The Ecclesiastical Priesthood
"There was no voice, nor any that answered... And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, 'Cry aloud; for he is god: either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.'... And it came to pass that there was neither voice, nor any to answer,
nor any that regarded."
Bible The first Book of the Kings
Both in school and church, religion was badly taught. Adam and Eve were shadowy characters. With a child's trust we at first believed in them as real characters, holding a real conversation with a serpent. Later we sensed that it wasn't as actual as this, but nobody said either that there was a different meaning to be read into the story or that it was just a fairy story. The teachers and the ministers implied that (even if in the vaguest way they had led us to believe that Adam and Eve was a fairy story), a Bible fairy story was different from the Grimms' fairy tales. We would have welcomed a teacher or minister who said. "This and this I believe utterly; this and this I don't believe at all". But they never spoke in these terms. If they had said that God was an old man with a beard, the proprietor of a large country estate called Heaven, I would have understood. It was an elaborate estate, there were many mansions, portals and judgement seats, and so many choirs that it seemed like Glyndebourne, of which I read much later; it was warmer, of course, than Aberdeenshire. I knew that, because they all went about in loose white robes; 'shining raiment' it was called. Later I heard that a missionary, translating 'shining raiment' into some African native dialect, had to be content with 'white shirts' and I envied the Africans whose angels wore such endearingly terrestrial clothes. But these were daydreams, a vulgar unspiritual fumbling for the comfort of earthly reality. We didn't visualise Heaven like that. No white shirts flapped from the ropes of drying greens there on a Monday morning. Moses, like the image we got of God himself, was a bad-tempered old man, his grizzly beard vibrating as he shouted at you. Jacob was a cunning twister. He conned his old father and stole his brother Esau's birthright. My heart went out to Esau, and I detested Jacob and especially when his story showed that his deceit had paid off. Joseph was too perfect. David started off all right by knocking out a giant but when he achieved power he was corrupted and got up to all the dirty tricks. Daniel in the Lion's Den had no more reality than Jack and the Beanstalk, but the names of his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, held the romance of the Arabian Nights. Elijah stood out as one of the most appealing characters of ancient literature. I didn't find in the proverbs any truths that came white-hot from the forge of experience. An invisible censorship silenced the Song of Solomon when we passed it in church on our way over the pages seeking some more respectable passage that the minister was reading. Isaiah was largely incomprehensible but I enjoyed the poetry of the fifty-fifth chapter read by the young minister, and in other chapters I could feel dimly that there was a glory of cherubim and seraphim and angel voices singing. It wasn't often, though, that this glory penetrated into the grey Scottish kirk or the grey Scottish school. I got the impression that neither of them believed very much in glory: there was a seductive aura of sin about it.
Twice a year the church held a "communion" when people who never attended during the rest of the year put on dark clothes and yoked the sheltie in the cart and appeared for the ritual. My father, regular church attender, never went to these rituals. I believe now that he was ahead of his time and felt that there was in them a kind of African magic with which he felt no sympathy. The bread stood for the body of Christ and the wine stood for the blood of Christ. As a child I felt that this symbolism was unconvincing. Why should Aberdeenshire farmers in the twentieth century eat the flesh and drink the blood, even symbolically, of a Levantine carpenter of two thousand years ago? They did so with reverence and credulity, even the sinners who never graced the church for the rest of the six months. I find it difficult to enter into their feelings about it. But I expect that they didn't give it much thought, any more than they gave any thought to the dress that custom had decreed should accompany the ritual, the men's black hats and black suits. Life was full of unexplained phenomena, bread and wine and black suits, rings at weddings, whisky at hogmanay; and a wise man collaborated. He didn't collaborate too much: in spite of the ministers' moanings, he didn't have to go to church oftener than these two important occasions; but just in case there might be entry qualifications for the next world, he kept his name on the church's books. I don't think the church played an active part in the lives of Aberdeenshire farmers.
But even as I write that, I'm not sure. There was kindness and generosity and love in these farm towns. Was this a natural upsurge of human feelings, or was it due to a Christian heritage? I don't know. I don't think it was due directly to the ministrations of the ministers. Maybe the ministers believed that they played an active part in the life of the community, presiding at social meetings and speaking at Parish and County Council meetings, playing Santa Claus at Sunday school gatherings, sprinkling babies when they got their names, and conducting ritual wedding and funeral ceremonies. I don't think most of them really counted for much in the community. Some did, wise men, comforting the sick, advising their flock, reconciling the adventurous young with the conservative old. But perhaps they made this valuable contribution because of their individual wisdom and not because of their ministerial training. Most of them were as much cogs in an inexplicable wheel as their parishioners, making the required responses as occasion demanded. There were two ministers in our parish. The United Free Church of Scotland minister was generally regarded as a fine man, but I never managed to follow a sermon of his from beginning to end. Few people did. A long sermon, or a long prayer, like long rain in autumn or snow in winter, was one of the facts of life and you accepted it. Nobody dreamt of complaining that he didn't understand the sermons.
