Saturday 7 December 2013



Francis Spufford (Faber 2012) 

There was a lively discussion on December 1st of a lively and provocative book. Reactions to Francis Spufford's style varied from the negative (childish, unnecessarily crude language, verbose) to the positive (at least he sounds modern and not stuffy). What can't be denied is that Spufford uses his twenty-first century writing skills to create a fresh and fluent account of one man's experience of, and reflections on, religion, specifically Christianity. 

In Chapter Two, The Crack in Everything, he argues what we all know, that both we and the world we live in are hardly the way we would really like them to be.  Call it broken, or use the F word, but it's not surprising that some people meditate on this and wonder if there is an answer beyond our trivial daily concerns or the flattering image that our advertisers help us to believe about ourselves. He ends the chapter thus:
The crack in everything is here to stay. So one thing we do … is to turn towards the space where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us … To turn towards a space in which there is quite possibly no one – in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one.
And we say: Hello? Hello? …

It won't bother you if you don't bother it

This leads directly to Chapter Three, Big Daddy, which begins: 'And nothing happens. ... Well, we've arrived at God, or at God's absence'. But he goes on to give a long account of his own experience of meditating in quiet places such as churches: 
Churches are vessels of hush, as well as everything else they are, and when I block out the distractions of vision, the silence is almost shockingly loud. 
It's best to read it for yourself but the result is that 'something makes itself felt from beyond or behind or beneath it all', 'it seems to shine ... with lightless light', and he's honest and aware enough to comment that 'what you've experienced is an absolutely bog-standard piece of transcendence'.  

There were other accounts at Wychwood Library of experiences of transcendence. What was more equivocal was how, why or whether these led one to reconsider what the great religions have to say about such experiences and what lies behind them. Clearly for Spufford they have done and you can only really glean with how much reality and sense - as well as emotion - by reading his own words in context. 

Hello, Cruel World

One could be disappointed by Chapter 4. Spufford has seemed to promise so much.  But Spufford is also strikingly honest. He won’t just tell you that he can’t solve the problem of pain (if he could, he’d be Regius Professor of Divinity by now); he’ll also take you through each of the historic solutions (“theodicies”) and make sure you aren’t taken in by them, even if thousands or millions have been, through wishful thinking or otherwise.

But then he stops and says:
And that’s about the end of what argument can do for us.
How then do we deal with suffering? How do we resolve the contradiction between cruel world and loving God? The short answer is that we don’t. We don’t try to, mostly. Most Christian believers don’t spend their time and their emotional energy stuck at this point of contradiction. …
We don’t forget, mind. … The impasse is still there. It’s just that we’re not in the jaws of it. … Our feelings have moved on elsewhere. Because there is a long answer, too, to the question of suffering;  a specifically Christian perception of what God is, which helps us to move on.  (pp 104-106)
... We don’t say that God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world: not deep down. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story. (p107)
 And this is the prelude to chapter 5 (Yeshua), which is the most extraordinary tour de force of narrating a very old story in a very fresh way. I was well and truly gripped by this re-telling of lots and lots of bits of the story of Jesus in a thoroughly modern, intelligible way. Billy Graham has nothing on Francis Spufford.

You have to read it. It would be impossible to produce excerpts or summaries. It’s 39 pages but it’s worth the investment. What he does say before ending ch 4 is about praying, or rather who he prays to, and hence the essence of what Christianity is about.

When I pray...

Straight after the passage quoted above, he goes on:
When I pray, I am not praying to a philosophically complicated absentee creator. When I manage to pay attention to the continual love song, I am not trying to envisage the impossible-to-imagine domain beyond the universe. … I look across, not up; I look into the world, not away. When I pray I see a face, a human face among other human faces. It is a face in an angry crowd …  [I]f  you are a Christian you do not believe that the characteristic of the God of everything is to mould the universe powerfully from afar. For  a Christian the most essential thing God does in time, in all of human history, is to be that man in the crowd… (p107-108)
... Which leads to the page-turner that is Chapter 5, 'Yeshua' (later latinized to Jesus). 

There are 3 more chapters after this, ending with Chapter 8, 'Consequences'. We have set ourselves to read all the remaining 5 chapters for January 12th at Wychwood Library, from 7 to 9pm. Since all agreed that there is a lot there - even if sometimes hidden in the verbiage, as one could, unkindly, put it - we thought we would all pick out our favourite chapter or passage and bring it before the group to discuss. We may well run out of time... 
February 9th is already earmarked for Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria. And on March 9th we welcome poet and theologian Nicola Slee to lead a session on Faith and Poetry. 

Friday 22 November 2013


UNAPOLOGETIC: why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense  Francis Spufford (Faber 2012)

Bertrand Russell was recently quoted in an article by Andy Fitzgerald (An agnostic defends religion). He wrote: 
I do not think that the real reason that people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. 
After describing his own early experience of religion at a funeral mass 'in a large and gorgeous Catholic church' and later when studying in the Middle East, Fitzgerald concludes: 
It's likely that religion's popularity is a product of emotion, fear of mortality and the unknown, and yes, fealty to tradition. But just like scientific and social inquiry, religion can serve a meaningful and positive role in individual and collective struggles, from the banal to the seemingly unbearable.  I do not have religious belief, but I also will not disparage the benefits many draw from theirs. 
Despite his best efforts, this seems patronising and disparaging to people of faith and it is the sort of attitude which our new 'study book' at Wychwood Circle aims to take on. Faith can be both intelligent and meaningful, maybe all the more so when its practitioners are neither pious nor over-intellectual. 

On December 1st local members of Wychwood Circle will meet at Wychwood library to discuss the first three chapters of Francis Spufford's recent book, Unapologetic. Theo Hobson in the TLS reviewed it thus: 
The point ... is to show those on the fence that belief need not mean the abandonment of intelligence, wit, emotional honesty. In this, Francis Spufford succeeds to an exceptional degree. 
And Metro's reviewer described Spufford as 'an honest, modern religious voice to engage fellow Christians and detractors alike'. 

Spufford was Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1997 and is better known for literary anthologies and a collection of essays about the history of technology. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  Here he takes up the theme of church-going in the 21st century in a fresh, not to say brash, way and he is not afraid to sound journalistic and to use four-letter words to make his point. 

