody flow. That, in a sense, was my open response to any question of what I might believe, but it was the language of the soul or something very deep and wordless. Painting, especially abstract, combinations of colours and shapes, perhaps has a similar effect.
sunlight through a leaf
What we really believe, I think, is expressed in the way we live, and others see this in the way we walk, our body posture, the default expression on our face, the vibes we give off, the way we relate: we have a translucency that we do not always realise. While another person does not know the inner processes of my thoughts and feelings, I do not know what they see in me. It is hard for us to find the right words when there is information missing. If I say I 'believe in God', yet my whole body is set in a tense, defensive, pained position, then my body betrays my unhealed state, my lack of trust, my fearfulness - my doubt, perhaps, based on my life experience, and a perceptive observer will see this without needing to ask. My words might be an expression of what I think I should believe, or what I want to believe, but not the reality that my inner nature lives.The day I become at peace, serene and shining, able to sail through all storms unruffled, giving out only love and peace to all, that's the day you can ask me what I believe and get a straight answer; I imagine myself saying, 'I don't believe, I know.'

river at Meanwwod

You cannot step twice into the same river.