"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely upon your own understanding. In all your ways know Him, and He will smooth your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord and turn away from evil." Proverbs 3:5-7
Happy New Year to all in blog land. I very much hope that you all had a wonderful Christmas and that your New Year has begun on a positive note. May the Almighty bring you all much happiness.
Just a moment what was that noise? Oh not to worry, I think it was the sound of several resolutions breaking, for I am sure that I once read that a large number of New Year's resolutions are broken, or are well on the way to being broken, by the end of week one. If this is true is it such a problem? I would say that considering the nature of the majority of New Year's resolutions, it is not a problem at all.
Apparently the top 10 resolutions for this year are:
1) Stop smoking
2) Get into the habit of keeping fit
3) Lose weight
4) Enjoy life more
5) Quit drinking
6) Organise yourself
7) Learn something new
8) Get out of debt
9) Spend more time with family
10) Help people.
On the website on which I found this list there was a voting facility, and of these resolutions the majority voted for "losing weight" as their top resolution. Helping people or spending more time with family were picked first by only 4% and 4.7% respectively. Does this tell us something about our society?
The first thing I notice, that to my mind spells failure from the outset, is the non-detailed nature of the resolutions. If one really wishes to work at changing behaviour, then detailed and incremental steps are often the best path to success. So not "lose weight" but "lose 5 pounds by the end of two months" is more likely to achieve the desired results. I sometimes feel (having learned from personal experience) that making sweeping resolutions instead of detailed plans for change, stems from the absence of a genuine desire for change. How many of us make a resolution because we feel that it is what we ought to want to do, when in reality we would rather continue the activity. Not likely to succeed with that sort of mindset, but hay-ho at least for a small while you can enjoy the pleasure of the pretence. (And then enjoy the guilty pleasure of breaking your resolution!)
What saddens me the most about that list, is how lacking in inspiration it is. Have we really become a society that is focused on the physical and material to the detriment of the spiritual and ethical? Don't get me wrong, each of the resolutions has value, for some more than others, and living a healthy life is important, but why have so many people opted not to change their behaviour for moral reasons? Why does the list not include ideas such as;
I will avoid raising my voice in anger to my spouse or children.
I will set aside a sum of money each month to help the needy.
I will try to avoid the use of bad language.
I will cease my affair and be faithful to my spouse/partner.
I will thank God for at least one good thing in my life every day.
And why did spending time with family and helping others come so far down the list?
As an aside I have to ask what is this obsession with weight? I may be biased as I am not overweight, but I have to agree with Precious Ramotswe of The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, when she argues that a "traditional build" is far better as people who are not starving themselves and torturing themselves with diets are simply happier, and happiness increases health and extends life! Interesting argument, and if it works for fictional Batswana female detectives perhaps it can work for real folk back in Blighty. Also have you ever wondered about the contradiction between claims that being overweight is unhealthy and the claims that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest, when one considers the plumpness of many mature ladies and gentlemen relaxing in the shade on many a Greek island or in the café's of southern Italy, France and Spain? Maybe all that good food and sunshine gives them a big dose of that happiness medicine. Quite ironic that resolution number 4 on that list "to enjoy life more" would in the eyes of some be quite difficult if several of the other resolutions on the list were achieved :-)
On a more serious note, I do feel that there is a unfortunate separation in the lives of many Britons between the material and the spiritual. The view that holds that aspects of a single life can be kept in separate boxes and need not be mixed, especially matters concerning religion. The caricature of the British, summarised by Alastair Campbell, of "not doing religion" is certainly based in reality, but then again it is fair to say this has not always been the case. I doubt a month goes by without some comment in a newspaper or on the radio stating that religion is fine, but it should keep its nose out of the public sphere and certainly politics. Any religious person who brings his or her faith to the office, market or parliament is looked at with great suspicion and often greeted with some degree of mockery. Religion apparently should be kept in a box marked "private and confidential". As a phenomenon this is experienced primarily by Christian believers, but of course Muslims have to contend with another set of presumptions if they attempt to bring their faith into a wider setting.
Then there are those believers who themselves make a clear distinction between their faith and their life in general. Who feel that their religion is exemplified by ritual, meditation or prayer but who don't give it a second thought when at work or when relaxing in the pub. This can range from the most liberal "new age" type believers who see no reason why their beliefs should impact on their behaviour, to the deeply conservative religious orthodoxies of the word's great religions, who on occasion behave with great rudeness and plain nastiness to their fellow man, and yet brim with indignation at others who are not punctilious in those observances that only affect the relationship between man and God and not man and man. Jesus was highly aware of such an attitude amoungst some in his day, and was not shy in condemning them.
But surely any religion or even any set of moral principles, should be lived in a holistic way.
The Hymn written by Thomas Toke Lynch 1855-1871 is a majestically eloquent plea for people to take to heart the teachings and values of their faith, and to embody them, not to view them as separate to a life well lived;
Where is thy God, my soul?
Is He within thy heart?
Or ruler of a distant realm
in which thou hast no part?
Where is thy God, my soul?
Only in stars and sun?
Or have the holy words of truth
His light in every one?
Where is thy God my soul?
Confined to Scripture's page?
Or does His spirit check and guide
the spirit of each age?
It is the epitome of misapprehension for one who professes belief in the One sole Creator and Master of creation, to see God's hand in every being and phenomenon, to see the orchestra of creation playing out its song of service to the Almighty, and yet feel as if somehow, the divine Will plays no part in how he or she should live their life. But I humbly suggest we all make this error, and daily!
