In Defence of Madness – Richard Solly

In ‘Black Elk Speaks’, Lakota holy man Black Elk laments the destruction of his people’s world view, their ‘dream’, because it was ‘a beautiful dream’. Now the ‘nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.’1 Black Elk feels alone in a world which is not only politically and militarily hostile but ideologically and symbolically hostile as well. An Indigenous way of approaching life, relating to the Earth and the creatures living on the Earth, has been ruthlessly extirpated by armed conquest, land seizure, genocide and Christian missionary activity.

Surrounded by the overwhelming force of an utterly different culture, those holding on to Indigenous ways of understanding and behaving are viewed with disdain. They are seen variously as a threat, an obstacle, a quaint remnant of a dying world, or mad.

Given the unspeakable crimes of which Christians and Christian institutions are indisputably guilty, perhaps Christians holding on to ‘religious’ faith in the midst of an overwhelmingly secular society deserve considerably less sympathy than we actually receive. I will say nothing about the role of other religious faiths: I am a Christian, so if I am to speak from experience I can only speak from the experience of being what I am, not what I am not; and I live in a society which, for many centuries and until relatively recently, was believed to be ‘Christian’ and presented itself as such.

The indignities to which Christians are subjected in contemporary British society are trifling compared to the atrocities to which Christians have subjected people in former times who did not conform to the prevailing Christian orthodoxy. Many years ago, I was physically attacked for being a Christian, but otherwise the worst I have ever suffered has been the odd disrespectful remark; and even the attack was an example of friendly banter taken to a slightly more painful level than was welcome. There are Christians in Britain who lose their jobs, or are prevented from taking up particular occupations, because of their faith – for instance, registrars who do not wish to conduct gay marriages or midwives who do not wish to get involved in abortions – but the issues of conscience which are at the root of these professional conflicts are hotly contested among Christians themselves.

It is not any kind of persecution which makes me feel a loneliness of spirit akin to that of Black Elk. It is the knowledge that, to most of the people who know and like me, I am a bit of a weirdo.

‘Religious’ thinking is so utterly alien to most people in contemporary Britain that, unless they study anthropology or certain kinds of forensic psychology, ‘religious’ people are completely incomprehensible to them – even if they know and like them. It’s not even a question of simple disagreement any more. When I was growing up, the great majority of my contemporaries did at least know what it was they did not ‘believe in’ – they had some kind of intellectual grounding in the doctrines of the Christian religion (for what doctrines are worth). Now many people don’t even know what Christmas is about.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad. I am saying it makes me sad – and ‘sad’ in two senses: the traditional sense of being disappointed and unhappy, and the more recently acquired sense of being pitiful and pathetic, or at least viewed as pitiful and pathetic by other people. Holding a religious faith makes me alien to many of the people whose good opinion and company I most value. They don’t know what to make of that aspect of me which, to me, is the root of who I am.

Once in a while, people that I have worked with for some time will suddenly discover that I am ‘religious’, and express disbelief that this person for whom they clearly feel a certain degree of affection and respect could possibly be a person of religious faith. If I point out that my religious faith is the root of my whole motivation, the reason for doing the work that I do to bring social justice and environmental healing, they are flabbergasted. Surely my motivation cannot be that? Perhaps I have so far failed to throw off some childish beliefs about the world picked up from a faulty and outdated upbringing, but my motivation for doing the work in which we are all engaged cannot possibly be that!

But it is.

One problem is the notion that the most important distinguishing feature of ‘religious’ people is adherence to certain clearly articulated doctrines. From the point of view of the critics, or of those struggling to understand how their otherwise relatively intelligent colleague can possibly subscribe to such utter balderdash, all these doctrines are demonstrably false, and those who insist on believing them are mad (if perhaps also nice), or bad (if perhaps also intelligent), or both.

But doctrines aren’t the root of the religious experience at all, even at the most basic level. I certainly don’t ‘believe in’ God as an explanation for the existence of the universe. I am perfectly willing to accept that the universe, and possibly umpteen parallel universes, whether finite, infinite or recurring, could exist of themselves with no need for a divine Creator (though, as it happens, I do believe they have a divine Creator). But my deepest, and earliest conscious, experience of life is that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God’; and that ‘God’ is Love, and that Love wills my existence and desires my good, and wills the existence and desires the good of every other living creature, and indeed of the very dust and rocks and gas and interstellar spaces of which the universe or universes are composed. That is how I experienced life from my earliest memories – the sense that in the blue of the grape hyacinths that grew in our garden, and whose colour so enraptured me, there was some deeper and more intense blue, some pulsating essence of blueness which was beyond me, beyond sense, beyond time; that in the sunbeams shining through the dusty air in my father’s unused upper workshop there was some pulsating essence of light, a light within and beyond visible light,  a radiance of unutterable significance and incomprehensible beauty; and that this blue and this light were one with the vast cosmic embrace of love upon which I sensed the universe was founded, and which made me, and knew me, and willed me, and loved me.

A friend once told me that there was no need to ‘drag God in’ as an explanation for anything. But I never felt I had dragged God into anything – I came into being, and found God there, waiting for me with infinite patience, infinite kindness and infinite joy. And if I have to offer an intellectual justification for my acceptance of some ‘entity’ for which there is no logical need, I would say that as we look out at the universe or within our own being, we are free to decide a priori either that there is no more to this than meets the eye, or that there might be. By ‘meets the eye’ I mean ‘susceptible to scientific discovery and experimentation’ rather than ‘immediately visible to the naked eye’. I don’t see that it is necessarily illogical to assume that the universe may be more impenetrably mysterious than is immediately evident, or even that it may be more complex than it is possible for our finite brains ever to comprehend. My a priori assumption that the entirety of existence may be sustained and interpenetrated by that which I choose to call ‘God’ is, as far as I can see, no more unarguably ridiculous than the contrary assertion that this is an impossibility. Either could be the case; and I interpret my own experience, my inherent sense of the numinous, my deep conviction that I am loved and that life has purpose, in the light of my simple acceptance of the belief that I did not drag God in to any set of circumstances but that I discovered God was there already.

