Every so often, a group of Mormon missionaries boards the same train as me on my journey home from work. They are always clean-cut, handsome young men in suits and ties, looking like a bunch of animated mannequins from Austin Reed. Sometimes, but not often, there will be a few young ladies among them. Their togetherness and bland affability repel me almost as much as the Rottweiler glares of the tattooed young thugs who also occasionally board. If find myself surrounded by Mormon boys with their flawless white smiles, I bury my head in my book and tune them out.
Yesterday I was reading the wrong book. Sister Blomqvist (the name on her badge) catches part of the title and beams at me.
‘What’s the title of your book?’ she asks, smiling, her accent US plus a hint of Swedish.
‘I was a Teenage Catholic’ I say grudgingly, showing her the book and wishing it could be ‘I was a Teenage Cunt Hound’.
‘What’s it about?’ she asks, dialling the smile up a notch.
Oh, shite. I have observed that convention demands I remove my ear-plugs and try to respond appropriately. ‘Well, this bloke was brought up a Catholic in Northern Ireland, right, then he fucks off to India and he’s a Hindu for a bit, after that he comes back to Europe and realises organised religion is basically a crock, and, um, that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m compressing a bit.’
‘Do you have a faith?’
‘No!’ A bit over-emphatically.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, as if I had just told her I was abused as a child.
‘Not any more.’
I note with relief that the cement factory is sailing by, meaning my stop is coming up soon. In the course of some agonising small-talk about what I do and what she does, I learn that she and her fellow missionaries gather at some shiny white temple somewhere in the Midlands now and then to worship and ‘get to know God better’.
‘I know God exists and I know that he loves me!’ Sister Blomqvist says, the smile never flagging.
‘I don’t think you can possibly ‘know’ any such thing.’
I ought to have realised that that would renew her pity for my poor soul and that an invitation would be issued.
‘Why don’t you come along and join us?’ she says, proffering a card. ‘I just know you’d love it!’
This is my stop!
I don’t have it in me to worship a God who’s just longing to be my mentor and friend, Sis. I prefer a God who doesn’t give a toss: just chucks you into the universe to sink or swim and maybe report back on your experiences when you check out. Judgement Day would go something like this:
‘You took care of the sick and needy, huh? Cool!’
‘Thanks. I enjoyed it.’
‘Hmmmm. Yeah, OK, I see you also dismembered six postmen and buried them under the patio. Given your time again, would you still do that?’
‘On mature reflection, perhaps not. But they’re all OK now, I take it?’
The whole bizarre conundrum of existence appeals to me as it is, far more than any set of beliefs aimed at pinning it all down and making it cosy. I think the ugliest, most unspiritual phrase I have ever heard, one that makes me want to pelt the utterer with balls of shit, is ‘God’s opinion’. It makes God sound like your local MP or a pub bore, rather than the horny, howling, barking mad, unpredictable hurricane-force power hurtling around us that I want IT to be. (Not that you feel much of that force here in twee little Stamford, admittedly.)
In ‘I was a Teenage Catholic’, ex-Catholic, ex nearly-Hindu Malachi O’Doherty says, towards the end, what he believes:
At least this much, I think, that consciousness did not emerge out of matter as an added trick to the Darwinian repertoire, but pre-exists it perhaps, as radio signals pre-exist the radio. And just as the best radio set may not yet have been invented, we may not be the best possible or even the best existing medium for the expression of consciousness or spirit. There may already be creatures in nature, that is somewhere in the universe, who express it better; we may even be on our way to expressing it better ourselves.’
I sort of believe this too. ‘Sort of believe’ is as close as I get to any faith. I have reasons to believe that individual consciousness survives the death of the physical body, and that the conditions one encounters in one’s post mortem state depend entirely on one’s own imagination or lack of it. I also have to admit that I have reasons to believe this belief to be nonsense. I don’t know, and anyone who claims to know is, in my view, a deluded fool. So spare me the cosiness and certainties of the Mormon kids on the train, and the smugness and solicitude of Evangelicals, and their incomprehensible love for a monstrous personal God who, if He existed, would deserve nothing but the contempt of His brighter creatures. Quit already trying to share Him with me.