Can it be that Marks and Spencer’s (M&S) ‘feel-good and optimistic message’ via one of their recent jumpers may prove to be a turning point in both clerical and ecclesial garb and open the way to release some of the ossified theological reading of the word ‘believe’? Who would not be dazzled by the bold and colourful ‘BELIEVE’ worn across chests and as tops? Can it be the case that ecclesial communities and its clergy in these jumpers, instead of the usual dour messaging and outlandish parroting of liturgical gear/wear, finally bring its clientele (lapse, new, and potential ones) into the bosom of Church? Believe it or not, I am delighted for the colleagues who are sporting this jumper, even if the ‘fashion’ gets taken up across the globe and in very hot countries with clergy sweating like donkeys (Guyanese expression) underneath the heavy jumpers. It would not be the first and last time that clerical gear from ‘west and east’ is transplanted in its original texture across south.
But gear, wear, and a few tears aside: what about the message conveyed in our deploying of M&S believe? Isn’t ‘believe’ and its sibling ‘belief’ a product of the mind? Is it not the case that what often passes as beliefs are our constructed versions around the ‘beyond all knowing’ being who transcends us and all created things? Yet these constructions can become burdensome shackles around neck and feet. Often narrowly rooted in our cultures and socialization processes, even when these strongly held beliefs may be in conflict with everything else of what we know to be true, we would willingly die for them. Why? This will have to be left for another blog.
Perhaps, it is time to suspend and release belief and believe or turn it into what some have more helpfully named as be-loving. I am drawn to this. The word ‘believe’, for instance, has an interesting pedigree and journey with multiple meanings across its original uses ranging from ‘holding dear’ to ‘caring, desiring, and loving.’ In the context of Church (from the time of the early church) the word took on a more rigid direction as meaning ‘being persuaded of the truth of something’, becoming associated with ‘authority’ and accepting something as ‘true or truth’. This has been an unfortunate development, as ‘believe’ then got co-opted into ecclesial gate-keeping, as a means to declare heretical all that deviated from what a small group of men considered as their understanding or version of ‘truth’. Little room was allowed for doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguous movement with all the risks involved. Believe is actually more risk averse than be-loving!
Perhaps M & S for its next feel-good sweater may wish to consider ‘Be-Loving’ as a strapline. Such may help church communities to rediscover the sensuous and desiring meanings of ‘believe’. Then perhaps, through the ‘be-loving’ lens, we may start to put into caring practices and habits what we dream of: that it is possible for human beings to live out the goodness within each of us; that it is possible to make change happen (for example in climate, gender, and economic justice, to name a few) in spite of the overwhelming evidence contrary to such. In terms of the latter and in trying to see the blessing in the ‘little good’ we have, especially when others may be far more worse off, I am reminded of Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of ‘small goodness’ (la petite bonté).
For Levinas, the meaning of human existence (our purpose) is more than a matter of being, system and structure. It is more about one’s relation to the other. However despairing, desolate and dehumanising existential realities may be or however impossible it may seem that goodness can ever be salvaged from any system and social institution, there is still a ray of hope. We may feel that the small acts of goodness we engage in are useless against systemic evil, but we should never stop be-loving. The track record of goodness may look small in the grand scheme of the larger challenges, yet we should underestimate the power of everyday beloving and intentional acts of goodness. We must continue to bear witness to such goodness, not through hammering beliefs and believe but by habits of beloving.
Are we able to image the weight and potential momentum of a movement of la petite bonté across the globe? If the Divine taking on human flesh means anything it ought to be this: being-there-for-the-other. And that will happen through unrelentless be-loving. An extravagance of small goodness of beloving is the way of realising what it means to be fully human and consequently journeying towards full and flourishing life for all of creation.
Michael N. Jagessar (December 2021)