As the pandemic rages, Justin Welby says he’s going to take time off. How did religion become so self-centred?
The archbishop of Canterbury has announced that he will shortly be taking a sabbatical for three months to enjoy a period of “spiritual renewal”.
Though his two predecessors took a break of similar length while they were in office, neither was during a time of acute national crisis. So in choosing summer 2021 for his absence, Justin Welby seems to be saying that his personal wellbeing is paramount and that the anxiety, suffering, fear and grief of a country in the grip of a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis is, at best, a secondary concern.
Perhaps it is not surprising that faith is in decline in the UK – only about 8% of the population attend a Christian service regularly – because this attitude strikes at the heart of the religious dynamic.
Religion is extremely demanding, but in the west it has sometimes become indulgent and self-centred. Hindu sages, for example, originally crafted the exacting disciplines of yoga to extirpate egotism, but in the west yoga has become little more than an aerobic exercise, designed to induce calm.
The Buddha devised mindfulness to teach his monks that the self they prized so highly was illusory and must be discarded, but mindfulness is now used to help people feel more at ease and content with themselves.
And, in recent years, the stern, demanding Christ of the gospels has become the “personal saviour” of a significant number of Christians, someone who functions rather like a personal trainer in the gym. I am not suggesting that the archbishop has fallen prey to such crass piety, but in putting his spiritual wellbeing before a country in pain, he comes close to it.
John Locke said that religion was a “private search” that could have nothing to do with public life. But the founders of the world religions would not have agreed with him. Jesus, for example, was preaching in Roman-occupied Palestine – a society traumatised by state violence and excessive taxation. Failure to pay was punished by confiscation of land, so peasants were forced into banditry or destitution. The crowds who thronged around him for healing were hungry, desperate and sick, many afflicted with neurological and psychological disorders that they attributed to demons.
Unlike the archbishop, Jesus could not retire to cultivate his personal spirituality because he was perpetually besieged by desperate people. We read that “the whole town came crowding round the door” of his house; they came in such numbers that “he had to stay outside in places where nobody lived”.
To be a follower of Christ cannot, therefore, mean withdrawal from the world – especially in a time of crisis. Jesus may have preached the kingdom of God, but this was not an otherworldly fantasy; it was rather an implicit but clear critique of imperial power. In God’s kingdom, unlike the Roman empire, the poor would be first and the rich last. The Lord’s Prayer was devised for people terrified of falling into debt, and who could hope only for bare subsistence, one day at a time. “Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” Jesus’s parables were not timeless truths, but reflected the problems of a society split between the very rich and the very poor. People were desperate for loans, heavily indebted, and forced to hire themselves out as day labourers.
And, of course, Jesus was finally put to death by the Roman authorities after staging a provocative procession in Jerusalem at Passover (always a touchy time in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, because it celebrated the ancient Israelites’ liberation from the imperial power of Egypt).
The Buddha’s story is especially interesting now. He defined human suffering as “sickness, old age and death”, and historians believe that at this time there may have been a pandemic in the Ganges valley, where the newly founded cities attracted parasites that can flourish only in densely occupied environments.
The Buddha had discovered a method of living creatively with the pain that is endemic in human life, and he is usually depicted sitting in the lotus position, seemingly lost to the world. Indeed, after achieving nirvana, he was tempted for a while – like the archbishop, perhaps – to relish this newfound peace in solitude. But the god Brahma intervened, begging him to “look down at humanity, which is drowning in pain” and “to travel far and wide throughout the world” to help others deal with their suffering.
The Buddha then realised he must “return to the marketplace”, and insisted that his monks do the same. For the next 40 years, the Buddha travelled tirelessly throughout the towns and villages of India, sometimes far from his friends, helping people to deal creatively with the sorrow that is inherent in life.
I sympathise with the archbishop, because I love the solitude and study that is essential to my writing. But if you are engaged with religion, that is part of the job.
• Karen Armstrong is the author of The Lost Art of Scripture