Humanism and Deathless Hope

28 11 2008

Last week we spent four days in Edinburgh, along with Carolyn’s Mum and Dad. It was a really refreshing break from box packing and deputation, and we have come home feeling refreshed and rested. I hope to post a couple of things from our time there (not least from Edinburgh’s rich repository of evangelical history) but one particular part of our visit captured my imagination.

In walking around Edinburgh Castle we entered the Scottish National War Memorial. More details can be found about this building here, but it was a moving experience to walk through the hushed halls of remembrance reflecting on those who had given their lives in bitter conflicts ranging across continents, decades, and now centuries.

One of the guides, named Paul, was fascinating to talk to. Born into a family with enduring military connections, Paul took the root of training to be a welder, before taking a temporary job at the memorial, which opened out into permanent employment. He is now studying part time for a history degree, and demonstrated a knowledge, passion and pride in his national history which was enriching. I enjoyed a terrific chat with him, ranging from the history of the building, to the hugely beneficial impact of Calvinism on world history…

One feature of the memorial which moved and intrigued me was a stained glass window within one of the chambers. It depicts a horseman (perhaps one of Revelation’s Four Horsemen), upon whose cape is emblazoned what appears to be a swastika! Incongruous as such a symbol might be in such hallowed halls there is a bitterly ironic background to this depiction. The Memorial was built in 1927 following the horror and terrible loss of life which World War I had represented for a generation. Amidst the aftermath there was a deeply harboured hope that this really had been the war to end all wars, and that such bloodshed and carnage would never be witnessed again. And this is where the swastika comes in…

Prior to World War II this motif was symbolic of hope rather than hatred, of an auspicious view of the future, rather than a aggressive extermination of other nations and races. The symbol, probably of Hindu origins, was meant to symbolise the possibility that human nature could prevail and ultimately find peace. The builders of the Scottish War Memorial included the ‘swastika’ in their structure as a means of expressing their sanguine perspective on how history would pan out in the wake of World War I. A few short years later Hitler and the Third Reich appropriated the symbol, and the rest is dreadful history.

As I stood looking at this feature it struck me that this is a powerful metaphor for the humanistic view of history. Believing ourselves to be capable of overcoming our faults and failures we assert our belief that mankind is moving forward, moving away from its savage roots, and advancing to a new day. In actual fact the very words we use to express such hopes return to mock us, and show us the insurgent depravity of our own hearts, minds, and wills. We are more profoundly vacuous in moral terms than we can possibly conceive.

Such sentiments did not die in 1927, nor in 1945, nor on September 11th 2001, but live with us today. Coming home tonight I listened to a live concert from London, as Keane’s new track ‘Perfect Symetry’ echoed around the O2 arena, and across the ether via Radio 2. Lead singer Tom Chaplin announced at the beginning of the piece that it is the best song they have written as a band, as it encourages us all to live in peace and love. The refrain of ‘Perfect Symetry’ is that we should leave behind all firmly held belief, all divisive doctrine, all thought of heaven or hell, and live lives which express harmony and help to all around us – apparently we live in ‘perfect symetry, what I do to others will be done to me’.

Somehow I doubt that anyone is singing along in Mumbai tonight…



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