In his first chapter he takes issue with the famous - if short-lived - London bus slogan, 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life'. He also inverts the normal perception that belief is mysterious, peculiar, or delusional: 
In my experience it's belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things... It's belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending. 
He then promises to mount a defence of the emotions involved in religious belief, often seen nowadays as 'alien, freakish, sad, embarrassing, humiliating, embarrassing, immature, pathetic'. He will not be setting out what Christians believe in, nor a defence of Christian ideas, he says, but 'a defence of Christian emotions - of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity'

Sunday, December 1st, 7 - 9 pm at Wychwood Library: a discussion based on the opening 3 chapters of Francis Spufford's book Unapologetic. Anyone is free to join us. 

Thursday 31 October 2013



“Spirituality means waking up.” Thus begins a book entitled Awareness by Anthony de Mello (Doubleday, 1992). He continues: “Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. … They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.”

Nikki Leader ( to Wychwood Circle on Nov 10th to tell us: “Wake up! The world is changing”.  Her fascinating website refers to the challenge of ‘exploring consciousness beyond our physical and material universe’ and she has promised to give us ‘a history of the ages from a spiritual perspective’.  

We live in an age when it is much more trendy to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ than the other way round – although many will of course reject any notion of spirituality as airy-fairy, not science-based or provable, and therefore ok for some but not for the intellectually rigorous.

Philip Sheldrake bravely tackled the subject in his recent Spirituality – A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2012) and suggested that we know experientially and not just because our parents or teachers told us so, that ‘as human beings we are naturally driven by goals beyond physical satisfaction or mental supremacy’.  He also concluded that ‘a full human life needs to move beyond self-absorption to a sense of the greater good and service of others’.  … Discuss!  That quotation would make a great motion for a debate.

I like the third part of his conclusion which sees spirituality as ‘a process of unlocking the creativity and imagination that enables us to touch the edge of mystery.’  For me this is a large part of what I would most want to explore, whether at church, meeting house or Sunday assembly, or in Wychwood Library at our monthly discussions.

Harnessing new energies

Nikki Leader’s introduction to our event on November 10th says she will offer
a spiritual perspective on what is, and has been happening since the end of the Mayan calender 2012. A short history of the ages humans have lived through, their effects and how we can all harness these new energies as long as we are prepared for change individually and globally.
Harnessing energies and being prepared to change? These both sound like something people of traditional faiths should be doing daily - and maybe some from less traditional faiths or no faith at all.  So the overlap between religion and Nikki's brand of spiritual direction (she is a professional spiritual adviser, or Soul Practitioner) will be fascinating to regular members of Wychwood Circle as much as to many newcomers and occasional visitors.

And what if you've never intended to be either religious or spiritual? Well, come along if you dare and be prepared to be challenged to 'wake up' and look further and differently at your world.  I picked up de Mello's Awareness only this morning and by chance, but I note that he ends his first short chapter with these words - which may or may not echo Nikki Leader's approach: 
Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It's irritating to be woken up. That's the reason the wise guru will not attempt to wake people up. ... My business is to do my thing, to dance my dance. If you profit from it, fine; if you don't, too bad!  As the Arabs say, 'The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the gardens.'

We are grateful to Nikki Leader for agreeing to join us as a guest speaker on Sunday November 10th at Wychwood Library from 7pm to 9pm.

Wednesday 25 September 2013


I enjoyed half-an-hour with a cappucino and Alain de Botton in Blackwell’s the other day. It’s great: you can read a chapter and then put him back on the shelf.  The book in question, which demanded to be dipped into, was Religion for Atheists, grist to the mill when you’re into exploring the boundaries of theology.  The author graciously admits that religions can be ‘sporadically useful, interesting and consoling’ and then goes on to write a whole book about how to pick out what they have to offer. Anyone who is serious about life (someone on this page recently described ‘being spiritual’ as precisely that) might want to do the same, positively but less patronisingly.

De Botton’s starting point is as good as any and would have chimed in with Reverend Andrew Thayer’s presentation to Wychwood Circle earlier this month (“Thank God I’m an atheist”). It is neatly summed up in this  sentence:
It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting.
It’s a bit long to go on the bottom of our Wychwood Circle posters but it would make a good advert for our discussions.  He ends his first chapter with the words of our heading – he says he wants to 'rescue what is beautiful, touching and wise from what no longer seems true'.

Had we managed to organise a head-to-head between Alain and Andrew, I suspect the latter would have wanted to know just what it is that “no longer seems true” to Alain and then mostly agreed with him.  Andrew gave us a brief but lucid, and welcome, exposition of a twenty-first-century - as contrasted with a first-century - view of three aspects of his faith, under the headings Cosmology, Biology, and Christology. There are plenty of present-day Christians who would not agree with that contemporary view and they have a lot to answer for in terms of making Christianity both incomprehensible and irrelevant to people’s twenty-first century lives.  But in the spirit of de Botton and ‘postmodern’ theologians we do better to look for what is meaningful rather than what isn’t.

Andrew Thayer showed us how you can leave behind the first century view of the universe as ‘heaven above and hell below’, for instance, and yet retain that first-century ‘sense of infinitude’; that a present-day view of 'salvation' would need to ask, salvation how and from what?, but that a Christian can still see Jesus Christ having a key role in revealing that elusive mystery to us;  that a one-line description of what Christ was about (such as a favourite Bible quotation or a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer) will be as inadequate as describing Martin Luther King by the single phrase for which he is now famous.

Andrew’s most telling analogy – surprisingly for us, but appropriately for a Texan – was probably the Chisholm Trail in the States.  This is a two-mile wide cattle trail from Texas to Chicago, one of several visible from space and dating from the days when cattle fetched 10 times as much in Chicago as it did in Texas.  He compared this vast trail to the Christian tradition: it’s very long and it’s very wide and you’ll never use it all up.  Any atheistic critique of religion cannot therefore afford to be either narrow or binary.  And as John Macquarrie (former Professor of Divinity at Oxford University) wrote in his Principles of Christian Theology, in an understatement passing almost as a throwaway remark: 'The idea of God has undergone many changes in the course of its history.' *

Macquarrie, incidentally, points out in the same chapter:  ‘the word atheism must also be understood in relation to what it denies. Presumably most modern men deny the the gods of mythology, and so from the point of view of a believer in these gods, they are atheists.’ An atheist friend of mine recently related that there have been around 2600 ‘noted and recognised gods’ over the years and that this makes us all atheists regarding the 2599 even if we are monotheists.  The point is that you cannot be an atheist without describing what it is you don’t believe in and therein lies the weakness and sterility of the argy-bargy of the ‘new atheist’ debates: we probably agree about a good 99% of what we don’t believe in.  Better to begin with De Botton and at least explore, as he entitles his first chapter, ‘Wisdom without doctrine’, even if you don't go any further.

On October 6th we meet again at Wychwood Library to explore the very positive theme of “What guides our choices”.  Ian Cave has kindly offered to lead the discussion and there is a short piece entitled Blindness in Springtime which will act as a springboard for people’s ideas, beginning: “If I had my life over again…” Plenty of scope for wisdom, with or without doctrine, there. 

* Macquarrie, in his monumental modern study of the Principles of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1966, 1977) devoted the first third of the book to Philosophical Theology, where amongst much else besides he traces these changes from the mythological level through traditional theism to what he calls ‘the phase of existential-ontological theism’.  Macquarrie’s systematic ‘philosophical theology’ is worth looking up, particularly if you have any sympathy with existentialism – as he does, for instance comparing Sartre’s conclusions with the religious one.  In the light of our Wychwood Circle discussions, it is interesting to find a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford stating (at the start of chapter 5 on Being and God): ‘It has already been made abundantly clear that faith is not primarily assent to propositions, but an existential attitude of acceptance and commitment.’ From this point of view it probably reduced his appeal to our very mixed audience that Andrew Thayer began his talk with an elaborate reference to the Church’s Nicene Creed  – but then he is an Anglican priest as well as a theologian and it was arguably a suitable if provocative point of departure, given our topic.  

Tuesday 3 September 2013


September 8th 2013 at 7pm in Wychwood Library: 

An exploration of the boundaries between theism and atheism

by Reverend Andy Thayer, actor, musician, theologian, priest - and Texan!

Do join us. Andy is in the UK to work on a PhD on ecclesiology and Derrida at Mansfield College, Oxford. While he does so, we are lucky to have him as Associate Priest in the CHASE benefice (Chadlington, Ascott, Spelsbury, etc).  This talk arose out of a broader discussion of the subject matter of his thesis as well as the sort of issues which were being discussed at Wychwood Circle. 

Wychwood Circle is all about making sense of faith, breaking down barriers, exploring boundaries imposed by our education and culture, discussing spirituality, ethics and how we choose to live.  Six months on from our guest, Brian Mountford, who in March 2013 talked about the ideas developed in his book, Christian Atheist, this is a welcome return to the exploration of this particular boundary or set of boundaries.  We are an open forum, always glad to welcome anyone who cares to look in, pass on, or stay and contribute. 

Sunday 18 August 2013


Philip Sheldrake:  Spirituality - A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2012)

Not for the first time, this useful series of pocket-sized readers for short train journeys has provided stimulation and edification. The book begged to be written in the context of that over-used phrase "spiritual but not religious". Philip Sheldrake tackles the subject in 7 succinct chapters, beginning by pointing out the difficulty of defining such a 'chameleon-like word' which takes on the shapes and priorities of its contexts. Nevertheless he finds a number of 'family resemblances' and quotes Evelyn Underhill (1911, 1930) who suggested that human beings are vision-creating beings and not just tool-making animals. He goes on: 
In other words, ‘spirituality’ expresses a sense that human life involves more than biology. As human beings we are naturally driven by goals beyond physical satisfaction or mental supremacy to seek a deeper level of meaning and fulfilment. 
In his conclusion he identifies 3 critical features of the concept, and these too are worth quoting: 
First, spirituality expresses the reflective human quest for identity and meaning beyond a purely pragmatic approach to life. Second, it suggests that a full human life needs to move beyond self-absorption to a sense of the greater good and service of others. Finally and vitally, S relates to a process of unlocking the creativity and imagination that enables us to touch the edge of mystery. 

'I want to cultivate my sensibility'

Coincidentally Rowan Williams and Julia Neuberger were at Edinburgh last week and Williams had quite a lot to say about what 'spirituality' is not: 
Sharing a platform at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Julia Neuberger, president of the Liberal Judaism movement, Williams launched a withering critique of popular ideas about spirituality. "The last thing it is about is the placid hum of a well-conducted meditation," he said.
 He said the word "spiritual" in today's society was frequently misused in two ways: either to mean "unworldly and useless, which is probably the sense in which it has been used about me", or "meaning 'I'm serious about my inner life, I want to cultivate my sensibility'". 
He added: "Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is." Neuberger said she found some uses of the word self-indulgent and offensive. Williams argued that true spirituality was not simply about fostering the inner life but was about the individual's interaction with others. 
 Williams went on: 
"I'd like to think, at the very least, that spiritual care meant tending to every possible dimension of sense of the self and each other, that it was about filling out as fully as possible human experience," he said. 
Guardian review, Aug 15th 

Interreligious spirituality

Dialogue between faiths developed strongly in the 20th century and not just in terms of intellectual debate. Recently there has been increasing contact between Christianity and Buddhism and between Christianity and Hinduism. There will be much to pursue here at Wychwood Circle and Islam will be high on the list. 

I will be fascinated to look further into three 'iconic figures in interreligious spirituality' whom Sheldrake describes briefly: the Dalai Lama (b. 1935), Thomas Merton (1915-68) and Raimundo Pannikar (1918-2010), as well as other intriguing accounts of interreligious encounters. 

Whether this sort of dialogue leads to syncretism or pan-religious integration of spiritual experience is a question Sheldrake touches on in the same chapter. He quotes Rabbi Sacks who says, no, religious diversity is actually divinely intended.  Others point to their belief that
the never-ending process of dialogue without any obvious final resolution has a spiritual value in itself. For them, God is found precisely on the borders or the spaces between different faiths and in the continual and challenging movement back and forth between what is familiar and what is strange or ‘other’. 
The 'borders or the spaces' between faiths, between faith and non-faith, and indeed within faiths have already been explored at Wychwood Circle meetings and we hope to invite several guests to help us to do so in the new season. 

Sunday 11 August 2013



This review of a Wychwood meeting was written for the local magazine 'The Wychwood' (April/May 2013)
Earlier this year Wychwood Library saw over 20 people assemble for Wychwood Circle’s visiting speaker. Canon Brian Mountford, Vicar of St Mary the Virgin’s, the University Church in Oxford, spoke about his recent book “Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing”, a title which seemed to tempt along many who don’t go for Christian as a label or don’t go for Atheist, or feel there must be common ground to explore between the two.
The title, Brian told us, originated with a conversation with Philip Pullman, the Oxford author.  The Canon, maybe trying to emphasize his credentials as a man of the world, said he would describe himself as ‘secular’; to which Pullman (an atheist) said, well he would call his own outlook on life ‘religious’.  So roles seemed to be reversed and Brian has had a number of similar conversations with members of his Oxford city congregation.  Many choose to belong because of the music, or th Anglican liturgy, or because a partner sings in the choir. They are drawn to religious ethics, language, art and community.  Brian welcomes them all and the question of belief, in the sense of signing up to a certain body of doctrine, becomes secondary. The more important question is: “how shall I be?”
Brian’s congregation will not be alone in being grateful to be told that you can be a Christian in this sense without anyone else’s permission. Many, he said, were looking to be taken out of themselves – by the aesthetics of an ancient ceremony in a beautiful building, by a sense of ‘the other’. Karen Armstrong, whose book we read last year, was fond of the Greek word ekstasis – stepping out of yourself – and others with a psychoanalytical bent might emphasise the benefits of leaving our ego behind.  But who is to say, as was voiced by our group, that this couldn’t be done through a Pink Floyd concert as well as Handel’s Messiah, a country walk as much as cathedral architecture?
The same day Radio 4’s Something Understood was on the theme ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ Religion, it said, may originate from the root ‘to bind’.  Church, on the other hand, should ideally feel like home.  So apparently it’s ok to go to church – or even to believe in Jesus’s God – because you want to rather than because you are ready to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

So, six months on, we might ask yourselves: what exactly is it 'to believe'? Marcus Borg, hearking back to the Old English be loef, prefers to read it as 'to belove'. Karen Armstrong too relates the word back to its Middle English meaning of 'to prize, to value, to hold dear'. The word 'faith' similarly has acquired some new connotations since its translation from the Greek pistis which meant 'trust, engagement, commitment' or the Latin fides which means 'loyalty'. All this is very different from thinking you have to assent to a set of intellectual propositions before you can say you 'believe in God'. It also offers some promising new (or old) meanings for a contemporary definition of being 'a Christian'. What fun you can have once you start connecting up pre-modern with post-modern! 

On September 8th Wychwood Circle returns to this broad theme when it will be led by an invited guest, Revd Andy Thayer, associate priest in the Chase Benefice (Chadlington, Ascott, etc), actor, musician, and theologian, who is currently working on a doctorate at Oxford University. His provocative title is: "Thank God I'm an atheist". 

Do join us at Wychwood Library in High Street, Milton under Wychwood, from 7pm to about 9pm on Sunday 8th September. The following meeting is scheduled for October 6th and will be led by Ian Cave, an atheist and one of the founders of the group in 2012. 

Wednesday 17 July 2013


I was rather pleased recently to come across another way of defining religion. Previously I related the word to the Latin root ‘ligare’,  which meant religion was all about binding or being bound.  Another way of doing the etymology is to think of ‘re-ligare’ as about reconnecting, which is much more appealing.  Is this not also what spirituality is about? William Bloom in his very readable book on Modern Spirituality divides his subject into Connection, Reflection and Service.

If we start off – as probably most of us do – from a position of being disconnected and fragmented, as a society if not as individuals, then perhaps what we seek in religion or spirituality is to be ‘reconnected, put back together with God, with one another, reintegrated within ourselves, reconnected to the world we are part of’. (A new kind of Christian, Brian D McLaren)

Our Wychwood Circle has been doing its own bit of soul-searching recently as we reached a pivotal point.  Our equilibrium seemed under threat and questions were even asked about the continuation of the group – despite  18 fascinating months of meetings for discussion and exploration.  At the start we decided not to call the group a ‘theological society’ since that would sound pompous and off-putting to the wide constituency we wanted to attract. Yet, taken back to its essentials, the word theology also reveals a new, open and holistic interpretation. 

Theology is after all merely ‘talk about God’ or even just talk about ‘theism’ or our particular conception of god or gods.  As someone has said:  “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Which is what makes it so valuable to be able to explore such things with the help of others.  Wychwood Circle will continue for a while yet. 

There is another analogy which I like in this context.  Former bishop Richard Holloway wrote a book some time ago called “Dancing on the Edge” – which described his position in the church at the time (he has since left it)*.   More recently I came across this favourite quotation of Nietzsche: ‘And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.’  Dancing here becomes a metaphor for faith, religion, or just personal philosophy. 

Dancing is not something you have to persuade or convert people to.  The joy of dancing isn’t achieved by rational argument or emotional intimidation – and we certainly don’t go in for anything like what our parents called dancing! You may tempt people to dance with you, you may invite them to, or they may simply not be able to resist joining in.  Others won’t hear the music and so will wonder what you’re doing, or they may just not get the same sense of liberation from moving their bodies to the music as you do. Maybe it’s not for them.

One can extend the metaphor.  Dance varies from culture to culture and nobody wins, nobody loses, nobody is right, nobody is (necessarily) wrong.  It is something you get caught up in, but it’s not for everybody.  It can be slow and meaningful, or fast and fun, it may be casual and spontaneous or carefully studied and professionally produced.  But, more often that not, it is a social activity and one that is best shared, and this is another good reason for Wychwood Circle’s existence and openness. 

A final thought which I owe to the Bishop of Oxford in a letter to church-goers in his Diocese on the vexed question (for the church) of their response to the gay marriage debate. He concludes a long column on the subject with the words: ‘The gospel must always be Good News.’  That is indeed  the meaning of ‘gospel’ and a timely reminder to his confused flock - but I would want to extend that hope more widely, and to other people’s ‘religion’ too. 

*Jill Greer has kindly drawn our attention to a retreat which Richard Holloway is leading at Launde Abbey in October.  His most recent book was an autobiography called, poignantly, “Leaving Alexandria”, reviewed by Mary Warnock here.  Jill recommends the setting of Launde Abbey. 

Wychwood Circle will take a break in August but will resume in September – possibly the 8th rather than the usual first Sunday in the month. TBC . 

Thursday 13 June 2013


At our Sunday evening forum in Wychwood Library we recently dipped into Jonathan Sachs’ book The Great Partnership, a book about bringing together two very different approaches to understanding the world. The third section of the book is entitled Faith and Its Challenges. In the chapter ‘Where Religion Goes Wrong’, Sachs bravely tackles a number of instances of religion getting a bad name, sometimes with good reason.  He mentions five ‘hazards’ to which he admits the Judeo-Christian tradition has been prone, of which one is Dualism.   


Dualistic thinking seems to be everywhere these days.  Chambers English Dictionary defines philosophical dualism as a view which seeks to explain the world by means of two separate elements, as in spirit and matter or good and evil.  It is to the second of these that Sachs refers.  The conclusion it is tempting to draw from the existence of ‘unjust suffering’ in the world, he says, is that there must be ‘forces of evil, as an independent, active force, apart from and opposed to God’.  With the Woolwich massacre fresh in our minds and the ensuing attacks on mosques, it is all too easy to recognise this sense of good and evil, of judgment, violence and vengeance.

And do we not recognise in our own instincts the sort of dualism of the sort Sachs decries?  From the playground  where it remains trivial (“It wasn’t me; it was him”) to war zones and fascist states where it  goes to the other extreme  (“it’s not us; it’s them”) mankind sets up a dualism which spares us (and our god?) and blames the others: the outsiders, those who are different or disabled or unemployed or have a different religion or ethnicity or nationality.  Look at Nazi Germany, or the Balkans, or the Middle East, or Woolwich and its aftermath.  As Sachs rather dramatically puts it: ‘There is a straight line from dualism to demonisation to dehumanisation  to genocide.’

Sachs’ answer is simple, even if it would need a sermon to unpack it: ‘The most powerful antidote to dualism is monotheism.’  Monotheism, he says, ‘refuses to split light and dark, good and evil, into separate forces or entities’.  Sachs’ God created them all and encompasses them all and ‘forces us to wrestle with the ambiguities of our own character, the necessity for moral choice and the inescapability of personal responsibility’.  Tell that to the reasonable-sounding Tommy Robinson of the EDL.

Two halves of life 

Another related instance of dualism is found in a recent book about what one might call “spirituality for the ageing”!  Dualistic thinking is here not spirit and matter, nor good and evil, but rather what the author calls ‘the well-practised pattern of knowing most things by comparison’.

We are all happier knowing where we are in terms of up or down, in or out, right or wrong, for me or against me, black or white, gay or straight. But Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest addressing a Christian audience albeit with an intriguing Jungian agenda, says this dualistic thinking is characteristic of a ‘first half of life’ attitude.  In his book subtitled A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, he says we need to build on this phase but also move on from it into what Jung called the ‘second half of life’.  A new capacity for ‘non-dualistic thinking’ or ‘both-and thinking’ is, he says, ‘almost the benchmark of our growth into the second half of life’. 

As someone who definitely hit the stereotypical mid-life point some time back, I have asked lots of new questions and been dissatisfied with the traditional answers.  I have also looked back at what my own first half of life was like and I found a lot of resonance in Rohr’s book. Dualistic thinking is necessary in the first half of life in order to draw boundaries and set up clear goals.  We desperately need to find an identity – so much easier if we can do so by excluding what we are not or wouldn’t want to be.  But this approach exists only through comparing and labelling, judging and polarising.

The danger, as Rohr sees it, is that we get trapped into this way of thinking: Most people do not see things as they are; rather, they see things as they are. …  Buddhism has helped people see this in themselves probably better than most of the world religions. … In the first half of life, the negative, the mysterious, the scary, and the problematic are always exported elsewhere.  Doing so gives you a quick and firm ego structure that works for a while. [But]… Eventually this overcompensation in one direction must be resolved and balanced. This integration … is the very name of growth, maturity, and holiness.

The divided brain

There is more than just an echo of the ‘divided brain’ analysis here.  If you are looking for balance and integration, start with an understanding of how your own brain works! Which of course was the principal thesis of Jonathan Sacks’ book.  Using the still relatively new concept of the divided brain he works on the premise that the two hemispheres of our brains lead us into contrasting but compatible, or even ‘more than compatible’, views of the world.  As Sachs explains:
Since Pierre Paul Broca discovered the location of language-processing skills in the left side of the brain, neuroscientists have come to understand the marked difference between the brain’s two hemispheres and how they process information. The left hemisphere tends to be linear, analytical, atomistic and mechanical. It breaks things down into their component parts and deals with them in a linear, sequential way. The right brain tends to be integrative and holistic. 

A much bigger book, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, goes further and suggests that western civilisation has for several centuries been adversely affected by the predominance of the left hemisphere in our thinking.  What may be most challenging to us in our self-confidently scientific modern world is the possibility that we took a wrong turn a couple of hundred years ago and are not as clever as we think!  Mary Midgley’s summary of this huge book in a Guardian review of January 2010 is provocative and striking :  

McGilchrist's suggestion is that the encouragement of precise, categorical thinking at the expense of background vision and experience - an encouragement which, from Plato's time on, has flourished to such impressive effect in European thought - has now reached a point where it is seriously distorting both our lives and our thought...

