Of gods and men

03 November 2017

Neil MacGregor’s series Living with the Gods is running on Radio 4; the companion exhibition at the British Museum opened yesterday. He talks to Sam Wells

©Trustees of the British Museum

Look East: a Qibla indicator made for finding the direction of Mecca, 1582-83, originating in Egypt

Look East: a Qibla indicator made for finding the direction of Mecca, 1582-83, originating in Egypt

SAM WELLS: Tell me about this word “religion”. Is there something that combines everything from a large tele-evangelist in Atlanta through to figurines in France going many cen­turies back, and then on to, shall we say, Eastern Orthodoxy today, or the Copts in Egypt? Is there some­thing that unites all these pheno­mena?

Neil MacGregor: I think so. What we’re trying to do in this series is to look at what people do in the con­text of an agreed narrative about their place in the cosmos. Because every society we know of constructs, or is given, some sort of narrative, and then ritualises it. And it’s the ritualising of the narrative and the objects used in that that are of inter­est to us. . .

And the main point of the ritual­ising is to ensure the survival of the community, which is why it seemed right to begin in the Ice Age, with a community on the edge of subsist­ence, where a huge amount of re­­source is devoted to producing an object which has no practical benefit of putting food on the table, and could have been worth doing only because it has allowed the commun­ity, as a community, to be some­thing that it couldn’t otherwise.

SW: When people, particularly in the 19th century, began to envisage that it would be possible to live without religion . . . the panic was that public morality would go down the plug-hole. But what you’ve described doesn’t necessarily con­nect with a particular ethic.

NM: I think that’s the critical question. Because the 19th and early 20th century posed the ques­tion in that way, I think a lot of the argument has missed the main point. Much more interesting to me in that debate is Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: that what the imposition of the Reformation — the way it was imposed in England — did was not to put into question public morality, but to shatter com­munal societal structures. And that’s why it was so resented and dis­rupted.

Oleg Kuchar, Ulm; ©Museum UlmLion Man: a 40,000 year-old mammoth ivory sculpture that represents a human body with a lion’s head, Ulm  And to try to live without some kind of ritualised narrative — it’s not that people will behave im­­morally, but they will lose an oppor­tunity to affirm community. And that’s why I think it’s such an im­­portant question today, [when,] for most people in Western Europe, religion is mumbo-jumbo with oc­­casionally people blowing others up.

SW: Yes, or the other way round.

NM: Exactly. What we’re hoping to look at in this series is the other aspect of all this: that why people care about this so much — why it matters, why it is your identity, and why it becomes central — is because it is what holds your community together, as a community. And to lose that is to lose your identity.

SW: Can I just try a thought idea with you: that actually the Reforma­tion — if you perceive that to mean the printing press that enables people to have the Bible in their own hands, and therefore have access to God without the community — actually is the beginning of the de­­struction of the communal es­­sence of what you’re describing.

NM: It certainly can lead to that atomising, and . . . I think that Luther, astonishingly, was very quickly aware of that. Right from the beginning he brought in com­munal hymn-singing, which is the great Protestant community-building, [and] it does stop that atomising, because what it means is that the community acts as a com­munity when it’s together; but because you all know the hymns and the tunes, and you’ve got scripture that rhymes and has rhythm and tune, you carry it around with you. And you can either sing it together or you can sing on your own.

The perfect example of that is, of course, “Amazing Grace”, which is in one of the programmes. When Uncle Tom [in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin] is alone and in prison, he sings “Amazing Grace”, because that makes him part of the com­munity with which he had sung it. . . What we compare that [the instinctively understood need to build the com­munity] with in the series is the idea of the Orthodox icon, something like Our Lady of Kazan.

The whole point of that image is not that it should be in any way original, but that, when you look at that image, you know, praying at home, that that same image, in the same form, is being prayed to, has been prayed to, by millions. So, al­­though you’re on your own, pray­ing, you are part of a community.

