The Religious Imagination

"It is difficult to answer a question about a sense of God. It’s a bit like being asked about your sex life — if you say you have a good one, people get envious." The writer and theologian Monica Furlong gave the least predictable answer of anyone I asked about their experience of God — and in some ways one of the most illuminating. For most of human history, an experience of God has been something to be treasured: something that gave status. Only in modern Europe is it regarded as a sort of affliction. To those who have it, though, it becomes a central part of their personalities.

Even unacknowledged, the yearning remains powerful. Everyone we spoke to is a leader of some constituency, no matter how informal. They are people whose experience of God is trusted by others. Monica Furlong has been a hugely influential campaigner for feminist understandings of Christianity. Akram Khan Cheema has led the fight for Muslim schools in Bradford, and organised what will probably be the first Muslim school to get government funding. Clive Calver claims to speak for more than a million evangelical Christians – certainly the most self-confident religious lobby in Britain at the moment. John McIndoe, as moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, heads a sort of Government-in-exile of the Scottish people: the Church of Scotland is simultaneously closer to the nation and further from the state than the established Church of England.

A sense of God is notoriously not the same as The sense of God. In fact the same sense may lead people to diametrically different conclusions and bitter rivalry. Four of our subjects are men whose religious convictions must put them perpetually at loggerheads with each other. Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, may be at peace with Akram Khan Cheema, the Muslim. But with his cousin David Goldberg, the TK of the ULPS, relations are distinctly frosty. And Ian Paisley finds himself on a page facing the provincial of the Jesuits in the country, James Crampsey, and in general surrounded by men and women he believes will burn in hell.

Perhaps this is inevitable. Religions are communities of the imagination, and communities have always had outsides as well as insides. It is still odd. There are other contradictory things about being a spiritual leader. The modern media demands from anyone who would become famous an infinite capacity to repeat the same slogans, so that by the time you actually become a recognised spiritual leader, you may have nothing left to say. There will certainly be very little of your private and intimate relationships you will want to reveal to the press. Dr Jonathan Sacks, for example, when asked about God, talks almost entirely about "Jewish" responses, rather than his own.

"I would say that Jews tend to find God in simple rather than majestic things — a glass of wine, a loaf of bread, songs over the Sabbath table. Someone once said that Judaism is more about the prose than the poetry of spiritual life. Above all we find it in human relationships, the sharing of joys, the comfort of friends. Judaism is not a religion of solitude. It is noisy, argumentative, and social."

But Judaism is not alone in this. When you ask people about their knowledge of God, they answer in terms of other people. No one, it seems, goes out into the wilderness to listen to Him any more. "You find god in spiritual teachers and mentors. not a voice from nowhere but embodied" says Dr Sacks.

James Crampsey, the Jesuit, says "Looking around the people you serve you see some of God. One of the joys of being a priest is seeing God at work in the way people live their struggles and celebrate their joys."

Akram Khan Cheema, the founder of TK school in Bradford, is very clear that he is making a space for God to come into the city by trying to produce a Muslim community. We are so used to thinking of God as something or someone experienced personally that it can come as a shock to discover what huge importance almost everyone I spoke to puts on the social side of knowing Him.

The knowledge of God appears to be transmissible. If you are looking for him, you can be shown the places from which he can be seen. Normally ,this happens in adolescence. To Jonathan Sacks, it came a little later, in the middle of the Six Days’ War of 1967. He was at Cambridge then, reading philosophy, a believing but not very devout Jew. The threat to the survival of Israel gripped him profoundly. "I just got the feeling that what was at stake was more than military. It wasn’t a voice: it was more like hearing the beginning of a sentence and wanting to hear the end."

So this earnest young man set off on a pilgrimage around the USA on a greyhound bus, looking for teachers. The ones he found, and who most impressed him, were figures almost from before the dawn of modernity. The most famous was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died last year, though some of his followers refuse to believe this. The Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was regarded as the messiah by the enormously energetic sect he led; and it seemed to some of its members that such a man could not die. He was certainly one of the most influential figures in the world-wide revival of Jewish fundamentalism.

He made an immense impression on the young Jonathan Sacks.

"He was a majestic and awe-inspiring figure, more so than any I’ve met, but when you actually sat alone in the room with him, there was only one person in the room, and that was you. He could efface himself towards you totally, and bring out something in you that you did not know was there. He asked ‘what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?’ I found very quickly a mantle of leadership being placed over me. what impressed me about him is that he was leader who was not interested in creating followers, but in creating leaders."

But leaders, once created, have a thankless task.