It is considerably unfair for people to say that they are in favour of others having religious beliefs and then working with considerable passion to prevent them living their faith in society. That is the antithesis of religious freedom. Every free person in our society has the right to express their views and play their part in shaping our nation in ways they feel are beneficial. Religious believers should not be disqualified from the pursuit of a better society. And what is there to fear? Are our secular fellow citizens so unsure of their own doctrines and viewpoints that they must silence or stigmatise those that are held by people of faith? A common fault-line that brings this conflict into stark relief is over the issue of Homosexuality.
It has become the default belief of many that homosexual sexual behaviour is as moral as heterosexual sexual behaviour. That Gay men and women should have their relationships recognised and validated as equal with heterosexual relationships. Anyone who expresses doubts about these views is exposed to not a little amount of scorn and sometimes naked hatred, and is almost always vilified as a bigot. Those (nearly always Christians) whose faith leads them to disapprove of homosexual sexual conduct are exposed to calumny and are frequently compared to racists. It seems as if on this issue there is only one view allowed.
Now as a homosexual man myself, I find this attitude deeply unpleasant. I have known many people of several faiths who strongly believe that sexual relations between two men are deeply wrong. I may not share all their views, but I try to understand where they are coming from. I have experienced great kindness and genuine friendship from such people, and have never felt the need to force them to validate that which their conscience tells them is unacceptable, and in fairness they have never attempted to prevent me from living my life the way I chose. By getting to know me, I feel that they have understood that I am a normal human being who happens to have a certain set of attractions and desires that I have not chosen, and that while they correctly regard me as having the ability to chose to behave in accordance with or against my desires, they now have a better understanding of the nature of that choice they feel I should make. After all how many straight people could pledge themselves to a life of celibacy, not many and so I hope they understand the nature of what they expect from me and exhibit tolerance and compassion when I fail to live up to the demands of their faith. Being open to others beliefs, in a spirit of mutual respect, can bring about greater changes in the long run than belligerent approaches rooted more in identity politics than in any meaningful desire to improve the lot of everyone in society. I am though perhaps fortunate, as I have never experienced any hatred towards me due to my sexuality. However I have seen a less tolerant attitude towards individual homosexual persons, exhibited by some who feel that not signing up fully to the views of gay activism is a fundamental act of betrayal of the gay community (whatever that is).
It is reasonable, however, to find unpleasant the shrill voices of some religious believers who demand that others follow their moral code, and offer nothing by way of explanation, except that their scripture commands it. What sort of argument is this? Does this not reveal an arrogance that loudly proclaims, "I believe that this scripture is truth and you better had too, and if you don't, you are evil". Very often these same people are avid violators of their own moral/religious code and use outrage towards others as a way of assuaging their guilt. Such people see only words in a book and not the hearts and minds of God's creations. Also how many countries have been torn asunder by those who are not content with the use of shrill voices to convince others, but who have resorted to the gun or bomb. Recent examples of this are the attacks against the Coptic Christians of Egypt and the continued persecution of Christians in Iraq. Fear of this religious coercion has encouraged some otherwise liberal people to engage in the deeply illiberal attempt to silence the public voice of faith in our country.
Those of us, who have deeply held religious convictions and who try to express them in every aspect of our lives, must feel confident to play our part in the wider conversations of our land. We must, if we have any real desire to improve our world, attempt to convince the wider community of the value and importance of our approach by presenting rational and well thought-out arguments and better still by demonstrating a positive living example. We must strive to have a well-rounded faith, that does not ignore human nature or human needs or feelings but considers them with the respect they deserve. As important is to always consider that what we understand as true, may indeed not be so for after all are we not all fallible and prone to error, and as such should we not be open to the thoughts and views of others. Let us not let fear keep us from examining if what we believe is true or not. Truth as the Sages of Israel point out, has a sure and strong foundation. (They saw that the Hebrew letters that spell the word truth are the first, middle and last letters of the alphabet (as such not immediately obvious) but have firm foundations which will last, while the 3 letters for the word "lie/untruth" are next to each other (easier to see) but stand only on 1 leg and as such have shaky foundations".
Many modern Unitarians feel a great need to stress the "non-creedal" nature of their religion and their openness to a multiplicity of doctrines. "Many beliefs, one faith" goes the tag line of the General Assembly Of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. But in reality is this really the case? I speak with little experience, and of course congregations differ considerably from one another, but it seems to me that some members of modern Unitarian congregations are quite dogmatic on social and political issues, almost to point of being creedal about them. These views are assumed to be axiomatic not to mention virtuous and those who don't share them sometimes feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are not all that welcome. Even certain theological views find themselves a tad unwelcome in some congregations. This may be completely understandable as people with similar mindsets naturally tend to flock together, and if a common theological or religious belief is not the unifying element of a church, other views naturally develop into the glue that binds one to another. But should there not be some deeper honesty about this, some analysis of what non-creedalism actually means and its sustainability? Honesty in ones one heart will surly go together with a happy and pure heart, just as is written in the words of that Welsh classic Calon Lan.
If I have learned anything in this regard is that it would appear that even professed relativists have their own hierarchy of beliefs and dogmas.
So perhaps the number one resolution of 2011 should be something like this:
"I will strive to be more tolerant of others who think or behave in ways that I disapprove of. I will listen carefully and with respect to their arguments and not immediately close my mind to what they have to say. Even if I still disagree with what they believe or do, I will try and see their inherent humanity and their value in the eyes of God, who created them as well as me. I will not attribute to them false motivations in order to discredit or humiliate them. And above all I will strive when confronted by someone who I am convinced is thinking/behaving in ways that I regard as wrong to remember the words of Jesus of Nazareth who taught:
"Judge not lest you be judged. For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged and with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye".