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 .