It seems from this description that what the Lubavitcher Rebbe was doing was not so much transmitting knowledge as trying to recreate a particular form of society in which knowledge of God could flourish. It is worth stressing this point, because to an outsider, Orthodox Jewish belief can seem utterly rule-bound, and to have nothing to do with community at all. To Dr Sacks, things are the other way round. The Community is not governed by a book; the book itself turns out to be a form of community: "the Book is the portable homeland of the Jew. Even the book itself is surrounded by commentaries and commentaries on the commentaries: it is continually being reinterpreted. There is a very active sense of travelling inwards - the letters are fixed, but the meanings are sometimes surprising." This tendency to find a conversations where outsiders see only arguments is very common. For James Crampsey, the Jesuit, "There is a sense in which the Bible represents a series of attempt of human beings to try to come to terms with the God who’s trying to make himself known to them. In any conversation we don’t always get it right. But that has to do with our receptivity — with getting the wrong end of the stick sometimes."

Of course, the Bible read by a Christian scholar tells a very different document from the Hebrew Scriptures read through rabbinical lenses. Though everyone I talked to thought God was to be found in arguments, rather than agreements and assertions, they could not agree which arguments were most productive. And there can be real trouble, even within religions, when arguments burst their banks, , and the community disappears. Dr Sacks has been fiercely criticised for his behaviour towards the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who, as a Reform Jew, did not acknowledge his authority. The orthodox, in turn, will not acknowledge Hugo Gryn as a rabbi. Though Dr Sacks paid his respects as a private citizen to Hugo Gryn’s family, he did not attend the funeral, and when he attended a memorial service, did so on "interfaith" grounds. This managed to upset the Lubavitch, who felt that even to attend a memorial service risked recognising Reform Jewry, and infuriated the Reform and Liberal wings of Anglo-Jewry.

Where was God in all that? I asked: "Weeping, I should think."

"The Jewish community has always seen itself as an extended family, and God as a parent, and there are times when families are very fractious. But I do sometimes feel that we could do more to bring God into our communal life. that would require a capacity for humility, reverence, restraint."

And going to each others’ services? I couldn’t resist asking. It was tactless, and obviously offensive.

"No No No. Not that."

God, it seems, is present in the argument. He does not mandate any resolution.A week to the day after our conversation, the Jewish Chronicle published a private letter from Dr Sacks to an elderly ultra-Orthodox Rabbi about his part in Gryn memorial service, though he had attempted by a high court injunction to prevent this. "Only your honour can know" he wrote, "what conflict I experience in praising a person who is among those who destroy the faith."

Jonathan Sacks’ most public critic may well be his cousin by marriage David J. Goldberg, who is the senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, opposite the Oval cricket ground. When he heard I had had breakfast with Dr Sacks, he insisted on giving me breakfast himself in a hotel so grand it offered a special Japanese breakfast. Go on, said the rabbi, have a proper breakfast; bacon and eggs. We ate kippers instead. Yet when he talks of God, the impishness quite goes out of him.

"My own approach has always been cerebral, probably too cerebral actually, which is why I am not as good a leader as I should be. Spinoza talked about the intellectual love of God -- that's what I’ve striven for.

"I have always been Englishly diffident about taking his name too easily. My favourite quote on the subject is from the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker: ‘concerning God, our safest eloquence is our silence.’

But David is not a man who finds safe eloquence easy; nor one to whom silence with friends comes naturally. "I am very envious of those people who claim to know god personally." He went on. "I never have that sense of a deeply intimate companionship and friend and sustainer. But I have always thrilled to the notion of the workings of the universe. That, I must confess, is where I can see God — as it were.

"On a purely practical level -- theodicy bothers me: the justification of evil. There is much more chance and contingency and accident in universe than any theodicy I know actually takes account of. What I have done personally is to remove Him from the universe. I don't hold Him guilty for the death of a child any more than I thank Him for Israel's victory 6 day war. The only way I cope with God is by taking the view that having created the world, he voluntarily retired form it and would not intervene."

This is, he says, a doctrine with deep roots. It can be found in the Kabbalistic speculations of mediaeval Jewish theologians. "They argued that God was ss vast that in order for the universe to function he had to voluntarily withdraw from it. By nature he cannot become involved, otherwise the whole thing that would collapse."

This distancing vastness becomes in David Goldberg’s argument a necessary quality of God: "It seems to me it is totally pointless for a human being to worship a finite god. I want my god to be all-powerful, all perfect God, otherwise there’s no point."

His solution to the problem of evil is too radical for any Christian to contemplate. But everyone I spoke to felt that God did seem to withdraw from the world, or from them, some times.

