There are moments of intense darkness in life, as though there is nothing else in the universe except the black. As though it hasn’t yet come to life. Endless. Unrelenting. Pitch, thick, black. And then, with a sound like a breath, there can be a chink, a glimmer of golden light which etches its way through.
Does this sound familiar?
I suspect that there comes a moment in most people’s lives, a point when they have pitched to their lowest, that they consider seeking salvation from something intangible. I’ve done it. Only briefly, but at those scarce times when all the other options were exhausted and there seemed to be nothing else to lose, no further down that I could possibly sink. Those moments when I found myself alone in the night with an incoherent mind and an ache of remorse ricocheting from my gut, through my chest and heart, resting heavily in my lungs before building pressure up through my throat causing swelling behind my eyes and finally forming a throb on my brain that contracts all the muscles in my body in shame; in wishing that I could say or do it all again just to make the weariness go away. Yes, I confess In those moments, I have rolled my eyes upwards and turned my thoughts, not entirely metaphorically, heavenwards.
‘Please God,’ I may have whispered and then, selfishly, asked for some favourable miracle. Or, at least, for it to all just to stop. Afterwards, I felt ashamed at my temptation; at my automatic God reflex.
And of course my plea never works which, when life inevitably sorts itself out, simply adds to my rationale for the emptiness of the universe, for the non-existence of any deity. That there is no divine judgement or purpose. Instead it’s all just the tidal ebbs and flows of petty coincidence. But, even if there were an all-mighty keeping an eye on us, I should realise that what I’ve asked, or begged, for simply isn’t how it works. Like all nice girls, God rarely puts out on the first date. There’s a getting to know each other phase, a confirmation that the other isn’t a psycho, a sense of some sort of commitment first.
A God reflex; when non-believers call on a higher power to sort out the impossible. Starting to sound familiar?
I know, work with and am friends with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Shinto and all manner of religions, even the sort where people have half-defined it themselves. Alan Moore, not alas a personal friend but he seems to keep cropping up, belongs to the religion of Glycon, a ancient snake-god with a elegant seventies male flowing locks whom most researchers, including Moore, acknowledge was nothing more than a Roman joke . Moore’s “belief” is partially an intellectual experiment, similar to the man whom I’ve read about and can’t find the name of who decided to whole-heartedly follow a different religion for a brief period in order to find the one he liked, and partly mid-life crisis where he’s decided to become a magician. Magic, Moore says, and religion are intrinsically linked. They are both, after all, about words. Words which reveal something hitherto known but not fully understood. And the wholehearted, often unquestioning, belief in the tapestry stitched by those words as Truth.
Which is why there’s something unsettlingly sinister about Michael Gove – the Tory minister who looks as though he’d be most at home in an oversized black uniform overseeing a camp – sending copies of the anniversary edition of the King James bible, complete with Gove’s own introduction, to schools. The King James bible is an example of how crucially interlinked language and religion are. It not only cemented the understanding of Protestantism is early Stuart Britain but was almost singlehandedly responsible for the spread, growth and embedding of English as first a national and then an international language. Without it we’d still be swearing in French.
I can see where Moore’s coming from, but for me whilst belief can be influenced by words I think it is also grounded in something more abstract. It really requires a more underlying inclination to need, to want and to give yourself back to from whence you came. Without it you’re just the grumpy Brummie tuting in the back row of the magic show that the trick seems impossible.
Perhaps, though, it is this apparent relationship with words which makes the overtly religious writer writing religious characters something of a rarity. To an extent they can understand too well how the carefully phrased sentence can be used to convince. Graham Greene, originally nothing but a Russian Roulette enthusiast, suddenly became devoutly Catholic in his twenties. Quite a turn of character for such a womaniser, but then Greene always was a bundle of contradictions. He was a bitter cynic who was also deliriously romantic, a regular user of prostitutes who fell in love easily, and yet it was the hypocrisies which fuelled his writing demons. For Greene, religion was too important to ignore; it gave people, both those that walked around talking to others and interacting with the physical world as well as characters etched onto paper by the thudding imprint of the typewriter keys, a soul. He criticised Virginia Woolf and EM Forrester for, despite all their lyrical inventiveness, being concerned with nothing but cardboard cut outs of people whilst the eternal conflict of belief was what drove real people to struggle with the decisions of existence. Life, he appeared to be saying, was all about what happened once it was over.
That was something which worried me. I remember as an eight or nine year old being frightened of death. I was already fairly certain that I didn’t believe in a painted picture of heaven where winged angels plucked harps atop perfectly formed clouds, but alternative was made my head hurt. I was confused by an afterlife I’d imagined where there was nothing but disembodied voices in a grey smog like world, where you could talk and communicate but never touch or see, just the snatches of loved voices and strangers far away or so close you’d imagine them on where your neck had once been. It gave me goose-bumps. And yet the idea that there was simply nothing, that my consciousness froze and melted away to have never been was too big for my little head to contain.
I seem to be floundering on the edges of Christianity. Sorry. I can’t help it. Obviously religion and therefore God has a fairly wide definition, but for the purposes of “the God reflex”, I am, for simplicity, sticking with English Protestantism and some conflicting dollops of Catholicism lumped in. Why? Well, I think, despite diminishing returns in church aisles, Britain is still just about hanging on as a nominally “Christian” country. Whatever the hell that means since there isn’t, rightly, a state sanctioned religion and you cannot say one religion is fundamentally more British than another. Instead it’s just that white middle-class people from the middle-of-the-country, people like me and this is blog is always about me really, if they are anything are statistically more likely to be Christian.
