One’s friends do lead interesting lives. An impending wedding in a Scottish castle for a friend’s sister is awaited with childish clapping of hands, the thought of skirted-beclad, champagne-swilling English disporting themselves on rain-sodden hillsides, nostalgically recalling ‘prima nocte‘ has a certain colonial feel about it. It should, of course, be remembered that while the toffs on horses were murmuring ‘tally ho’ on the sidelines; in front of the guns it was the bampots in bagpipes and kilts in there doing the bayoneting and spilling foreign guts on alien fields for the glory of the Empire. Additionally, the Scottish preoccupation with engineering of real gravitas rewarded the world with properly surfaced roads, battleships of behemoth proportions and the steam engine. Oh, yes, and they inventit the tellie..
It’s alarming to reflect on the fact that the veneer of urbane sophistication is frequently tissue-thin to the point of transparency. Had a phone call from a friend who probably knew me better than anyone else in the world with an offer to visit southwest Ireland over the summer, which caused a metaphorically gleeful clapping of the hands. In my precarious condition, such offers are not just rare but their serendipitous value is priceless.
Mark Twain once wrote: ‘I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven and hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.’
Ireland clearly wasn’t on his list. The sheer joie de vivre of its citizenry, together with some of the greatest authors and poets this part of the planet has ever seen, also the strong possibility of myself having Irish antecedents, have persuaded me to overlook an unwholesomely damp climate. I imagine my ancestors, gritty Celts all, bestriding the hills with the braggadocio of a proud, unconquered race. Well, not since 1690, at any rate. This homespun image of a Bantry village dwelling gives little indication that the Atlantic water lapping its borders is probably freezing. Never mind. I must take care not to fall in.
And, for this week’s special intellectual treat, at a bargain price from a bookshop in Gosport……’Revelations’.
Imagine thirty three essays on individual books of the Bible, written by secular, big-name authors, from A N Wilson to Nick Cave. The illustrious pour their offerings into its pages. Bright-eyed skepticism shines through their craft. Is this such a bad thing, I wonder? At first reading , a god who orders the genocide of the Amalekites, the slaying of Isaac and much else besides would seem to be despotic at best and psychotic at worst. Yet, it depends how the narrative speaks to us. The KJV is deliberately flowery and ambiguous since it attempts to convey myth and grandeur in a form which will be remembered when more modern and prosaic translations have disappeared. Evangelicals assert often noisy ownership of perceived facts when perhaps the message of myth (Gk muthoi: [Homer] meaning ‘powerful and authoritative stories’) isn’t to propagate an untruth or a fairytale, it’s simply there to shed a different light on things. Simply put, I think we’re supposed to read between the lines a bit.
John’s gospel speaks of the time when the apostle Thomas re-enters the post-resurrection story and still refuses to believe that Jesus truly has risen. Thomas had to feel for himself Jesus’ wounds or else he could not believe. Even though Jesus apparently had miraculously entered into the room while the door was locked, Jesus still saw fit to allow Thomas to examine his body, providing Thomas with the proof he needed. Jesus’ response was, “do not doubt, but believe.” I think Thomas is an archetype of humanity, us, in other words. We all have the capacity to doubt. In many ways, doubting and investigation are survival mechanisms, and if we did not doubt, our species wouldn’t have lasted very long. If we didn’t base our sense of reality on empirical evidence, we would believe just about everything we were told. We might believe that trolls inhabit Antarctica, or that cats talk outside No 4 Privet Drive. Thomas’s doubt is ours, too, our nemesis and companion, our secret haunting. I think that doubt is not necessarily a lack of faith but rather an expression of it. Sometimes to doubt is merely to insist that God be taken seriously, not frivolously—to insist that our faith is placed in and upheld by something other than apparent conjuring tricks.
Image:Caravaggio. Doubting Thomas. 1602-1603. Oil on canvas. Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany.