Kate Chisholm

Keeping the faith | 9 March 2017

Plus: the time when Billy Graham presented a TED talk and our woman in the Vatican

Keeping the faith | 9 March 2017
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Perhaps surprisingly, in these secular times, Radio 4 keeps up its annual (and very Reithian) tradition of holding a series of esoteric talks about faith and belief to mark the Christian season of Lent, those 40 days of preparation and penitence leading up to the events of Holy Week. In the first of this year’s Lent Talks (produced by Christine Morgan), the psychotherapist Anouchka Grose talked about the role of the unconscious in our behaviour and the peculiar tendency of human beings to repeat experiences they claim not to enjoy. You could say that unconsciously we influence our own fate, and that however hard we might try to tame our own impulses we are always liable to be thrown off-course.

We are pushed at times to act, says Grose, by forces inside us that can at times appear to go against who we consciously think we are. This behaviour is coded into us by the stories we grow up with, those early experiences of expectation and judgment. Our ‘cunning unconscious minds’ bring about certain situations without our being consciously aware of ever having taken action. Free will becomes illusory. ‘Where we think we are in control we’re not, and where we think we’re not in control, we are.’

Grose spoke for only 15 minutes but in that time took us through so many huge questions. What do we mean by destiny? How much can we control what happens to us? Are there bigger forces at work within us? This was a pure audio experience. No intrusive backing music needed. Just the human voice, speaking one-on-one about those discomfiting questions, those fears and insecurities which usually we keep hidden even from ourselves, dreading what answers we might find. Yet, says Grose, it’s precisely within such doubt we may find a kind of certainty. In the ungraspable, the unknowable, lies buried some strange comfort.

Believers and doubters were also the theme of the first programme in the new series of the TED Radio Hour on Radio 4 Extra. Guy Raz, of America’s NPR (the national syndicate of 900 publicly funded radio stations), threaded together talks given at events organised by TED (the ‘non-profit, non-partisan’ outfit dedicated to Technology, Entertainment and Design). The session began with a talk given by the evangelist Billy Graham in 1998, decades after the height of his fame when he toured the world on a mission to bring Christianity to the masses while at the same time offering spiritual counselling to a string of American presidents. We heard him talking on the phone to Lyndon Johnson, for example, in October 1964 about wanting to ask God how to deal with the Russians and the Chinese.

Intriguingly, Graham, by then aged 80, knew that he was ‘a fish out of water’ at such a trendy collection of TED aficionados and began his talk by acknowledging this. ‘You can imagine how out of place I feel.’ Then, with a masterly understanding of how to gather the crowd into the palm of his hand, he told them that he knew they were also feeling ‘awkward’ at finding themselves listening to a man who was always popular but never fashionable. ‘I hope you won’t feel that these few moments are an anti-climax,’ he said, brilliantly disarming any potential criticism, before launching into his analysis of the difference between belief and faith. ‘Belief is easy,’ he said, ‘but faith is a feeling. Something you can’t easily explain.’

Lesley Hazleton’s TED talk was based on her book about the life of Mohammed. She’s Jewish but was intrigued by what exactly happened on the night in 610 when the Prophet received the first revelation of the Quran on a mountain outside Mecca. She researched the events of that night and discovered that Mohammed was horrified by the revelation, terrified for his life, overwhelmed not by conviction but by doubt. He ran down the mountain, ‘trembling not with joy, but with stark primordial fear’. That he could doubt, she said, makes him human, adding, ‘What exactly is imperfect about doubt?’

The most interesting image from all the celebrations surrounding International Women’s Day on Wednesday came from the interview on Sunday on Radio 4 with Sally Axworthy, Britain’s ambassador to the Vatican. A female diplomat let loose on the college of Catholic cardinals. Edward Stourton asked her what it was like to walk into a room of male priests, the only woman among them. You quickly adjust, she replied. ‘There are areas which would benefit from women being involved in decision-making,’ she told Stourton, diplomatically not adding what they might be.

While in Rome, and at the Vatican, she has been looking at the world through the prism of religion. It’s very helpful, she said, to focus on that religious dimension (rather than the political, social or economic) when thinking about people-trafficking, for instance, and the wars in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She also insisted that what has struck her most while in Rome are the numbers of religious women who are ‘very active’ in the Church. We shouldn’t underestimate their importance, she continued. Soft power can be real power.