Church TimesThe case for community: Neil MacGregor (left) in conversation with the Revd Dr Sam WellsThese different devices of creat­ing communities — the community hymn-singing, the standardised Orthodox icon, the turning to Mecca — even though people are engaging on their own with God, that’s one aspect of the community.

The other is how you physically articulate that. The Durga Puja — the image of the goddess Durga — has to be made by the whole com­munity, with earth from all over the village: a bit of mud from the Ganges, but mud, earth, from the rich and the poor, all in the statue. And only then can the goddess come into the statue. Only when the whole community is present in the thing can it be inhabited by the divine.

And that’s a wonderfully power­ful image of what the whole series is really about: that these are narra­t­ives of a cosmic story, a cosmic vision of a moral order, which can be given this physical expression. It can really be achieved only in the community.

SW: So, in a specifically Christian theological frame of reference, would you say in relation to the Durga that certainly the Kingdom of God, but perhaps more provocatively the Body of Christ, [is] some­thing that needs to be discovered and created rather than as a sort of static thing [that] one simply finds oneself in through baptism?

NM: One of the interesting things about the way the rituals have deve­l­oped in Christianity is that baptism — [which is] seen as essential to Christian orthodoxy — only hap­pens once. So . . . you can’t use that ritual of water to renew yourself the way you can in Hinduism, for ex­­ample, or, to some measure, in Islam.

SW: A Mennonite would prob­ably say that foot-washing is the way you renew, which is a communal activity. But most of the Church has lost that.

NM: Most of the Church has lost that, and quite deliberately, as we know. But the idea that the body of Christ needs to be recreated before it can be shared in. . .

SW: I guess that’s what the shar­ing of the Peace is about — sharing the Peace becomes that, before going to the table.

NM: You become the body before you go to the table. It’s quite an abstract ritual, I think, in terms of that idea of the community being inherently divine, or the divine being never in the individual but only in the community. That’s what is so interesting in so many of these affirmations — like what the Durga does for the Hindus, the holy fire does for the Zoroastrians, where the fires from all over the community have to be in the holy fire: that idea that the individual or one bit of society can’t be holy on its own. The divine inhabits only the community.

©Trustees of the British MuseumHoly fire: a set of six Zoroastian tiles used in a domestic Parsee shrine, 1989-90, IndiaSW: And that’s focused, in a Christian denominational and liturgical frame of reference, by the question, “When were you saved?” Were you saved the day that I ac­­cepted the Lord Jesus as my saviour — in other words, shall we say, ten years ago? Were you saved in 33 AD, on the cross? Or were you saved when the priest broke the bread and said the words of invoca­tion? It’s the same kind of question, isn’t it?

NM: Exactly. And at what mo­­ment are you reconciled [to] God and to the community? In Christian terms, they’re closely connected, obviously: “in love and charity with your neighbours” is the precon­dition of reconciliation to God. . . What we’ve been looking at is how those ideas are ritualised and ex­­pressed, and what you can under­stand about the idea by looking at different ones. The point of a collec­tion like the museum’s is to let you look at your own tradition more insightfully because of seeing how other religions have addressed the same question.

SW: And to what extent are the symbols linked either to the cycle of the harvest and the year, the pro­duction of food, or to the particular threats of flood, or whatever? How tied in are people’s religious motifs to the actual survival?

NM: As you’d expect, the forms in which the insights are ritualised depends inevitably on the local cir­cumstance. One of the questions we’ve been looking at is the relation­ship to other animals: what does it mean to kill other animals for food? And, of course, [in] the Abrahamic tradition . . . the words spoken by God to Noah and the animals when they get off the ark is chilling: “And all shall be meat for you. Go into your land and they will live in the dread of you.” It’s a very extreme position.

And we begin with that and then look at what happens in Alaska, where people depend on the seal. The knowledge that you are depend­ent on the animal that you have to kill is not, I think, ritualised or ac­­knowledged as a central truth or question in the Abrahamic tradi­tions in the same way. But in the Alaskan people, the Yupik, it is. . . As with many hunting peoples, you have to honour the animal you kill because otherwise it won’t agree to be killed, and . . . you are dependent on this animal.

