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Home by another route

Cole Moreton

The religious certainties of youth can often wane in middle age. But the death of a friend brought Cole Moreton back to the fundamental questions and a new appreciation of Britain's post-Christian spirituality.

Fmoreton1.jpgDeath unravels us all. When they carried my friend Ali to the church in her wicker basket, I found myself returning to the story I knew best. The Jesus story. The promises of life after death and, underneath us all, the everlasting arms. It felt like home, to hear that story again and to sing those old songs, but it was like the family home you return to after a journey around the world: the smallness is stifling, but the familiarity is comforting. I was coming home with a new awareness that there were so many other homes in the world, so many other ways of seeing the same thing, which may or may not be there, and which may or may not offer hope to those who are dying, for whom the questions are no longer hypothetical. What happens now? We will know, all too soon.

Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, pagans, atheists, agnostics, we all ask the question that Ali asked and we're all heading somewhere. I don't know where, but I do know where I hope it might be. Ali grew more and more convinced of her destination as the day of her departure approached. She knew where she was going.

There is a term that describes what happens to people who have been committed believers, who have been hurt by the widening gap between the story they tell themselves and the lives they lead, who have fallen from faith and seen that the world is a dark and broken place; people who have torn down their old gods and questioned everything and can no longer bring themselves to trust the story in the way they used to, however much they want it, because life is not like that, and who speak with irony and fear certainty but cannot resist the pull of the divine. If they are fortunate, they reach a state of wonder that has been called the 'second naïveté' or the second innocence.

People caught up in this state don't turn their back on the questions, they continue to put great value on critical thinking, they recognise that the claims of science are strong and that the accusations made against their old faith and the people who follow it may well be true, but they cannot leave it there. The rabbi and philosopher Neil Gillman writes: 'I cling by my very fingernails to the realisation that my rational self is not the whole of me ... that the world remains for me a realm of enchantment. I do science but I also appreciate poetry; I work but I also play.'


This sense of wonder is not just for Jews or Christians, it is for all those who have believed - whether it be in Islam or revolutionary socialism or the old England - who have struggled and who have grown tired of their tears. People who find this elusive second innocence recognise that each of us is born into a story, as Richard Dawkins says, as an accident of class, culture, geography and time. They see that there are many other stories, and seek to learn from them, becoming open to people and ideas that they used to think were threatening; and yet they also begin to acknowledge, after surfacing from the anger and disappointment they felt towards their original story, that there is still power for them in many of its symbols and myths.

People can, as James Fowler puts it in his description of the stages of faith, see 'powerful meanings' in the old ways, 'while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.' I do believe that when the trauma of losing our faith lessens, and as we grow up into what we are becoming, the British can enter a second innocence, charged with confidence and optimism and a new sense of wonder.

As for myself, how could I not feel that way, as a thousand of us gathered together to celebrate Ali's life? The address was made by another cherished friend, Doug Gay, the former minister of her church who is now a lecturer in theology at Glasgow University. He said out loud that it hurt so much to be there, that we were dumbfounded by the question of why it was happening, but that there was also something else to say. 'In faith we speak of things we cannot see. We gather up the brightest fragment of material we can find in the scriptures and we piece together a patchwork vision of heaven, of paradise, of iparidisi ... and we say to Ali you have gone home, you are in glory, now you live in a country called No More Death, No More Crying, No More Pain. And we are comforted. Now you are where every beauty is brighter and every pleasure more intense. You are where there is the best wine, the finest food, the funkiest music, the brightest clothes, the wildest dancing, the kindest laughter, the deepest joy. Life is more, where you are. And we are excited.' There were tears in every eye by now. 'Wherever the church has fought hardest for justice and liberation down through the centuries, it has done so because it dreamed of heaven and it prayed for heaven's kingdom to come now on earth. We say, with the voice of Dr King still ringing in our ears, this is where you are. Ali who adopted Hackney and who loved living here, you are where there is every tribe and tongue and nation, where every language is spoken and every colour and culture fully respected. You are where every oppression is ended and every potential filled. This is where you are, and this is where we want to be. One day, we will follow you.'

Everything has a season, or so the saying goes. There is a season for darkness and tears and there is a season for sunlight and laughter. So it was that two and a half years after her death, I found myself standing in a park with Ali's husband Chris, looking up at a bold blue sky. It was late September, it should have been windy and cold and autumnal, but instead the day was warm and bright, with the scent of late flowers carried on the breeze. 'This is like my life,' Chris said, and I knew what he meant, immediately. 'You think the summer has gone, that's all there is, then it surprises you by coming again.'

Unusually, Chris was wearing a suit. A silver grey one, with a flower in the lapel. It was his wedding suit. He was going to get married within the hour, here in this park, to a lovely woman called Naomi who had been strong enough to take on this widower and his children and open the door for them all, as he was going to say in his speech, to a new life. His little boy was the best man, and his daughter was a bridesmaid in an oriental dress. We were surrounded by friends, on the slope of a hill in this open space in East London, where the concrete floor of an old bandstand had been strewn with petals. The black wooden railings and posts, tagged with graffiti, had been wrapped in purple and gold chiffon and clothed in bright life, vivid garlands, sprays and blooms. This battered old shelter had been transformed into a temporary, verdant temple of life.

The music was played by violins, guitars, hand drums. It was easy, and swaying. The congregation looked like a random sample from the streets of Hackney: there were Caribbean matriarchs, men in traditional African dress, women in saris, some cool Indie-kid Scandinavians and a large contingent of wandering Aussie citizens of the world. Beyond were benches where women in Islamic dress were having a picnic, looking over at canal boats on the River Lea and distant abstract shapes on the skyline where the Olympic site was under construction. A pair of Haredi Jewish men in black clothes and wide-brimmed black hats slowed down their Sabbath walk to take in the wedding. A woman with a little dog stopped and asked what it was all about, and when somebody told her she beamed. 'How lovely! Does that happen often here?' It didn't. Hardly ever. They hadn't particularly asked permission to do it. 'Aren't they brave?' She stayed for a piece of cake and a paper cup of cold champagne.

This was a difficult day in some ways - Ali's ashes were scattered under a tree in the same park - but it was also beautifully life-affirming. The love that Chris and Naomi had found spoke of redemption, that season of light and life after sadness. One of the readings was a striking translation of a passage from the Bible that could surely find agreement among all those with different approaches to the divine: 'Summing it all up, friends, I say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious - the best, not the worst. The beautiful not the ugly. Things to praise, not things to curse.'

Maybe I'm just a sentimental old fool who got caught up in the moment, still cherishing the memory of Ali while full of happiness and optimism for my friend, his children and his new wife, but I did look around me that day, at the bandstand, the variety and generosity of the people taking part or watching and the gorgeous late-summer setting and think yes, this was a scene containing something old, something new, something borrowed and something beyond the red, white and blue. A glimpse of a new land. Something to believe in.