Thank God for Diversity!

VIELFALT im Augenblick” (“Diversity in a blink of an eye”) is the title of a photography exhibition which my wife, Alexandra Bosbeer, is putting on here in Siegburg, near Bonn, where we live. The exhibition opens on 19 November, so our flat has been a hive of industry with photographs being printed in various sizes and stuck on the wall in the hallway to create a mosaic of pictures of people, trees and other natural “objects”, and views of infrastructure in the modern world in which we live. My wife describes the (carefully selected) assortment of images as a “mosaic of hopes, dreams, experiences, opportunities and disappointments”. It is life as seen through the lens of her camera.

As I left the church after worship this morning, leaves were floating down from the sky, blown over from a large tree in the churchyard. I love the variety of colours in the autumn: yellow, brown, red, green and all shades in between. As a song-writer, I find that autumn (or “fall” as my American friends would say) is as much a source of inspiration as spring. Here are a couple of verses from one of my songs:

In this dark world we rarely see
The beauty of the Earth,
The richly coloured tapestry
Surrounding us from birth.

In these dark times of fear and strife
We need the light to see
The beauty of each human life,
Of all humanity.

Both the natural world and the human race make up a richly coloured tapestry. The rich diversity of living creatures and of human beings is beautiful to behold in every Augenblick, in every present moment. Let us treasure this diversity, not only because it is beautiful, but also because it is essential to our survival on this planet.

Anyone who has any understanding of ecology knows that the more diverse an ecosystem is in terms of the variety of species (biodiversity), the more stable it is. The web of life contains threads of many colours. The greater the diversity, the more resilient the web is. A thread of one colour can be removed without weakening the web significantly. One species may be wiped out by disease, for example, but this does not cause the ecosystem to collapse. On the other hand, an ecological community which has only relatively few species is much more susceptible to collapse, e.g. if one of the species dies out for some reason. A web with threads of only a few different colours is seriously weakened when all the threads of one colour are removed.

Much the same applies to human communities. Multicultural communities in which people respond to change in a variety of ways are more resilient than monocultural communities. When change hits a community, when a harvest fails or a factory closes down, the more diverse the community is in terms of agriculture or industry, the better the community will be able to cope. The resilience of communities and societies in our modern world depends on cultural diversity. We need the wisdom, knowledge, skills and expertise of lots of different groups in order to tackle the complex problems which communities and nations now face in a globalised world.

At the global level, we need the unfettered wisdom, knowledge, skills and expertise of every community and group throughout the world in order to manage climate change. So we need to put our energy into building intercultural and international cooperation in all fields of life: scientific, technological, economic, social, and political.

Nine months have passed since I last posted on this blog. One of the reasons for this – apart from being busy with other things – is that I have been left speechless by the result of the referendum in the UK. The decision to leave the European Union has left me more sad than I can say and more angry than I like to admit. Outside the European Union, especially if there is a “hard Brexit”, the UK will become impoverished both economically and culturally.

What makes me angry is not only the result of the referendum, but also the degree of hostility towards “foreigners” which has become increasingly evident in recent months. I read in the Guardian yesterday about Germans living in the UK who now feel that they are unwelcome. Neighbours are asking when they are going to leave. If a significant number of these German people leave the UK, this will have a negative impact on the NHS, on universities, and on the companies in which they work. The UK will be poorer both economically and socially. And then what about the Poles, the Portuguese, the Romanians, the Latvians, the Greeks, the Italians, and the Spanish…? Are they all going to feel unwelcome and be encouraged to leave? Is our supposedly Christian nation then going to tell all Muslims and Jews to leave? Heaven forbid!

Thank God for the diversity of the natural world and the diversity of the human race.

Sundays

On Sunday afternoon ten days ago I set off across the city on a bicycle. I had to negotiate my way around mothers and fathers with pushchairs casually walking down the middle of the road and past cyclists riding towards me on the wrong side of the street. Both cyclists and pedestrians were ignoring red traffic lights, children on skateboards and young men on roller-blades were all over the road, and young children were being allowed to wander about in the middle of the street. “What on earth was going on?” you may well ask.

This was the annual Car Free Sunday in Brussels. Private cars were banned from the entire city inside the ring road. A few buses and trams were running. And there were quite a few taxis around, but they had to go slowly because of the fleets of cyclists and hordes of pedestrians. I spent several hours cycling around the south of the city and spotted only a handful of cars which didn’t appear to be taxis. It was a pleasure to be able to cycle around without having to concentrate on the traffic all the time. And what a pleasure to hear the babble of human voices instead of the noise of traffic.

I should have counted the number of different languages which I heard – all the main European languages and probably a few others besides. Brussels is certainly a multilingual and multicultural city. I’m getting to experience this on Sundays especially. This last Sunday I joined a “Meet Up” group of photographers on a visit to an exhibition in a former abbey in Stavelot in the Ardennes. The group was organised by a German and included people of various ages from Ireland, the Ukraine and several countries in between. The lingua franca was of course English. They were a friendly bunch of people.

The exhibition was a display of photographs by the well-known French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. There were also a couple of short slide shows about his life and work. All the photographs were black and white – very striking. Several of the images have stayed in my mind: a girl skipping through a patch of sunlight on a mediaeval street; two bathers lying alongside each other in a lake with two ducks beyond them; boys playing amongst the ruins of a town during the Spanish civil war; three women washing clothes in a river somewhere in Yugoslavia.

Next Sunday there will be a neighbourhood fair here in Square Ambiorix, which is in the European Quarter, not far from the institutions of the European Union. There will be stalls representing a variety of cultures, no doubt. So next Sunday promises to be another special day.

Not that we Quakers regard Sundays as being any more special than any other day. We need to draw strength from the Source of our being every day of the week. And we need to seek the guidance of God’s spirit of love every day wherever we happen to be.

Then, drawing strength from the Source and following God’s guidance, we may become patterns and examples in all countries, places, islands and nations, wherever we happen to be, to paraphrase the words of George Fox, who goes on to say “then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”.

Some time ago I discovered a quotation attributed to Robert Benson: “All of the places of our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them.” This resonates with my conviction that every place on earth is in some way sacred and that there is indeed “that of God” in everyone, which in a way makes everyone a saint.

So, bearing in mind that all of the people that we live with are saints, here is one of my favourite quotations from Thomas Merton: “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering, by our very contact with each other, because this love is a resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”