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Interview: John Bowker, theologian

26 April 2019

‘Religions cause conflict — and create reconciliation and peace’

I’ve written many books, including The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Beliefs that Changed the World, and, most recently, Religion Hurts [Books, 4 January]. I was also Dean of Chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge.

I grew up in a Christian and churchgoing family; so, from an early age, I began to question God and claims about God. As a teenager, I even began to write a novel, which still survives: The Man who Lost his God. It was juvenile, no doubt, but the questions were real enough. The questions are still there in one of my last books, God: A very short introduction, but, in that book, they lead to answers that I know from experience that I can trust.

The study of religion and experiencing God are always at work together. We now know that, in the brain, reason and emotion, “head” and “heart”, are not rivals, as we used to think. For me, analysis and attention to truth are in themselves the experiencing of God. “Commit to Truth’s keeping whatever truth has given you, and you will lose nothing.” That’s how Augustine put it, and I’ve always tried to follow that advice.

I wrote Religion Hurts because we’re living in an extremely dangerous world, with wars and conflicts in which religions are involved and in which countless people are being killed or are suffering greatly. The claim is then made that it is not religion but the abuse and corruption of religion that is involved. That’s wrong, and Religion Hurts shows why.

Certainly, I’ve followed Thomas Hardy’s advice that we must always take a full look at the worst, and I do give as honest an account as I can of the destructive harm and evil that religious people and their religions have done in the past — and still do. But far more of my work describes the immense good that they have done.

I also wrote it to show more accurately what religions are, and what part they’ve played in human evolution and history. I then suggest practical ways in which we can use the recognition of differences to work together to solve the problems of conflict. There’s a whole appendix, for example, on what the Muslim “domain of peace” might mean in our time.

So, the book was written for people who, I guess, will never read it — politicians and other decision-makers — to help them realise how dramatically important religions are, not just in causing conflict, but in creating reconciliation and peace.

Religions, like the sciences, are explorations of the worlds in which we live: the inner world — who and what we are; and the outer world — the cosmos. Originally, they all belonged together as part of the same exploration, and only recently have they come apart in terms of organisation, method, purpose, and so on. Even so, they both remain iconocosmic — they create pictures of the worlds in which we live — and, therefore, as I try to show in my books, they have much to offer to each other.

During National Service, I was posted to northern Nigeria. There was a young Muslim soldier who worked each day near the company office, and who seemed often to be talking to himself. As I gradually learned Hausa, I realised that he wasn’t talking to himself: he was talking to God. I couldn’t possibly believe that God wasn’t listening, or that God understood English only. I therefore knew that my early imaginings of God were too small. In my work, I try to listen before I write, and that has meant learning languages, which I do not find easy; but, in the case of Arabic and Islam, it led me to Al-Ghazali and Rumi, two important guides.

The Meanings of Death began when, in the early days of the hospice movement, Cicely Saunders asked me if I would do some lectures with her. At the time, there were doctors and nurses who opposed what she was doing, because they felt that it was their duty to prevent death, not to help people to die. I was asked to talk about the understanding of death in the natural sciences, to show that death has to be accepted as a natural good. You can’t have a universe of this kind without death. You can’t have life without death.

I don’t minimise death, because “Death kills. And grief knows it.” But, where you do have death, there, at once, you have the opportunity of life, a true resurrection from the dead. That’s why there is hope through and beyond the reality of death.

Religions have put that hope into many different pictures, but it’s important not to take them too literally; or, in other words, not to confuse the signposts with that to which they point. Our hope is rooted not in pictures, but in relationship. Philo was asked what heaven was like, and he answered in four simple words, “Non locus sed Deus” (“Not a place but God”).

One of my own poems, in Before the Ending of the Day, has as its title “Heaven: non locus sed Deus”:

Imagine all the heavens above,
Imagine all the worlds of love,
Of deva, pitr, atman, soul
Enticed into Yourself as goal —
Yourself my golden shore, my crystal sea,
The narrow gate for me, land of sweet liberty.
Be Western Paradise, and Eden — east
Of all expulsions from the final feast:
Be the foundation, the recovered stone,
At last the place not place but God alone.

There are so many excellent religious-studies teachers that I can only stand back in admiration and gratitude. What we all need to remember, at every level of teaching, is that the subject-matter of religious studies is always right there, sitting or standing in the room. The subject-matter is the human person, in its self and in its relationships with others and with the world outside.

Religions are a consequence of the many explorations of that subject matter;
so we study religions to understand what those consequences in religions are, what they’ve been in the past, how they’ve organised themselves, what they’ve discovered, what they’ve produced, and what they are now. That is why the study of religions is a truly demanding subject, but one which is also richly interesting and rewarding.

I love the sound of breathing. It’s the sound of life, which must one day end, but is still here as a precious gift.

Poverty makes me angry. Not as a generalisation, because people may choose to be poor to be generous to others. But I do get angry when those with authority and power don’t act when they could to alleviate or even to eradicate so many particular instances of poverty.

Margaret, my wife, makes me happiest.

On the subject of courage: going into Borstal for the first time demanded a great deal of it, and also agreeing to introduce religious studies into the theology tripos at Cambridge, when I was asked, because there was tough opposition.

But far more difficult than that was dealing with the after-effects of war. My mother died, we lost our home, my father was absent in the army, I was in boarding school at the age of six, with all the abuse that went on there. You can’t just forget it, and I was a seriously damaged person, doing harm to others. But then I found that there are, miraculously, people with insight, compassion, and love who give you the courage to be healed and to go on. With my wife, I was given a second chance to learn the languages of love and to experience the true meaning of redemption.

Prayer is the conscious realisation of being in the presence of God, and people find many different ways in which that happens. But then it becomes a realisation of being in God: a realisation that one is invited into the being of God, that interrelatedness of love of which we speak so inadequately as Trinity. God as gift extends the circles of that love and invites us all to come in, which is why our own prayer is always with and for others. Long ago, I used to learn lines from St Augustine, and among them were these: “If you delight in friends, love them in God. For they are changeable, and only in God do they stand firm. Love them in God and say to them: ‘Let us love God who made all that is, and is never far away.’”

If I was to be locked in a church for a few hours with anyone, I’d choose to be with Margaret.


John Bowker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Religion Hurts: Why religions do harm as well as good is published by SPCK at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).

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