The notion that Abrahamic do­­minion can be quite otherwise ritualised as dependence and inter­dependence is, I think, something that we need to address. If we com­pare the Abrahamic one [with] the Yupik, there you have to revere the seal because it will tell other seals how you treated it, and, of course, if they don’t come back you will die. We compare that tradition, but also animal sacrifice in Greece and Rome: we all think of the great Greek temples as shining white buildings with philosophical figures fluttering around. But in fact, of course, the front of most Greek temples was an abattoir.

©Trustees of the British MuseumSupplication: a statuette showing St Margaret at prayer, 1325-1350, FranceYou can argue — and many do — that that ritualising of the slaughter of the animal is a recognition of what it means to take life, and [that] it should only be done in the face of the divine, as a communal act in which everybody shares, and then you all eat together. And that that is the only proper way to kill the meat you have decided you need. . .

These kinds of questions are very important ones for a wider kind of ethic today, about the relation to the animal world, to the natural world. There is nothing particularly ori­ginal about it, but the objects from the [British] Museum make it easier to grasp what’s going on. To go back to Alaska, one of the ways in which you reverence the seal is that you have to use every part of an animal you kill, because otherwise you’ve no right to take its life. And the in­­genuity with which the different parts of the animal are used — it’s not just the necessary frugality of a poor people: it has an ethical dimen­sion.

SW: Some people say about the Old Testament that the big transi­tion comes between the first five books and Joshua, where you’re really talking — certainly from Exodus onwards — about a no­­­­ma­dic people, who are dependent on their animals; and then you transfer, from Judges onwards, into an agra­rian people. Most of the anxiety about idolatry starts to kick in at the point where it seems pos­sible to imagine the cycle of the year con­tinuing without somehow quite the same degree of depend­ence on God. Do you think you can see that difference between nomadic and agrarian as a generic thing, that goes across other traditions?

NM: I think you could argue that nomadic people, or hunting people, are — of course they can move when there are climatic disturb­ances; so in some ways they’re less dependent, because they can follow the animals. Agricultural people are entirely dependent on drought or flood; that is life or death. So I think the dependence grows and becomes other, it becomes much more meteorological, if you like, and the need to work with the natural cycle takes on a different dimension; you need to work with the water and the land in a different way. . .

Once you get to a certain latitude [there] is the importance of the return of the sun and the seasons; and the dependence on that . . . is where the contrast between the life of the individual and the life of the community becomes very, very clear — perhaps clearer to an agricultural society, [since] a nomadic society doesn’t see its food supply disappear and then return. So, it necessarily poses itself in different terms.

SW: The backdrop to the series and exhibition is the sense that we live in a country, and at a time, when we think we’ve outgrown reli­gion, and therefore . . . this is some­thing that would exist in a museum. . . . But it seems to me the under­lying argument of what you’re saying goes in two directions: first of all, that we can’t [outgrow reli­gion] or [that] it’s something that no one has ever tried to do before, and it’s interesting to see why; but also that, in the absence of what we acknowledge as public rituals, we see other ones just grow up in their place. Is that fair?

©Trustees of the British MuseumOfuda: an amulet made of cloth for the protection of mother and child, 2000, originating in JapanNM: I think I’d start somewhere else. . . Why we began, when I was still at the Museum to think this was a topic to address, was [that] the purpose of the Museum, from its foundation, has always been to look at how societies function, and to enable the citizen to think differ­ently about the world now. . . The starting-point for this was that you can’t now hope to understand what is going on in the world unless you understand — or think about — the question of why religion has such a political force. Why does it matter enough to most people to become such a powerful force in politics?

And that’s really the question about this whole series: why does religion matter so much? We can’t address the theologies, because we’re not equipped to, but we’re looking at what people do; religion, not as what people believe, but what they do, and how that doing — the believing — is about the belonging. . .

