Heart on (heretical) Sleeve

After sharing some thoughts with a friend, I want to try to put into words what ‘religion’ means to me. It’ll make sense to some, though not perhaps to all.

Joseph Campbell describes the “game of belief” that leads to a “divine seizure”, his use of the word ‘game’ (as in Wittgenstein’s philosophy) not meaning trivial. People are participating in a religious ceremony, having been dancing to the sound of drumming. Suddenly a figure appears wearing the mask of their God. That person is one of themselves dressed up, but in that existential moment he “is” the God, and experienced as being such.  

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about, “That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. The poem or novel will not hit home unless the reader is ‘absorbed’ into the experience of it, rather than analysis of its credibility or historicity.

If people engage in a role-play, and ‘let themselves go’, the experience can take on a momentum and ‘reality’ of its own, and they can learn much about themselves and human relationships.

The essence of religion, for me, includes the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. This isn’t to say beliefs don’t matter – they do. There are people who ‘believe’ their God commands them to slaughter non-believers, and act accordingly.

So let me try to illustrate what I’m getting at. I don’t know whether the story in the Gospels about the arrest and trial of Jesus contains verbatim, eyewitness accounts or not. Contemporary historical, critical scholarship makes me ‘think’ that it can be shown, on detailed study, to display many inconsistencies and contradictions, suggestive of what’s been called historical myth or mythicised history. That thought might well upset a lot of people, but it isn’t a stumbling block for me.

When I read these stories, I ‘willingly suspend disbelief’. I lay the analytical approach aside. I read that Peter told Jesus, three times, that he would never betray him. I read that when the crunch came, and Jesus was arrested, Peter three time denied knowing him, and at that moment, met the eyes of Jesus as he passed. Peter wept for grief and shame.

Music, for me, is the greatest of the Arts. I think of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in which the soloist, standing in for Peter, sings these words : 

The singer is accompanied by a solo violinist who, ideally, stands close beside the singer to play what, unexpectedly and strangely, seems like a gentle ‘dance’ tune. While Peter cries his heart out, desperately torn apart at having betrayed someone who has shown him nothing but love, it’s as if (through the spiritual sensitivity and musical genius of J.S. Bach) he’s ‘surrounded’ and ‘supported’ by this tenderly beautiful melody. It seems to be saying that it’s all right – that he’s understood; that his grief and depth of remorse are accepted as real; that they’re known to represent the best of him; and that there is, for him, forgiveness and restitution. It’s as if the violin soloist stands in for Jesus himself, and to yield utterly to the music, is to experience the shame, grief and remorse of Peter’s betrayal, but also Jesus’ empathy, understanding, forgiveness and love. One’s own eyes may fill with tears. The message is – suspend disbelief, enter fully into the moment, experience all that it has to say, and teach.

Just as the Buddha has given the world oneness and compassion, Jesus has given the world forgiveness and love. All of these are ‘pearls of the greatest price’ and are the best of what we humans can be, in ourselves and for each other. So, the essence of religion, for me, is not centred in what a person does or doesn’t believe. There is no religion that has exclusive access to truth. The teachings of each of them might be right or might be wrong – that is the universal nature of beliefs. What surely finally matters most, is that what we believe enables us, not just to give intellectual assent to, but to actually experience, oneness, compassion, forgiveness and love. If we have not these, we have nothing worth having, whatever our beliefs. 

Here’s an outstanding, deeply moving, recording of Peter’s aria (words above) sung by Kathleen Ferrier. Suspend disbelief, enter fully into the moment, experience all that it has to say and teach, and become a better person for doing so.

2 responses to “Heart on (heretical) Sleeve”

  1. Interesting. What cannot be denied is that the story of Peter’s betrayal and his later reaction to it is down there in print. There it is in the gospels. Peter is a common man- a fisherman. “In the days when the gospels were written-the tears of the common man -were not deemed worthy of attention- not in Latin or Greek or any equivalent literature. “Only the grief of the noble could be tragic or sublime or even fully human. The tears of Peter are therefore indicative of a profound shift in moral imagination. Something visible that formerly had been hid from sight” (David Bentley Hart The Story of Christianity). In other words the tears show a change of consciousness brought forward by the influence of the thought of one particular man. That change makes possible the dwelling on the story as significant. Hence it becomes significant for us. That is thinking and critical thinking reasonably shapes the emotion of the story. Your account tilts slightly too much to suspension of disbelief: there is the reality of it being there testifying to something real, something that happened to change who we are whether the actual details are exact or not.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Alan, which is thoughtful and helpful. Your write, “There it is in the gospels”, but what are the Gospels? We’re each free to hold our own beliefs about that, and ‘beliefs’ is all they can be. Whether the stories are historical and factual makes no difference to what we both would agree, that “the tears of the common man” are of as much significance as the tears of the uncommon man, or woman, or child. We also both agree that “Jesus has given the world forgiveness and love”, which is why he matters supremely. My account “tilts”, from my perspective, to the right degree of “suspension of disbelief”, others being entirely free to differ. My ‘belief’ is that religious ‘belief’ matters very much less than religious ‘experience’, without which my ‘belief’ is of little account. I agree with the Apostle Paul that, if I have not love (and forgiveness) I have nothing, whether I’m a common fisherman, or even someone who wears “the Ring of the Fisherman”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: