Choosing your faith in a world of choice

With so much choice and constant change how are we supposed to chose our beliefs? Nina Brown discusses the power of imagination in personalising our religion.

With so much choice and constant change how are we supposed to chose our beliefs? Nina Brown discusses the power of imagination in personalising our religion.

I was watching an ant the other day that was on its way somewhere. It stopped when it reached my toast crumbs. For fifteen minutes it circled the crumbs; it seemed agitated, uncertain. It tried and tested, stopped and started. I don’t know what it was looking for but its seeming dilemma over which crumb to hulk back home made me empathise with it. What was it testing for? The ultimate crumb? It was so absorbed in crumb testing that it didn’t seem to notice when the deathly shadow of my teaspoon loomed over it.

Enough with the ant story, I want to talk about something that has been playing on my mind. Where to put my faith? Which trusty crumb would I have picked up? These days it seems that things, people, countries, gadgets, icebergs are in such a fluid state of change that trusting in something is like hazarding a bet on the roulette board. The world is restless and so are its people. I don’t know whether to put my trust in an American or a Japanese phone, a pizza or a steak and ale pie, pump and tone or tai-chi, Italy or England…there’s just so much choice! As humans we function better when we have fundamental, apparently concrete certainties upon which we can build our lives. The certainty of night and day, of next month’s pay-check, of the arrival of Summer, and, most importantly in the case of this article, the established certainty of the existence of any particular god, spirit or divine power in general. We learn History to give us a certainty of our heritage and perhaps some hint as to how we ought to lead our lives. Or in my Granny’s case, we embroider intricate family trees detailing the lives of relations we never knew but to whom we owe our existence. Our endless quest for certainty through knowledge, whether we hunt it down for its own sake or as a means to achieve another far-flung target, seems to prove this.

With so many millions of people journeying around the globe hunting down their perfect crumb of toast, leaving their established ways of life to discover new lands of personal freedom, equality and endless possibility, the temptation to try new things out becomes irresistible. With so many new ideas we start questioning our supposed certainties. So I might opt for tai-chi and the spirituality it brings with it, whilst at the same time saying my prayers and going to confession. In the same way as a born and bred Jew might one day decide to learn more about Christianity, Kabbalah, Buddhism, Islam or any one of the weird and wonderful ‘religions’ that pervade societies.

‘The supermarket of the faiths’, I once read it described as; the modern phenomenon of taking various strands of different religions to correspond to the needs of each individual. A kind of ‘Supermarket Sweep’ if you like, with Dale Winton as charming as ever but with whiter teeth, more echoing, ethereal vocals and some kind of staff or poker to nudge us towards our chosen aisle. Some of these newfound faiths gain a following and mark their territory with red strings, rituals, chanting, clothes, or crosses. But at the end of the day, aren’t all these ‘religions’ just new and ever more overlapping and intertwining paths leading to the same ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment? Or, perhaps more simply, some kind of pure happiness? A Theology teacher once told me that an English Sikh priest had once told her that in Sikhism they realise that ‘all motorways lead to London’. They as Sikhs have chosen one such road to drive down and navigate, come traffic jams, incidents, breakdowns or blockages.

‘It seems established that as humans we function better when we have fundamental, apparently concrete certainties upon which we can build our lives. ‘

So Sikhs acknowledge that there are fundamental differences in thought, character and outlook that exist between people of different faiths but that they are all heading in the same direction towards the same goal. These are differences that inspire thought, promote change and respect, and should teach us of the potential wonders of expanding thought existing in our world. They are differences that can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked or swept under the carpet. How much can we learn from each and every individual?

With religion and instilled ways of living broken down or disappeared, we are left with no set rules by which to live our lives. There is no framework that serves as part of the concrete certainty on which we can build happy lives. But without religion what is there? With no great powerful gods, whom do we turn to when we are unhappy or when floods kill, volcanoes explode and winds whip up entire cities? Justin Jennings writes in his article entitled ‘Catastrophe, Revitalization and Religious Change on the prehispanic North Coast of Peru’ that “there has been insufficient attention paid to the social and psychological impact of disasters. Disasters can stimulate far-reaching religious changes.”

Liberated or let down from religious tradition that has kept our ancestors hopeful of redemption and mindful of virtue, it seems that we must take our models of good and bad increasingly from the world around us. Not just the people we grow up with and those we meet along the way, but also our family, friends and idols. But is our supposed freedom from the restraints of religion actually self-destructive, forcing us to either abandon the idea of virtue and right or wrong ways of behaving, or to turn inwards to evaluate our actions and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Are we ready to do this? Do we now keep the faith by letting Super Nanny tell us how to look after our own children, or the incredible Hulk Hogan tell us he knows best by divorcing his wife, or by watching My Super Sweet Sixteen and seeing how the other half live and realising that they are such a pretentious bunch of idiots that we wouldn’t want their money anyway. Or is it by watching a bunch of freaks in a house and feeling satisfied and relieved that we are ‘normal’ and not a trans-gendered lesbian with fake tits who fancies little boys and screams out swear words over supper.

Maybe the massive rise in the popularity of reality TV illustrates not only our desire to feel normal but also our need to have something to follow, to direct and to teach us. In that sense these shows ought to realise the effect they have on people and direct them in positive ways. The new show The Family has moved back to the original model of simple but effective reality TV showing a normal family go about its normal day-to-day business; maybe this family will become the model for millions. The incredible number of people willing to do just about anything if a camera is stuck in front of them perhaps reflects how far we have moved from any sense of what is decent, funny, worthy of praise, or interesting to watch. Or am I just being stuck-up, boring and not rolling with it? Maybe if the BBC showed the Iraqi reality TV show Labor and Materials set in Baghdad where they rebuild houses bombed by US and British forces, people might finally turn over from watching Kerry Katona’s bouncing bosoms on MTV.

Moving quickly on before I start ranting, at least the obsession with reality TV shows that we are obviously still wondering what it means to be human. Recent revelations in our understanding of fundamental differences between brain structures of men and women — previously thought to be largely similar in their basic layouts — highlights, in my eyes, how much about us remains unknown to us. There is so much yet to explore inside ourselves and our fellow humans; maybe the answer to my search for faith is within the person sitting on the next computer. The significance of the subconscious world is another vast plateau open to interpretation, as is the beginning of the world, the end of the universe, love; all fundamental questions that have spawned some of the most awesome art, thought, literature known to man. It is in our hands to carry on imagining, and to let our imagination take us over the Leopardian hedge which blocks our view of the infinite horizon beyond. Until we stop being able to imagine, surely we can never lose faith, but can only revel in the fact that we don’t yet fully understand and so we can only continue to probe and suppose?