Monday 18 February 2013



HOW TO BE AN AGNOSTIC by Mark Vernon  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 

One of the choices for April onwards for the group that meets in Wychwood Library on the first Sunday of the month is this recent book. The blurb describes it thus: 

The authentic spiritual quest is marked not by certainties but by questions and doubt. How To Be An Agnostic explores the wonder of science, the ups and downs of being 'spiritual but not religious', the insights of ancient philosophy, and God the biggest question. 

Mark Vernon was an Anglican priest, left a conviction atheist, and now finds himself to be a committed, searching agnostic. Part personal story, part spiritual search, this journey through physics and philosophy concludes that the contemporary lust for certainty is demeaning of our humanity. We live in a time of spiritual crisis, but the key to wisdom – as Socrates, the great theologians and the best scientists know – is embracing the limits of our knowledge. 

This much expanded edition was previously published as After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life (2008) and includes new chapters looking at mindfulness meditation, pic'n'mix religion, quantum spirituality, the probability of God and why Stephen Hawking is wrong about nothing.

It's not a book that requires reading from beginning to end and there are a number of discrete chapters, including one called 'Socrates or Buddha'. In it Vernon suggests that some of us 'have a desire for more than biology and psychology can describe.  But we also find it difficult to put our trust in the religious discourses which might address our restlessness.'
He argues that Socrates, the lover of wisdom, offers us the way forward in the shape of just that: ‘philo-sophy’ (Greek: ‘love of wisdom’).  Socrates was a ‘lover of limits, of being thrown onto the unknown’, ‘a man with a religious imagination’. ‘Plato’s Socrates,’ he says, ‘embraced ordinary human searching and doubt and fashioned it into a flourishing way of life. It was a disciplined desire to reach out for more…  It was a developed sense that what lies beyond us powers our humanity – the longing to understand, to discover, to become enlightened.’

In Mark Vernon's brand of agnosticism, 'we are individuals who think that God is not a silly question, as the conviction atheist must have concluded, but rather one that our experience demands we keep asking.' 


Meanwhile on Sunday, March 3rd, we meet at Wychwood Library to hear Brian Mountford discussing his recent book, Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing. 

Monday 4 February 2013



Canon Mark Oakley in a feature edition of BBC Radio 4's "Sunday Worship" which came from St Paul's yesterday: 
"May the doors of this church be wide enough to welcome all in need of love and encouragement and narrow enough to shut out all human pride and envy."
And as I stand here, under the dome now, those words resonate, because this is a space in the cathedral  that we often use for debate and the sharing of ideas on the many issues that we face today. 

It has been said that in his life Jesus did not answer people’s questions so much as question their answers. For a long time people have come to the Church expecting lots of answers and the Church has felt obliged to give them, often seduced by too quick a clarity or control. But the question as to how we are all to be loyal to the future is a shared one, for Church and everyone alike. Many answers we have come to take for granted need to be questioned for let’s not be too abstract. When we say the future, we are talking about you maybe, but certainly your children, grandchildren, young friends. And we are talking about the sort of the world they will be caught up in: the air (spiritual, political, chemical) that they will breathe. And not only them but those who find themselves born across the planet as victims of others decisions, of a changing climate and sea level, of war, poverty and all those victims of that almost respectable evil called indifference. If it is true that in the West we are spending money we don’t have on things we don’t want in order to impress people we don’t like, then we need to pull out of this deathly circle that preaches survival of the fittest but never tells us fit for what. The Church’s contribution as to how we do this will only be energised by the spiritual perception and truth telling of Jesus Christ that disorientates prejudice, saving us from ourselves.


The Australian poet Les Murray wrote that God is in this world as poetry is in the poem. Like most poetry it has to be read well, over time, puzzlement is part of the deeper journey and patience is demanded of us. This cathedral, and every church, is here for that puzzlement and patience as much as it is for celebration and thanks. It is here to ask difficult questions of ourselves and of the world. It is here to speak out for those who can’t, something very important the Occupy movement reminded us of. It is here to remind us of the deeper resonances of life that make it so often appear gift-like, trustworthy, as beautiful as it is fragile. It is here to celebrate love wherever it is found, goodness wherever it transforms, and faith where it gives hope. It is here to ask the urgent question of how, as human beings, we can now together be loyal to our shared future. As Churchill said, we make a living by what we earn but we make a life by what we give.

And so:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.