Peace, one and all…
(Scenes from Ridley Road market, Hackney)
When I first began to seriously consider religion and religious faith, the image of a great and confusing marketplace came repeatedly before my mind’s eye. Two things struck me. Firstly, I was struck by the sheer diversity of religious thought, as I was by the diverse ways in which these thoughts are expressed. This marketplace of religions is a colourful, noisy and exuberant place!
Secondly, I was struck by the sincerity of committed believers everywhere. In every religious community that I encountered I saw people taking great comfort and strength of spirit from their respective traditions. I met with people who had been strengthened and ennobled by their belief in some thing greater than themselves.
But, as the is the case with every young lad sent to market, I had only a certain amount of ‘currency’ to spend. And so, after much thought, reflection and soul-searching (as well as numerous nudges from God), I paid my money and made my choice, entering thereby into the warm, funny, profound and occasionally foolish community of Muslims.
Despite this, at the back of my mind, lay a thought that I long struggled to ignore. What about all those sincere believers from other faiths? Or, to continue the economic metaphor, what about all those other traders and merchants of the soul? What had all their trading earned them?
For a while, I refused to engage with this question, beyond a simplistic and reflexively defensive ‘that’s up to God’. However, once I started looking inside my own heart, I saw that this was really just the voice of my fear speaking. Yes, of course, matters eschatological rest firmly in the hands of the Almighty (and mighty hands they are too). But, as I began to encounter self and other, different possibilities began to emerge.
Rather than dividing the world into traders good and bad, why not take a more nuanced view of spiritual finance? Or, why not accept the coin others offer, if their weight and measure are in some way recognisable? Because, when all the counting is done, the world, life and the love of God exist beyond all marketplaces. Once I began to understand the limitations of my own tongue, I saw that in all truth I wasn’t really so different! Others were (and are) just as human as me. We are all human. Our tongues will always fail to reach eternity.
(Ridley Road, c.1971)
So now I have begun to see this, what of that old marketplace? Well, I have entered it once more, but not as either a trader or a buyer, nor even as a seller. Rather, I have entered this marketplace that I might hear others speak of that which truly inspires and moves them, and that I might learn thereby something about life and love myself. And though I have goods I could sell and ideas I could choose to hawk around, all thought of payment has left me.
Now, I will strive to offer what little I know for free. After all, I didn’t make this world, so by what right do I sell parts of it, as though I held its title deeds in my hands? And by what right do I speak of love, if I do not offer it as fully as I might to one and all, both near and far?