OK, SO maybe Martin Luther didn’t actually hammer his Ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. But detailing them (as he did) in a long letter to someone called Albert — even if he was the Archbishop of Mainz — isn’t quite the stuff that legends are made of.
But nailing his theses to a church door would probably have been a good idea, since churches were where you went if you wanted to find answers. These days, things have changed. Places of worship, for increasing numbers of people in the UK, are no longer on the map. A YouGov survey carried out last year by Lancaster University found that, for the first time, most people said they had no religion. No religion is the new religion.
But the survey also showed that most of the people referred to as “nones” aren’t atheists. It’s religion they don’t believe in. They may be fine sitting in the tranquility of some ancient house of prayer, but they’ll probably slip off if anything resembling a service begins.
Our experience tells us that most people are shy of certainty, suspicious of authority. But they retain a longing for some deeper, richer narrative by which they might navigate their days. They’re inveterately curious, and open to ideas. They haven’t closed the door on life’s strange mystery. How the big moments — the birth of a child, say, or the death of a friend — can leave us wondering about how to live in the small moments: how to forgive someone. If love is worth it. Why people pray.
So we figured it might be time for another 95, for these people. Our book couldn’t be called a “theses”, though — we haven’t nailed anything down, and an indulgence these days is more likely to be eating a cream cake in the middle of Lent. It’s rather a set of field notes for living a good life which leans on the wisdom of others: artists and activists, poets and songwriters, thinkers and dreamers. Some of them are ancient, some still have acne. Some of them have faith, and others don’t.
Here is a selection of the 95 clues and pointers we’ve come up with about how we might try to live well in this beautiful but baffling world.
The best things in life are not things
THE print run of the IKEA catalogue is twice that of the Bible. Furniture is more popular than faith. And usually more functional. But there is the odd overlap in the venn diagram of holy writ and home improvements.
When the sustainability manager of the Swedish superstore announced that the world might have finally reached “peak stuff”, he was cottoning on to something Nazareth’s most famous carpenter spoke about: “For what shall it profit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?”
In the world’s richest countries, most of us have a lot of stuff. We like to get things. To own them and keep them, and then upgrade them. It takes a wise person to know when they have enough. Some of our stuff is highly prized for different reasons. That dog-eared ticket stub from a night we’ll never forget. The car we could never afford. But did. The ring that once belonged to a lost relative. We treasure them. Yes. For what they’re worth? No.
A cynic, said an Oscar Wilde character, “knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing”. It’s impossible to price things that can’t be bought or sold. The preciousness of some objects doesn’t reside in their quality as objects. It’s not their thingness that enchants us. It’s something less tangible — memory, journey, association.
What we value, ultimately, aren’t possessions at all. They’re things we can never actually own. That first, hesitant kiss. A child’s look of amazement. Finally understanding something. The trust of a good friend. Knowing you’ve been forgiven. The kindness of a stranger. What keeps us going are priceless imponderables, like love, joy, beauty, knowledge.
Bean grinder or fancy cappuccino machine? Who cares, if we never wake up and smell the coffee?
IN AN era where nearly half of us are online, where people keep their smartphone by their bed, disappearing is more difficult that it once was. It’s harder to get away when we’re all wired up to each other. Some days, all our links feel like a chain.
When he was asked why he wasn’t on email, the late Irish writer John O’Donohue replied that he didn’t want to return from a walk in the hills and find 70 people waiting for him in the kitchen. Later on, he gave in, and his kitchen was soon heaving like everyone else’s.
Once, we could easily disappear into a good book, but now a smartphone looks longingly at us, begging to be held, and can break the spell of the story we’re in. When a teenager fails to return a text, her parents fear the worst — forgetting that such instant connection didn’t exist when they were kids themselves. Forgetting a time when they might have disappeared for hours before anyone became concerned.
But deciding to make our own periodic and temporary disappearances can be transformative. In the same way that a good sleep invites the mind to untangle a knot of thoughts, so the act of disconnection can spark better connections. “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes,” Ann Lamott says. “Including you.”
As Jesus of Nazareth said on one of his own periodic disappearing days, “Come apart to a deserted place by yourself and rest.” Which, being translated, means, “Log off.”
Tell your phone it’s nothing personal as you pop it in a drawer. Go for a wander with no destination in mind. Vanish into the diary you wanted to write. Push open the door of an empty, silent church. Disconnect, and disappear yourself. Just for an hour or two.
I am because you are
DO WE live in our heads? Or in our daily actions? Come to think of it, how do we even know we’re here? Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes (”I think, therefore I am”) were not just big on reason but also on individualism, an influence that shapes our 21st-century world of capitalism, commerce, and consumption. A world captured in another soundbite: “I shop, therefore I am.”
Individualism also informs what we talk about when we talk about God. How do I get to heaven? Why do I feel bad about myself? How do I become a better person?
But in Southern Africa a bantu word — ubuntu — suggests an alternative way of answering the big questions. Ubuntu can best be translated as “I am because you are.” It’s a word that signals how each of us finds our best self only in relationship to others. How life is not to be understood as a solitary, individual pursuit, but as something we share. That we understand ourselves better when we live in company, not alone. “Ubuntu speaks about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu says.
This is counter-intuitive in a culture where our goals often centre on personal fulfilment — in family or career, in spirituality and religion. But many of our deepest questions can’t be answered in isolation, only in friendship. Many of them — “Why is there so much suffering?” — can barely be answered at all. We have to live with these questions. But living with them with others sometimes means we become the answers ourselves.
Those others might be a lonely neighbour, an annoying relative, a sick child, an estranged partner. Or they might be losing hope in Syria, locked up in Guantanamo, forgotten in Gaza. They might be the people we meet when we hesitatingly volunteer at that rough-sleepers hostel — or step over the threshold of a local synagogue, mosque, or church.
Religion is not a solitary business: it’s a communal one. Do it on your own, and you’ll probably give up — watching all these strange beliefs and practices slipping through your fingers like sand. But one of the virtues in being part of a faith community is that, on the days when you are mainly full of doubt, someone else can do the believing on your behalf.
And there might even be the odd day when you find that you’re the one with enough faith for two, a day when someone else has none. It’s not about you. It’s about us. To be is to be together. “I am because you are.”
This is an edited extract from The 95: Notes on life and love, faith and doubt by Martin Wroe and Malcolm Doney, to be published early next year by Unbound. To order an early limited-edition copy, go to https://unbound.com/books/the-95.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a former Church Times features editor. He and the Revd Martin Wroe are writers and broadcasters.