Thought for the Week: Words in my head

G Gordon Steel reflects on words that come into his head

As I walk in the park or drive the car alone I often find words coming into my head. Usually they have tunes attached and I sing or hum or whistle: O thou who camest from above…; My God I thank thee who hast made the world so bright…; even the odd Christmas carol. The words and tunes are embedded in my memory and keep coming to the surface. Strange, really, because it is decades since I gave up thinking and expressing my faith in those terms.

It is all due to my Methodist upbringing. I am grateful for this, for the warmth of the fellowship and the dedication of inspired youth leaders. I left the church when I was twenty-two, having found the Quakers. Quakerism was just what I needed and I immersed myself in it and married into it and we brought our children up as Quakers. But how we speak about our faith has always been a preoccupation of mine. I have wrestled with it and debated it and, as a result, have gradually changed.

A sea-change for me was Don Cupitt’s (1984) Sea of Faith TV series and its associated book. This, and Cupitt’s many subsequent books, have had a profound effect on many seeking Christians and I know that I am not alone in having undergone something approaching a conversion experience as a result. His key point was simple, though based on an erudite study of world religions: everything that we say about religion is human and cannot be otherwise. And since words and concepts are intimately conflated in our minds, what we say about God or faith are the product of mental processes in ourselves based on centuries of Christian teaching.

The question of whether these notions relate to anything ‘out there’ is imponderable. And there is, I feel, really no good reason to believe that the world is subject to influence from outside. So, it is best to concentrate on religion in this world, of which we have direct experience: love, caring, compassion, inwardness and our spiritual response to being alive.

Why do the hymns still haunt me? I think that it must be an example of what the Jesuits are thought to have maintained: ‘Give me a child to the age of seven and I will give you the man.’ Traditional Christian concepts have been part of our culture, taught in the home, in Sunday schools and in day schools. That is why they are now built into our genes, metaphorically speaking.

Does it matter, in this regard, that what comes out of my mouth is out of sync with my strongly-held convictions? I think not, in spite of early Quaker strictness in speaking only the truth. I feel that I can enjoy my hymns as a pleasant throwback to my spiritual past. They are, for me, part of our rich heritage of poetry, myth and legend, containing insights that are still valuable.

Come down O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardour glowing.

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