Gill Evans / Religion

Where do you come from and how did you get here?

Whether religious or atheist, the human desire to find out ‘how did I get here?’ remains intact.

‘Hello, where do you come from and how did you get here?’

My sister sometimes rescues a few chickens from life in batteries. The bewildered birds take a while to realise that the world is bigger than their familiar cages. Tentatively they put  out a foot into a world full of grass and worms and make interrogative scratchings. They discover the existence of perches from which it is possible to take a panoramic view of this new larger universe.

The free-range chickens already in possession of all that space are not very welcoming. They draw their skirts about them and roost apart, apparently despising the newcomers.

I can’t help making comparisons with the reactions of us humans to globalisation. In a generation, native Westerners have found themselves encountering other civilisations face to face in familiar streets. Multicultural and multifaith societies present the challenge of deciding whether to learn about those civilisations and how.

‘Hello, where do you come from and how did you get here?’ can be an unpromising opening to a conversation with a stranger. Yet it is everyone’s question at some stage. It is a question people all over the world seem to ask themselves as soon as they are old enough to formulate abstract ideas. Scratching for worms and perching in trees have their human counterparts in the process of ‘locating’ oneself in the universe.

Those liberated chickens, of course, won’t have been constructing a story about their origins to tell the balls of yellow fluff emerging from the eggs they lay. But humans do. In 1862-3, in the heat of the furore about Darwin’s Origin of Species, Charles Kingsley’s allegorical children’s story The Water Babies  was published. In a cheerful satire, Kingsley turns the evolution of mankind on its head:

But there is a hairy one among them,” said Ellie.

‘Ah!’ said the fairy, ‘that will be a great man in his time, and chief of all the tribe.’

And, when she turned over the next five hundred years, it was true.

For this hairy chief had had hairy children, and they hairier children still; and every one wished to marry hairy husbands, and have hairy children too; for the climate was growing so damp that none but the hairy ones could live: all the rest coughed and sneezed, and had sore throats, and went into consumptions, before they could grow up to be men and women.

Then the fairy turned over the next five hundred years.  And they were fewer still.

‘Why, there is one on the ground picking up roots,’ said Ellie, ‘and he cannot walk upright.’

No more he could; for in the same way that the shape of their feet had altered, the shape of their backs had altered also.

‘Why,’ cried Tom, ‘I declare they are all apes.’

Going backwards from that point takes the story into the realms where the Higgs Boson or divine creative powers, or both, have to enter the story.

Through most of history, apart from periods of tribal migration and the creation and fall of a few empires, most people have probably spent their lives close to where they were born meeting only a few hundred people in a lifetime. They inherited an explanation of how they got there and passed it on to their children. There was no testing of the local ‘story’ of  a giant or a god setting things up as we see them now; the mutation of powerful movers and shakers into different kinds of being; rocks or trees with spirits living in them (who could could make life uncomfortable if not placated with presents or sacrifices). No-one thought it needed to be proved. It got its ‘truth’ from being told and retold and relied on.

It couldn’t be tested in a way we would now recognise where there was no modern scientific method.  And even now when science is respectable and confident and newspapers publish stories about its latest discoveries,  the questions which lie furthest back of all can’t be resolved in that way. If I could hold a Higgs Boson in my hand I still wouldn’t know if God made or it just had to happen to fulfil a law of the universe.  Anyway, who made those laws?

Society changes too in a ‘globalised’ world. In modern developed multicultural Western societies, immigrants who settle bring up children in a new culture. The children inherit elements of both cultures and feel the conflict between them.  Religious teaching in schools may be so ‘multi-faith’ as to be confusing. A search for ‘roots’ and ‘ancestors’ may take an immigrant’s children and grandchildren back to a country of origin but  that will not guarantee that they can enter fully into the culture which persists there.

In the modern West it has been fashionable for some years to feel you have to ‘discover who you are?’ We tend to do it now with a sense of entitlement. Schools promise to develop your child’s full potential and adults sometimes leave jobs and homes to go and ‘find themselves’. But it is not all about what a person may become. ‘Where am I?’ and ‘How did I get here?’ are part of the question ‘Who am I’? ■

First LightG.R. Evans is Professor Emeritus of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge and the author of the new book First Light: A History of Creation Myths from Gilgamesh to the God-particle. Her many books include Belief: A Short History for Today (2006), The Church in the Early Middle Ages (2007), The University of Cambridge: A New History (2009) and The University of Oxford: A New History (2010), published by I.B.Tauris.
Image courtesy of low.filer.

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