The Church of Scotland minister was a younger man and he was popular among the young because his prayers and sermons were shorter. He always said the same prayers and we got to know them, and therefore the end of the prayer was always a measurable distance away, not an infinite distance as we felt about the United Free Church minister's prayers. I can still remember them. "Hasten the time, Oh Lord, when all the earth shall be full of the love and the knowledge of thee, when pure religion shall everywhere prevail, when the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad and the desert rejoice and blossom as the rose." And then he would finish by asking "an answer in peace. Amen."
The status of ministers was raised by the prefix, 'The Rev....' We all said 'the Reverent', not knowing that we should have said 'the Reverend', which meant 'requiring to be reverenced'. Sunday after Sunday we listened reverently as they read to us 'the word of the Lord' as spoken by his prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and other spokesmen. Farmers, railwaymen, shopkeepers, and the dominie endured it in silence. Occasionally when the sermon came up, the dominie improved the shining hour by practising his shorthand. Peppermints were passed in a hush along the back of the seats. But otherwise no secular noise broke the sacred awesomeness of the occasion. The minister's sermon droned on and on. "Will it be long before he's done?" I whispered to my mother. Gently she whispered back, "No, not long now", and I started to count the golden stars painted on a large panel behind the pulpit. They were eight stars high and four stars wide. I counted them individually. Then I counted eight rows of four. Then four rows of eight. Then I read the pamphlet appealing for the aged and infirm ministers' fund, for which in his 'Intimations' the minister said there would be a 'retiring collection'. I was never sure what a retiring collection was but I thought it had something to do with these retired ministers. And still the sermon went on. In front of us was a farmer with big floppy ears, and I corroborated the observation of my mother (a mimic and acutely observant) that the ears of the shopkeeper in the next row looked as if they were pinned close to the side of his head. Golden shafts of light seemed to be tickling the backs of several people's necks and the birds sang sweetly. And then the minister said 'Finally' and we realised that although we shouldn't be too optimistic, we were approaching the end of the sermon. It was as if we had passed Kittybrewster station on the way to Aberdeen by train and could start thinking of collecting our coats from the rack. And then the release of the final hymn came and we were back out in the open air.
One summer when I was seventeen, a friend who was a railway clerk and I got up early on Sunday mornings and cycled to different kirks, hoping to find the words of eternal life, although we'd have settled for intelligibility. 'Hear the word of the Lord,' the minister would begin. Occasionally a minister had a glimmering of what we sought or recreated the drama of a Bible passage. But mostly it was words without an attached sense of reality. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," says the opening paragraph of John's gospel, and we shook our heads and came out by that same door wherein we went. Words were not meant to explain, to clarify, we felt they wrapped life in a cloud. The ministers spoke about the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. These were 'The Trinity' and all sensible people accepted the Trinity. There were some strange characters who called themselves Unitarians, but they were so small a minority as not to count. I never understood who the Holy Ghost was. He was something not to be enquired into. Enquiry was successfully diverted from this incomprehensibility. We all spoke about ghosts and read ghost stories, but we never associated the holy ghost with other ghosts. He lived in a house not made with hands and we made a big detour round it whenever we went in that direction; it was a vast, imponderable, ineluctable area.
Most of us just came to accept incomprehensibility. Only this drawing of blinds over the windows of the intelligence can explain the acceptance of some of the hymns we sang.
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel's veins.
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
Some people said that such hymns were horrible and must have given nightmares to children. I never found them having the slightest gruesome effect. We had been so accustomed to read words without conjuring up in our minds a corresponding picture that we never imagined cut veins dripping blood into a fountain, or dirty sinners taking a dive into a bath of blood and emerging clean. I had no sense of horror, only of unattached sound and a tune. We were unaffected by the revivalist hymn,
Are you washed
Are you washed
In the blood
In the blood
In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are your sins as scarlet, are they white as snow,
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
These dramatic words left us unaffected. We didn't visualise either the blood or the snow. My chief recollection is of enjoying the bass voices like a deeper echo taking up the words 'Are you washed' and repeating them, and taking up the words 'In the blood', and then enjoying listening to sopranos and basses coalescing in the third line; and then I waited for them to separate again in the next verse and come together again in a felicitous harmony.
