Whilst I'm currently having a cracking time in Kiev, amongst the giant frogs, pig tongue, luck-shitting pigeons and blue Santas, one thing has very much annoyed me: a church. This is no surprise, really, given my dim view of Christianity, but the inside of the Church of St.Michael, whilst impressive and ornate, is also a heinous display of bullshit. I do not mean to mock its congregations' desire for solace, solemnity and salvation, nor their seeking of a place for meditation, reflection and enlightenment. I just think that this is not the place for it and I despair that so many human beings choose it to be so.
So why do I have such a strong dislike to a place so many would be in awe of? I shall mostly leave aside my philosophical disagreements with the Church and concentrate on three facets of the interior.
The first is general: there are far too many pictures of people holding swords. This is a place of worship not a military hardware catalogue. I know that many saints had a combative edge and I am not so naive as to forget we live in a world with conflict as its dynamo, but for somewhere that is meant to be a hub of piece and forgiveness I just think that every fifth picture shouldn't feature a man (or woman) with a broadsword. Stick to shepherds' crooks instead.
Next is the fact that there is the most vivid and graphic picture of some angels slaying a nine-headed hydra-dragon-demon. Now don't get me wrong, I think this is fucking cool. If it featured in a summer blockbuster or a campside fairy tale I would be all for it. But that's because I know dragons don't exist. I know they are an enjoyable part of the human imagination, probably even a Jungian archetype for a whole host of human characteristics. What they are not is something that should be part of a belief system that people base their ethics and morality on.
"But Ben," I hear you cry, "surely people don't actually believe in these hideous demons and homunculi?" Maybe not, although some surely do, and a great deal more will believe in angels, resurrections and a three-for-the-price-of-one god. And if you are going to believe in those, and the bi-partite world view they are part of, then you have to have the dragons and demons too. You can't play pic'n'mix at church. Cool as beasties and monsters may be, but I think I'll leave the motors of my morality to be rational doubt, liberal utilitarianism and positive transcendentalism.
This final element takes me to the final part of the church that I find so upsetting. As you exit, there is yet another frieze on the wall. To the left it's all happy angels, to the right, skulls full of worms and several sinners unmistakably burning in hell. A nice little reminder to those who rely on this church for hope and support that if they wander astray, court an alternative world view or even think too much for themselves, it's nothing but sulphur and suffering. I worry less about the people of 2011 when I think of this and more for the millions of people in times gone by who were functionally illiterate (and thus were even more awed and intimidated by vivid artwork) and would be gulled into subservience by these hideous displays. It's the same old rule of iron fist and fear. We condemn communist Ukraine for this. We condemn present day eastern oligarchs for this. More people should be brave enough to condemn the Church for this.
So what's my alternative? As I said before there is no shame in desiring a quiet space for your own thoughts, to wish for the betterment of your family, friends and soulmates, to hope for healing for the sick and respite for the needy and to ruminate on what it is to be human generally and yourself specifically. But these misguided, warped houses of violent fable and coercive morality are not these quiet spaces, despite having the appropriate solemn atmosphere.
I humbly suggest wilderness instead. It doesn't have to be the Hindu Kush or the Rockies, the expanse of the Australian outback or the tundra of the Arctic. It can be the Town Moor in Newcastle, Hyde Park, your back garden or your rooftop. All it need be is a place of stillness and emptiness where you can understand yourself as a small part of a large whole: your family, your neighbourhood, your community, your society, your country, your continent, your planet, your galaxy, your cosmos. It may take time to focus up and down again on these things, but I believe doing so can give you perspective and power to be humble and driven, honest and dynamic, kind to all and kind to yourself. No one need be coerced or patronised and questions remain powerful tools, not threats that need be suppressed. And there isn't a sword in sight.