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Long-lost Babel or Pentecost Presence? 2 June 2013

Posted by Dr Moose in Chaplaincy, Church, Faith, Ponderings, Role-Playing Games, Theology, University.
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Regular readers (or at least frequent readers of my irregular musings) will know that I often “complain” about having many thoughts and little time to ponder, speculate or develop them. This post is yet another, so accept my apologies for the brevity.

The recent events in the UK involving the death Drummer Lee Rigby at the hands of self-proclaimed Muslim Jihadists has stirred a variety of emotions and responses: revulsion, anger, fear, racism and xenophobia among many others. These, combined with the general tenor of the times, austerity and a coalition government that pleases nobody, create a potent brew for unrest and disquiet.

As a University Chaplain, and thus an establishment figure at arm’s length from the institution, I find myself in an interesting position. The vast majority of the practising Muslim students who frequent my Multi-Faith Chaplaincy display a degree of faith and humanity that is entirely at odds with the delusional ravings of those who see Jihadists under every bed and follow a self-proclaimed agenda of the Defence of (Christian) England. (And those few Muslim students who do not comprise the vast majority I referred to earlier are simply substantially more relaxed in the application of their inherited faith, in contrast to a narrow militancy, “slouching towards Mecca” rather than “marching to Holy War”). Since our recent appointment of a learned and fluent Imam to our Chaplaincy Team I feel even more confident in saying that then I would have even 12 months ago… but I would still have said it then. That does not mean that I subscribe to their faith, which I can in good conscience treat as a misguided and developed heresy, but I respect their rights to believe. Through my words and actions I seek to gently point them to the truth I understand to be found in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, but I cannot deny the spark of the Divine expressed through them, nor the possibility of God being at work in and through them any less than anyone else.

In the political arena, and its overlap with faith, I see plenty of other causes for concern, whether they are held by me, by the church I currently worship in, or by wider society. I have commented elsewhere on my take on the continuing gay marriage debate and find myself being probably in a rather more liberal position than some in the church I attend as a worshipper and occasional preacher would hold. This means that sometimes I find myself slightly at odds with details of the intercessions made on Sunday morning of course.

One thing that has struck me a lot more recently, also feeds into these musings. I know, intellectually, so to speak, what proportion of pupils who attend my daughters’ school have English as a second language (and who are sometimes the primary English-language speaker in the household). I am fully aware of how many of some ethnic groups are to be found in the town. But when I was a parish priest my engagements with these people were limited. My East Midlands University Town is not especially abnormal to the best of my knowledge, although there are many people displaced from the capital by a lack of suitable housing. Nevertheless it is noticeable in visits to the extensive park near our new home, or in the town centre, just how many non-English language speakers there are, of all ages. It’s not a matter of skin tone, (or apparent faith appearance either. Some are EU citizens, some are from that little-mentioned entity known as The Commonwealth and others besides. The mix and their presence cannot be avoided, unlike the ease with which we may consider our church communities to be representations of the normal, when so often they are anything but.

The Lee Rigby murder has revealed once more the willingness for politically Right-Wing groups to capitalise upon the (often understandable) fears and uncertainties of the general population. The dissatisfaction with the Government (and the general political system) continues to play into the hands of Little-Englanders who wish to attribute our woes to Johnny Foreigner and the Brussels Bogeyman. Racism, religious discrimination and borderline-fascism are the products. I needn’t name them, they need no further publicity.

In the midst of all this I found myself noting that this morning our intercessions were more concerned about the status of marriage than about the fact that odious xenophobes had been trying to rabble rouse around the country yesterday. I can only presume from the lack of media coverage that it wasn’t terribly noteworthy, but that’s almost immaterial. Should we really be more concerned with human sexuality than human dignity? (And that’s without even beginning to think about the implications and effects of some particularly callous and ill-thought out policies of the current Government).

It strikes me that how we view so many of these things is rather like two related stories from the Christian scriptures. In Genesis 11: 1-9 we have the folk-myth of the Tower of Babel, an account seeking to explain the proliferation of human languages, and sometimes interpreted as divine punishment for human greed and hubris. It can equally be interpreted as an attempt to stop progress by the Divine! However a further reading says something about the desire we have as human beings for unity and uniformity, and possibly something to do with our need for comfort and control, on our own terms. A culture and society in which no-one is a stranger, but with arguably Orwellian overtones. The net result of the Babel story, however we interpret it, is a division and a scattering.

In contrast the recently-past celebration of Pentecost, in Acts 2: 1-41 has a rather different approach to languages. Inspired by the power of God language is no longer a barrier. There is something bigger. The story isn’t one of imposition, nor of reversion to the former state, but of communication despite difference. (Obviously the context is about the propagation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but that’s not what I’m focussing on).

Dare I suggest that the human tendency is to favour a Babel over a Pentecost? A fear of scattering and diffusion that is a, or even the, root of fear or even loathing, of the other. And, maybe, rather more worryingly, that this remains true within the Church also? Couple this with “Golden Age Syndrome” (nice touch about the RPGs there too, eh?) and explains a lot.

We, whether that ‘we’ is us as individuals, an interest group, or a faith group, cannot go back in time. We cannot turn the clock back and re-instate that which was. We have to work from where we are and to look forwards. Christendom is gone, and good riddance. “Christian Britain”, however good, bad, real or imaginary, has gone. We cannot and should not fight yesterday’s wars. There is every reason to hold an opinion, faith or belief, religious or otherwise, but no reason to turn the clock back to old hatreds, old divisions and lost causes. As a Christian and as a Minister I believe that Christian faith is relevant, needed and valuable as much now as ever before. The trick lies in the application now, and showing it. In living in the presence of Pentecost and the risk of openness and communication in diversity rather than seeking long-lost Babel. (And apropos of another thing I should blog about, I can do far more good being me in the midst of my wonderful RPG community, as most recently gathered at the excellent EternalCon, or present in the University, than I ever could be from the pulpit!)



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