On this Friday early in the year I am in a wondering mood. Or should that be a wandering mood? I think I'd rather be just about anywhere but here with the images of murder and carnage in Paris, and the thoughts that shape themselves around those images. Two young men, full of certainty, steeped in self righteousness, awash with arrogance, and unbothered by pity, mercy or grace, stepped into a pool of savagery yesterday, and drowned more than a few illusions along with the twelve people they murdered.
Did they think their god would be pleased with them? Did they think their god would not be more than capable of defending his own good name? Did they think their god was so weak and ineffectual that they needed to step up and do his work for him? Did they think their creator wanted them to descend into bloody violence and be the angels of death?
Did they think that murder was a holy errand?
Apparently they did.
Well young men: As you are about to forfeit your lives, if you haven't already, I feel a need to respond to you. I doubt you will read this, but I need to write it nonetheless.
Your god is not mine. I do not bow down to or submit to you or your god. Your god is not worthy of worship and nor does he deserve a capital letter.
Your god has sucked on your blood just as surely as you sucked the lives out of your victims. Your god imprisons people with rules and obligations. He is not a god of mercy and love. He is evil if he needs his people to do what you did. So go with your god, where he has led you. I won't presume to say what awaits you but I'm afraid I can't wish you well.
I worship an entirely different God; for whom I use a capital letter. My God does not require me to slaughter those who think or believe differently; to fill my days with outward observance and arbitrary rules of conduct or fashion; to consider myself superior and that my religious beliefs trump those of others.
My God bends over backwards to help me understand that I matter to him. My God spares nothing in his quest for me. My God does not require blind obedience, despite what some say. My devotion is not about rules and outward observance. It is about my God coming to me; not me slavishly trying to impress him with how good I am or how closely I follow his law.
Don't worry, This is not going to turn into a sermon. I'll leave it there. It's just that it saddens me to read and hear people who are frightened and repulsed by these atrocities condemn all religion out of hand. What drives these young men is a perversion of religion and a blasphemy against the name of God. Their 'religion' and their god are manifestations of evil and I, for one, will never submit to them.
Keeping with the theme, but on a different note, you can learn a lot from a visit to a museum. Not only does a good museum offer an escape from cares and worries. You can usually find things that make you think about life and the narratives and truths we live by. The museums in central Berlin are outstanding. I love to visit them, and hope last month's visit won't be the last.
How can you look at the painting below and not be drawn into looking at the people pictured? The buildings? Yes, interesting. They all seem to have doors, windows and roofs, and tell you something about medieval life. The people however are the real give away. They're alive for a start. They're social. They smile, they talk, they do business, they flirt, and they look as if they'd be hard to control with city ordnances, laws and the like.
Just like us today, no? What I see here is that people are people and always have been. We have a subtle narrative today that tells us we are more advanced than people in earlier times. We respect human rights (do we really?); we are more highly evolved (you reckon?); and we must be cleverer because we live in a secular society where religion is dismissed as superstition for the week minded (I guess you will know where I stand on that). What I see in this picture is people, just like you and I; human beings living their lives with as much imperfection, disappointment, dreams, and worries as you or I still do. Bad things shook them up and made them nervous about the future. Bad things shake us up and make us nervous about the future.
The trouble is, when you walk through the museums of Berlin, or any museums, some of those things we tell ourselves about our self satisfied ideas of modern superiority start to look a bit shaky. Take the illuminated statues below for example:
I can't look at these figures without seeing humans exactly like you and I, even though they were crafted thousands of years ago. All right. I will admit I was never in as good a shape as that. Furthermore, I would argue that the median body shape in the western world has regressed rather than progressed since these statues were formed. Do we really want to persist with the idea that we are better and more sophisticated than they were? Are we so much cleverer with our smug dismissal of the spiritual dimension to life?
You see, this is my point and is the link with the earlier part of my article. We coccoon ourselves with certainties about our world that may not be certainties. Our world may not be the inherently good and safe place we would like it to be. The photo below from the Deutches Historisches Museum in Berlin is of a poster for a movie in post war Germany. “The Murderers are among us” is the message Berliners of that time didn't want to hear. Former high ranking Nazis were still living in their community in the thousands. Their safe, predictable post war world of economic miracles was at risk from this realisation that such people lived among them. Evil and danger could not be silenced then, and it can't be today in our world.