Singing a hymn in which the words are divorced from reality is incantation, the invoking of magic. I think there was something of the same nature in part of the university training of the divinity students. They studied Hebrew which was an even more powerful magic than Latin and Greek. It is told that in the sixteenth century James IV sent two babies with a mute nurse to an island in the Firth of Forth in order to discover what language they would speak under these conditions. The experimenters announced that the babies talked pure Hebrew. Glorious nonsense of this kind still permeates our national life to a far greater extent than I had imagined. I was brought up on the assumption that most things are accessible to rational enquiry. They're not. When we were in the RAF in South Africa, a friend of mine said to a black truck-driver, "If your child were ill, would you go to a witch doctor or a white doctor?" The black man said, "I'd go to both." We in Scotland and England are in the same betwixt-and-between position. We're half rational but also subject to irrational, subliminal control. To insure ourselves against unforeseen emergencies, we keep up the premiums to the witch doctor. All sorts of inexplicable things may be good for us, singing hymns uncomprehendingly, sitting examinations. And, for divinity students, studying Hebrew. But there is a radical, rational enquiry going on inside the church. When some independent spirits among the divinity students wanted to change the curriculum and replace Hebrew with something which would be of more value to them in helping others to meet the stresses of life, the professors of Hebrew said that this was cheapening the value of their degree.
Maybe I've been less than just to radical ministers who are seeking to salvage their church, realising that times change and values alter and questions are asked and a new vision is needed, or maybe only a re-statement of the old vision in more comprehensible terms. Within the church there are priests who are capable of restating the vision. There are ministers of the Church of Scotland and Catholic priests and religious communities who, under attack even from their own hierarchies, continue steadfast to live justly and love mercy and walk humbly and bear witness to the same light that the rest of us, outwith their communities, are seeking to follow. But their loyalty to the institution which cradled them, or the argument that you can more effectively reform an institution from inside, a complex of reasons, prevents them from whole-hearted, frontal attack, and their church regains its equilibrium and momentum and continues on the same course, collaborating with the other state priesthoods.
It is on high-priestly occasions such as a jubilee or a royal funeral that the other colleges of priests are most clearly seen closing round the ecclesiastical priesthood. Mountbatten said he liked Kipling's Recessional because of its warning that we could get drunk with sight of power and forget that our imperial pomp would pass away like Nineveh and Tyre. In the Abbey they sang the Recessional at his funeral. The hymn finishes,
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on thy people, Lord.
But the hymn didn't stop the BBC from magnifying all the pomp of yesterday. Through the magnifying glass of the television screen they showed us reverentially the bemedalled commanders, the ex-kings, the gloriously-robed clergy, their eminences and graces and excellences, the honours reverberatingly rolled off the commentator's tongue. They were asking mercy for frantic boast and foolish word while continuing to utter them, warning us not to be taken in by pomp while they put on one of the biggest spectaculars of the century. It was the subliminal pressure of the hidden persuaders at its most intense. "Take unto you the whole armour of God . . having on the breastplate of righteousness.. and take the helmet of salvation," and as the priest spoke, the camera illuminated his words by concentrating on one of the Life Guards, his breastplate, his helmet, his whole armour. In that very passage Paul said that "We wrestle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of the world," but here in the Abbey were the principalities and powers declaring themselves on Paul's side. They sang Blake's hymn about the dark satanic mills. I wonder how Blake would have felt about being used to buttress a system that he abominated.
A pale blue light filtered on to the pillars and throngs of worshippers. It would have been a healing, whole-making experience to feel at one with this fellowship and communion, members one of another. It could have been one occasion on our earthly pilgrimage when we met together to share our joy and sorrow, not seeking power or advantage over one another. If only they had meant it. If only it had been real.
But it wasn't real. It was only a military parade, a feudal pageant and a music festival, a party political broadcast on behalf of the Tory party. The Archbishop of Canterbury, grandly robed, carried out the traditional role of the High Priest down the ages, in a clear voice and in dignified words saying the right things equivocally, so that the system's requirements seemed to square with the values of the god who was being worshipped. He was proof against the rebuke of a poet laureate of fifty years earlier who prefaced the book containing his life's work with a different kind of consecration.
Not of the princes and prelates with periwigged charioteers
Riding triumphantly laurelled to lap the fat of the years;
Not the bemedalled Commander, beloved of the Throne,
Riding cock-horse to parade when the bugles are blown;
THEIRS be the music, the colour, the glory, the gold;
Mine be a handful of ashes, a mouthful of mould.
Of the maimed, of the halt and the blind in the rain and the cold,
Of these shall my songs be fashioned, my tales be told.
