At Oxford (New College 1962-1965) I was an active Christian.
Well, at least I went to early morning communion on Sundays and listened to my old school friend John play the organ, I attended the Student Christian Movement meetings on Tuesdays, where I was “international secretary”, and I attended the college chaplain’s meetings in his rooms once a month.
I liked his rooms: they were like my own quarters but bigger, and they overlooked the quad instead of a busy road. He might occasionally be woken by drunken students in the wee small hours; I was woken by heavy traffic every day at dawn. Gary’s mantlepiece was full of picture postcards of ceramic faces, some of which I had seen before – they were made by Picasso and they also decorated my own room. I wanted to know who had sent them to him so I picked one up and turned it over. It was from a well-known national political figure whom I happened to admire. I was pleased that this Labour MP had the same taste in art that I did. It was only after I left Oxford that I was told that he was Revd Dr Gary Bennett’s lover. That figured. Homosexuality was illegal in those dark days and I dread to think what would have happened if that particular relationship had leaked out. No, poor Dr Bennett, chaplain of New College, a man I knew and liked fell into another trap he couldn’t get out of. An ecclesiastical trap that ended in his death.
Crockford’s Clerical Directory is like the Church of England’s yearbook, and when it appears annually it contains an anonymous preface. Apparently Dr B. wrote it one year, after I had left Oxford, and it was very critical in tone and caused an uproar. A reporter from a tabloid newspaper appeared on his doorstep and said “Look, we know it was you. We’ll pay you £10,000 for the exclusive inside story.” Gary saw his future as a churchman, and possibly as an Oxford academic, come crashing down round his ears. He saw suicide as the only way out.
Back at my parents’ house after I left Oxford I revisited the parish church I grew up in. Here I had served at the altar, taught Sunday School, and been Troop Leader of the Boy Scouts. Now I found it parochial and claustrophobic. I was more aware than before that there were other ways of seeing things. At New College I had met humanists and Russian Orthodox believers, anarchists and Jews, Quakers and Trotskyites and counted them among my friends.
One Sunday morning when the sun was out I went up the small hill behind my parents’ house and stood in a field looking down. I could see my parents house and the big cross on top of the church tower nearby. As I listened I could faintly hear the sound of a hymn being sung with organ accompaniment, and I felt not nostalgia for the warm confines of a church service but repugnance. What were these people doing shut up in a church on a lovely day like this? They would get far closer to God if they came up here and felt the sun on their faces. I moved away to the other side of the hill where I couldn’t hear them any more and I sort of shrugged off my ‘churchiness’ like a snake sheds its skin. It was a physical bodily act of revulsion. I felt as though I was cleansing myself of the church. I resolved not to go to church ever again, but to do things my way. Life was short and it seemed to me that going to worship God was a poor way of using up that most valuable commodity Time. There were plenty of other things that I as a young man, recently graduated, would rather be doing!
Unexpectedly I spent the next year of my life living in an area of Britain which had no english speaking churches or chapels to go to – North Wales. This made it easier to follow my new resolution not to go to church. I looked on sadly as each Welsh sabbath was preceded by the swings and seesaws in the local park being padlocked up so no kid could dishonour the Lord’s Day by playing on them. The teetotal nonconformist quarry owner on whose land the village was partly built also made sure there were no pubs where one could go and drown one’s sorrows. I was at a new Welsh university and in its branch of the Student Christian Movement new winds were blowing. In the SCM magazine “Breakthrough” I learned about situational ethics. What was right and what was wrong did not follow from some absolute morality carved on tablets of stone, it arose from the situation or context in which the decision was being made. In Hugh Hefner’s new magazine with the low brow pictures and high brow articles a similar “Playboy philosophy” was being formulated. In the SCM we learned that God was not just some rock-solid sanctuary in the rushing torrent that is life; he could also be found if we let go and put our trust in him wherever we might be, including in the torrent itself.
One of the issues we discussed at length was sex before marriage. The contraceptive pill’s arrival plus the legalisation of abortion meant that the church had some catching up to do in the field of personal ethics. As usual it was too little too late. They effectively shut the stable door after the horse had bolted. I was one of those horses galloping free, and I’ve never been back in a stable since. The church are still 50 years behind the times when it comes to ethical issues, and they are the last place most people would turn to for support or advice.