[Goldberg to go here.]

Jonathan Sacks is unusual amongst religious leaders in that he turned to the career quite late. He was 26 before he decide to become a rabbi, and 28 before he was ordained. Others knew much earlier. Monica Furlong was 19 when she

One of subjects which almost everyone brought up, when asked about the knowledge of God, was the opposite. They spoke about the knowledge of the absence of God, the suspicion of his non-existence. "I think that for many people when the absence of God is shouting very loudly in our lives, it’s difficult to hear the gentle whisper of God’s love." said James Crampsey, the Jesuit.

"Every person, myself included, has to face areas of brokenness. When that is something that very present to me --- then I have to take myself into the space where Jesus was in his suffering and death. I have to try to hear some expression of God’s loving me in that very brokenness."

He is a Scot, born in Glasgow in 1946, who has been a Jesuit for all his adult life. After seven years of training, he found himself teaching Biblical studies at Heythrop, the Roman Catholic college at the University of London. The Jesuits have the most rigorous training of any of the major Catholic orders, and a reputation as the Pope’s front-line troops. His predecessor as provincial, Michael Campbell-Johnston, has gone back to El Salvador, where six of their colleagues were murdered by the army during the civil war. Yet that, he says, does not worry him nearly as much as does the suffering of innocents.

"I had a very strong experience of this when I was student and I went to Dachau. I found myself separated from the group I was with; and I went down into the Jewish memorial. It is shaped like a small crematorium — to go down into it is like going down into the grave, but when you reach the bottom you can look up through the darkness: at the top of the chimney is a small strip of copper that just catches the light."

That, to him, is a perfect image of the promise of God’s love, even in the horrendous suffering of innocents. "It’s not gold. But copper will do, I think."

John McIndoe, the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the other Scot I talked to, has a dourer approach. His approach to God, he says, is rooted in thanksgiving. The Greek for "thank you" evkaristo is cognate with "Eucharist", the central Christian ceremony. The sense of gratitude to be alive, which wells up inside all of us, must come from God, and be directed to God, he feels. "Where is gratitude without God?"

Still, thanksgiving, seems a transient emotion, and an odd one to trust for an intuition about the nature of the universe. You need grit as well, he replied: "On those occasions in life when I could not truly be thankful - at these times, I regard the faith as being a matter of showing a degree of -- doggedness, even stoicism, without abandoning one’s belief that ultimately there will still be cause for thanksgiving."

But gratitude was a reliable pointer into other things, and other people. "This idea that there was something worthwhile in or about faith was confirmed to me when I went to university. I came across people whom I could regard as committed persons, to whom faith wasn't simply a convention, but seemed to fill and inspire their life."

He had been brought up in a family he describes as nominal Christians, though they grew more devout when they moved from England to the central Scottish village of Kilcreggan. The minister there had been a huge influence on him: but he had no thought of ordination. He read classics at University, but there he found

Clive Calver, the General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance for fourteen years, believes in conversion. You would expect him to. He was himself converted. He had been brought up in a Christian family, but lost his faith in the Sixties. "When I was 19 in the east end of London. part of the radical, protesting generation, I met a preacher, a guy named Roger Forster – he bored me to tears."

He pauses for a moment: years of preaching have left him with fine comic timing. "The problem I had was that he and his wife and their two little children shared their home by the Thames with any druggy, dosser, alcoholic — anyone who wanted a bed for the night and some food. Now being a blunt East Ender, I said, ‘what have you got’, and he said ‘Jesus’. It was two weeks later I gave my life to Christ, because of what I saw. I didn’t want a faith that gave me an escapist copout – I wanted a faith that made me live differently."

Six months later, abandoning his vague ambitions for a political career, he enrolled in London Bible College, and later married the Principal’s daughter. He ought to be insufferable; but he is more interesting than that. He talks in certainties, but the longer he talks, the less clear it becomes what exactly it is that he’s certain of. Take miracles. The Evangelical Alliance believes in miracles — even though it expelled Morris Cerullo for promising them in his fund-raising letters. And Calver says that he trusts God for them constantly. Yet they do not need to involve anything supernatural. His youngest daughter was born with Grand mal epilepsy. She had fits that could last an hour or more all through her infancy. When she was four, two things happened. His church prayed for her; and the doctors increased her dosage of anti-convulsant drugs. She has not had a fit since then, and the drugs have been tapered off completely.

"Doctors will tell you it’s a miracle of modern medicine, and the church will tell you it’s the power of intercessory prayer. But I don’t care how God did it." He says.


[Khan Cheema]

Calver anecdote to end; and the Monica F once more.

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