Stephen Broughton thinks about... The Great Oak

At the bottom of my garden stood a great oak tree. It was there when a ‘select development of executive style developments’ was hastily assembled, which housed me and my family for about 12 years. It was there when a hundred years before, the Council created a Municipal Cemetery, an oasis of peace and sadness the other side of my garden fence. A place to visit, to remember, to bring flowers, to show love, to show you cared, to think of all the ‘if onlys’ which make up each person’s life story.

Each autumn, the Great Oak shed its harvest of acorns, a feast for the grey squirrels that lived their lives in its branches. Some they buried as a winter store some lay undiscovered to grow into trees for another generation, as the Great Oak had become the gift of a generation now long forgotten.

At the first Sea Of Faith Conference, held on a cold but bright day many years ago, we gathered to talk about things most of us had never talked about in public before. How the world of religious thought no longer gave us answers that made sense, no longer helped us make sense of our lives. We discovered that we shared a common conclusion that it just didn’t work any longer.

It was all going very well, when a lady sitting in front of me (I used to remember her name but sadly no more) asked the distinguished panel of speakers, ‘but what about the heart?’ It was a question that has never been answered and I speak as someone who has read, sometimes over and over, most of the words written so beautifully by Don Cupitt. Don who I first met as an earnest Theology Undergraduate in 1967.

The lady, whose question lived longer than the memory of who she was, went on to say that intellectual discussion was all very well but making sense of your life was for her an affair of the emotions. Whatever common sense told you was all very well but some of us, maybe most of us, live our lives through our feelings about things. It was an affair of the heart.

However atheistic my intellect has made me, my heart lives in the certain knowledge that the person I created as a choirboy in the 1950’s, the Jesus of the story books lives with me as an ever-present friend and guide. A person without whom I could never have survived as long as I have. Day by day he’s there telling me that all will be well. That if there is only one set of footprints in the sand, they are his carrying me through.

The acorns from the Great Oak feed me as they feed the grey squirrels.

It helps to have a positive mental approach to things. To think of life as a cup half full. To value what you have and not to be dragged down by what you don’t have, by the pain and the suffering we all endure. There are doubtless many ways of doing this but the one that works for me, the acorn that feeds me, is the certain knowledge that he is there for me as he has always been. Even though he probably never existed in the real world. Even though if he did we can never know anything about him.

The Great Oak disappears and the squirrels with it. Acorns fall no more. The winter store is bare. I can’t imagine such a world. The intellect tells us we don’t need it any more. Maybe we can use the Internet as we used cemeteries, a place to show your feelings, to make sense of life. But what of the people in the select development of executive style dwellings? How barren will their lives be? Is the problem of the heart to be solved by another generation of wonder drugs from Glaxo Smith Kline Beecham?

The Sea of Faith had had its day, has run its course, has ebbed and now runs down the pebbles on Dover Beach. Sadly the question was never answered. What about the heart? The Great Oak is no more. The world will look for its answers somewhere else.


Anonymous said...

The lady was right. Religion is about coping with emotions and feelings and only secondarily about thought. Western religion is so platonic that it is almost all about thought. That's why it no longer has a place in most peoples' lives. Science does the thought thing better. Religion tries to deal with the emotions aroused by what Cupitt in his new book calls "Impossible Loves." This isn't easy, and religion usually isn't up to the task. Perhaps religion would be more effective if it consciously affirmed that it is the feelings about the impossible loves that must be addressed religiously.

Peter McNamara

Dori said...

This is great info to know.