You can learn a lot about life from visiting a museum. You can learn that we humans have always had to do it tough and that there are no free rides, or easy answers for dealing with the evil that will slaughter in the name of a perverted view of religion. We can't reason it away. We can't legislate it away. It will always be with us, among us and in us. That is an insight from my Christian belief which serves well to explain the situation in which we find ourselves in these times of militant Islam. Humans will not ever create a fully safe and just society because they were not built that way. It doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't try though.
On the way out of the museum you can even discover a bit more about what is important in life. A man fishing in a canal. A heron standing nearby. Things like fishing, and simple communion between God's creatures bring a calmness to my soul that is sorely needed this afternoon.
Maybe I will choose to go fishing this weekend.
A few years ago I studied a semester of Classical Greek and realised quickly that I was never going to be an expert. A beautiful language, its grammar has been more than a match for smarter people than me. I read somewhere that in the days of the British Empire, civil servants were selected on the basis of their success in Greek at school and university. The theory must have been that if they could handle Greek grammar, they could handle anything.
So, I ask myself, doesn’t that mean at least some ancient Greeks must have been pretty smart? Especially since, early on, Greek sentences were written without spaces between words. Howeasyisthissentencetoreadwithoutspaces? Oh, and I should add, that the Greeks used to jumble up sentence word order (as we know it) at the same time. For example: sentenceeasyspacesreadtowithoutthishowis. Phew!
I’m told those early Greeks were no slouches in Philosophy and Mathematics either. One of them, Eratosthenes, worked out a method of measuring the diameter of the Earth – not bad without electricity, a telescope, or even a GPS!
But wait a minute! We’re talking about 2500 years ago. Aren’t we supposed to be more advanced these days? They didn’t even have flushing toilets. We have laser guided ordnance. Haven’t humans evolved to be smarter over the generations? Well, hold that thought.
I think it was Isaac Newton, the renowned English Physicist and Mathematician in the seventeenth century, who said that all he had done was to “stand on the shoulders of giants”; his predecessors. He was very aware of the genius of those who had gone before him.
Could it be, the idea that we are more intelligent, more civilized, even more moral, than people in earlier times, might be just a comforting myth? Granted we do have more toys and gadgets. Some of us live in more stable societies under the rule of law. But how different from our ancestors are we really?
A peasant farmer living in medieval Europe would have had to manage the environment with consumate skill; growing, harvesting and storing food, making tools and clothing, and defending family from all sorts of threats. One thing is certain: In such a challenging environment there would have been no place for stupidity, and much call for intelligence, craftiness and innovation. (By the way, have you ever read any Old English? Another beautiful and complex language; much more so than modern English. Granted that not too many peasants would have been acquainted with the finer points of the grammar though).
OK, life in earlier times may have been ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, but does that mean we would have done things any better if we had been alive then? Today we live longer and have human rights legislation, but have we abolished bullies and victims? Eliminated crime? What about poverty? Disease? Is injustice still a problem? War? Violence? Selfishness? Greed? How are we doing with all these? Are our toys and gadgets helping out? Do the stories we tell ourselves about our superiority convince us?
The way I see things, the common thread in the human condition has always been humans – us; ourselves; we; you and I. “I’m only human!” has been pretty much flogged to death as an excuse down the ages. I can imagine a Greek slave muttering something like it under his breath as his master berated him, just as I can also clearly imagine Michelangelo swearing after dropping a paint brush onto the floor.
If then, we’re only human, what does that mean?
There seem to be two main ways to look at that question. One is to see our flawed humanity as a problem; an embarassing problem; and to keep on trying to eliminate undesirable traits in people for their own and the greater good. More laws, more regulations, more supervision, more moralising: Don’t drink or smoke too much! Reduce your sugar and salt intake! Look after the planet! Respect Human Rights! Vote for policies to reduce discrimination! The list is long, and growing. The underlying assumption is that it is possible for humans to be made perfect, or at least morally superior to how they are now.
