I have come to Jerusalem for a conference. It is the most astonishing place. Certainly, for someone who believes (as I do) that ‘Good’ and evil confronted each other in the most raw and graphic way on this spot in history, as the gospels describe, this is an amazing place.
And of course, whether you believe the Gospels or not, Jerusalem,still inexplicably dominates world politics. Enraged Islam hates the Jewish presence in the Jews’ ancient homeland, and this hate energises other political allegiances that define themselves as being pro or anti-Israel. World powers line up on one side of the other in ever deepening tension. Even stripping the religious narrative away from the story, the politics mirror the same dynamic as the spiritual one.
That ancient hatred has morphed into the determination of Iran (as one example) to develop nuclear weapons with the express intention of threatening the existence of Israel. It has even fuelled the anti-semitism in the supposedly anti-racist UK Labour party as it pursues the Islamic vote.
I had underestimated the effect that religious belief still has in Israel itself. When the bus I had taken from Tel Avis airport dropped me in the middle of Jerusalem. The place was completely deserted. No cars on the road; no pedestrians; no shops. Everything exquisitely still. It was as if there was a poultice of calm softly wrapped around one’s head.
It was amazing to stand in the middle of a great city without the slightest sign or sound of stress.
Only a few days ago a report was released describing unremitting traffic noise as the new urban killer. Constant noise, they discovered, produces a change in the blood bio-chemistry which has serious effects on the heart.
And here was a city turned into an oasis of silence, and all because it implemented one of the then commandments. On Monday morning a secular taxi driver told me how much better he felt after he starting observing the sabbath in mid life. “I’m periodically refreshed” he chortled. “Before I was perpetually worn out.”
Twenty or thirty years ago, there was a lot of popular chatter about how religion was bad for you. It involved the suppression of appetites and instincts which ‘undoubtedly’ led to neurosis. It was going to disappear anyway and, certainly, if you read Freud, (a Jew who hated his own religion), was uncomfortably linked to mental illness and compensation for not coping with real life.
Many of us find that real life is quite difficult to cope with. As the years go by ill-health, tragedy, occasional despair, bereavement and the unforeseen and unexpected haunt us without warning. Perhaps it’s no surprising that people find an inner urgency to look for some kind of way that makes the best sense of our vulnerable and provisional self-conscious years on earth.
As it happened, it turned out Freud wasn’t a very reliable psychiatrist after all, and many of his ideas were simply wrong. His ideas about religion turned out to be the worst. New research has been validating my Jerusalem Sabbath shock.
In some of the most recent, we discover that there is a reliable link between people who practice their faith and how long they live.
For example a study has just looked at over 1,000 obituaries, and came to the startling conclusion that people who admitted to believing in God and practised it, lived on average about 4 years longer than those who didn’t.
To people familiar with previous papers, this is no great surprise. Earlier studies have showed how people who have come to faith find a greater level of confidence and psychological security that, put simply, that ‘Life’ makes sense. The confidence that our lives have purpose and value acts as an antidote to anxiety and depression.
One of the most destructive aspects of our recent secularised culture is the fear that life has no meaning and grabbing as much pleasure as you can passing through, is the only sensible compensation; except that the pleasure diminishes.
We also just discovered that our millennial children suffer from a greater degree of anxiety and depression than any previous generation.
Our earlierJudaeo-Christian ethic offered a certain security. It offered a vision of men and women being in the image of God, coming together in life long marriage to co-create children. Our changes of culture have attacked marriage, undermined gender identity and threatened the sanctity and security of children.
We know that cohabiting couples break up more often than married ones. We know that unstable families where partners come and go are very bad for the mental health of the children. We discover that fluidity of gender anxiety is particularly distressing for teenagers as well as adults; and it turns out too that the womb has become a very dangerous place for millions of the unborn.
It seems after all, that the ethical inner life of faith is particularly helpful for sustaining mental, physical and social health; and that jettisoning them undermines them. Who knew.