Faith in the present – and the future
Two very different books underscore the importance of religion to the modern world, writes Peter Stanford
Living With the Gods Neil MacGregor
Allen Lane, £30, pp512
Haunted By Christ: Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith
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