Another, quite different way to look at it is not to see it as ‘a problem’ at all, but rather as a given, a constant. From this perspective, all attempts at moralising and improving society will always stumble over the very nature of humans themselves. This nature has always been what it is: While we humans are capable of great achievement and noble selflessness, we are inevitably also wracked with annoying and often unpleasant and downright destructive characteristics that continue to poke their heads up however much we try to hide them. Seen this way, human nature cannot be fixed by decree or by moral striving.
If there are any humans on Earth who do not live the reality of this basic tension between goodness and moral failings I have not heard about them and have certainly not met them; although my wife, Sue, comes close to avoiding moral failings, naturally.
Self help books and Pop Psych gurus will all promise to unlock our human potential, but if they neglect our primary inbuilt tendency to stuff up serially, they are talking hot air. There are no perfect human beings. There are no ‘almost’ perfect human beings. To believe otherwise is to shut our eyes to human experience. The Mother Theresas and the Martin Luther Kings soar above us yet they all have clay feet. Every single one of them, no matter how much we might prefer to pretend otherwise.
We humans are exquisite contradictions. We are smart, but even the smartest of us does really stupid things now and then. We revere beauty yet wallow in ugliness. We grow wise yet do stuff we shake our heads over. We yearn for community yet fight our neighbours over petty things. We set out with grand plans, but find ourseves mugged by reality.
The term ‘Original Sin’ has fallen out of favour in our world. We don’t need ancient superstition. Still less do we need to hear we are flawed deep within our natures in ways we cannot begin to fix. Despite the unbroken trail of evidence, we believe we can do it ourselves thanks! We like to be told we are the masters of our destiny. Talk of ‘Original Sin’ makes us uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit with what we want to hear.
Our ancestors mostly thought otherwise. They trusted in their abilities and were not stupid, but they also realised they were vulnerable and weak before their creator, whatever they believed their creator to be. Which group would you say had a better grasp on reality?
That’s a question worth asking, isn’t it?
Saturday morning coffee overlooking the Broadwater, only 10 minutes walk from home (except that I drove). Life is good. Surrounded by people enjoying their morning coffee and conversations. No sharp, jagged, dangerous bits to be seen. Just plenty of sun, water and pelicans.
At times like these you could close your eyes and imagine . . . well, whatever you wanted to.
But even here and now, reality has a habit of crowding out such thoughts. There it was on my ipad, in the midst of the news from Gaza and the Ukraine:
The Thai surrogate mother of a baby with Down syndrome who was abandoned by its Australian parents says she has been left to provide for the child she has named Gammy, who also suffers from a life-threatening heart condition. The woman gave birth to twins but the Australian couple who engaged her abandoned the boy and took his healthy sister home with them.
My first urge was to write about those Australian parents, flying out with their perfect, designer label daughter, leaving the factory reject son behind. However I find I can’t summon the enthusiasm. I would much rather write about the two other people in the story who, the way I see it, are definitely worth writing about.
It seems to me the young Thai woman who carried Gammy inside her body for nine months is every bit the mother Gammy needs, even though she is not biologically related to him. I am full of admiration for her. She has very little materially, but what she has is something Gammy’s biological parents do not have: Mercy and love in abundance. I hope and pray that in the years ahead, this young woman is sustained in her mothering, and rewarded with Gammy’s love. What a rich and authentic person she is, in ways that count.
For those of us who sit with our morning coffee amidst the sunshine and the pelicans and imagine life is good, she stands out as a saint, a heroine, a person who points out what is important and lasting amidst the cheap and superficial. Thank you young lady. You are better and holier than you know. Life is good and this morning you have reminded me of how and why it is.
Life may appear to have dealt the little boy Gammy short, and indeed it has, if we use the criteria that first come to mind. Abandoned by his biological parents, rejected as worthless junk. A life-threatening heart condition will also probably mean his time with us will be short. At least though, one person cannot bring herself to throw him away. He has someone to love him and care for him, regardless of the cost and the inconvenience. Gammy may not realise it straight away but that is worth more than gold. In at least one person’s eyes he is worthwhile, independent of what he is capable of being or doing.
As I drain my coffee I cannot help but thank God for these two unlikely people, whose story has reminded me of what matters.
God doesn’t make junk Gammy. Your mother is his reminder to you of that.