Dualism again 

But is this about dualism or dualistic thinking?  The Guardian review is worth quoting at length, not least because it asks whether the origin of this split way of thinking and the subsequent predominance of the literalist and empiricist view does in fact lie in dualism of the spirit/matter variety:

Our whole idea of what counts as scientific or professional has shifted towards literal precision - toward elevating quantity over quality and theory over experience - in a way that would have astonished even the 17th-century founders of modern science, though they were already far advanced on that path. ... And the ideal of objectivity has developed in a way that would have surprised those sages still more. 
This notion, which now involves seeing everything natural as an object, inert, senseless and detached form us, arose as part of the dualist vision of a split between body and soul. ... It therefore showed matter itself as dead, a mere set of billiard-ball particles bouncing mechanically off each other, always best represented by the imagery of machines. For that age, life and all the ideals relevant to humanity lay elsewhere, in our real home - in the zone of the spirit. ... But the survival of this approach today, when physicists have told us that matter does not actually consists of billiard balls, when
we all supposedly believe that we are part of the natural biosphere, not colonists from spiritual realms - when indeed many of us deny that such realms even exist - seems rather surprising. 

It is a massive book but a fundamental one to our human journey – and I may say that it is quite possible to dip into it and miss out the more technical and mathematical chapters.  The final word on his theme should go to Iain McGilchrist himself:
We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world.  Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been told - if we would only listen to it. Let's hope that we can. 


A suggestion emerged at the end of a fascinating Cheltenham Science Festival event this month on the so-called ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ of science and religion.  Actually -  the immunologist and bishop of Swindon advanced - they do overlap and that overlap is precisely where we really get talking about ‘what it is to be human’.  Which is as good an anti-dualist point as any to round off this post. 

Saturday 4 May 2013


THE MIND OF GOD - Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning

THE MIND OF GOD is the title of a book published in 1993 (re-issued since) by Paul Davies, English physicist, astrobiologist and cosmologist, who has held academic posts at universities from Cambridge to Adelaide and now at Arizona State University.  Chapter headings range from ‘Reason and Belief’ through ‘Why is the World the Way It Is?’ to ‘The Mystery at the End of the Universe’ – three promising themes for future discussion at our open forum at Wychwood Library, if the group so chooses, following a recommendation by Clive Fieth.

Davies is not, as far as I know, a believer but he won the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1995 for his work on the deeper meaning of science.  His Address at Westminster Abbey on that occasion, entitled Physics and the Mind of God, is a more distilled example of his thoughts and argues against the ‘widespread belief that science and theology are forever at loggerheads’.  Where The Mind of God draws attention to the limits of rational explanations of the universe, in this address he is perhaps trying to persuade a more religiously inclined audience not to cling to a childish concept of a ‘cosmic magician’ but to ‘confront modern scientific thought’:

The position I have presented to you today is … one that regards the universe, not as the plaything of a capricious Deity, but as a coherent, rational, elegant, and harmonious expression of a deep and purposeful meaning.

Chapter 1 of The Mind of God sets out to answer the questions, ‘Can we really hope to answer the ultimate questions of existence through rational enquiry, or will we always encounter impenetrable mystery at some stage? And just what is human rationality anyway?’  He goes on to discuss the Big Bang, continuous creation, the Laws of Nature and The Cosmic Code, mathematics (far too much for me), Leibniz, Hawking and Hume, cosmology, astronomy, you name it…  This is not a book for the scientifically faint-hearted.  However it bears dipping into and drives on relentlessly towards his concluding chapters.

By chapter 9 he is suggesting that ‘it has to be admitted that our concept of rational explanation derives from our observation of the world and our evolutionary inheritance’.  After quoting  Stephen Hawking’s ‘turtle story’ as a symbol of the search for ultimate answers, he questions whether we should limit ourselves by identifying ‘understanding’ with ‘rational explanation’ and asks whether there are ‘other forms of understanding which will satisfy the inquiring mind’.  Alluding to a number of scientists, from Einstein onwards, he dares to broach the topic of mystical knowledge and revelatory experiences, both within and outside the scientific community.  The way we read of such experiences – which Davies says he himself has never had – varies depending on the culture of the person describing them, from Eastern mystics to Christian monastics to Roger Penrose the mathematician, and some such accounts are of course an immediate turn-off.

However, whether it is through turtles or Eastern mysticism, it is hard to resist being drawn – like much of twentieth-century mathematics, it seems – into pondering the infinite and hence what Davies, with only a hint of flippancy, calls ‘the mystery at the end of the universe’.  The final section of the final chapter is, appropriately, entitled What is Man? and includes this deliberately inconclusive conclusion: ‘We are barred from ultimate knowledge, from ultimate explanation, by the very rules of reasoning that prompt us to seek an explanation in the first place.’ 

Much scope for discussion here and some thoughts which would probably not sit uncomfortably with our current author and searcher for meaning, Jonathan Sacks, philosopher, theologian and, for a little longer, Chief Rabbi.

Tuesday 23 April 2013


Science and faith: a new dialogue

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in The Great Partnership (the current theme of discussions at Wychwood Library on the first Sunday of the month) claims boldly that science and religion are not only compatible but ‘more than compatible’:

They are the two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth. The creative tension between the two is what keeps us sane, grounded in physical reality without losing our spiritual sensibility.
It’s a moot point whether the age-old science vs religion debate is fascinating or just incredibly dull!  Is the battle irresistible because it goes on and on, apparently unwinnable,  or is it for the same reason just a lot of stale arguments?  Sacks, amongst others, would say it is based on a false dichotomy.  Julian Baggini, in a review of A C Grayling’s book The God Argument, described the whole Dawkins-inspired debate thus:
For a while it was at least invigorating.  But the most vocal atheists and the believers who take their bait appear ever more like a long-married couple who prefer the familiarity of their dysfunctional relationship to the emptiness that lies beyond an amicable divorce. They trade the same old niggles and complaints with no hope or expectation of mutual understanding.’
I recently received an email from someone who had attended one of our Wychwood Circle meetings and wished to come off the mailing list again. The problem with non-belief, is, it doesn’t take much exploring,’ he told me.  ‘Non-belief and rationalism are not very nuanced, spiritually at least.  I can only contribute to others’ exploration of their faith by saying (in effect), ‘where is the evidence?’ That is at best tedious and at worst hostile.’  I was provoked by that first sentence – I couldn’t disagree more – and we have since started a fascinating correspondence!
My own position on the science and religion question is the modest but realistic one of saying that I'm not a scientist and I'm not a theologian or philosopher.  It seems difficult therefore to settle down on either side of the agnostic-theist boundary, which in any case I suspect is very blurred.  I am perhaps more interested in watching the others slugging it out, while agreeing with Mark Vernon that, where academics recognise the limitations of their own insights, some 'epistemological modesty neutralises the fight over which discipline is the best arbiter of truth - and all in the interests of thorough and open-minded debate'. 
I take comfort in the scientists and philosophers who take that 'modest' line. Stephen Jay Gould famously talked about 'non-overlapping magisteria', which looks like a polite way of saying why don't we all mind our own disciplines.  Thomas Nagel has more recently written a book which was reviewed in a Prospect Magazine blog thus: 
'But what if science is fundamentally incapable of explaining our own existence as thinking things? What if it proves impossible to fit human beings neatly into the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes? In Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press), the prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel's latest book, he argues that science alone will never be able to explain a reality that includes human beings.  What is needed is a new way of looking at and explaining reality; one which makes mind and value as fundamental as atoms and evolution.'

