Sheep

This being Yom Kippur, a reflection. A look back at things well done and a resolve to do better. No more golden calves.

People crave certainty. At least in some of us there’s a stubborn, persistent hankering and adulation for leaders which is why dictators flourish. Indeed, in the kernel of personality there seems to exist this idea that it’s OK, indeed desirable to be a sheep where all one has to do is to follow instructions and all will be well. Highly structured religions are full of instructions to be followed on pain of serious, everlasting and frequently painful retribution. One point eight billion people worldwide subscribe to a religion based around a man who lived in a cave and received visions which were orally transmitted by an archangel over a long time and over 170 years later somebody thought to write them down. History, or better, historical fact has been overlain by the dust of centuries, redacted by opinion, scholarship and sheer manipulation, to form a set of rules that all its adherents mostly abide by, with more or less fervour. When actually written down it seems fatuous and naïve, a collage made up of small, half-remembered pieces picked up and hastily sewn into some kind of semi-coherent whole.

The Jews have an even longer period as their rituals and practices evolved from pre-Canaanite traditions into a massive lexicon of mitzvot, regulations and rabbinic pronouncements which have provided fertile ground for opinion, debate and argument.  Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, wrote his ‘guide to the perplexed’ to shed light on the fundamentals and to provide a bedrock of certainty which could be relied upon to stand the test of being assailed over time by other, divergent views. Christianity stands or falls on the messianic principle, as the wild olive of the Gentiles is grafted into the Jewish branch to ingather all into a soteriologically secure sheepfold of belief. 

I was thinking about my own experiences in light of some of these ideas. Brought up by a righteous father and confused and basically monochromatically inept mother, I believed what I was told to believe for longer than most. Argument with Sunday school teachers was a sport I learned in mid-teens when dissent was considered rebellious and “as the sin of witchcraft”, the only consequence being the development of an overloaded sense of guilt and an inability to match up to exacting but entirely artificial standards. Grace seemed too easy to obtain and too hard to justify one’s receipt of it. Toes were dipped into the experiential, the miraculous, the emotionally-fuelled and intellectually impoverished with a brief but delicious diversion into the theatrics of Anglo-Catholicism, an opera for the sensations; all the awe and wonder held together by the granite of scriptural certainty.

Things changed. And yet, the old ideas persist, as if woven into a childhood garment that one can never quite outgrow or throw off. I have watched the church as it has metamorphosed so spectacularly in the last few decades, from a 1950s conformity and a sense of treading a well-worn yet secure path, one sheep following another, into a smorgasbord of different doctrinal emphases, as evangelicalism gave way to charism and emotion, which in turn spawned rock concert church plus a bit of sermonising, prosperity gospels which asserted that one could simply pray one’s demands into existence like Janis Joplin’s Mercedes-Benz, with much head-wagging from the Calvinists and traditionalists. We cast about for someone to blame and a theology which had been in the sights of the intellectuals for a hundred and fifty years became the culprit. Things began to change with the Germans who began to disembowel the ancient texts as one might dissect Chaucer or Shakespeare and meaning, myth and poetry swirled around in one’s mind like gauzy silken scarves, through which it became more and more difficult to visualise truth, so much so that it is today not inconceivable to refer to an atheist archbishop. So, we abandoned the idea that truth even exists, and moral relativism became the post-church, postmodern doctrine du jour. Modern miracles were relegated to dewy-eyed Pentecostal adherents for whom healing, prophecy and deliverance were part and parcel of everyday experience. For most, such improbables perfused downwards and backwards so first century miracles were disassembled and reconfigured to be consistent with the more intellectually acceptable position of our being disinterested observers rather than active participants.

I have seen more than most, experienced either directly or indirectly some of the axial shifts and changes in moments of inertia that ‘church’ has become. And yet, in spite of all efforts to make sense of so much, the less I really know and understand. Wisdom is compensation to the old for lack of knowledge in one’s youth, but it is not easily come by.

Belief systems are in disarray, and they themselves serve as a metaphor for a worldwide and accelerating confusion which in some cases has descended into near-panic, so amply demonstrated by near-hysteria over climate change and our purported part in it. The oldest democracy in the world is headed towards a cliff edge at full throttle with no clear plan as to what happens when we fall off and the consequences are thought by some to be apocalyptic. The many-headed hydra of radical Islam has been imprisoned but not killed off, civil disobedience is considered almost legitimate and wars rage ceaselessly, swapping participants as if bringing on the substitutes of protest to replace the faithful in a football match.

I read today that Greta Thunberg is the bookie’s favourite for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are in the frame as well, along with many others, perhaps far more deserving. If she gets it, it will serve as a metaphor for the clouds of unknowing in which much of the world seems currently enmeshed. We know so very little, yet sheep follow sheep, all bleating in unison and often with no real understanding of why they do so. Some have grown teeth and claws, ready to savage, upend and attempt to destroy the fragile democratic systems on which so much of our security has been built. They seem prepared to demolish the political status quo with no idea what to replace it with, play follow-the leader with the gullible, the blind and the delusional and moreover, are rewarded for doing so.

And yet, faith refuses to lie down and die, at least for me. I have seen too much for full-blown denial, too little to volunteer for the armies of righteousness. In the maelstrom, there exists the eye of the storm, where order replaces chaos and stillness the crashing and battering of mountainous waves. I fail to find it, so very often, but I know it’s there.

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