I walked the Welsh mountains admiring the views and thinking about the god phenomenon. Was there actually anyone there or was it just a confidence trick? A useful tool for the elders in patriarchal societies to control the population, or maybe a metaphor? The priests told us to help the poor, yet the church was one of the richest property owners in the land. They told us No Sex Before Marriage, yet every week the papers had some salacious tale of a vicar running off with a parishioner’s wife. Our new understanding of Secularisation was that God was no longer in charge of the weather – no meteorologist would believe that. He no longer controlled our health, that was down to microorganisms and glands. We had no need to thank him for a good harvest – that was down to good farming techniques and agri chemicals. He wasn’t even responsible for the creation of the universe and the life in it: Darwin had knocked that ball out of the court, so what was left? Was God dead? Or would that imply that he had once lived? Perhaps there had never ever been a god. Even if there was one he didn’t make himself particularly manifest. We would have to learn to get along on our own. If he had something to tell us why was he stonily silent?
At the same time some believers claimed to know God in their hearts. All it took was some faith and anyone could welcome the saviour into their lives. No that just wouldn’t do, I decided. These people had poorer narrower lives after their conversions than before. Maybe their brain chemistry was the source of their new shiny smily faces. Neurotransmitters, synapses, conditioned reflexes. Psychologists have a lot to say on the topic. It’s not something I know much about. Maybe religion is just a cheaper form of Prozac, the happiness pill. I know of a drug which has the side effect of making patients want to go on shopping sprees and gamble! So sensations we associate with God may be triggered by the electrons in our nerves or even by chemicals in a pill we swallow. In other words the feeling is entirely subjective; it is generated within our bodies. There is no objective external being ‘out there’ causing these ‘spiritual’ feelings to occur. That is an obsolete hypothesis. Secularisation has reached the realm of psychiatry too. We can now discard God. Tell him to shut the door on the way out!
Some diehards are fighting a rear-guard action. They claim that there remains one area where man will never be able to play the role currently filled by Jehovah: death and the afterlife. They’re speaking to an empty auditorium. The majority of people aren’t concerned. When you’re dead you’re dead and that’s that. There’s nothing more to say about it.
My new conviction that our ‘god(s)’ are products of our brain chemistry led me to ponder on the following two issues:
(i) Is Quaker worship (tackled in blogposts 517 and 518) a form of self delusion? It’s as well that most of them now seem to use vague metaphors such as ‘light’ or ‘the spirit’ that can mean anything a worshipper wants them to. I’m sure that thinking good uplifting thoughts for an hour each week can’t do you any harm, but intellectually it seems to me that the practice is on shaky foundations. At least it is if you insist that there’s something ‘there’. An atheist should set aside all Christian trappings and organise a meditation hour using their techniques, being totally open about the fact that it is now a purely secular therapeutic exercise. Instead of ”seeing that of God in all men” (Fox) we shall have to devise a god-free substitute quotation along the lines of “there is good in all men”. Of course, the Quakers being who they are, namely educated bookish people like me, they have got there before me, and are well aware of the non-theistic aspects of their world. See for example Boulton’s excellent book.
(ii) Sociopaths (like brainiac stick insect Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory: “I’m not insane, my mother had me tested!”) and psychopaths like lovable cuddly Dexter Morgan the serial killer (also on TV, a few years back. “Dex, your brain scan shows the side dealing with feelings and emotions is very small”) are ideal types for TV drama. How do such folk impact on those around them: friends, family, colleagues at work; and how do ‘normal’ people that do have real feelings impact on those who are created cold, and are totally lacking in empathy. This whole field is a TV drama goldmine. But how does the Quaker view of man’s depths (I prefer not to use the terms soul or spirit) hold up with the real Sheldons and Dexters in our midst? Is there “that of God in them”? Can they discover the ‘light’ within themselves if it isn’t there? Can the warmth of human love engender something of God within their hearts, or are they limited to mimicking ‘normal’ peoples’ emotions. So that they can pass as ‘normal’ themselves and not get detected. It must be a lonely existence. Every time Dexter confides in someone he has to kill them!
Zingcreed, as always, has more questions than answers.
Boulton, D. “Godless for God’s sake. Nontheism in contemporary Quakerism” Dale Historical Monographs (2006)
Related Zingcreed Posts:
517: Quaker worship (i) Atheists welcome
518: Quaker worship (ii) The experiment with light
I should’ve gone to the pub instead. Me and churches.
Zingcreed F.A.Q. (page, find link on title page)
512:Was Paul bonkers?
George Fox “That of God in everyman”
Secularisation for dummies 648