Where Gould says that religion is needed to discuss Purpose, Jonathan Sacks is interested in the search for Meaning.  Strangely I for one have never been too concerned about Purpose or Meaning, but I am much more taken with Sacks's claim that 'science and religion are to human life what the right and left hemisphere are to the brain'. 
In 2010, in a large volume intriguingly entitled The Master and His Emissary - the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist produced what the blurb describes as 'a fascinating exploration of the differences between the brain's right and left hemispheres and their effects on society, history and culture'. In it he argues, at great length and based on a vast body of recent brain research, that 'despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with potentially disastrous consequences.' 
Sacks exploits this divide - in far more readable form - and applies it to the history of civilisation and to attempts by religion to dominate science and vice versa.  He argues that it has always been a mistake not to recognise the distinction between right- and left-brain activity and instead 'to apply to one the logic of the other'.  There has been bad religion just as there has been bad science, but the answer to each is to be found in its own terms. The cure for bad religion is good religion, and as he adds, perhaps provocatively, in his chapter on Darwin: 'The way of testing a scientific hypothesis is to do science... The way of testing religion is to do religion...'
Describing the whole science vs religion debate as unwinnable, Baggini suggested that it has done 'as much to make the participants feel validated as it has to change their opinions'. So should we give it all up and form our own self-regarding clusters?  Sacks argues not for compartmentalisation but for conversation - which is very much what Wychwood Circle has been all about. It can certainly be trying, particularly when you feel you are out of your depth, but the dialogue is worth having.  Maybe more especially at the academic level. 

Jeff Forshaw wrote an article a while back about a conference on the banks of Lake Geneva organised by Wilton Park - a forum for international dialogue - in partnership with Cern (see an earlier post on this site dated 21st October 2012). 'The event', he wrote, 'drew together particle physicists, cosmologists, theologians and philosophers in the name of dialogue and mutual understanding.'  He asks: 'In some people's minds, science and religion stand in stark contrast, but is this really the case?  Certainly, years of being a scientist have led me to doubt pretty much everything I thought I knew.'  He goes on to suggest that scientists act with 'what seems to me to be something like faith:  a faith in scientific truths perhaps or in the humbling significance of nature's beauty.  Perhaps "faith" is too strong - enthusiastic optimism might be better ...'
We have toyed with the possibility of reading Mark Vernon, ex-priest and modern agnostic, for our Wychwood Circle discussions.  Vernon recently wrote an article for the Church Times where (maybe with some enthusiastic optimism) he discerned a dialogue in the 'community of scholars' and dared to hope that a 'fruitful phase' is beginning.  He quotes Michael Welker, Professor of Systematic Theology at Heidelberg University: "The most exciting work in the future looks likely to be interdisciplinary".  One example he cites concerns the matter of personal identity.  John Polkinghorne, scientist and theologian, wrote in his Science and Religion in Quest of Truth that an understanding is emerging in modern biology that there is a "continuously developing, almost infinitely complex, 'information-bearing pattern' carried at any one time by the matter that then makes up my body" and he believes this is what, from Aristotle and Aquinas onwards, we have tended to call the human soul.  Vernon concludes:  'The ancient notion looks not unlike the modern one - hence the possibility of fruitful exchange.' 
We should give the final word to Einstein, quoted with approval by Sacks: 'Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.'

JOIN US as we discuss the third section of The Great Partnership entitled 'Faith and its Challenges' at our open forum at Wychwood Library OX7 6LD: 
  • May 5th - chapter 11 (Darwin) and chapter 12 (The Problem of Evil) 

Tuesday 26 March 2013


Imagination and Experience  

“Use your imagination!” we may have been told as children, when asking a particularly dumb, awkward or just embarrassing question. 

Someone recently asked why a theological discussion group like Wychwood Circle’s open forum would want to base a discussion on a novel – even if the theme was the contemporary one of a priest and his family caught up in very real moral and emotional dilemmas.  “I don’t read novels,” she said.  How familiar that phrase is, though more often in the mouths of men: surely life’s too short to waste it on fiction?  Yet I once heard a sermon in a church in Barnes (where else?!) where the priest enjoined us all to read novels and see them as sacramental.  I think that means they speak to us of life and of God.   Well, the good ones, anyway, and they are the ones worth seeking out.  Give me Iris Murdoch or Tolstoy any day, rather than the Encyclopedia Britannica!

In a religious or non-religious context there is no doubt that fiction is useful to hone our morality or direct our moral compass.  Stories allow us to enter into the experiences of others, from which, however involved we become, we can remain more detached and therefore more rationally observant than we ever can from our own.  Arguably you need to develop your imagination before you can experience empathy – and unless you are a strict calculating utilitarian you probably base a lot of your personal actions and reactions (of compassion, of service, of respect for the other person) on thinking you know how they feel and how you could help them.  So anything which contributes to exercising that imaginative muscle in a positive fashion is good for humanity.  If the novel helps you to relax and step out of the rat race of your life, that can’t be bad for growth and balance either.

Ignatius of Loyola 

In the Hilary term at Oxford, the Thursday lunchtime series at St Giles was on the theme of Ignatian Spirituality, with 8 different contributors including the well-known author, walker, peace campaigner and Jesuit priest Gerard W Hughes (God of Surprises, God In All Things).  St Barnabas in Jericho also hosted a day with Father Gerry Hughes when he talked about “Earthing our Prayer”.  The last half-hour of the day was particularly special as two dozen of us sat at the feet of this grand old man and listened to words of distilled wisdom, gently and serenely spoken from a lifetime of study, practice and reflection.