The reverberating AMEN (which Masefield printed in block capitals at the end of his consecration) was a desperate shout which declared that he meant it literally. I know exactly how he felt. The priesthood which gave him a resounding title and minimal pay regarded him almost as a court jester, a versifier who wasn't meant to be taken seriously. Now here's a question confronting the anthropologist who enquires into the devious practices of the high priests of this country in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The Archbishop of Canterbury was an intelligent man, conversant with the literature of his century. Presumably he had read Masefield's Consecration. For the Archbishop, was English literature a plaything, like an Elizabethan madrigal sung in his palace after dinner, lightly regarded and soon forgotten? Did he think that Masefield was just versifying, or did the possibility occur to him that Masefield meant it desperately? If that were so, did the Archbishop believe literally the fine-sounding words he was uttering? Did he find the dualism of these roles a strain upon him? Or did he switch off at these times, like a black-gowned Durham student gabbling through a grace-before-meat in the ancient hall in the evening? Did the priestly incantations in ancient Egypt fall on ears equally calloused by usage? Or were the fellahin so well rehearsed in their parts by the priests of the Pharaohs that they played them like zombies? I had been brought up to give a child's implicit trust to the ecclesiastical priests, believing them to be natural parts of the human community just as the power that made blood coagulate over a knee wound, or the bonds of frost that arrested the flow of water in winter, were parts of the physical world. History, I had imagined, was the story of the natural reaction of free human beings to the circumstances of their life. But I discovered that there are acts of the historical drama that are as stilted and jerky and artificial as the elaborate ritual of the generals on the roundabout in the film, "Oh' what a lovely War". People are puppets on strings manipulated by the priests. These priests exist to prop up an insecure fiction and keep the show on the road. The cardinal in Osborne's play asked Luther to consider the forces that would be unleashed if he encouraged the populace to ask questions. It is the function of the priesthood to deploy all their magic to make questions taboo. And therefore, if there is to be a renaissance, we have to encourage everybody to go on asking questions.
The high priests are worried. One Sunday the BBC reviewed a book in which some deviant ecclesiastics denied the divinity of Jesus. Then the BBC brought in a high priest from Oxford to combat this heresy. Like an official guardian, protective of a ward's innocence, they were so frightened to allow the ward to come to his or her own conclusion about the book, that they couldn't allow even a brief account of the book to go out without an official disclaimer and a warning. It was like Pravda injecting the faithful against possible contagion. The BBC and Pravda share the priestly duty to propagate the dogmas of the system. Both distrust people's ability to reach their own conclusions; always there is the shepherding, the denial of freedom of thought. It was only in the seventies that the evidence of widespread indoctrination, of the doctoring of the facts, began to be widely discussed. To emerge from a ubiquitous indoctrination is a long, slow process. A question here, a doubt there, an observation from a foreign visitor. Occasionally in their exuberance, the high priests overdo it, as in the jubilee, and there is a jolt to conciousness. The Duke of Edinburgh appears in technicolour as fantastically bemedalled as ex-President Idi Amin, and people register the comparison and file the memory for future reference. The still small voice of the human spirit utters a doubt in the midst of the priestly diapason. An atmosphere of tolerant irreverence is spreading in Britain, even within the priestly castes.
Down the ages a persisting scepticism has survived the united onslaught of the priesthoods. Maverick characters like Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, Shelley and Paine and Blake, in spite of intense vilification, have gone on questioning the current dogmas. Charlatans, dreamers, agitators, they have been labelled, but their message has got through and we start making our own private and simple researches. It's like being brought up to believe in angels and then being encouraged to dissect the bulging muscles that power a bird's wings and enquiring how those swan-like wings, attached to an angel's back, operated. More people are putting two and two together and wondering why they get a different answer from the official answer. We are not alone in wondering why the priesthoods spread not enlightenment but obscurity. Three thousand years ago Zoroaster said something like that. Ormuzd was the god of light, truth, frankness, and the sun; and Ahriman was the god of secrecy, cunning, diplomacy, darkness, and night. Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, took up the same vision of life, two centuries after Jesus. He said that man fell from light into darkness, that he is being disentangled and redeemed from the darkness, and that Jesus sought so to redeem him. Thus the prophets were on the side of the light, and the churches and schools which they founded gradually crept away into the darkness and became indistinguishable from it. I found little sense of light, of enlightenment, in the Scottish church, or school, of my boyhood. They perpetuated the darkness, the complicated thinking, the incomprehensibility, and the diplomatic relations with the state. It taught us to submit, to "close your eyes and bow your head" and worship the existing state of things, the accepted ideas. In 1975 a seven-year-old girl was hit with a leather strap in an Edinburgh primary school for having had her eyes open during the grace that preceded a school meal.
"Seeing many things, but thou observest not; opening the ears, but he heareth not.
"But this is a people robbed and spoiled; they are all of them snared in holes, and they are hid in prison houses; they are for a prey, and none delivereth; for a spoil, and none saith, Restore."
These words are intelligible to us because we are also snared in holes by the priesthoods and hid in prison houses and preyed upon and despoiled. Equally relevant is Isaiah's message of hope. In fifteen words he formulated one of the principles of life, the power of survival. "A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench." Our pupils are bruised by examination failure, a twentieth century refinement of large-scale torture; buckets of cold water are thrown over them by the job centres. The human spirit survives, unbroken and unquenched, and declares, "We shall overcome one day." Isaiah described what that emancipation could be like. "Ye shall go out with joy, and be lead forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands." I've seen that happen, an explosion of joy, when we've taken the sons and daughters of Fife miners to the Scottish mountains. "I'd like to bide here all the time," one of them told me. He was expressing an awareness of what life could be like if we took over from the controllers. We could be standing on top of the world. But the controllers of our state (as of Isaiah's) don't want to contemplate such an emancipation. They seek to prevent it by taking the meaning out of the message. They do that in schools and kirks by giving the impression that Isaiah is living in a limbo and therefore has no relationship to our time and place , and thus implying that there's no point in trying to extort concrete meaning out of what he said. It's all metaphorical and "spiritual" and "prophetic". By that they mean incomprehensible to our earthly understanding.
