There is a startling scene in ‘Things Fall Apart’ by the great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe. It tells of when the first Christian missionaries visited an isolated village. This is a village of hunter gatherers and the hero of the book, a village boy, has an unkind and cruel father who bullies him and his family. His father is the great hunter warrior. Through his courage and daring he supports his family, his village and his clan. He expects his boys to behave in the same way and to live by the same code. This is how they survive.
Into this tribal scene walks a European missionary, the first white man to make a relationship with them. He comes with a stunning story. It is a story about the cosmos and the whole of life. In this new story, the world is created by a god who loves everyone without exception. In fact, this god so loved the world that he sent his only son into it and allowed him to be cruelly sacrificed so that everyone could understand and feel this god’s love. This god does not sing the praises of hunters and warriors, but sings about turning the other cheek when you are hit and caring for all your neighbours including your enemies.
The hero’s father finds this story completely unacceptable and humiliating of man’s true dignity. But the young hero loves it and so does his mother. They had an instinct for a more gentle and kind life. Here was a great story, a great myth, a narrative, that made their private instincts real and legitimate. Yes, god is love, not a warrior ancestor.
Before the printing press, when the vast majority of people were illiterate, there were not so many great stories. Imagine what it was like when men who could command a crowd’s attention told them a great story. (A modern equivalent might be twelve months without television, books, magazines, papers, radio or computers — and someone entertaining and engaging comes to tell a great story. What rapture.)
In a very real way, traditional religions gave people a story that made sense of their lives and presented a narrative of virtues. The great figures of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Krishna — all men in the millennia of patriarchy — were all heroes of virtue and presented clear teachings about ethics and morality.
This then is the immense fear that believers have of secularism and of modern spirituality. There are no great stories of virtue upon which we all agree.
This anxiety is unfounded because there are indeed great stories of morality, but they do not derive from religious prophets. These stories of virtue are built into our models of democracy and a just society.
But where religion may perhaps have been more effective, is in its explicit repetition and insistence on values. Religion is full of prayers and mantras that assert and ask for peace, charity, generosity, forgiveness, mercy, neighbourliness, compassion, courage and love. An essential part of religion is this ongoing conditioning, always aligning with virtue — and always looking hypocritical, manipulative and malevolent every time that it fails; but how much worse would society be without these repeated calls to virtue?
In the 21st Century many people do not trust organised religion. The institutions seem corrupt or inappropriate. This is both good and bad. Good because the corruption is becoming visible and can therefore be transformed. Bad because the power of its call to living a virtuous life is unheard and often replaced with commercialised spirituality.
There is a need therefore as individuals to create our own statements, prayers and mantra that call us to be virtuous.
I am very clear about the challenging dynamics of human growth. We are strung out between dynamics of containment and expansion. We want to grow. We want to stay the same. We have minds that compulsively tell stories to bring us relief from the anxiety of being uncertain. We are primal in our insecurity and will fight for food, sex, space and status. We live in the City of Angels and on the Planet of the Apes.
To support our growth and journey to becoming the best we can be, we need the support of virtuous ideas, mantras of morality, heroic stories of compassion, courage and love. If you were asked what stories or prayers of virtuous behaviour have guided your moral behaviour over the years, what would you say? There are many possible answers.
‘An image in my children’s Bible of Jesus caring for children and baby animals.’
‘Franklel’s story of dealing with Auschwitz.’
‘My grandma caring for me and my brothers.’
People love stories of kindness and heroism. Many of you probably remember the bumper sticker that called people to Practise Random Acts of Kindness. It inspired millions. It was just a bumper sticker.
Our human world is very pressured and stimulating. It is very easy to get lost in the culture that is only to do with material success, status and a quick fix happiness that has no awareness of how our actions ripple out to affect and hurt other people, animals and nature.
We need to develop, repeat and remember the particular stories and mantra of ethical behaviour that help us stay with the big story that has real meaning – becoming good people and creating a better world for everyone and everything.