“If Anyone Hears My Voice”

I am convinced that all genuine religions contain at least some truth (the ‘church universal’), and that the New Church accepts the validity of other religions because of it.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)

All nations whom you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. (Psalm 86:9)

The recognition that God exists and that there is one God flows universally into human souls. As a result, every nation in the whole world that possesses religion and sound reason acknowledges that God exists…. (True Christianity 5)

The Lord’s mercy is universal, that is, it is extended to all individuals. … So he provides that everyone shall have some religion, an acknowledgement of the Divine Being through that religion, and an inner life. Living according to one’s religious principles is an inner life, for then we focus on the Divine….” (Heaven & Hell 318)

I’ve just read Libby Purves’ book Holy Smoke – Religion and Roots: A Personal Memoir published in 1998 by Hodder & Stoughton. I would recommend it to anyone interested in how faith becomes a part of someone’s life.

Libby Purves is a British novelist, journalist and broadcaster, one year older than I am. She was brought up as a Catholic because of her mother’s faith. Her father, who worked for the British Foreign Office, ‘put up’ with religion, having become more or less an atheist after being raised in the Scottish Presbyterian church, which he described as a ‘glum and joyless world of religious strictness’.

It strikes me that Ms. Purves has a healthy approach to religious belief, garnered from her early experiences of being exposed to different faiths while living in many different countries. Much of what she talks about strikes a chord with me as a lifelong New Church woman, and with my own approach to the validity of different religions because they contain at least something that is of God. To quote a phrase from somewhere, ‘there are many roads to the top of the holy mountain’. The Lord ensures that everyone follows a path that suits their particular temperament. Since the Lord looks after each and every human being, that’s a lot of possible roads to the mountain top!

The heaven in one individual is not the same as the heaven in another. It differs in each according to the affection for what is good and true. … If non-Christians have lived decent lives, intent on obedience and appropriate deference and in mutual thoughtfulness as their religion requires so that they have acquired a measure of conscience, they are accepted in the other life … with most sensitive care.” (H&H 320, 321)

I enjoyed Ms. Purves’ descriptions of her absorption of reverence and religious acceptance as a small child. It reminds me how sensitive to atmosphere young children can be. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it. (Mark 10:15) Here are a few relevant paragraphs from her book:

“Once again, religion defined the landscape. The precise detail of what Buddhists believed was of no more concern to the prosaic four-year-old observer than what Jews believed, or how Greek priests with black beards were different from American priests with crew-cuts at the Bangkok Catholic cathedral. The only plain thing was that (with the possible exception of Dad) people everywhere had religions.”

“That God and his prophets should wear a succession of disguises seemed no more remarkable than the fact that different countries had different shaped buildings. Fussy spiky gilded turrets in Bangkok, fat pointy curved arches in Jerusalem, onion domes in pictures of Poland and Russia – here God, there Yahweh, now Buddha, now Mohammed, now some writhingly erotic Hindu goddess. All, to a four-year-old, the same sort of thing.”

“Reverence is easy when you are small: you take your shoes off if required, cover your head if everyone else does, keep your voice down, show proper respect to Rabbi or Iman or Abbouna, to flapping orange monk or stout purple bishop. You are small, and not much is expected of you: you hear the music and look up at the whispering beautiful spaces of temple, mosque, synagogue or cathedral in peace. You take from it what you need. But the need is yours, and is private.” [pp.20-21]

For me, this resonates with the academic research in Anne Glenn’s recent article, ‘An Overview of the Field of Children’s Spirituality’, particularly her reference to the author who ‘advocates for a pluricultural approach to children’s spirituality’. Ms. Purves seems to have had just that – a pluricultural exposure.

As she grew up, Ms. Purves expanded her childhood reverence with an evolving faith and the doctrine she increasingly understood, though colored by her own experiences of living in this complex, diverse world. That surely happens to anyone who keeps religion in their life, or indeed who comes to it as an adult. We live, we ponder, we think and feel, maybe we study; we experience different things and adjust our faith accordingly until it becomes truly our own. And if we’re ‘trying to do the right thing’, the Lord values it all because it brings us closer to him. It behoves us to keep an open mind to the potential importance and value of anyone’s faith, and resist the fear-inducing nationalistic approach to ‘the other’ that is worryingly evident at the moment.

Ms. Purves says later that

“Religions are not interchangeable, but a sense of reverence is. … This… does not mean that doctrine does not matter. It does. Doctrine forms a bridge between a sense of worship… and a code of ethical behaviour. And in the realm of behaviour, despite all the world faiths and new variants on offer in this age of buffet-counter religion, nothing quite matches up to the basic tenets of Christianity. … It can be understood by a child, sometimes better than by an adult; yet its central mystery and paradox can fuel a lifetime’s contemplation.” [pp.181-182]

On vacations in western Europe, including the UK, we usually wander around a few churches (so far, only Christian ones, plus one local mosque). In the western US states, we have climbed to cliff-dwellers’ places of holiness, and visited adobe churches. Though I am dismayed at much of the grim Catholic imagery/statuary/paintings on display in some places, the buildings and spaces themselves do inspire a sense of awe, or wonderment, or holiness. I am aware of a commonality of religion: belief in God (or a higher power), and a wish to show honor and inspire humbleness. I would hope to find a similar element in any religious building I entered, be it synagogue, temple, mosque or church.

The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)

Although I trust that the ‘central mystery and paradox’ of Christianity that Ms. Purves refers to is not so much of a mystery to New Church believers, I am still contemplating it all, and trying to live by what I learn.

About Dale Morris

Dale Cooper Morris was raised in Bryn Athyn, living there through two years at the college. She spent a year in England, volunteering at the New Church school in Colchester (long since closed) and getting to know her now long-time husband in his own territory on the other side of the country. They raised their four children in the same Cotswold village where they have now lived for 40 years. Dale fulfilled her childhood ambition to be a wife and mother, and she finally found what she wanted to do ‘when she grew up’: she has spent the last ten years as a freelance proofreader.

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