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  • Matthew A. Williams

John Lennon: Prophet of a Secular Age

Last week saw the celebration of Liverpudlian, John Lennon's 80th Birthday. Lennon is undoubtedly one of the world’s most well-known songwriters. Today sees the anniversary of the release of one of his most beautifully crafted songs, 'Imagine' (1971).


"Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky, imagine all the people, living for today.....you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you will join us - and the world will live as one".


Several political, social and economic factors had collided over the previous decades that made it 'easy' for Lennon to dream of a society that excluded any hope of life after death. He was not alone in this new vision. After being saturated for centuries in a particular brand of UK state-funded religion. U.K. citizens were unable to make sense out of the presence of evil, poverty, disease and two world wars within living memory.


Western Europe has since become one of the most secular societies in the world. Yet even here in the U.K. with its faded and distorted memory of being a 'Christian country' the conversation hasn't quite gone away. The echoes of an earlier age remain in the vocabulary of many in this society.


Prime minister Boris Johnson recently said (about lockdown restrictions) that he was, "deeply, spiritually reluctant to make any impositions, or infringe anyone's freedom". Whatever his motives, Johnson knew that most would understand what he implied. Equally, when a person encounters misfortune, well-meaning, non-religious people are often still in the habit of offering, 'thoughts and prayers'. Many have not abandoned their belief in God, but instead, it has been adjusted. The private internal conversation sounds more like this (to quote Donald Davie):


"'Do you believe in God?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Do you believe in a God who can change the course of events on earth?’ ‘No, just the ordinary one’."


The Queen's 2020 UK honours list published on Friday includes several black British gospel artists. Although this award has a complex history tied to empire, the fact is, with this gesture, the state has acknowledged the benefit to communities of participating in musical activity that has a spiritual context. Over the years there has been a clear effort by many individuals to make this happen. The implication of these awards is that there needs to be more of this. Migrants from non-secular countries (and their descendants) continue to infuse British community with spiritual life and values in various ways.


Could it be that within the distorted and faded collective British memory it is understood (to quote Paul the apostle out of context) "if in this life only we have hope, we are of all people to be most pitied"?


Almost fifty years later, John Lennon's iconic secular anthem remains an idealistic dream for society. But popular culture seems to indicate that we are less willing to fully engage with all the implications of that dream. So instead, for a lot of disaffected, non-religious people, there's an odd two-step dance demonstrated in the words of the British postmodernist writer Julian Barnes, "I don't believe in God, but I miss him".


Is this a collective ache for a long-gone imperialistic age? Perhaps it is simply the natural inclination of the human spirit to say, 'there must be more than this'.