It was the evening of the hottest day of June, the sun was beginning to drop below the horizon, and the temperature has cooled slightly since Stacey and I started our conversation. After exploring Stacey’s story and past experiences with faith and Christianity, we took a breather to enjoy our snacks. Naturally, we continued our discussion, and many insightful things were said which I regret had not been recorded. After my fizzy watermelon supply had depleted, it was time to go back on the record, and we delved a little deeper into Stacey’s thoughts on morals, faith, and the big questions of life.
What would you identify as some of your guiding principles, or your ethos or morals; what drives you and guides you through life?
The overarching principle that I follow - and I try to do it in anything that I do really, with friends, general public - is treat others how you want to be treated. I suppose that sounds quite basic, but it’s something that I’ve always followed. And sometimes it does get me into hot water, because obviously that means that I base my behaviour on how I feel, so that sometimes, when I’ve upset people I’ll think, ‘Why are they upset with me?’ because I’m thinking about how I’d like to be treated.
I think with that comes kindness. I try to come at everything from a kindness perspective. I don’t generally go around trying to upset or annoy people. And a huge one for me that has become more and more necessary as I’ve got older is honesty. Not to the point that you’re exceptionally blunt about everything all the time, but just that if people ask you for an opinion or you’re having a conversation - especially a difficult conversation - that you are honest, whilst being respectful and kind.
I suppose I’ve always just treated people how I would want to be treated, and I think that’s what people do.
Forgiveness. I don’t mean that in a, ‘Oh, I’m so lovely and I forgive everyone’ way, but more for you own sanity. I think that people harbor pain that other people have done to them, emotionally or physically, and I think that forgiving people is of huge importance to yourself. Forgive, but not forget necessarily. It doesn’t mean letting people treat you like shit and just letting them do whatever they want. But forgiving them so that you don’t harbor it is something that I follow quite a lot.
Especially since becoming a teacher, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. I see a lot of people, like when you’re driving, or little arguments between general members of the public - like right now, people are getting pissy at each other because they’re not two metres apart - and I think it’s important to remember that everyone has their own journey, their own stuff going on. Just because someone’s done something that’s annoyed you, try to think, ‘Right, well, they probably haven’t done that just to annoy me, what’s going on?’ Unpick the layers, I suppose.
Interestingly, a lot of this doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the life of Jesus. Just to play God’s advocate, as it were, have you noticed that similarity?
That’s putting me very highly, to say that I have morals in any way similar to Jesus’ teachings; that’s very nice. But, I feel like perhaps any good religion, organization or person has similar morals? I really only thought about how I quantify my guiding principles because of this conversation, and I suppose I’ve always just treated people how I would want to be treated, and I think that’s what people do. It’s difficult, because maybe when Jesus was around, those morals might have been a bit more revolutionary, because of the world in which he lived. But, having said that, they’re easy for me to say, and I do genuinely try to follow them, but they are not easy to put into practice, especially against people that do wrong you.
Turning back a little bit to what we’ve previously been discussing about Christianity, what do you find most problematic about major faith traditions? But also, what would you say are some of their positive aspects?
The one thing that sticks out to me more than anything, and part of the reason why I remain quite vague about my beliefs about a creator or decider, is that all religions are systems that have been put in place by humans. They’ve had to be. Even if you believe that ancient religious texts were written literally by a human hand but through a divine being, I don’t believe that it is possible for any human, ever, to write something, decide something, or build a system that is free from the context in which they live their life.
The only text I know at all well is parts of the Bible, and if you look at a lot of their rules and things that were written, I imagine they would be written very differently if they were written now. Whatever religion you choose to follow, you’re following a human’s interpretation of it. And then you yourself are interpreting from that. So you’re already, minimum, two layers away from - if this religion is correct - whatever that religion wants you to believe.
To say some more specifics, and I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but any religion that I know the basic principles of seem to come with the idea of consequence; if you believe, something will happen, if you don’t believe, then this will happen. And normally it will be good if you do and bad if you don’t. That seems like a very human thing, because we live in the context that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; everything you do affects something else. And, I don’t know if that necessarily has a place in religion?
If whatever religion is true genuinely loves me and cares about me, why do I have to go through this emotional turmoil to get to the answer?
And what religion you believe, or anything that you believe, is largely dependent on, initially, your family, and as you get older, your friendship group, and to a lesser extent your surroundings. Two-hundred years ago, everyone in this country was Christian. It would be easier now to explore other faiths, but if I were going to decide to explore other faiths, I would largely explore them from a Christian perspective. And just because we are traditionally a Christian country from a long time ago, why is it that we say that we’re any more correct than any other religion? It’s just what you’re brought up in, isn’t it?
