A piece published in the Guardian, reflecting on the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival.
Past civilisations are much celebrated for their religious and philosophical diversity. Ancient Athens gave rise to the varied experiments in good living known as Platonism, stoicism, Epicureanism, scepticism and cynicism. And Ashoka’s rule in third century BC India – characterised by his respect for all religions – is now cited by scholars as an embodiment of the spirit of democracy. Then there’s Baghdad, which, in the ninth century AD, founded the House of Wisdom, a place where Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars could study Greek, Indian and Persian texts.
It could be argued that we live in comparable times. Cities like London provide copious opportunities not only to study the claims of different faiths, but also to sit at the feet of their best exponents and experience their rituals and meetings. From the beauty of choral evensong in Westminster Abbey to an affirmation of life with the Sunday Assembly (also known as the atheist church); from a lesson in the Sanskrit texts of the Upanishads to a lunchtime meditation; from an evening of yoga to hearing a talk about the sci-fi community of Damanhur, whose underground temple complex contains secrets obtained via visitors from another planet. A smörgåsbord of soulful practices, fantastic myths and metaphysical convictions is widely available.
“The belief in something greater than ourselves has preoccupied humanity for centuries,” says Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra which, in partnership with Southbank Centre, is presenting the festival Belief and Beyond Belief throughout 2017. “In this festival, we attempt to lay open the grandeur, enigma and conflict in our search for, and understanding of, the divine.”
People taste this rich variety of religious experience even when they are doctrinally supposed to not be mixed. There are folk who attend the Sunday Assembly but also go to regular church. You can learn about Buddhist meditation without having to commit to reincarnation, karma and the doctrine of non-self. Faith cocktails also blend the ceremonies of one creed with the ethics of another.
In fact, religions thrive on diversity, particularly during their inception. The ancient Greeks had extensive contact with ancient India. Islam made much of the insights of the ancient Greeks. The first Christians adapted writings from Judaism and the Stoics, turning them into the central texts of what became the New Testament. Generally speaking, it’s only when seeking power or resisting threat that traditions claim monopolies on truth and ban alternatives as heresies.
In other words, the pick-and-mix approach to religion is one that can propagate, fertilise and revive. And who knows what new faith might be being born today – or indeed, whether religion itself is slowly coming to an end, usurped by hope and confidence in science and technology.
There is a downside, too. Variety can be dazzling and dismaying in equal measure. Which one is right? Have I enough time? The best offer might be missed altogether. Anxiety haunts the religious marketplace, as much as it can be felt in the shopping mall. But there are some timeless tips by which to form judgments.
The great psychologist of religion, William James, suggested that you first examine what’s on offer by its “fruits” as well as its “roots”. That is, ask what the followers of this or that creed are like. Are they compassionate and flourishing, or crabby and humanly diminished? You know which not to choose.
Second, he noticed that wisdom traditions tend to come in one of two forms. The first teach that human beings can perfect themselves, given enough effort. They offer “mind cures” – practices that cultivate wellbeing and excellence – and appeal to those who feel similarly about humankind. The second are different. They teach that human beings remain flawed no matter how hard they try. So instead, these traditions tell of death and rebirth, teaching that what’s mended is first broken. Leonard Cohen caught it well when he wrote: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
There’s a third, final, bit of discerning to do as you browse. The risk with spiritual shopping is that the shopping itself takes over. Pick-and-mix subtly shifts from being a search to just another purchase of the latest guru, argument or fad. Spiritual experiences stack up like self-help books, changing nothing. You can be sure that the “God-shaped hole” won’t be filled by mere consumption. Which highlights perhaps the most difficult message from the wisdom of past ages to the freedom of the present. Search, test, listen, discern, enjoy. Do! But at some point, to know life in all its fullness, you have to commit.
Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival, in partnership with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, runs from 16 January-17 December 2017. For more information and to book tickets, visit Southbank Centre’s website