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.