At the time I was baffled by the obscurity of the scriptural readings and I vaguely believed that this was of the nature of prophetic writing. You weren't supposed to really understand it; but in some magical way exposure to it did you good. Today I find it incredible that a large majority of adults should have suffered this unintelligibility without demanding, and going on demanding, an explanation. I believe that at the core of all of us there is an instinct to extort meaning out of what we hear and see and read. But the instinct is frustrated, baffled, and we can't even get at what it is that prevents us from enquiring. There is no other word for our condition than imprisonment. Some controlling power vetoes the communication of enlightening knowledge. Let me give an example of the effect of the veto. Isaiah's name was constantly coming up in these kirk services. I ettled to know what kind of man he was, his working life, his food, his clothes, the women he knew, and above all what he was going on about. But there was a universal blank, a shut-down on intelligence about him. I believe now that it was the kirk ministers and not Isaiah himself who clogged up the channels of communication. Some of his writing was clear and vivid.
"The smith with the tongs both worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with the strength of his arms: yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth: he drinketh no water and is faint.
"The carpenter stretcheth out his rule, he marketh it out with a line, he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass."
If he could write as clearly as that about the smith and the carpenter, why should the rest of what he was trying to put across, his main ideas, be so obscure? Recently I looked again at what he had written, with eyes less glazed than when as a youngster I tried to follow the minister's reading of "the Old Testament lesson for this morning". I suggest that these words are not as remote as we were led to believe.
"To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.
"And I will bring the blind by a way that they know not: I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.
"Hear, ye deaf: and look, ye blind, that ye may see.
"Seeing many things, but thou observest not; opening the ears, but he heareth not.
"But this is a people robbed and spoiled; they are all of them snared in holes, and they are hid in prison houses; they are for a prey, and none delivereth; for a spoil, and none saith, Restore."
These words are intelligible to us because we also are snared in holes by the priesthoods and hid in prison houses and preyed upon and despoiled. Equally relevant is Isaiah's message of hope. In fifteen words he formulated one of the principles of life, the power of survival. "A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench." Our pupils are bruised by examination failure, a twentieth-century refinement of large-scale torture; buckets of cold water are thrown over them by the job centres. The human spirit survives, unbroken and unquenched, and declares, "We shall overcome one day." Isaiah described what that emancipation could be like. "Ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands." I've seen that happen, an explosion of joy, when we've taken the sons and daughters of Fife miners to the Scottish mountains. "I'd like to bide here all the time," one of them told me. He was expressing an awareness of what life could be like if we took over from the controllers. We could be standing on top of the world. But the controllers of our state (as of Isaiah's) don't want to contemplate such an emancipation. They seek to prevent it by taking the meaning out of the message. They do that in schools and kirks by giving the impression that Isaiah is living in a limbo and therefore has no relationship to our time and place, and thus implying that there's no point in trying to extort concrete meaning out of what he said. It's all metaphorical and "spiritual" and "prophetic". By that they mean incomprehensible to our earthy understanding.
I discovered that once I had escaped from half a lifetime's indoctrination of reverence towards the existing priesthoods and their insufficient and unsatisfying explanations, there was a feeling almost of exhilaration, of relief at being free of the burden of having to try and reconcile my inmost thoughts and feelings with the prevailing doctrines. Everything, everything, was open for reconsideration. New hypotheses, wild surmises, presented themselves for examination. For example there was that agonising horror story of Abraham about to slaughter his son. (He really did mean to cut his throat.) But he saw a ram caught in the thicket and he stopped when he heard a voice saying that he needn't kill Isaac. The Scottish kirk presented it to us as a fairy story, a tragedy narrowly averted by supernatural intervention, and that turned us off. We would have entered into the dilemma of a human being, at an early stage of history, torn between his love for his son and the dreadful compulsions imprinted on him by his priests, and desperate. Why did the ministers not seek within themselves for a deeper explanation of the story? I think they realised that their kirk's authority depended on a restriction of the privilege of hearing 'voices'. Our lives are still beset with hoodoos and the priests capitalise on these fears. The possibility that we too, might hear a 'voice' encouraging us to challenge a hoodoo was not one that they could contemplate with equanimity. We were not encouraged to confer on our private doubts the authenticity of 'voices'. People who heard voices were supposed to be crackers. In France they were mocked as 'illumines. Ordinary, stable people don't feel like that.
