The Bells | Sojourners

The Bells

Our text this morning, brothers and sisters, is from the inimitable Scottish devout Robert Louis Stevenson, writing (ostensibly) about his native city:

“Indeed, there are not many uproars in this world more dismal than that of the Sabbath bells in Edinburgh: a harsh ecclesial tocsin; the outcry of incongruous orthodoxies, calling on every separate conventicler to put up a protest, each in his own synagogue, against ‘right-hand extremes and left-hand defections.’ And surely there are few worse extremes than this extremity of zeal; and few more deplorable defections than this disloyalty to Christian love. Shakespeare wrote a comedy of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ The Scottish nation made a fantastic tragedy on the same subject. And it is for the success of this remarkable piece that these bells are sounded every Sabbath morning on the hills above the Forth. How many of them might rest silent in the steeple, how many of those ugly churches might be demolished and turned once more into useful building materials, if people who think almost exactly the same thoughts about religion would condescend to worship God under the same roof! But there are the chalk lines. And which to pocket pride, and speak the foremost word?”

Which, indeed? 

Let us talk for a minute, blunt and honest and not polite for a change, about that which is never said and ought to be: that the divisions and disagreements among the Christian sects and traditions are silly and selfish, that the various Christian sects and traditions ought to be ashamed of themselves for wasting such incredible creativity and energy and money on divisions and disagreements and politics and hoarding of money and power (such as it is), and that the inarguable fact of their splintered existence is naked proof of their being failures at what it is they claim to be, which is the extant energy, in human form, in this physical world, of the Son of Light who came among us, and took our form, and left crystal-clear instructions about how to act, none of which included any shred of detail about transubstantiation, papal authority, divorce, gender identity and practice, schooling, money, speaking in tongues, or the right and proper way to baptize children.

He talked about love. That’s pretty much all He talked about. His message was that love was the greatest of gifts and tools, and if we would rise to it like eager trout we could and should change the world, and make war a memory, and make peace our daily bread, and see the world He created for what it is – not a grocery store to be looted, or a lush battleground for murdering people who do not conceive of the Unconceivable exactly like you do, but a trove of wonders beyond the calculation of all the geniuses we ever hatched, an endless ocean of miracles to be explored and shared and celebrated and sung until the angels gape in amazement at what our unangelic species finally grew up to be.

Instead we stew in our religious castles. There are a billion Catholics in the world, themselves divided into more than 20 traditions; there are billion other Christians in the world, divided into at least 40 traditions. In God’s name, why? Because of wars and murderous politics in the past? The past is past, and our children and grandchildren are here before us, waiting for our love to bear fruit, waiting for us to actually do as we say, and bring His love to bear against the dark like a weapon. Because of disagreements and arguments about religious practice and authority? You know and I know, and every honest religious authority of every stripe and sash knows, that these are tinny and childish disagreements, in the end, of no weight whatsoever when gauged against such terrors as hunger and thirst, fouled water and air, war and rape. So why we do not join forces?

And I do not mean issue declarations of unity, and conduct amiable meetings that produce courteous proclamations that no one reads, and pledge interfaith amity, and plan photographic opportunities on behalf of the amorphous idea of Ecumenism. I mean giving up the ghost of isolate powers and structures. I mean uniting under some new wild banner. I mean paying the greatest respect and affection and tribute to the words Catholic and Presbyterian and Methodist and Lutheran and Baptist even as we gently retire those words to pasture and unite as The Christlings, or The Yesuans, or The World Council of the Stephildren of Joseph. In that form, 2 billion strong for the first time in history, steered perhaps by a board of Thirteen Apostles (six men, six women, and child aged twelve, who has final authority), we speak as one in economic, political, moral, and religious matters. Imagine a group 2 billion strong that is able to speak directly to moderate Islam and insist on a mutual policing of each tradition’s own murderous thugs. Imagine a group 2 billion strong that is able to speak respectfully to the world’s billion Hindus, and find common ground for preserving the inarguable holiness of a world so filled with the divine that our species has invented some hundred thousand religions as vocabularies for the miracle. Imagine a group 2 billion strong that can speak to the millions of beings who do not believe in religions, and find common ground in … well, common ground. 


Pipe dream? Let me quote the late Polish playwright and poet Karol Józef Wojtyła, respected for his honesty and vision not only by every corner of his own Catholic tradition, but by people of many dozens of other religious traditions, and none. “Even after the many sins which have contributed to our historical divisions,” he wrote in 1995, 17 years into his long and colorful reign as pope, “Christian unity is possible, provided that we are humbly conscious of having sinned against unity and are convinced of our need for conversion. Not only personal sins must be forgiven and left behind, but also social sins, which is to say the sinful ‘structures’ themselves which have contributed and can still contribute to division and to the reinforcing of division …”

Sinned against unity – John Paul II’s words have a certain blunt ring to them, do they not? So why do we wait? The sinful structures that divide us are decrepit walls, long ago pointless and now more prisons than anything useful. Do we have the courage to dismantle them at last, and strive to be the communal agents and verbs of love that Yesuah asked us to be, or not? Will the bells ever ring for a true Christian community, or will they only continue to mean a sadly splintered idea that we have never had the courage to bring to its divine genius?

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of a collection of spiritual essays, Grace Notes.

Photo: Church bells at sunset, © Magdalena Bujak | View Portfolio /