Connected to that is a question about the attempt of the Enlighten­ment — and particularly the French Enlightenment — to separate the religious life from the political. . . We know in England, from the 16th cent­ury on, how extraordinarily difficult that was, and in both Eng­land and Scotland the decision was taken not really to push it to the end. We still remain with an Estab­lished Church in both countries, and so on. But the thinking has been that, some­how, political life is separable from
a religious life. For most of the world, that is simply not true. And . . . in Europe — particu­larly because of the Holocaust, particularly because of the Second World War — it seemed that these were issues best left out of politics altogether. I think we can see that that’s clearly not the way most other people think, and we need to under­stand why.

So, it’s really about questioning that Enlightenment assumption that you can separate believing from belonging; that you can separate religious structures from the poli­t­ical ones. This is acute in France, particularly, and that’s why, I think, France, above all, has problems like the burkini, which we’re looking at in the series. But it’s a Western European phenomenon. The Americans — because they began on a different basis, of religion at the heart of the new country but [never­theless] a private pheno­menon — their evolution has been quite different. In Europe, all of the na­­tion states grew up out of a culture where the two were together, until they were severed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

SW: What happens to a society that thinks it can keep them separate?

NM: The societies that have tried officially to abolish religion, like France in 1793, and like the Soviet Union . . . replaced it effectively by religion of the state; and the state in some form or another — or the leader of the state — became the religion. Many would argue that, of course, nationalism stepped in to the space from which organised religion had been expelled, and took over the same rituals with festivals, songs, hymns, days of the year, where you gathered.

©Trustees of the British MuseumSalvage: a wooden “Lampedusa” cross made by Franciso Tuccio from the wreckage of a refugee boat off Lampedusa, Italy, 2015Interestingly, of course, we haven’t done that; we don’t have national festivals in the same way. And I think that [it] is clearly very difficult for truly secular societies — which ours is in many ways becom­ing — to know what its shared festivals are.

Christmas is very interesting in the way that it has, I think, uniquely, remained the one moment where the community thinks of itself as a community; where everybody
would acknow­ledge that part of that is thinking about the poor, the weak, the destitute; and that is articulated through some kind of celebration — because it’s almost the only mo­­ment, as a nation, where the whole nation pauses to think about all parts of the community and the obligations that should bind it.

SW: But we have sport. . .

NM: And sport is, of course, the other. . . And it’s no accident that the republic in France very specific­ally promoted sport as the Sunday activity. It has, of course, got a great deal that binds people together.

SW: But, perish the thought, should we not qualify for the foot­ball World Cup [in] one four-year cycle, it’s not just the sense that our footballers aren’t as good, or specu­lation about too many foreigners in the Premier League; it’s somehow almost like a ritual sacrifice that didn’t work. Because it’s supposed to bring the country together: people flying flags outside cars, and all the sorts of things that go on during sports tournaments. But the Olympics somehow has an ideal in the way that the football World Cup doesn’t; it has a flame; it’s ritualised much more. Do you want to say more about sport as an alternative?

NM: The difference is that the religious rituals, as they’ve evolved, almost always involve giving. They are always about sharing. . . In al­­most all religions, there’s a balance between the private individual activity, which is nearly always about giving, or silence and engage­ment, and then the communal festival act.

Sport doesn’t have the first half of that, which is why it’s a very power­ful force. But it doesn’t achieve that same thing of tying the individual daily life into the common. . . It’s a spectacle: you’re not a participant. And the great point about the fes­t­ival, and the great point about all the religious rituals — it’s about what people do — is that in any religious belief system, the indi­vidual has to keep doing things. It’s not just spec­tating.

SW: Terry Eagleton would say that religion is replaced by culture. Would you talk a little bit about culture in that sense?

NM: One of the problems about the debates about religion in Western Europe has, of course, been the political engagement of, especi­ally, the Roman Catholic Church through the centuries and — par­ticularly in the 19th century — the apparent alignment of the Roman Catholic Church with the oppressive powers of the possessing classes. And that has made the debate in Western Europe radically different from the United States or elsewhere.

