Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.” But too often political and religious leaders select passages from sacred texts to bolster their own beliefs or prejudices.
God must be appalled at hearing his/her name being used as justification for bigotry, discrimination, torture and murder. Each week brings horrifying reports of atrocities by supposedly religious groups: Christians slaughtering Muslims in the Central African Republic; Buddhists killing Muslims in Burma; Sunni and Shia bombing each other in Iraq. Europe suffered centuries of religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. US history is full of examples of religious bigotry. Even slavery was supported by established Christian churches and discrimination was often cloaked in religiosity. More recently, the burning of a Koran by an American pastor in Florida provoked deadly riots in Afghanistan and American evangelicals are actively supporting Uganda’s human rights abuses against gays.
Worldwide persecution based on religion is increasing. For example, one hundred years ago Christians accounted for 30 percent of the Middle East’s population; today they represent just three percent. The region risks losing its historical diversity and tradition of tolerance.
So it was with relief and gratitude that I rediscovered a small gem of a book entitled God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan*. Susan and I read it during our morning reflections while on vacation. The British author, Tim Firth, who died recently, was a prominent Catholic priest who, finding that for him church doctrines “ceased to be convincing interpretations of reality and a basis for living ,“ left the church and pursued a career as a human resource manager with an international accounting firm. With his theater director wife he became deeply involved in the arts as a vehicle for spiritual renewal.
To a large extent Firth’s book reflects his own journey from the certainty of a specific religious tradition into a wider world of unknown paths and a new understanding of spirituality. He notes that we are all innately spiritual beings; religion is a comparatively recent creation. It is, in the words of Diarmuid O'Murchu, “the local harbour that points to the vast ocean beyond, without which the harbour would never exist in the first place.” Firth focuses on exploring that vast ocean and the many ways in which humans connect to what he calls the "Mystery of Being."
He repeatedly cautions against the “either/or” trap of doctrine, recalling the words of Ludovic Kennedy: “Believing may be what people die for but doctrines can be what people kill for.” He encourages the reader to take a “both/and” approach. Human beings crave certainty and we fear the journey in the unknown. But according to Brian Boobbyer, “Mystery is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be enjoyed.”
Firth affirms that religion plays an important role in providing a framework and identity. Where it goes wrong is in claiming exclusive fullness of the truth. The Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths said, "Be true to your roots, but go beyond their limitations.”
Prayer, art, myths, stories and symbols are helpful because they tend to unify across cultural boundaries: “Beethoven speaks universally; the same principles of geometry are found in Stonehenge, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the Kaba in Mecca and Chartres Cathedral because their architects all believed that by building on geometric proportions they were building – the same proportions God used in building the cosmos – they were building truth. There is no such thing as Hindu geometry or Islamic beauty or Buddhist music – there are just mathematics, geometry, beauty and music.”
Firth believes we all have an “an in-built compass to believe what our instinct tells us will give us life and hope.” Obedience comes from the Latin “ob-audience” which means listening – listening to our conscience and attending to the Mystery of Being. In the end it is about relationships: “You must live in a certain way and then you will encounter the sacred within.”
Personally I think God might welcome a year with no public mention of his/her name. Instead, people of all faiths and spiritual traditions could simply live out the universal core values of honesty, love, forgiveness, compassion and justice. The world might be a very different and much better place as a result.
*God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan, Tim Firth, Catholics for a Changing Church 2007 London, UK.