Faith can be of real help to those inclined to call upon it.
On Saturday night, millions of Jewish people around the world will sit down to a festive dinner called the “Seder”, to celebrate the beginning of the eight days of Passover.
It is an opportunity for the whole family to gather round the dinner table and retell the biblical story of how Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, before arriving in Israel, the Promised Land. They escaped slavery and avoided the 10 plagues, which “passed over” their homes.
It is a time for the children to take part by asking four questions of the family. Traditionally, these are sung in Hebrew by the youngest child present, who starts off by asking, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Those gathered round give answers, enjoy their dinner and give thanks for their survival. It is a festival which passes on the story of Jewish survival against all the odds. Moreover – and importantly – it is a time for celebration of the family and family life.
It is the issue of faith, no matter how that faith is defined, that repeatedly comes back to me in my everyday work. This, despite the fact that faith is often viewed as being “off the wall”, “irrelevant” or the provenance of extremists.
In a world that seems to worship the “have it all” mentality, no matter what the cost, so many of us seem to have forgotten that faith can be a force for good. Faith can give us a set of moral standards against which we can judge ourselves and make decisions. According to a recent study, we are all much wealthier than we were 20 years ago; but how many of us stop to give thanks for what we have? What we have is precious, but is easily lost – and all too easily thrown away.
Last Sunday was an extraordinary one for me. I was fully dressed, made up and setting off for a converted cotton mill just outside Keighley, in West Yorkshire, at the unearthly hour of 6.30am!
I was there for the filming of a new TV show, which starts on BBC One this Sunday, called Sunday Life. Presented by the former Olympic athlete Colin Jackson and the news presenter Louise Minchin, it will cover all aspects of faith. From what I saw, it will be a cracking programme. It appears to me that rather than being divisive and unpleasant, or focusing upon the dangers of extremist “religious” practices, this series aims to demonstrate the good things about moderate faith.
The first programme features a moving film about a visit to Auschwitz by the Emmerdale actress Georgia Slowe, some of whose own family members were murdered there. I was deeply shocked to discover that some young people in this country are growing up believing that the Holocaust “never happened”.
Another feature was about an interfaith walk through England, which has arisen from a campaign by a woman who was badly injured in the London train bombings. The programme also has a family that will be reporting back each week on its discoveries about major religions.
I was there to review the papers, and I chose to talk about Tony Blair and his new “Faith Foundation“. I don’t have any arguments with what he said in his speech at Westminster Hall last week, but I do take issue with his policy of “We don’t do G-d” while in government, for fear of being thought a crackpot. My fellow panellist, the children’s author GP Taylor, spoke about a choirboy who has been bullied. It struck me that if the Prime Minister doesn’t robustly stand up for his faith in office, how can we be surprised about a choirboy’s victimisation?
I enjoyed my Sunday morning with the programme very much and I look forward to going back. In the meantime, the practical values of faith have been playing on my mind.
None of us can forecast what life is going to throw at us, and how it is going to test our strengths and weaknesses. I accept that divorce is an inevitable and unstoppable consequence of an increasingly materialistic society, especially if there is a rapid downturn in the economy.
At the same time I have been struck how, in several cases in which we have been instructed, a marriage is ending because one spouse was having an affair and thought it was possible to “have it all” – no matter what this decision inflicted on their partner and children.
There are those who would argue, why should someone stay trapped in an unhappy marriage? It is pointless and unfair to all concerned? I accept this, and I believe that many questions are unanswerable. However, I would still recommend some serious soul searching before pulling the plug. In such cases, I believe that faith can be of real help to those inclined to call upon it, by asking questions of our consciences and providing guidelines that can make the toughest of decisions a little easier.
May I wish “Chag Sameach” this Passover, to my Jewish readers worldwide.