But the norm is a fiction of the governing elite. If we were all encouraged to listen to our voices and fearlessly share their message with one another, we would realise that we are not 'abnormal' in harbouring fears and uncertainties and hesitations and unspeakable thoughts which run counter to the current view of what is normal. Our hopes and fears and dreams are too multitudinous to be contained within a Christian priesthood's creed and they rove back through wild centuries to nomads and shamans and all the myths and songs by which our forefathers strove to make sense of their tumultuous life. Maybe in the end it is all random and doesn't make sense and there is no working pattern into which its components can be fitted. Maybe it's like the deck-chair in Candid Camera, specially contrived to fool all those who thought they could set it up to take the baffled holiday-maker's weight. But there is in all of us a deep, finally irrepressible, conviction that we have the right to apply all our intelligence and perception in an effort to extort some answer out of the tantalising mystery of life on earth. We are breaking out from imposed explanations into our own searches for reality; we want to get to grips with it ourselves. We have an insatiable hunger and thirst for reality.
An old roadman from our Aberdeenshire village went to visit Robert Burns's house at Alloway. He told us that when the caretaker wasn't looking he closed his fist over Burns's bed-clothes. "I was just longing to get a feel of his bed," he explained. He had a longing to grasp with his senses the physical realities of Burns's life, to enter into a fuller intelligibility of what it was like to be Robert Burns. The words which have been used to convey to us the experience of others are generally poor substitutes for the reality. In the daily commerce of speech, words are processed and homogenised and lose their tang. In the early days of the 1939 - 1945 war the RAF trained us in the use of the bayonet. We advanced from one line of straw-stuffed sacks to another, and the instructor pointed out that the difference with real life was the suction of a human body, which makes it difficult to pull the bayonet out. You have to shove your foot against the bayoneted belly and at the same moment pull with all your strength. Such brutal reality didn't stain the pages of my history books. They didn't go in much for the drama of military mutilation. Nor did the kirk ministers convey to us the reality of a Roman crucifixion, the soldiers collecting at the regimental stores the nails of the prescribed length, the victims in incredible suffering shitting themselves, so that the stench of the crucified gladiators on the Appian Way turned the stomachs of the passers-by. The kirk didn't dwell much on the cry of stark despair that Jesus uttered on the cross, "My God, why have you deserted me?"
Arthur Koestler wrote a short story in which he tried to recreate, to bring alive, the last hours of Jesus. He'd been flogged and the weals of the lash disfigured his body. The heavy beam of wood cut into his shoulder as he carried it. Maybe worst of all was the heart-ache and the engulfing doubt. The voice he heard, howling like a wolf's, it couldn't be his.
In THE FOREIGNER A Search for the First Century Jesus, Desmond Stewart also tried to dig out the reality for himself. His background of English public school and Oxford and the near East entitles his conclusions to a hearing when he puts Pilate under enquiry. "He is a gentleman, of the equestrian, not the patrician, order; similar to the public schoolboys who ran the British empire on Dr Arnold's model: a blend of the classics, biblical pieties, practicality. Modest to their betters, not to others." "The ruthless Pilate had been educated in a curriculum which taught how to lead a sentence to a euphonius conclusion. Like other Roman schoolboys he was familiarised not only with rhetorical arguments for the simple life or the claims of patriotism, but with a knowledge of such teachers as Plato, Zeno and Epicurus. In the decoration of his palace, in the arrangement of his dinners, he was no barbarian. The survival of the soul after death, the nature of true courage, such dinner topics were discussed after the suppression of a riot or the deduction of temple funds to finance an aqueduct." When Jesus, under questioning, said he wanted to reveal the truth, Pilate replied, 'Ah truth.' "The world-weary voice is a sound of Europe: it echoes from Greek sophists to Maugham and Malraux. 'What on earth is that?' "
But nowhere is the likeness of our western civilisation to the first century middle east clearer than in the questions that former high priest Annas put to Jesus. Who constituted his disciples? What doctrines did he teach? "These are the questions, if we substitute cell and ideology for disciples and doctrines, put to middle east dissidents today, with the first electric shocks."
Enquirers like Koestler and Stewart open up a richness of understanding unavailable to the worshippers who humbly accept unintelligibility. If religion is regarded as a separate ministry manned by experts trained in the interpretation of holy texts, the days of the church are numbered, like those of the school. The ecclesiastical priesthood presented an apparently integrated vision of reality by dropping all the discordant elements or explaining them away. But these intractable questions become louder and won't go away. Sometimes they are articulated into a shout of defiance as in the ending of Koestler's short story. Jesus says, with his last breaths, "Eli, Eli, how can you bear watching this ? Thou dumb spirit, vapour of the desert, ignoble absence, thou art not, hast never been. Only a parable. And my own death another parable; they will remember it and twist its meaning. They will torture and kill in the name of a parable. They will slay children for the love of a metaphor and burn women alive in praise of an allegory. And thus will your will be done, not mine."