©Trustees of the British MuseumSacrificial: an Aztec knife, covered with turquoise mosaic, 1400-1521, MexicoI think we still have to live with that inheritance. The organised Christian Church in Western Europe has, on the whole, a poor record of thinking about the weak and the destitute; the Church of England as well, over the centuries. So I think one of the problems for Western Europeans in thinking about religion is [that] inevitably what they are thinking of is the role that organised Christian Churches have played.

Culture, I think, has a lot of the same difficulties as sport. It is in many ways a spectator activity. Theatre is obviously like a football match: you go with other people, and it’s being with other people that gives you the enjoyment. Again, what is lacking in it is the act of giving, and the regular element of giving. And I think that the distinct­ive nature of the two sets of prac­tices is about the giving, and, indeed, in all of them the notion of some kind of sacrificial giving.

SW: Are there instances where you have the sacrificial giving with­out the public spectacle? Or is that the direction in which we’re head­ing? We’ve talked about culture and sport both having the public spec­tacle without the giving, but are we heading towards a place where it’s the other way round: where, actu­ally, . . . real religion, if you like — “true religion”, as the Letter of James calls it — becomes that sense of giving, that sense of mutuality, of respect, of honouring one another, but separated from any public re­cognition, [any] ritual that valid­ates it?

NM: I don’t see why that should be the case. I don’t think that is the case, because any kind of public gathering, in a temple or a mosque, is in a sense a ritual, and a public one.

SW: What I mean is that . . . Great Britain is the society that thinks it’s outgrowing religion, or associates it with either nonsense or violence. I suppose I’m getting towards the “spiritual but not religious” sort of place. Does that actually involve giving itself, or is that another wrong turning?

NM: No, I think it does involve giving. Once again, what is missing in the culture analogy, to go back to that — there’s the sense of the whole community having to be present before this can work. It’s what’s missing in the sport analogy as well. The point of all the articulated traditions that I know of, whether written or not, is that the whole community has got to be part of this.

©Trustees of the British MuseumIncarnation: 17th-century Russian icon of the Mother of God Kazanskaya (19th-century restoration)SW: So that sense you get in the Up Helly Aa traditions in Orkney. . .

NM: Yes, the whole community has to be there. And that’s why I think the Eamon Duffy [analysis is] about us now. I mean, this is not a violent removal of those societal structures, as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries, but they are dissolv­ing because of the loss of religion. And, where the division of our society into groups of like-minded people is clearly one of the problems that we face, there are fewer settings in which you can credibly meet regularly, on a basis of equality, people from very different worlds, and particularly from very different social and economic backgrounds.

SW: That sounds like a bleak prognosis.

NM: I don’t know. Human soci­eties have, on the whole, rather an impressive record of finding solu­tions to problems. And, if one has any belief at all in the power of God and of the Holy Spirit, then one has to be optimistic that . . . this working with the Holy Spirit can come to something. I don’t see why it should be a bleak prognosis. What I would like to know — and really one of the points of doing this was to have debate about this — is whether that diagnosis is a credible one; that why this matters in our country is not because there’s any danger of moral collapse, but of societal fragmenta­tion.

SW: As they say on the Today programme, the listeners will want to know — which is when they’re asking a question which they feel is only just legitimate — from your own faith perspective . . . has making this series and putting this exhibition together helped you identify where your own convic­tions, gut places of comfort, cer­tainty, lie? Has it clarified for you what your own religion is really about?

NM: Yes, it has. I’ve always had difficulty with articulating particular firm beliefs, but what it’s clarified to me is that what I value in the Chris­tian tradition in this country is that insistence on the whole community being part, and the privileged place of those who, in social terms, are weak; the privileged place of the weak. And the need to construct communities where everybody is present. So I suppose the exhausted word would be “inclusion”. . .

SW: The completely exhausted word. . .

NM: . . .which I don’t think I really want to use. But that notion that you can only have a functioning community — you can only really do good things — if the community is defined in a way that includes everybody. . .

