Discerning the light

Former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, whose complex relationship with his own Christian tradition has made him perhaps the quintessential sceptical Scot, widens his focus to the world’s religions in a new book exploring the history of faith.

A Little History of Religion follows in the footsteps of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions in offering a popular introduction to this most intricate of subjects from a questioning, though not unsympathetic perspective.

Written with young readers in mind, the book is an ideal platform for Holloway’s gift for explaining elusive theological and philosophical concepts with clarity and economy. Here, for example, a few carefully crafted words indicate how the endlessly complex web of religious belief was spun from contemplation of the simple act of breathing:

The most obvious thing we notice about the dead is that something that used to happen in them has stopped happening. They no longer breathe. It was a small step to associate the act of breathing with the idea of something dwelling within yet separate from the physical body that gave it life. The Greek word for it was psyche, the Latin spiritus, both from verbs meaning to breathe or blow. A spirit or soul was what made a body live and breathe. It inhabited the body for a time. And when the body died it departed. But where did it go? One explanation was that it went back to the world beyond, the spirit world, the flipside of the one we inhabit on earth.

Later, he illuminates the mystery of prophecy through comparison with the processes of the creative mind:

The prophets and sages wait and listen and look into the distance. They open themselves so that the source of their being will reveal itself to them. And its reality forms in their minds the way a character realises itself in the mind of an author. Slowly a picture of God emerges like a photograph being developed in a dark room.

For the sceptic prophecy and art are both products of the creative imagination, but the comparison is complicated by the believer’s insistence that prophetic visions do not merely mine the resources of the subconscious mind but communicate messages from a world beyond. As Holloway puts it:

Monotheistic religion is like the characters in a book trying to make contact with their author.

Holloway takes this claim of divine origin as his criterion for navigating the vexed question of how religion should be distinguished from philosophy or literature, allowing him to set parameters for his study. That still leaves a vast array of beliefs to compress into a book of some 240 pages, and Holloway’s selection won’t satisfy everyone. But he succeeds in covering a broad range of religions ancient and modern, spanning east and west, and avoids the trap that snares so many Western commentators on religion of focusing their study on the three great monotheistic faiths. Those traditions receive due attention here, but Holloway signals a resolve to avoid imbalance by devoting his opening chapters to the rich religious history of India, and taking some 100 pages to get round to Christianity.

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A central theme running through much of Holloway’s work is also prominent in this book: the perennial tension within religion between the prophets who open themselves to the transcendent and the priests who follow them, transforming dreams and visions into powerful religious infrastructures: scriptures, creeds, rituals, castes and moral frameworks.

As ever Holloway is on the side of the prophets, wary of the chronic compulsion of religious hierarchies to close the door on revelation, to dam the well of inspiration through painstaking demarcation of orthodoxy and heresy. For him the Second Commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a ferocious injunction against the making of ‘graven images’, is ’the most important insight into God ever discovered by humans.’ This uncompromising insistence on the absolute unknowability of God – who as the world’s creator cannot, by necessity, be identified with it, being beyond image, words, and conception itself – preserves the sacred mystery of the divine. It recognises the ultimate source of the restlessness that drives the religious impulse, and ensures God is always new, always ahead of the human capacity for understanding.

Holloway picks out the stories associated with a figure central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the patriarch Abraham, as emblematic of the power of religious faith both to inspire and wound. Abraham’s fierce rejection of idolatry opened him to the divine mystery, giving him the courage to wander far from home, found a new nation, and, on the road to Sodom and Gomorrah, even to argue with God.

But his preparedness at other times to submit without reflection to his understanding of God’s will has left us with the disturbing story of the attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac, a tale which to this day serves as an effective index of contrasting attitudes to religion. For many conservatives it signifies an appropriate humility before the will of God, but for sceptics like Holloway it illustrates the frightening capacity of the religious mind to prioritise God’s law over a straightforward sense of right and wrong, highlighting a glaring inconsistency in Abraham’s iconoclasm:

We followed his thinking in his dismissal of idols as human creations that it was absurd to treat as divine. But aren’t our ideas about God also human inventions? We might not have crafted them with our hands out of bits of wood and stone, but we did form them in our minds out of words and ideas … God’s test of Abraham proves, if nothing else, that humans can persuade themselves to do almost anything if they think the order has come from ‘on high’.