Along the same lines as the human element and the consequences, often I find - and talking mainly about Christianity here because I know the most about it - that it’s got a testing nature to it. But there’s no specific reason why it’s a test. I can’t remember the name of the artist, but there’s a painting of Jesus knocking on a door, but there’s no handle, and everyone thought that was a mistake, but the artist said, ‘No, it’s because you have to open the door.’ Well, why? Why is there a test? And if whatever religion is true genuinely loves me and cares about me, why do I have to go through this emotional turmoil to get to the answer?
I’m aware that some Christians would say it’s because of free will, that God wouldn’t want to impose himself on you like a stalker that doesn’t leave you alone.
I get the idea of free will, and ultimately that’s a good thing; we should have free will. But most of the things we have free will about are things that there is at least some tangible or contextual evidence to follow. Whereas, it feels like religions have not only gone, ‘It’s free will whether you believe this,’ but also, ‘We’re going to make it very difficult.’ When I was thirteen or fourteen, I wanted to believe, I wanted to and I couldn’t. I was willing myself to believe, and my free will was, ‘I want to believe.’ So why is it that at that point God’s still darting around in the shadows?
Why is it with that painting, for example, that I’m on one side yanking at the door to try and get it to open, but it appears that it’s jammed? Is that free will or is that something more? And then, if it is, why is there a test there? When you’ve got the will to want to do it, why make it even harder? It’s like saying to a prisoner, ‘I’ve left the door open, and you have free will as to whether you leave today,’ and then the prisoner tries to leave, but there are loads of other tests just outside the door. It just seems like free will is a bit of a cop out at that point.
And God’s playing games?
Well, yeah, feels like it.
So, would you say there are any positive elements to these faith traditions?
Yes, there are positives. It’s a hugely mindful experience; people can seek great comfort in it, whatever you believe. I myself have sought great comfort in it; I would not have got through the first few weeks of grief over my friend without a however-vague spiritual connection. It’s aspirational, hugely aspirational. In our comfortable Western lives, it’s aspirational for being a better human and seeking something better. And if you’re in a really terrible situation, then it’s aspirational because it gives you hope, which is a really important thing to have, especially when you’re in a bad place.
It’s very supporting, and hugely welcoming if you ever venture into any religion in particular. I’ve had some of my most fun and welcoming evenings at a church service. And it’s a way to connect people, which is never a bad thing. Well, I don’t want to make it sound like a bad thing, but obviously it can then lead to divides, but I don’t want to say any more negatives!
Do you think these positive aspects are things that you can find easily outside of religion? Or is religion a fast-track way, or perhaps a deeper way, of finding them?
I think if you find those within religions, that’s probably pretty deep, because you’re believing in something spiritual and outside of yourself. I find mindful stuff by reading a book or doing something crafty, which is very practical; that’s mindfulness in terms of just trying to shut off whatever you’re feeling. Whereas, if you do explore it often through a spiritual or religious context, you’re probably delving more deeply into how you actually feel, which is no bad thing.
Is that true also of community and aspiration as well as mindfulness?
Yes, definitely. I read a really interesting book about a Chinese pastor who was being persecuted for his religion, and he spent years on and off in prison. The fact that he had such strong beliefs - I mean, he was a pastor, he had hugely strong beliefs - sustained his life through all the torture and solitary confinement. I don’t think that I would have been the same, I don’t know what I would lean on in that situation, because I don’t have a religion to hold on to.
If you had to pick something, what do you think you might lean on?
I really don’t think I would survive it. Genuinely, I don’t think I have something. Probably, friends? But, even those, after years and years, would become an abstract thing, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t be as sharp in your brain as a religious belief that you felt really strongly.
To go in a slightly different direction, what would a good god look like to you?
I think that he would be relatable. He would be present. And he’d be a lot of the good stuff that deities are described as: kind, loving, protective, forgiving. He’d be like a parent, a loving parent that acts in your best interest. But relatable is the key.
A good god... would not leave the world in this state, and would not allow individuals to go through as much pain as they do.
And I suppose a big one for me is a remover of pain. From my perspective, religions see pain – and that can be physical pain, or grief, or people treating you badly, or bad things happening to you – as a test, or they sometimes excuse it as the work of the devil or a negative thing in the world. If someone does something bad to you, like cheating on you, or mugging you, then I can understand why God’s like, ‘I can’t interfere with that guy’s free will to do that to you, and I can’t interfere with your free will by saying, “No, don’t walk that street!” or “No, don’t go out with that person!”’ I understand. But, bigger pain, diseases or natural disasters or death; why do we have to feel that? If God is all powerful then why doesn’t he deal with it?
