I’ve been thinking for the past few days, on and off, about ethics and religion. I’ve carried on this morning.
Yesterday I wrote that the rise of science over the past few centuries had given us a new understanding of the world that was increasingly at odds with some of our old religious beliefs about it. We know a lot more than we used to know. Or we think we do.
We know why there are seasons in the year, and why daily tides rise and fall, and why storms grow into hurricanes, and why volcanoes erupt, and earthquakes shake the ground. We don’t know everything, but we know a lot. And that means we’re a lot less frightened of it. It’s not a mystery.
So how must it have been when nobody had a clue why any of these things were happening? They must have lived lives in fear of being swallowed up by the ground, or buried under molten lava, or struck by lightning, or any number of other inexplicable things. They must have felt that they were the playthings of tremendous powers that could be unleashed upon them at any moment. They must have lived in fear and dread, praying that nothing would happen to them. And they would give thanks, on their knees, if they simply managed to survive a sea journey without being shipwrecked or drowned.
I find it easy to imagine that such people would imagine themselves to be in the presence of omnipotent gods, who would sometimes go to war with each other, stirring up the seas with huge waves, filling the sky with black clouds, hurling down thunderbolts. I can easily imagine that they could see such gods in the sea and in the mountains and in the sky and in the stars. They must have seen gods everywhere. And they must have begged those gods to spare them. And because they mostly did get spared, they felt that the gods had listened to them. And if they didn’t get spared, well, it was probably because the gods were displeased with them in some way.
And so it was always important to visit the local temple, and make an offering to whichever were the local important gods. So before you took a sea journey, you’d always pop in to the local temple of Neptune to ask for protection. If you didn’t, you were asking for trouble. And if you couldn’t make an appearance in the temple yourself, you could always get someone else to put in a good word for you. Like for example the priests of the temple, who were engaged in non-stop, organised prayer.
And maybe if the old gods didn’t seem to be answering your prayers any more, you’d try out some of the new gods that periodically arrived in town. Like Cybele, or Mithras. And if, the day after you’d paid your respects to Cybele, you won big in the lottery, or you found something you thought you’d lost, you’d think it was Cybele’s doing. And you’d tell everybody about it. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, and all that. And you’d make sure you paid Cybele regular respects. And some of your friends would too.
And maybe if there was something you really, really wanted – like the return of a missing son or daughter – you’d ask all the gods in all the temples, every day. What else could you do?
But equally, if there were no bad storms, or earthquakes, or tsunamis, or volcanoes, or wolves, you’d maybe ease up a bit on visiting the temples, and paying your respects to the gods. Why bother praying if life was pretty good already? We only ever really pray when we are in danger. And then praying is automatic. “Please, please, no!”
And so it’s natural that people who are living dangerous lives, that can be snuffed out at any moment, are going to be prayerful people. They might even be praying all the time.
And the corollary is that the easier and less dangerous their lives become, the less prayerful they will be. And maybe they’ll stop paying their dues to Cybele and Mithras and Neptune. And not be at all bothered if their temples close down and get converted into supermarkets.
And instead of living in dread of something terrible happening, they’ll start to expect nothing terrible to ever happen. And that’s the modern attitude. We don’t expect anything very bad to happen. We don’t expect the trains we ride to be derailed, or airplanes to crash, or ships to sink. And if they do, we’ll complain to the government, or to its regulatory bodies that are supposed to prevent these things from happening, rather than heading for the temple of Icarus.
Many years ago, it was customary for people to say Grace before meals. It was only a short prayer:
“For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful”.
And if the meal you were about to eat had been the result of a stroke of luck you had while out hunting or fishing, maybe you would be truly thankful. But my problem, as a boy seated at the table, was that I wasn’t truly thankful at all. Lunch was something I expected to have placed in front of me every day. And if I wasn’t truly thankful, why hadn’t the Lord made me thankful?
It reminds me of a day when I went fishing with a friend of mine in a boat off the coast of Lyme Regis, in Devon. There were quite a few other people on the boat, and they were all fishing too. And they caught lots of fish – mostly mackerel. But neither of the two of us caught a single one. And so, when we got off the boat when it returned to port, we stood around forlornly wondering what on earth we were going to eat that night. For we had no food at home, and the shops had all shut. But as everyone else departed into the evening shadows, laden with fish, a stranger came up to us, unprompted, and gave us two of the mackerel he had caught, before vanishing as quickly as he had appeared. And those became our meal that evening. I still remember it. For it was a meal of which I was, for once, genuinely thankful. Nor have I forgotten the charitable stranger on the quay, and how considerate it was of him to firstly notice that we had caught nothing, and to secondly part with two of those that he had caught in order to make up the deficit. When was the last time something like that happened outside Tesco?
The safer and more secure we are, the less we’ll be glad or grateful of anything we get. We expect it to be given to us. And we get angry when we aren’t given it.
And maybe we also expect more and more of everything, in ever greater detail. It’s not enough that the restaurant is warm and comfortable, and serves an abundance of delicious food. No. There must be no-one smoking inside it either.
And when someone comes to speak at a public meeting, they must not be allowed to say anything we might not want to hear.