When you save Stripper Gandalf’s bacon and the universe rewards you with a parking ticket, life just does not seem fair.
OK, OK, let me back that one up a bit. Stripper Gandalf, you see, is actually my housemate.
No, wait, I’ve got this. Let’s just start from scratch. Now I wish with every fibre of my soul that I had a video to link you to, but apparently there is no such thing in existence as of yet. Instead I’ll give you a flavour. My housemate is a dancer, teacher and performer, and when several acts dropped out of her most recently organised bellydance hafla due to assorted illnesses and injuries, she ably stepped up to the mark to pad out the program herself. At short notice, she fell back on things she’d previously rehearsed – among which was a burlesque comedy number featuring possibly the world’s most unlikely striptease artist: Mithrandir, otherwise known as Gandalf the Grey.
About half an hour before curtain up is where I come in. I like my haflas – in fact I’m told I’m quite a fixture on the local bellydance scene – and I had every intention of turning out to catch this one. As I was leaving the house my eye fell on a hastily sewn grey robe, dangling from a vintage wooden coathanger on the dado rail in our disreputable rented house.
“Hmm,” I thought. “She might want that. I don’t recall her saying she made a new one… well, I’ll take it just to be on the safe side.”
In fact what I managed to do was make a dramatic entrance about thirty seconds after she’d realised the oversight. She flung her arms round my neck and exacted revenge for all the times I’ve nearly deafened her with my somewhat high-pitched giggle. I think there was something about “I love you” in there, in between my eardrums splitting.
I had a lovely evening at the hafla, introduced a new dancer to some people she could talk to, caught up with a few old friends, and went home generally feeling like I’d done something good despite missing out on a London-based christmas party. That feeling lasted precisely until my other housemate pointed out the penalty notice tucked under my windscreen wiper the next day.
This is why I got religion, you see. Fundamentally, I know the universe doesn’t give a damn about my wellbeing, or indeed my continued existence. This town has the worst traffic situation for miles around and the pennypinching council have just started charging for the park and ride car park, as well as the bus – so naturally they’ve had to clamp down on all the in-town streetside parking because people might otherwise be able to get what they want. The parking ticket is not personal. No angry parking deity is offended by my aiding in the crude debasement of Tolkein. It is simply an artefact of the fact that Everything Is Shit Right Now.
I also know that that’s an incredibly depressing thing to be aware of. Living with that contradiction seems to have been part of what spurred my subconscious to look for something more in life the year I turned thirty. I’ve always quite freely acknowledged that faith for me is a way of putting a friendly face on an otherwise uncaring universe; but the uncaring universe’s reaction to me assisting Stripper Gandalf forced me to realise something else.
I had a partner at the time I became a Pagan; he was a gifted IT security expert, somewhere on the low end of the autism spectrum, and a determined fan of Richard Dawkins. Logic to him was king; illogic a seething, threatening chaos that eroded his basic ability to interpret the world. He was utterly bewildered by my faith and treated it with extreme suspicion. As far as he was concerned, I was cheerfully admitting to throwing rationality out of the window and replacing it with woo-woo fairy tales. He never did seem to quite get, despite being told several times, that the woo-woo fairy tales helped me cope from day to day whereas facing the dispassionate truth would have left me miserable.
He also had the most colossal down on organised religion. In his case it was a matter of pure (and axiomatic) principle; irrationality on a small scale is bad, therefore irrationality on a whole-society scale is unthinkably evil. Later I would share a house with a recovering evangelical Christian; his problem with the Christian church was one I recognised instinctively, the reflexive hypervigilance of someone who’s gone through a lot of pain. He carefully followed the incomprehensibly polite car crash that was the Church of England’s attempt to deal with female ordination and same-sex marriage; over time I began to understand that the C of E’s antics were for him what the bottle of whisky in the cupboard is for an alcoholic. He had had problems with depression ever since realising that losing his faith meant he didn’t have God to forgive him any more (his own words). I have problems with the Christian church too, but unlike my ex, the reason I have them is because that church promotes lifestyles with this kind of cruel repercussion.
But back to Gandalf. My housemate very kindly refunded my admission fee to help me pay off the ticket – and that somehow shrank the injustice considerably in my mind. I’ve been careful to cultivate a fatalistic attitude about things like parking tickets; it’s a waste of energy getting angry with a faceless bureaucracy. But the financial sting hits pretty hard on a budget, and those small gestures make such a disproportionate difference in the mind.
And that was when I realised: the point of religion is not just the mask of the friendly face. That’s an explanation for personal faith, but not for churches – which I hadn’t really achieved an understanding of till now. The point, the human-scale purpose, of organised religion is to create a community of people who share the same delusion of hope, and who act on that delusion in the attempt to make the world better for everyone. And by doing that, at least in the immediate term, they also make the world better for each other and for themselves.
Yes, it can and does go horribly wrong. Unintended consequences, bad assumptions, you name it – over its long history Christianity has explored an impressive variety of ways to do it wrong. People do it wrong. Paganism, for its part, is currently exploring a different mistake – it has gone for the organisation-free approach where no authority can impose its dogma, and hence the Pagan “community” is not particularly charitable towards people having a hard time, and is rich with petty squabbles and backbiting. There’s a little too much “each for himself” to Pagan social theory, for me.
Hope is irrational. It’s the dog that refuses to die despite the fact the world doesn’t want it around. The husband who stays for the sake of the family, however badly his ex-wife thinks of him. It’s irritating, persistent, and doesn’t care that you just need a bloody day off once in a while. It keeps you trying. There are times when I loathe its very name.
But it’s also powerful. It inspires actions that don’t accept the crappy status quo, that seek to change and improve the world. It pushes us to think creatively, around and outside the restrictions that are placed on us. I still disagree with the holy writ approach to organised religion, because it encourages too much in the way of not thinking for oneself – but to the extent that organised faith is based around shared hope, and a desire to improve both the world and the individual, then I think…