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.