The other thing that has become clearer to me is very obvious, of course, but that notion of a com­munity involving everybody is hard if it’s defined in terms of a set of beliefs which have to be assented to before you can join the community. Which is why the question for Britain at the moment is, in religi­ous terms, a complex one, because, although there are many faiths which would articulate a very similar view of how a community ought to operate, each one of those faiths has a doctrinal entrance requirement, which makes it very difficult for any of them to embrace the whole community.

It’s a very obvious fact, but it’s a bigger social challenge in Britain than for any other European coun­try, because we have a range of faiths, a greater diversity of faiths in large numbers than any other Euro­pean country, which mostly are dealing with one, or two, or three. This is where I see the real chal­lenge: that those ideals which explain why religion matters so much to people all round the world — they make living in a multi-faith society particularly complex, and that is the question we have to struggle with. . . What is the proper relationship between these com­munities, most of which share very comparable ideals, but how do you get those mixed communities to work together?

©Trustees of the British MuseumRotation: a prayer wheel, c.1980, IndiaSW: I guess it’s impossible to have a conversation like this without mentioning the internet, [which] is a kind of second revolution beyond the reading revolution of the 15th and 16th centuries. You talked about communal hymn-singing and things — now, through technology, you can have a kind of virtual com­munal hymn-singing, which actually still leaves you alone as a body in a room.

NM: I think that’s the point. All the traditions have obviously got physical disciplines, starting with the fact that we’ve got bodies; and, at an individual level, the physical discipline of praying, whether it’s the rosary, or whether it’s the Mus­lim salat, or whatever, all the tra­di­tions have evolved — Buddhist practice above all, in terms of breath­­ing — about the physical body. And that’s true of the indivi­dual, opening themselves, preparing themselves for contact with the divine.

Rather fascinatingly, you can only move into the immaterial realm in most traditions [by] using an object, using things, focusing on your body; paradoxically, you focus on the body to move from the body; you use a thing like the rosary, to move be­­y­ond the thing. And that materiality of us is, of course, not present in the internet, and can’t be. It’s very symbolic and evident that it’s the kiss of peace that matters: you touch the person next to you. That is what makes the body of Christ. And it’s distressing if people don’t want to be touched in any way. So that physicality is part of community.

SW: Yes, but that raises another question. There’s obviously a prob­lem with internet-only religion, because it contradicts almost every­thing you’ve described. But the internet does make something possible, which, in a sense, gives us a problem we didn’t use to have, which is what are our gift obliga­tions to people that we can’t physic­ally touch, but whose plight we know all about and therefore can’t ignore?

©Trustees of the British MuseumSitting Buddha: a statue of a seated Buddha preaching, second to third century, Ghandara, PakistanAnd to what extent is it possible to imagine a spectacle that embraces beyond what one can physically — a crowd of 100,000 people, that one can in theory physically touch — that takes us to something that is perhaps a global phenomenon. That creates a kind of moral quandary we never used to have.

NM: Yes, the notion of what the community is has become a very different one. There are real com­munities sustained and managed by remote communication. And the new pattern that — thanks to Face­Time, or whatever — you can live simultaneously in two communities has clearly completely transformed the notion of migration, where you no longer need to leave behind the community you have left, and you can still live in it, and eat with it, on a daily basis.

We haven’t been able to work towards what that means; it is a big problem, but I don’t think it’s very different. I think the gaps, the frag­mentation, here, have changed more than the proximities through tech­nology have grown.


”Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 8 April 2018. Phone 020 7323 8000.

Listen to the whole conversation on the Church Times Podcast.

‘Radio as a religion?’ - Edward Wickham’s radio column

Forthcoming Events

16-18 February 2018
Church Times Festival of Faith & Literature

Our literary festival with a theological slant in Bloxham, Oxfordshire. Speakers include Francis Spufford, Ruth Valerio, Eve Poole, Mark Oakley, James Runcie and many others. Find out more

5-6 May 2018
Church Times Festival of Poetry
With Sarum College, Salisbury. More details coming soon - register your interest here

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

This January, non-subscribers can read up to thirty articles for free. (You will need to register.)