Ignatians are big on self-examination and reflecting on our inner journey and Fr Gerry is keen for people to use their ‘felt experience’ in discerning what God might be telling them.  People ‘feel drawn to God in the depths of themselves’.  Where else would we find God, who, as St Augustine might remind us, is closer to us than we are to ourselves?  If we are to find God, Gerard Hughes says elsewhere, ‘we must learn to listen to these depths, to the emotions and feelings we experience in prayer and out of it, and use our minds and intelligence to help us understand what these emotions and feelings are saying to us.’ (In Search of a Way, 1986)

Prayer may be about meeting with God: it is also about meeting ourselves, because (as he is fond of quoting) ‘in God we live, move and have our being’.  Prayer, he claims, ‘is the most revolutionary and liberating activity in which we can engage’. He told us to use our imagination in prayer, particularly in the very Ignatian practice of reviewing the day. ‘Memory is an arsenal, not an archive’, was one memorable phrase.  He also told us to read the gospel stories imaginatively:  imagine you are there – eg in the upper room in Jerusalem, scene of several big events in the gospels including the Last Supper commemorated this week on Maundy Thursday – and ask yourself:  Who else is there? What is the room like? Why are they afraid? Listen to them.  What do they say to you? Talk to them…

We owe it to Gerard Hughes that he introduced us on both these occasions in Oxford to the work of a French poet, politician and philosopher, Charles Peguy (1873 -1914). His poem, entitled God’s Dream, expresses a dream of God and begins, I myself will dream a dream within you…;   it includes these lines which show God as ‘most intimately within’:

                                You will meet me often as you work –
                                in your companions, who share the risk,
                                in your friends, who believe in you enough
                                to lend their own dreams,
                                their own hands,
                                their own hearts,
                                to your building,
                                in the people who will stand in your doorway,
                                stay awhile,
                                and walk away knowing 
                                that they, too, can find a dream   

                                [The full text can be found online, for instance here]

It's a nice thought. 

Saturday 9 March 2013


Belonging without believing 

Wychwood Library was full to bursting on March 3rd when Canon Brian Mountford visited us to talk about his recent book, Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing.  It was heartening on this Wychwood Circle's first anniversary, or very nearly, to see that this subject sparked such interest.  Clearly many were tempted along who perhaps are not happy with the label ‘Christian’, but don’t feel comfortable with settling for ‘Atheist’ either and couldn’t help wondering if even a Church of England vicar might help them explore some common ground.

The title, Brian told us, originated with a conversation with Philip Pullman, the Oxford author.  The Canon, maybe trying to emphasize his credentials as a man of the world, said he would describe himself as ‘secular’; to which Pullman (an atheist) said he would say his own outlook on life was ‘religious’. So roles seemed to be reversed and Brian has had a number of similar discussions and interviews with members of his Oxford city congregation before and since.  Many choose to belong because of the music, or the Anglican liturgy, or because a partner sings in the choir.  Brian welcomes them all and the question of belief, in the sense of signing up to a certain body of doctrine, becomes secondary. The more important question is: “how shall I be?”

Some twenty years ago someone wrote a book about ‘Believing without Belonging’ – at a time when people were confident in their own spiritual or religious beliefs but didn’t necessarily want to ‘belong’ – and the issue of belief is worth exploring.  Karen Armstrong, the first author we studied in our Wychwood Library group last year, insists that Jesus himself did not insist on people ‘believing’ before he would heal them, in the way many of us have been taught. The word ‘faith’ is our Bible translation of a Greek word meaning ‘trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment’. This was the sense in which faith, Jesus said, would move mountains.  Even in Middle English, beliven meant ‘to prize, to value, to hold dear’ (and the word Belieber didn’t come till much later, in an age of teenage idols!).  Mark Vernon (How to be an Agnostic) makes a similar point when he draws the distinction which held over much of human history between ‘spirituality’ as ‘the more existential side of religion’ and ‘religion’ as ‘the more practical side of spirituality’: ‘Believing in such and such was more like saying you trust it, or are committed to it.  Now, though, to be religious means, most commonly I think, an individual affirmation of metaphysical beliefs, rather than a way of life which is practised.’

One of the first questions that arose in the discussions at Wychwood Library with Brian Mountford was the relevance of, or need for, religion: some said they can be ‘taken out of themselves’ just as well by nature or beauty – or even a Pink Floyd concert - as by a beautiful liturgy or a wonderful building.  On the same day the Radio 4 programme Something Understood began by questioning whether ‘religion’ was a useful word, given its origins in the verb ‘to bind’.  Even the Jesuit author Gerard W Hughes (God of Surprises, God in All Things) has pointed out that Jesus, for one, does not once mention religion, or religious observance, or orthodox religious belief or any other kind of belief: ‘Neither does he provide a list of moral precepts on which we shall be judged. It is not that these matters are unimportant: it is simply that they are not what matters most.’

One of the more controversial points made by Brian Mountford was to point out that Jesus didn’t say he was God.  (The title ‘son of God’, by the way, was given to both Roman emperors from Augustus onwards, and, in other contexts, first-century miracle workers) Neither did Jesus pull the wool over his companions’ eyes by pretending that the earth was flat when he knew full well it wasn’t.  There are dangers in anthropomorphising God (“he looked down on us, he wondered what to do next”) and also in divinising Christ (“he knew everything”).  If Incarnation means anything it means Jesus was fully human, whatever other qualities may have been ascribed to him then or later.
Clearly that debate is not over and we are still left to wonder, as Rowan Williams pointed out in a review of another controversial author, Geza Vermes, 'why this particular charismatic wonder-worker rather than others attracted the extraordinary claim that he was the vehicle of unconditional creative power and the enabler of a new kind of worship.'  As the Wychwood Circle forum gathers again on April 7th at Wychwood Library, we will be beginning discussions based on chapters from the 2011 book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (someone who certainly does not believe that Jesus was God):  The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning.  

Join us then.