These are the ultimate things that the story is about. Does the old boy up there exist (in whatever insubstantial or ethereal or different cosmic form) standing for love and compassion, honesty and all that about whatsoever things are true and lovely and just; or does he not, as considerable recent evidence indicates? That's the question, THE question. It's no good pretending that we know the answer. We don't. Jesus didn't. What is finally wrong with our civilisation is that it pays our upbringers to persuade us to be content with penny-in-the-slot answers.
I'm not sure we need the word religion any more, but if we do, it means a much richer thing than the ecclesiastics' department. It is one with art and music and education and science and politics, indivisible, the way in which we grope after reality, trying to comprehend the mystery. In our yearning to understand reality we have to be encouraged to support all the lingering doubts in the minds of all of us, that the ecclesiastics try to dispel, we have to use them, for they are further clues to the mystery. And we have to examine also the reliability of the instruments by which we seek to grasp the truth. For example, unless we are put on our guard, we take words too seriously, as if they had a separate existence, an ultimate reality. Because we were brought up to trust adults and all the people set in authority over us, we believed that if there was a word, there was bound to be a thing which the word stood for, in the same way as we believed in the value of pound notes. It was unthinkable that anyone would devalue the currency by issuing words that didn't stand for anything. But sometimes, like Koestler's parables and allegories and metaphors, words are shadows, not substantial things. And sometimes they are string-bags, temporary make-do's for the portage of an idea which will suffice until we get home and can handle it with more sensitivity and precision. With a little help and encouragement and leisure, teenagers cotton on to what I'm saying. They can handle words with discrimination. It's not a skill which the educational and ecclesiastical priests encourage them to develop. They hurry the pupils along and chivvy them to learn lesson and repeat the ritual, not wishing them to linger over an inspection of the words that comprise the lesson and the ritual.
One of the words I'd invite pupils to inspect is 'individual'. In my teens I had never lingered on its meaning. The ecclesiastical priests quoted Paul who said that we are members one of another, but the idea soon withered away, having no depth of soil. We thought of the local tennis club of which we were members, a friendly but loose relationship. It wasn't until the zoology professor at Aberdeen described a colony of corals that I questioned my previous acceptance of what an individual is, and threw away the string-bag. The colony is indivisible, it is the individual. The bits that stick out have no existence except in relation to the whole colony. Then I realised what Paul meant when he said that we are members one of another. I knew that members means limbs and that limbs do not have an individual existence independent of the whole body. Our teachers chose to conceal from us our membership one of another. I had not realised that school and church are united in imprinting on us the belief that life on earth is ruthlessly competitive. I just thought that this separateness was the natural order. It was cissy to admit to longing for tenderness and sympathy, a desire to escape from the endless combativeness of our civilisation. Our virility demanded its denial. The heartbreak of our alienation from one another is nowhere more poignantly expressed than by Matthew Arnold in the best poem he wrote.
Yes: in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour;
O then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent!
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent.
Now round us spreads the watery plain -
O might our marges meet again!
Who order'd that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?
Who renders vain their deep desire? -
A God, a God their severance ruled;
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unpumb'd, salt, estranging sea.
Arnold's desire was for a merging of one's separate life in a fuller, deeper flow. A hundred years later, Koestler spoke of the oceanic feeling. Arnold sensed that some power had intervened to thwart humanity's longing for union. He sensed that a god had rendered vain this deep desire, but he never got round to identifying the god.
It wasn't until I read Kropotkin's Mutual Aid that I discovered the identity. Church and school had not revealed to me the extent to which, up to two hundred years ago, European communities (and ours) had lived successfully as members one of another. Kropotkin said that it took nearly 4,000 Acts of Parliament between 1760 and 1844 to destroy communal ownership of land in England. The same happened in France, Germany, Austria and Belgium. "The King's sword and the Church's fire" (he said) sought to destroy co-operation and to make people believe that individualism is the only secure base for the maintenance of society. I was heartened to read that this distinguished Russian biologist and statesman had studied common ownership of land in the counties of Forfar and Inverness and in Kilmorie and saw it as an ancient custom that we shared with the communities of Europe. I began to see my childhood days in rural Aberdeenshire in a new light. One day at the age of ten, returning on a bicycle from delivering a telegram, I saw, pinned on a tree, a notice headed 'Love Darg'. A love darg is a piece of work undertaken for the love of it, that is to say, without payment. The notice bade everyone to share in the turnip-hoeing at the croft of our nearest neighbour who couldn't work because his leg had been broken by the kick of a horse. It was a certificate of our rural ancestry, our ancient kinship with the whole continent which was bound together in a spirit of mutual aid. I was happy when Kropotkin revealed to me my background. As a child I had had no idea that we had those close ties with the country people of Europe, lived in the same neighbourly relations with one another as they did, were members of the same civilisation.