However, this makes me so different from most people in contemporary society, so different from most of the people that I work with, that it is surely enough to qualify as ‘mad’. And it is becoming madder by the minute: whereas at most events involving my work I am one of the oldest people present, at events involving my church I am usually among the youngest. We are dying out. Not globally, perhaps, but in Britain, in Europe in general, we are dying out.

Those sections of Christianity which, in Britain, attract the most youthful followers, seem to be those which are most conservative, most akin to fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is the last gasp of the intellectually indefensible. Fundamentalism is, as Pope Benedict XVI called it, ‘intellectual suicide’, a culture of death, which may persist from generation to generation but is utterly incapable of creating anything except more death. Religious faith as a deeply reflective, creative phenomenon fully capable of entering into respectful encounter with other religious faiths and with art, science, philosophy and politics seems to be on the way out, as it seemed to Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach.

Some of my friends rejoice in this. They want religion to die as soon as possible. It is all false, threatening, oppressive, discriminatory and murderous. At best it is a quaint remnant of a dying world. I may be acceptable, but it isn’t. Sometimes I feel like a black friend of mine who, in the 1980s, was continually angered by the frequently expressed racist prejudices of her work colleagues. When she challenged them by saying, “Do you mind? I’m black!” they would say, “Oh, I don’t think of you as black.” They had nothing against her – just her blackness. They could not see that the two were inseparable. Same with me and my ‘religion’.

There are certain cultural products which I love and whose final passing would deeply sadden me: choral evensong, for instance; or the Mass; or the use of gothic cathedrals as places of worship rather than museums; or the celebration of Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ rather than a festival of consumerism. I would be much sadder if certain values were to be forgotten: kindness, forgiveness, patience, generosity, fidelity, care for the planet, for instance. None of these requires religious faith for its acceptance or its practice (and some forms of religious faith militate against them); but they have been given particular importance in my own religious tradition, and it is that tradition which taught me them and motivates me to pursue them. Deeper still is precisely that – motivation. Many of my beloved friends and colleagues find their deepest motivation in other things, but mine is rooted in that experience of the numinous that I underwent as a small child, and which convinced me that I am loved, willed, necessary (as is everybody else) and that the universe is rooted in love, caused by love and oriented towards love, and that life therefore has a moral purpose demanding a response of love. I would be sad if nobody believed this any more.

One day I will die. But I would like something of me to go on living. From my point of view, my religious faith is full of things that I find beautiful, and I would be sad if these beautiful things were destined to become nothing other than another broken hoop. I hope that people may remain who find some meaning in them, who intuit the conscious presence of the vast cosmic embrace of love which I call God. I hope that they will not have to struggle to maintain the dignity of their identity against a culture that has ‘othered’ them and ‘weirded’ them. I hope that the culture to come will be a true ‘culture of encounter’, where people not only accept that there are very different sorts of people in the world, but welcome the fact and rejoice in it, and are ready to learn from each other’s differences.

The signs are not good. An example is the treatment of people with Down’s Syndrome. Those who have made it past birth are treated with compassion; but fewer and fewer are making it that far. More and more people feel unwilling to bring a Down’s child into the world – not only because of a wholly understandable fear of the responsibilities involved, but often also because of a powerful blend of compassion and incomprehension: the child cannot possibly have a reasonable quality of life because the child will be ‘abnormal’, and out of kindness we must prevent the child ever being born.

It is not for me to judge parents or prospective parents when I am offering nothing to assist them – but I grieve that we so easily jump to the conclusion that people who are ‘abnormal’ cannot have a ‘quality of life’ that is acceptable to the person living it.

What if one day the tell-tale genes of ‘religious’ people can be detected in the womb? How many of us will make it as far as birth in a society that has ‘weirded’ us?

Those deprived of particular physical senses often develop extra skill with the senses that they do have; perhaps it is the same with those of us deprived of the ‘common sense’ of the non-religious majority – those of us who, culturally, are ‘mad’. Perhaps we have something to offer our saner, non-religious brothers and sisters.

Two things happened after Black Elk’s lament.

Black Elk, like me, became a Roman Catholic, accepting something of the religious tradition of the society which had unjustly overwhelmed his own – surviving by blending his own religious wisdom with the religious wisdom of the oppressor, noting that the oppressor was not only an oppressor, but a human being, and that in the oppressor’s religious tradition lay some of the seeds of the liberation of both oppressor and oppressed.

And, three decades later, there was an enormous, creative, unstoppable, liberative revival of the spiritual traditions of the Lakota and other Indigenous Peoples across North America, and this revival underpinned the rebirth of pride in Indigenous identity and the struggle for control of Indigenous land and the healing of our deeply wounded Mother Earth. And this struggle – for the healing of Mother Earth – has been a gift which Indigenous Peoples have given to the rest of humanity, and on the success of which we all rely for our continued existence.

So perhaps there may be something that those of us who, by virtue of our religious faith, are clearly ‘mad’ in the context of our secular society, might in the future provide for all our brothers and sisters, religious and non-religious, which might be of use in saving this beautiful planet. I don’t know what it might turn out to be – but maybe there may prove to be some value in our madness.

Richard Solly