Between the Monster and the Saint, By Richard Holloway

If we could know God, what would She – He, It – be like? The former bishop stands up for religion
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Between the Monster and the Saint is an eloquent disquisition on humankind's self-division between our finer and our baser inclinations. It covers serious ground: morality, psychology, art and, most centrally, the role and nature of religious belief. As an apostate Christian, and former bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Holloway is well placed to offer his views on the "wearisome condition of humanity". He addresses this big topic with a refreshing directness which makes for agreeable reading. But what gives the book its charm, is that it is also the record of the psychological and spiritual development of an enormously interesting man.

The book begins with a personal anecdote. While working as a messenger boy, the nine-year-old Holloway witnessed the organised sexual assault on a female worker by male colleagues. The ugly incident, and his own minor involvement in it, stayed in his mind, becoming one of those consciousness-raising events which harbinger deeper reflection. Later, he encountered the Christian story, which, despite his changing attitudes to organised religion, has remained for him one of the most resonant accounts of human experience. In this drama, he first found the expression of the potential in human nature for good and evil.

Naturally enough, Holloway spends more time on the human capacity to behave as self-interested monsters than our ability to act as disinterested saints. He seems most exercised about the sexual degradation of women and our exploitation of the planet, especially the sentient animal world. This, he claims (and he is not alone in this), has gained legitimacy through the influence of the Judeo-Christian myth in Genesis, which granted humankind sovereignty over all living creatures. His disquieting accounts of some disgraceful contemporary farming methods are telling (though valid economic counter arguments do exist) but I am not sure that this can all be blamed on our Judeo-Christian legacy.

It is also slightly inconsistent with his timely call for religious myth not to be read as some antiquated documentary account of historical "facts". Rather, quite rightly, he would have us regard myth as "a narrative that carries existential truth". Ours is a woefully literal and materialist culture, one increasingly unaware of symbolic or poetic realities. That our religious organisations are not exempt from that failure has led to Holloway's own distancing from the Church.

Holloway's own view is that religion, like art, is a human construct, but no less essential for that. (I would add that so is philosophy, or indeed love – as are most of the things we value and that make life sufferable.) He therefore stands with, or for, what he calls "after religion", in which religious myth is perceived as nourishing the human spirit, and enshrining profound moral teachings and poetic truths. But, he would maintain, its source is human consciousness rather than any supreme being. It is a useful positioning in this ongoing debate, though a counter argument might be that the mystery of human creativity and imagination is one way of defining the divine, or perhaps a way of inferring its presence. For if God exists even the strongest religionist must agree that we can only have a dim idea of It, Him or Her.

In the West at least, other than for fundamentalists, the wrathful, jealous God of the past has mellowed into a far more tentative eminence, as befits a culture more alive to social equality and justice. That this is to do with the collective consciousness and not the real nature of God is not an argument against the existence of God but an example of humankind's grandiose tendency to project its own forms and moods.

It is finally against that grain – in modest fellow feeling and the exercise of pity – that Holloway sees our best hope of redemption: a conclusion to be devoutly welcomed in our turbulent times.