We are at heart better than the characters that our imprinted education has made of us. Humanity and loving-kindness keep surging back in history and tenderness outflows when the barriers are down. German and British soldiers played football in no-man's-land on that first Christmas of World War 1, but the chiefs hastened to stop the football and get the war going again. At a conference in Northern Ireland I was surprised to discover how well the Protestant and Catholic headmasters and headmistresses got on together. It wasn't just professional courtesy; there was a quality of love that illuminated the conversation around the coffee tables after the evening meal. I suggested to them that they should pension off their political chiefs and take over the framing of a new dispensation together. A charming, smiling nun shook her head. I continued with the argument, quoting a Catholic bishop whose uncompromising attitudes were different from those that the nuns had been expressing all evening. She replied, "Perhaps the bishops have a clearer understanding of the dangers that our co-operation would lead us into. They are wiser and more farsighted than we are." I left it at that, but I wish all the people of Northern Ireland could learn a little irreverence towards those who control their thinking "All we are saying is give peace a chance." It is these controllers, throughout the world, who have closed our minds, making us innaccessible to the possibilitity of major change. It was they who moulded the stereotype of Scotsmen and Scotswomen, just as they moulded the stereotypes of Irish Catholics and Iris Protestants, German and French and Americans and Afrikaners. This is not the real us. This is what our upbringing has made of us. We are at heart diferent, and I can see the real nature of us, imprisoned for so long within an alien bond, now breaking through in our children. In another twenty years or less the natural exuberance will have freed itself, and strangers will try to explain why what is called the Scottish national character has changed.
I was born into an agricultural society, inured to ploughing along furrow after squelching furrow, scything swathe after swathe of grass or oats, plodding all the time. For farm workers, life hadn't altered much for six hundred years. John Ball, itinerant preacher of the Peasants' Revolt, said, "We have the payne and traveyle, rayne and wind in the feldes." In 1367 he was excommunicated for promulgating "errors, schisms, and scandals against the Pope, archbishops, bishops, and clergy." The twentieth century Aberdeenshire church had the farm workers under firmer control. There was no need for excommunications. We were subdued to accept lives of drudgery without complaint. "God hath given each his station", we sang in church. The Presbyterian priesthood conformed to the political.
I imagine that the nomadic society, which preceded the era of the settled agriculturalists, would have brought up their children differently. Their survival required initiative, the ability to make speedy individual decisions. We are reverting to nomadic requirements. All over Europe, in Scotland and Brittany and the Basque country and Galicia and Andalucia, local tribes are demanding the right to make their own local decisions without forever referring to a centralised and containing priesthood. I would hazard a guess that more people are admitting to a nostalgia for an open air life, sun and sky and the wind on the heath. Nomadic peoples, we are told, had more personal dignity and no great class inequalities. I think we are altering our values, becoming less attached to comfort and security and possessions. In his book, To Have or to Be, the German-American psychiatrist, Erich Fromm, said that we bolster ourselves up with possessions because we are insecure. Money proves to our neighbours, if not to ourselves, that we have achieved success. Capitalist and communist education alike propagate the religion of having and glorify material possessions. Certificates and degrees are 'securities', insurances against insecurity. There is reassurance even in the words. A certificate is something that makes certain. If you've got one of these, you can rest assured of your future in the same way as the insecure people of Wittenburg in 1517 could be assured that their sufferings in purgatory would be cancelled if they bought an 'indulgence' from the papal emissary, John Tetzel. It was an incredible confidence trick. I didn't realise how blatant and impudent the trick was xxxxxxxx until Bamber Gascoigne, in a television programme, produced an actual indulgence and I looked at it close-up and realised that it was only an ordinary, grubby piece of paper. The twentieth century school tries to invest its certificates with the same aura of magic as the fifteenth century Catholic church invested its indulgences; both of them trading in insecurity.
I'd like to interpolate an autobiographical note. As a student at Aberdeen University studying the effect that the sale of indulgences had on the progress of the Reformation, I felt that there was something unco about this scrip, a talisman of such potent magic that it extended into the next world. Even a Presbyterian imagination was influenced by its power. It was only when Gascoigne showed us a real, actual indulgence that its spell was broken for me. There's nothing like concrete reality for demystifying priestly teachings. I had not realised that the priestly con-trick was so simple and shameless or that people could be so easily taken in.
We teachers should be demystifying the school examination certificates. Some pupils have already seen through the certificates and make them into paper aeroplanes and throw them in the air when they get into the playground. I'd like to think that, in the same way as the Wittenberg farmworkers, by making fun of Tetzel's indulgences, were preparing the way for the Reformation, our twentieth-century pupils are preparing the way for the educational revolution.
The indulgences and certificates are only the more obvious signs of a wholesale trading in unreality. Slowly realism percolates down into the understanding of the most deeply indoctrinated. I was brought up to believe that the church was our guide and friend, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, an ever-present on whom we could call in time of trouble. But it is not so. Religious education in Scotland is as uncaring as the school education. The ecclesiastical priests have taken up service with Baal, the god of Capitalism who, as Elijah said, is unavailable when we ordinary folk call on him.