As you may have guessed, I am not, in the conventional sense, a religious man. My God, if He or She or It exists, may have been what was before the Big Bang, may have actually made the Big Bang, but He or She or It is now distant and remote and as much bound by the laws of the universe – those we know and those we don’t – as we are, and She is possibly mildly amused by the cleverness of Homo Sapiens and their excitement at inventing the skinny cappuccino.
These same clever primates have made up stories and myths and have taught their children that these stories are true. It is like the English teacher who talks about Hamlet in the present tense as though the Prince lived down the road, but at least the teacher doesn’t really believe that Hamlet isn’t a fiction.
It is just a way of speaking. You don’t have to believe it to find it interesting.
I was brought up a Baptist by my parents, who I knew didn’t really believe it but thought the Bible contained some good advice for living. School tried to tell me it was all true, but they blew their credibility by suggesting that God was an Englishman and looked down on the British Empire with approval.
I now go to Zen Buddhist retreats, but find the bells and smells a real problem, and I can’t join this club, either.
But, for all that, I’m interested in religious ideas, because the religious impulse is obviously very strong in human beings, both for good and ill, so I need to think about it. It seems particularly important at this time of religious fundamentalism.
The economic and political crisis involving Greece and the European Union, while not caused by religion, has certain echoes in the religious differences between the south and north of the continent.
The north is protestant, Calvinist and Lutheran. The principal event of protestant Christianity is Christ’s crucifixion. The symbols are the cross and the crown of thorns, and the artisticimage is of the Agony of Christ. The important and fundamental concept is Redemption. Christ was crucified in order to redeem our sins, to redeem the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.
This is why the word ‘redeem’ is also used in the sense of paying off a debt. We can redeem a debt., but only through Agony, through hard unremitting labour and austerity. It is the economic philosophy of industrial societies in cold climates. Life is suffering, work is hard, debt must be redeemed.
In the warm south, however, we find lands that are Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox. These branches of Christianity are different, of course, but they share a belief in the centrality of the resurrection, rather than the crucifixion. The stress is on forgiveness and hope, and the central icon is that of the Virgin Mother, the Comforter, and the Risen Glory of Christ.
It is why Protestantism stresses redemption and Catholicism stresses confession and forgiveness. It is why Germany insists that the Greek nation must pay its debt, all of it, in full, even though it would crush the nation and condemn it to the Third World for ever, and why the Greeks feel that their sincere confession of past economic failure entitles them to forgiveness.
In Athens last night, in the celebrations of the Greek people following the announcement of a No result in the referendum, there were Italian and Spanish flags, waving among the blue and white of Greece.
Unsurprisingly, the Germans are supported by Finland, and France is not quite sure what she thinks.
This is the politics and economics in Christianity; now we need to see the Christianity in politics and economics.