Living with gods?

Hannah Boulton is our church PCC secretary and works at the British Museum. Here she discusses some of the issues raised by a recent exhibition about religious belief.

There is no known culture in the world or in history without religious beliefs. But is there a connection between believing and belonging?  It is a question explored by a current exhibition at the British Museum which looks at – through objects – the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of communities around the world and through time.

Scientists and Archaeologists believe that for the last forty thousand years – for as long as human beings have had the same sort of brain as we do – it seems that groups of people living together have tried to find patterns underlying the natural world on which they depend. All groups appear to come to a shared story, which seeks to explain their community’s place in the world, and to reconcile the transience of an individual life with the enduring existence of the group. They also develop rituals and festivals which reinforce the belief in that story. These shared stories and the rituals together powerfully help us forge a shared identity. They are something that bind us, even if we don’t always acknowledge it. For us as Christians, our faith, our meeting together at church and our prayers are part of this.

The exhibition is full of objects that reference these shared stories or are used in such rituals, from the everyday to the spectacular; from the celebrated Ice Age sculpture of the ‘Lion Man’ to posters relating to Soviet atheism, to an 18th century replica of a Hindu ceremonial chariot and the deeply moving Lampedusa Cross (pictured) – a cross made from pieces of wood recovered from a capsized boat which had been carrying refugees. These objects show that believing and belonging appear, everywhere in the world, as definers of community.

The exhibition runs until 8th April at the British Museum and the accompanying BBC Radio 4 series is still available to download via the BBC website.

Hannah Boulton