Fuck, aren’t we all unoriginal? Here we are in 2011 and nothing’s changed in the last five hundred years. Christianity is looking a bit bedraggled and beaten, smelling like it hasn’t had a wash in a while, but still at the core. Which is why it’s no coincidence that the anti-capitalist protestors are encamped outside St Paul’s. The seat of the Protestant church’s government may officially be Canterbury, but St Paul’s is its figurehead, its grandest architectural statement. Okay, so there might be limited other places where you can throw up a thousand tents in the middle of the City of London without having a double-decker bus plough through your sleeping bag every half an hour, but I think it’s more serendipitous than pure convenience. I think it feels irrationally right, almost like faith might. Their presence forces the church to become involved in twenty-first century politics. Even though they’re spending most of their time trying to avoid saying something the flock is turning to them and begging for an alternative to the capitalist anti-God life we all freely adopted a while back when it suited us.
We need to be careful here. I mean it’s not like the church doesn’t have enough blood on its hand or, indeed, all the way to its red stained armpits. A thousand plus British years of internal crowd subjection, external moral expansion and enough butchery with convoluted excuses shoe-horned into a fluid dogma are hardly a glowing resume for a bright new world, but maybe, in the past forty years or so whilst it’s been beaten back by secularism, the church has had time to rethink.
Sorry. The purpose of this blog isn’t to join the God and faith bashing, the “aren’t people a bunch of fucking deluded schmucks brigade”, if only because marching at the head that particular army is Richard Dawkins, a man so utterly smugly odious that I am relieved to now find him inescapable from his comedy variant on Radio 4. The God Delusion is a different point. That’s about why people are hoodwinked into believing, how the church manipulates society and individuals out of the belief, money, time and occasionally morals. That’s fine. I get that. What I want to know is whether Dawkins, at moments when his family’s safety is threatened and there really is no way to avoid the plunging car off the ravine edge, closes his eyes and whispers to an entity he despises? Just in case?
Most people would. It’s not necessarily something to feel guilty about, but why do we seek sanctuary in that which we’ve so frequently denounced? What does our subconscious know that we don’t?
Perhaps it comes down to childhood and the fact that people like me, children of the seventies and early eighties when schools were still holding onto the fact that once they’d been forcibly bound to local churches and so we endured bible readings and hymns and other pomp and circumstance. All the information is in there, hidden in the back of our heads. Besides crying out for Father sounds slightly less pathetic than for mum.
Is that the point? Is that why some religions have a male Godly figure at the top of ecclesiastical system? God as the Father, the embodiment of heroism for many children. For young boys it is their father whom – it at least according to the Daily Mail when it slanders single mother families – provides a stable yet stern influence whilst showing the straight and narrow route to a future of stolid employment whilst for little girls, as Grease said, “the only man who isn’t going to let a girl down is her Daddy.”
Perhaps it’s this which explains the old fashioned aloof, stern faced, unemotional approach to Fatherhood that was once a cornerstone of a country struggling to be in touch with its emotions. A son’s relationship with his Father was supposed to be as complex and respectful as the one a young man has with his God, with his maker.
My own relationship with my Father is a lot simpler than it used to be. Growing up, we rowed in the ways which were inevitable. It was never anything serious, just differing of opinions and as a teenager it was impossible for me distinguish shades of grey – everything had to be black or white, right or wrong. But before then, my memories of being a very small boy hinge around the simplicity of riding high on park swings, firm hands catching and pushing me upwards, of being so excited that he’d returned home one evening I managed to toss myself down the stairs straight into his arms. Then as times toughened through the nineties, I got older and self-sufficient and he threw himself deeper into his work. I didn’t really understand the necessity behind it and became mildly jealous of other kids whose Dads appeared to be back for dinner on a Tuesday rather than still being somewhere on the M5 just south of Bristol.
All so celeb faux misery memoir of my hardship filled youth. I’m not trying for nor do I deserve your sympathy. Everyone differs from the generation before. My Dad sang in the church choir as a small boy, went to work at sixteen, reads the Telegraph and the Mail, votes Conservative and worked hard to provide for his family. He likes films with explosions and gentle, settling sit-coms; he listens to Neil Diamond and the Moody Blues; reads John Grisham and Robert Harris novels. Our differences are the same as everyone’s and, just like everyone else, I failed to realise it whilst I was growing up.
As an adult, however, I can only marvel at the humongous effort he undertook to ensure that we were well fed, warm and had a secure roof over our heads. I suspect in many ways he sacrificed all the self-indulgent rubbish I take for granted whilst lost in my head being concerned about things like rhino poaching that I can have little impact on whilst he, by my age, was already married with a child: me. My Father gave up a lot of things, but he never gave up me. Something many but by no means everyone can say. Like every relationship the Father-Son one is about the individuals involved which determines whether it’s a positive one or not. Little my Dad has ever done was ever for self-serving purposes; it was always for us and for that alone I owe him more than I can ever articulate.
It would seem inevitable, therefore, that fathers and father figures, whether heroes or not, are in part defined by their children and – at least for the context of this argument - specifically by their sons.
To be continued.