God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan: Reconciling Religious Difference
Reviewed by John Mackrell
Books on religion and spirituality abound. What distinguishes Tim Firth’s book from others, and explains why he had to publish it privately under his own imprint, is the daring way in which he confronts the cosy religion of many with the challenging spirituality of a few. Religion he shows often serves as a refuge from a hostile world, all the more comforting while yielding unthinking obedience to an absolute ecclesiastical authority. That kind of religion pales into insignificance against personal commitment to an unknowable God.
God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan - revered Scottish proverb - demands a daunting transformation both in feeling and thinking by its readers. Most of us, whether aware of it or not, are children of the Enlightenment. We search for truth in a binary way. Either an article of faith, such as ‘transubstantiation’, is true or false: it cannot be both. That is why we have different churches, even if we sometimes refrain from persecuting one another, to impose our beliefs on others. Firth’s answer to our myopia is what he calls ‘Both/And’. With delightful appropriateness Firth chooses his principal models from the Church’s mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, whom the hierarchy reveres, while never daring to follow his advice, so much at variance with its own understanding. Firth cites Meister Eckhart’s words: ‘If the eye of the heart were fully open and we had obtained complete knowledge, we would see that contraries are all contained finally in an all-embracing unity’. As Firth sees it, human minds set in the ‘either/or’ mould are incapable of understanding that opposites when seen from different viewpoints are perfectly compatible. More fundamentally, a mystery in the spiritual sense needs to be grasped by heart and mind acting in unison. The mind acting alone reduces the mysterious to arid propositions, which too often issue in the rules and dogma of de-spiritualised religions. Jesus Christ himself spoke as a mystic, when instead of laying down precise rules, He exhorted His followers to love God and their neighbour as themselves. And again in the less well-known passage, ‘I have come to bring fire upon the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.’ (Luke 12/49)
Religion in the author’s view is a man-made framework to express mankind’s spiritual yearnings. Imbedded in the human psyche, many feel there is an innate urge to reach outwards to something greater than the individual and which gives life meaning. Firth has no difficulty in demonstrating that religion is an expression of man’s culture and that beliefs, while often viewed as immutable by adherents, change frequently to fit new circumstances. In the case of Christianity Firth comments that with the sack of Rome in 410, much of the power of the Roman Emperors passed to the bishops of Rome, to Leo the Great, 440-61, to Gregory the Great, 590-614. When the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers strove for a less showy and more interior religion, Counter-Reformation Catholicism with its Baroque churches adopted a monarchical style, while in the twentieth century there was an abortive attempt to follow much of the secular world into a more democratic style of government. Behind these changes lie what may be called the betrayals of human nature – the control of the Church by power-hungry clerics with the collusion of the laity, who too often prefer unquestioning obedience to authority more congenial than personal commitment to a challenging spirituality.
The recent bleak decline in the practice of spirituality is matched by the author’s optimism about the immediate future. He sees globalisation as likely to lead to a world unity conducive to a shared spirituality. He points to growing concern about third-world poverty and the need for everyone to work together to preserve human life on the planet. Most heartening of all, Firth underlines the continuing growth in mankind’s self-consciousness. In the quoted words of Julian Huxley, ‘human beings are nothing less than evolution becoming conscious of itself.’ That self-consciousness, as Firth has often emphasized, tends to lead to a yearning for spirituality, which gives meaning to life. Support for this view Firth shows in his chapter on the cosmos comes from scientists, who see some power greater than man at work in their field.
An optimist in the heavens, a pessimist about earthly Christianity, is how the author comes through to this reviewer. Yet the author’s mystics and like-minded writers, whom he quotes so often, are already affecting attitudes within the established churches. That is true, particularly within the Catholic Church. Some take their lead from Jesus Christ, himself a rebel against the Jewish orthodoxy of his time. Following his words, ‘I am there, whenever two or three are gathered together in my name’, Eucharists or informal house masses, are often presided over by a lay person, usually but not always a Catholic. Religion is the clergy’s domain: spirituality is for true believers, as stated so often above.
‘God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan’ will provoke much needed heart searching among readers. The amount of material covered is truly staggering. This is a book to which the much less informed reviewer will need to digest at leisure. Re-reading will be a pleasure, not least because of Firth’s many touching stories of his work while a priest. Particularly interesting is his inside view of Cardinal Hume, whom he knew as abbot and with whom he worked closely as a vicar-general. It is good to know, unlike other members of the Church’s hierarchy, Cardinal Hume had the courage to protest against the nauseous stream of denunciations by vigilante Catholics of clergy they branded as unorthodox, including some 400 letters fed to the voracious CDF, the Church’s Stasi, against the blameless Archbishop Worlock.
Tim Firth, God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan: Reconciling Religious Difference, 2012, 343pp, £12.50 + £2.80 p&p, obtainable from www.godscolouristartan.co.uk Or Box 256, 33 Queen’s St, Horsham, West Sussex, RH13 5AA