So, a good god, to me, would not leave the world in this state, and would not allow individuals to go through as much pain as they do. It feels like gods in religions have to work within rules; they will deal with the devil or the bad things, but at a future, unknown, arbitrary time. And it’s like, why? And, why can’t God just come and have a chat? If I pray for something, why has it got to be my interpretation of what happens?
There are quite a lot of big questions in there and I’m aware that you’ve recently been going to an Alpha course which your friend invited you to. Could you briefly describe what an Alpha course is and what your experience has been?
The Alpha course was sold to me as a place to talk about life’s big questions, which I guess it is in a way. But, it is much more from a Christian perspective than I’d originally thought it was going to be. In this time - in lockdown - it’s basically a series of videos that you watch, and I suppose they are on big questions, but they are quite Christian-skewed. You watch one video each week, and it talks through various proofs and questions, and then you have a discussion with a group, who are essentially a group of strangers when you first meet in week one. You have a leader that leads the session, and you basically discuss what you saw in the video, how you feel about it, and what your thoughts are. So, that’s what Alpha is.
I ended up going because my friend - who’s a reasonably new friend - invited me. I didn’t really know she was a Christian until we’d gone to a few church services together. She invited our friendship group along to a Christmas Carol service, and then a few other times we’ve been since. But, for me, they always seem like socials; we’ve gone for dinner after. So, I’m not going for any religious reason, and I don’t know if she’s inviting me for a religious reason, although I feel like since inviting me on the Alpha course, and seeing what that has become, it’s become more clear that she might be trying to more subtly influence me.
It was sold to me as a place to talk about the big questions. And, I’m not going to lie, during lockdown I thought it would be something nice to do. I enjoy talking about things like this, and I don’t necessarily have an outlet with it in the people I’m living in lockdown with. And it’s very difficult to Zoom someone and say, ‘Hey! Do you want to Zoom and talk about the meaning of life?’ So, I thought it would be quite nice to do; nice to meet some new people and have some different perspectives on it.
And I thought I’d be meeting more people that might be ‘in the middle’, I suppose, like I am. I think it’s just by chance that it’s ended up being in a group that is predominantly Christian. So, it’s not quite what I expected. Sometimes I can feel a little bit like a fraud. Because, they know I’m not a Christian, but I’m probably not as skeptical as I would be because of the group of people; I don’t want to be offensive to them, and I don’t necessarily share all my thoughts with them. Probably because they’re strangers that we meet on Zoom.
Have you felt that it has helped you to explore the big questions at all?
My honest, gut answer is, not really. Probably because I can’t be very skeptical. Having chats with you over the years has been much more helpful. And apart from the first session, ‘Is there more to life than this?’ - which is the exact question where I’m at - a lot of it is the more practical side of Christianity. By week four or five, I would say I’m not anywhere with Christianity, and so the session being about prayer doesn’t necessarily help me. It feels a bit like a crash course on being a Christian, whereas I’m still very much on week one: what is going on? What is the world and all that’s in it?
One final thought, and in many ways we’ve touched on this already, what would have to change in order for you to find yourself in a particular faith tradition?
It’s very difficult to know what would have to change about religions, because they are so hugely ingrained, and I’m not about to start my own one. So, I think it would be me that would have to change. I’m not going to ask any particular faith to change towards me, and also I am a lover of following rules, so, I’m not going to interpret a religion to try to make it fit how I feel.
But, in terms of what would have to change to draw me to a religion, I think I would have to be less skeptical, less worried about logic, and therefore less double guessing what I felt. And that sounds offensive, as though if you’re a Christian or a Muslim that you’ve foregone logic and skepticism, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But, I feel like you have to have conviction in your beliefs and conviction in your thoughts, and I don’t have either of those.
I think they would have to re-write a lot of the underpinning values, which is quite hard if your religion is two-thousand years old.
And I think that you would have to have trust; I struggle to trust people that I know are trustworthy and I can see physical evidence of this, so something that I see as bringing pain and fear, and that darts about in the shadows is going to be very hard to trust. And potentially self-esteem. Because a lot of religions talk about a God that loves you no matter what, and from my own perspective, love has always been conditional.
I think that from religion’s point of view, it would have to be much more relatable and up-to-date. I take great offense for some of my friends, and for me as a woman, with what some religions say about the place of women, or the place of the LGBTQ+ society, and the place of marginalized groups in general. I think they would have to re-write a lot of the underpinning values, which is quite hard if your religion is two-thousand years old.
And with that, we picked up our bits and pieces and were on our way, knowing that the conversation was far from over.