For a word whose use is steeped in the religious and spiritual realms, faith has some equally secular definitions – a sense of duty, loyalty or allegiance, or a confidence or trust in someone or something. (Indeed the words Latin roots are about trust and confidence rather than a system of beliefs.) Yet even viewed through strictly secular eyes, it moves (us) in strange ways.
Three very different examples of it demonstrated themselves in the course of a day recently, but each seemed in their own way to demonstrate a human desire to have faith in something: it seems even those that some others might categorise as heretics need something to trust or believe in. As Victor Hugo wrote, “A faith is a necessity to a man. Woe to him who believes in nothing.”
The first example came in the possibly unexpected surroundings of Crofton Pumping Station on the Kennet and Avon Canal, whose preserved steam-powered beam engines are still fully operational and capable of performing the functions they were installed to provide in the early 19th Century. A visitor attraction of the truly English style (tea and bread pudding are available alongside tours of wonderfully impressive examples of historic engineering), our Bank Holiday visit coincided with an open day, complete with a marquee full of local produce and home-baked cake. In more PR-groomed hands, it’s the kind of place that would be in danger of providing a click ‘heritage experience’. In the flesh, its band of lightly oil-stained engineers in white overalls and the friendly women serving in the café had the air of relaxed bonhomie you’d equate more with a village fair – an achievement given that those present were from far and wide.
Most of us were, to be honest, having a nice afternoon out, gawping at some impressive and surprisingly beautiful machinery at a little historic outcrop on a canal bank. Kennet and Avon Canal Trust’s volunteers were, however, no doubt grateful for the income: our love of tea, cake and hotdogs can be converted into funding to keep a historic waterway viable with the minimum of pain to either party. And most us were probably also indulging the English habit of having a good revel in a lost Golden Age, all hand-painted chandlery, horses and coal scuttles. But the men in the white boilersuits undoubtedly had faith – faith in the human ingenuity that had created this place, and in the engineering skills that were still plainly evident in the machines that they lovingly tend. Our restored canals may – in terms of economic contribution – mostly provide us with a way of having a holiday both in and from the current century, but engineering still has an important place in the world. As a place to stand and ponder as you digest the bread pudding, Crofton poses two interesting questions: why engineering has been so heavily replaced by IT as something to place our faith in, and why some of us love the present so avidly we want to spend our leisure time in an earlier century.
The second example was also about faith in its other sense: Salisbury Cathedral. Faithless (in the cathedral’s sense, at least) as I am, cathedrals are a source of fascination and an object of respect: their sheer scale and majesty are inspirational – especially given the centuries in which they were constructed. Whether or not faith can move literal mountains, it can certainly move enormous quantities of granite, limestone and stained glass – and inspire very fine examples of craftsmanship. (As someone interested in calligraphy, I can’t help but notice that churches and temples remain a prominent source of commissions.)
As a cathedral visitor, I can never be too sure how many of those around me – as I visit as a tourist rather than a celebrant, during typical tourist hours – are there because of their religious faith, or simply to enjoy the building. In my case, I was primarily there to see a contemporary sculpture exhibition, but it’s impossible not to be moved by a building that is undeniably glorious. (A word that derives from a Latin word meaning ‘famous’, but which meant ‘boastful’ for several centuries before arriving at its current meaning.) Whether you visit as someone acting on their personal faith, or merely as someone who admires the power and grace of the structure, it’s very difficult not to be impressed by the commitment required to build and maintain such a stunning building for nearly 800 years – six centuries longer than the beam engines of Crofton have been in place, and ‘operational’ throughout. Even atheists can be sufficiently moved to make a donation towards its upkeep: as a reminder of what faith can achieve, and the power it can evoke, Salisbury Cathedral remains impressive.
But the third example provides a lesson in longevity that neither Crofton or Salisbury can hope to emulate: Avebury Stone Circle. Now approaching five thousand years old, it attracts visitors by the coachload to wander round and endless photograph its neolithic (and monolithic) stones. In truth, archaeologists remain clueless as to its uses: we have no idea why it – or, the burial mounds of West Kennet Long Barrow excepted, any of the other nearby relics of the Neolithic Age – was built, or what it was built for.
Certainly the site has endured long periods of neglect. As the medieval village that was built partly with in expanded, stones were smashed for use in buildings, or buried – either as evil pagan relics or because they obstructed farming. Yet the site’s enigmatic quality has enabled many people to interpret it as they wish: a popular site for Druid rituals, it also attracts legions of ‘new age’ believers. The National Trust has restricted commercial opportunities in Avebury, but the nearby Henge Shop can provide you with all manner of crystals, runic pendants, dowsing rods and the like. There’s no more evidence that Neolithic Man consulted his or her crystals or checked his daily Celtic horoscope than there is proof that our ancestors wore rainbow-striped tie-dye cheesecloth and vegan sandals. (One thing archaeologists have unearthed are pig bones: the most accurate way of ‘maintaining the faith’ in neolithic circles – the pun is intentional – might be a hog roast.)
It is – as you can tell from the preceding paragraph – easy to be sneering about latter-day co-opting of ancient sites for purposes that look comical to the outsider: watching two druids push a baby-buggy across a lumpy field in the rain is not a sight that inspires awe, not least as green velvet isn’t often associated with any waterproofing qualities. Yet Avebury is a vast site that continues to enchant and mystify.
Human needs don’t end with food, water, heat and shelter: we need things to love, and things to believe in. Enigmatic as Avebury remains, its openness to interpretation leaves us able to believe what we will and make the place emblematic of it – vague and nebulous as visions go, but one retains an elusive power down the millennia. As Saint Augustine is reputed to have said:
Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.
(Stop for a moment to compare the innumerable false dawns we’ve created for ourselves in terms of things in which to place our faith with the number of dawns (over 1.5 million) that Avebury henge has witnessed.) Maybe one reason Avebury continues to weave some strange magic is how fleeting it makes us and our passing concerns feel: something to ponder as you struggle to define ‘a vision statement with legs’.