The paradox is that those faiths – notably the major monotheisms – that take the greatest care to stress God’s radical otherness tend to transfer the idolatrous impulse to bow down before images to a strident worship of words. Holloway concedes that the sense of security religious orthodoxy facilitates can bind communities and offer the individual purpose and consolation, but fears it can harden too quickly into dogmatic formulas that blind the true believer to the wisdom to be found in other ways of life, limit sympathy for the outsider, and invest violence committed in name of God with a peculiar toxicity, removing the qualms of conscience that might otherwise inhibit.

The tendency of the desire for God to ossify into fundamentalism inspires Holloway’s continuing fascination with the figure of Jesus, understood as the prophet from Nazareth rather than the Christ of faith. For Holloway Jesus is an implacable enemy of religion, daring – always – to put the claims of conscience before God’s law, epitomised above all by the parable of the Good Samaritan, a more complex story than a surface reading might suggest. Those who passed-by did so not because they were uncaring, but because their religion’s purity laws did not permit them to attend to an ‘unclean’ stranger, proscriptions the Samaritan was prepared to break for the sake of compassion.

It’s a reading of Jesus Holloway has appealed to many times, and for which he has been accused of succumbing to the notorious temptation to see in the mysterious Galilean only what one wants to see, and so turn Jesus himself into an idol. However elsewhere in this book, at least, Holloway acknowledges Jesus was a figure of his times, a first century prophet speaking not only of love but imminent apocalypse, charging his message with dark warnings of Gehenna, ‘the fire that never shall be quenched’, a foreshadowing of the horrific concept of eternal punishment that through the ages has ensured that for many religious belief is motivated more by fear than love.

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It is with some relief, one senses, that Holloway turns from the fraught atmosphere of revealed religion, with its irresolvable arguments about God’s purposes, to the calmer waters of the religious heritage of the East. Holloway admires the simplicity, humility and reticence characteristic of the wisdom traditions of China and Japan, which scarcely seem religions at all when set beside the gothic structures of Western monotheism, but seek nevertheless to express something of the essence of things.

He likes Confucianism’s unfussy pragmatism, with its relative indifference to metaphysical speculation but acute awareness that we are always and everywhere embedded in communities that make claims upon us, a mutual dependence requiring we conduct ourselves according to the principle of ren, one of the most ancient formulations of the Golden Rule. That concern to avoid restless speculation obscuring what the world places directly before us is even more evident in the Taoist tradition, with its gentle encouragement to accept the way of things, cultivate a sense of harmony with nature’s rhythms, and so attain a state of lightness that is better felt than articulated.

And Holloway admires the uncomplicated sense of wonder that shines through the Japanese traditions usually referred to as Shinto, which intuit a sacred presence close to the surface of things, suffusing and encompassing the material world. Looking ‘through the world to something deeper’, Shinto is content with simple shrines marked by gates of two uprights and two crossbars, and delicate, spartan paintings and poetry alert to intimations of the numinous in the everyday.

Holloway writes most warmly about his own Christian tradition when it captures something of this simplicity. It is there in Jesus’s sense of the immediacy of God’s presence, the apostle Paul’s trust in salvation by faith and – though Holloway doesn’t particularly care for the man – the purity of the Lutheran theological insight that inspired the Reformation: the realisation that faith was not a meritocratic transaction, a quid pro quo exchange, but the acceptance of an unconditional love.

But Holloway reserves his most glowing praise for the uncomplicated Quaker faith in the inner light, the capacity of each individual to discern something of God’s will through the unmediated conscience. That simple trust gave George Fox and his followers the courage to hold the Bible itself to account, to argue against texts defending the indefensible. The Quakers acted on their convictions, campaigning for the poor and prison reform, and leading opposition to slavery in Britain and the United States. For Holloway Quakerism ‘remains Christianity’s conscience.’

