Faith in the present – and the fu­ture

Two very dif­fer­ent books un­der­score the im­por­tance of re­li­gion to the mod­ern world, writes Peter Stan­ford

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

Liv­ing With the Gods Neil MacGre­gor

Allen Lane, £30, pp512

Haunted By Christ: Mod­ern Writ­ers and the Strug­gle for Faith

Richard Har­ries

SPCK, £19.99, pp352

Both these em­i­nent pub­lic fig­ures make the same sim­ple-sound­ing propo­si­tion – that re­li­gion is a sub­ject we should all take se­ri­ously, whether or not we be­lieve. It is a mea­sure of how far our sec­u­lar, scep­ti­cal so­ci­ety has gone in declar­ing faith as ir­rel­e­vant that they should feel the point needs to be driven home over so many pages.

“Be­lief is back,” ar­gues Neil MacGre­gor, broad­caster, past di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gallery and the Bri­tish Mu­seum and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual par ex­cel­lence. Or­gan­ised re­li­gion, he writes, “to the sur­prise and be­wil­der­ment of the pros­per­ous west, is po­lit­i­cally cen­tre stage all around the world”.

For his part, Richard Har­ries, re­tired bishop of Oxford, mem­ber of the House of Lords and one of Ra­dio 4’s bet­ter Thought for the Day-ers, notes that re­li­gious lan­guage “has for many be­come tired, stale and life­less”. He takes his stand against the re­duc­tive mod­ern ten­dency to treat re­li­gion it­self as a sub­sec­tion of psy­chol­ogy and so­ci­ol­ogy.

De­spite its fa­mil­iar ti­tle, MacGre­gor’s new of­fer­ing is not just the book ver­sion of last year’s Liv­ing With the Gods ex­hi­bi­tion of re­li­gious ob­jects at the Bri­tish Mu­seum (and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing Ra­dio 4 se­ries). In­stead, he broad­ens out the core idea he ex­plored there – that a re­li­gious past de­fines who we are now, re­gard­less of our own at­tach­ment or not to faith in­sti­tu­tions – to ap­ply it to the present and fu­ture of a world scarred by con­flicts that have re­li­gion at their heart.

His method, though, re­mains the same – to make his ar­gu­ment through ex­am­in­ing, with ex­pert help, ob­jects and rit­u­als from the great faiths from the ice age to now. He ends this cul­tural, re­li­gious and hu­man sweep with the thangka, a Ti­betan paint­ing on tex­tile, made to hang in a tem­ple. At­ten­tive through­out the book to bring the past into the present, he notes that it is the same size as a very big home TV screen and has the same high-def­i­ni­tion in­ten­sity of colour and de­tail.

Shaped like a wheel, the thangka tells of how in­di­vid­u­als and so­ci­eties fit into an in­fi­nite pat­tern of which we are all fleet­ingly a part. ‘The point of the paint­ing,” he writes, “is em­phat­i­cally not to cast us into gloom over our con­di­tion, but to give us hope.” And that is his prophetic mes­sage in this en­thralling and wide-rang­ing book – whether you take it as re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal. The world turns like a wheel and, as it does, if we are to pros­per, we must change to adapt to a re­li­giously in­spired nar­ra­tive that is big­ger than our­selves and our re­jec­tion of God and gods.

His chal­lenge is there­fore di­rected prin­ci­pally at western so­ci­eties,

The west has to stop wait­ing for other so­ci­eties to ‘get over’ re­li­gion

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