I was having a think the other day about where to draw the line between unity and conformity. To be honest, I don’t really know where to draw it. My ethos (and I think a lot of people’s) has as part of its make-up the general notion of unity=good, conformity=bad. But where does one drift into the other?
For example, let’s take political parties. It can be good that people come together believing in a common cause, and have the same aims for society. They will want to put aside their differences and work towards a common goal. If every disagreement resulted in a different political party, you’d end up in the Popular People’s Front of Judea.
On the other hand, party membership leads to the existence of the party whip, which I have written about before. You can end up sacrificing something which you passionately believe in simply for the sake of fitting in, or being able to have influence in a given arena. I know people who have joined political parties and have been aghast at seeing them turn their backs on their principles because they thought it was more important to toe the party line for now, hoping they will be in a position to change it in 10-20 years’ time.
I am often critical of those who, as I see it, suspend their better judgement in order to simply do what they are told. In social media platforms such as Twitter & Facebook I do exaggerate a little, mainly to get the point across, though antagonism is not my aim. One item in particular that I find to be anachronistic is a thing called the lectionary, which is timetable used by high churches (particularly Anglican) which dictates on a week-by-week basis what passages of the bible should be read and what the subject of a sunday sermon should be.
Having grown up predominantly in non-conformist churches, I have been used to having the church pastor decide (usually with the help of some elders) these things, so that they can actually cater for their particular church. So it will not be uncommon to have a series of sermons either working through a particular book of the bible, or looking at a particular theme. To me, this just seems more logical.
Some elements of the lectionary creep out into the wider world, and one of these is the idea of Lent. Normally, the only notice we get is an article BBC Breakfast on how to make pancakes on the morning of Shrove Tuesday. Usually, I don’t have the necessary ingredients to hand, so tend to miss out. This year, however, I was a given a heads-up by the Artsy Honker, who told me it was starting on the 22nd of February.
Lent is often seen as a time when you give something up for a while. My understanding is that it’s supposed to be ‘give something up’ and ‘take something else up’ in its place. Typically, it’s supposed to be giving up something that is bad for you and taking up something good. For example, you might give up smoking and take up jogging in its place.
Where I get a little jittery is the idea that this is a particularly ‘christian’ idea. It seems more of an add-on to christianity and anyone can take part in it without the least let or hindrance. I know the end of it is due to coincide with Easter and that the habits given up and taken up should stick, but it is simply not a command that one will ever find in any of the books of the bible. It is a tradition that has built up (I’m not sure of the origins; if you can enlighten me, please comment) and become entrenched in various christian and quasi-christian denominations. The Wikipedia article could be seen to demonstrate a wide variety of opinion on the matter, though I think it just looks a bit of a mess.
So why do lent? I can understand that there are some good reasons for doing so, but none of those reasons are particularly linked with my christian faith. I see it as an active and living relationship, not a ritualistic religion. So by doing Lent, what message are we sending out? I can’t escape the conclusion the overwhelming message is this: I follow this ritual because that it was what my church tells me to do.
Here is where I come full circle and come back to conformity. Of all the things that people do during Lent, I cannot see any good reason why it has to be done at the particular time of the year dictated by the lectionary. If you want to give up a bad habit, just do it. Don’t wait until late winter/early spring.
The idea of preparing oneself for Easter is one I find a bit odd. I do think that of the 2 main christian festivals, Easter is more reliably timed than Christmas, but I don’t see why it should be a once a year celebration. My entire faith is grounded on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and I try to live in the light of those events every day.
So will I be partaking in Lent? I don’t know yet. I haven’t made up my mind. Jesus didn’t exactly conform to religious stereotypes and questioned the wisdom of his day. Shouldn’t I follow his example and do the same?