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The book’s brief tour takes some unexpected by-ways. Holloway draws attention to the influence of less well known traditions, some long dead, on beliefs now associated with major faiths.

Zoroastrianism, for example, never spread far beyond its native Persia but developed several ideas that had a colossal impact on the subsequent history of faith, including the expectation of a great conflagration between the forces of good and evil at the end of time, and belief in the resurrection of the individual to heaven or hell. These notions permeated Judaism during the Babylonian exile, planting a seed influencing the Book of Daniel, the apocalyptic element in the teaching of Jesus, and the end times prophecies of the Qur’an, where they received perhaps their most explicit formulation.

Obscure Greco-Roman mystery religions such as the Eleusinian cult and Mithraism, extinct for many centuries, had a prototypical ‘existentialist’ character that suffused better known faiths, notably Christianity. Presenting religion as a means of salvation for the ‘sick soul’, their metaphors of dying and rising, recovery of sight, and release from paralysis, promised the convert spiritual rebirth to a new life.

Holloway looks at some newer religions too, including the Baha’i faith, which with its concept of progressive revelation captured something of essence of 19th century liberal theology, suggesting that all religions are essentially different interpretations of the same God. Baha’i offered a new perspective on the ancient Indian insistence on the impossibility of any single faith to grasp the true nature of God, illustrated by a famous Jainist tale in which six blindfolded men invited to describe an elephant can only describe a part of the whole. And he also finds space for a cluster of belief systems born of the religious ferment of 19th century America, including Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventistism, Christian Science and Scientology, whose collective idiosyncrasies he negotiates with a relatively straight bat.

There are some omissions. A slightly longer book – or some different choices – might have made room for Holloway’s thoughts on other old-new religions that have a particular resonance today. For example the often curious but always intriguing reconstructions of ancient pagan practices that constitute New Age religions such as Wicca and Druidry express a strong contemporary desire for a renewed connection to nature, sharpened by pressing ecological concerns. And a rather darker metaphysical attitude of comparable antiquity persists today, though rarely named: gnosticism, the inversion of the pagan veneration of the natural world, positing a sharp dualism between spirit (good) and matter (bad). Gnostic pessimism was present in ascetic strands of Buddhist and Hindu thought, and was the earliest Christian heresy of all, rejecting what became the orthodox insistence on Christ’s full humanity. It’s an outlook that lives on in the 21st century digital utopianism that looks to technology to save us from the encroachment of the natural world and, in its most speculative transhumanist forms, from death itself.

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But Holloway’s readers will be grateful for what A Little History of Religion does offer: another engrossing exploration of religious belief in the temperate company of a battle-scarred veteran alert to faith’s many beauties and cruelties.

As ever Holloway’s perspective will polarise, appealing to the liberal mind comfortable with provisionality, but frustrating the orthodox believer for whom religion is not essentially a journey of discovery but an imperative to defend a belief system understood as a revelation from God. Holloway values the religious impulse for opening the seeker to the mystery of things, instilling a sense of humility and sympathy that can nurture creativity and compassion. But for the conservative truth must come first, the acceptance of a well-defined faith the foundation that makes everything else possible. It is perhaps another of religion’s paradoxes that the same rigorous doctrinal systems incorporating the non-negotiable conservative social teachings that exasperate the liberal also include injunctions motivating the provision of soup kitchens for the poor and fellowship for the stranger.

The abiding strength of religious conservatism is why it is perhaps sadly unlikely that this book will reach the young audience for which it was written. As Holloway well knows from his own church career most young people who observe a faith are brought up in conservative traditions where they will be schooled in the rigid orthodoxies he warns against.

This reviewer rather likes a modest little religion of Holloway’s own, sketched in one of his previous books, but never far away here: the simple act of looking into the distance, contemplating the horizon, and wondering. It’s a sentiment expressed rather well by a haiku with which Holloway closes his chapter on the enigmatic sages of ancient Japan:

A summer river being crossed
how pleasing
with sandals in my hands!

A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway is published by Yale University Press.

This post was first published on Sceptical Scot.