Thursday 11 December 2014



Parts I and V of The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions provided us (in just 24 pages and 23 pages respectively) with an eye-opening introduction to just how differently two reputable New Testament scholars can regard the significant person of Jesus of Nazareth. Wright concludes in Part V (Was Jesus God?) that: 
If you start with the God of the Exodus, of Isaiah, of creation and covenant, and of the psalms, and ask what God might look like were he to become human, you will find that he might look very much like Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps never more so than when he dies on a Roman cross. 
Borg on the other hand says that many of the pronouncements about Jesus in the gospels should be taken as metaphors, 'as exclamations, not doctrines', while nevertheless agreeing that the New Testament contains a usefully 'compact christological crystallization': "Jesus is the image of the invisible God."  He goes on: 
Jesus as icon and image of God not only shows us what God is like but also mediates the sacred.
There is more, much more, to be gleaned from these two authors and in the new year we will return to them.  We might, for example, focus on Part VII which tentatively discusses the so-called 'Second Coming' or on the final and substantial Part VIII (47 pages) on 'Jesus and the Christian Life'. Wherever we are coming from - or for that matter heading for - there should be much to chew over in these final chapters. (It is recommended that anyone coming to the book for the first time should at least skim chapters 1 and 2 (Part I) to get an idea of the authors' respective takes on biblical interpretation.)

Dates for early 2015 are not yet set.  Depending on the availability of speakers this next discussion may take place in February or March. In January we take a break to gather ourselves. 
On April 12th we shall be delighted to welcome Geoffrey Durham, once better known as a magician but now promoting the cause of Quakerism. 

Friday 28 November 2014



The great thing about religious people is that they believe in something. Which isn't to say that the community-minded people in Oxfordshire who run the foodbanks and campaign against the iniquities of (so-called) welfare reform either are or are not religious, nor that they don't believe in what they do. There's a lively new county councillor in Witney who believes in working for the people she represents and as a result, as she told me, she finds herself attending far too many meetings in churches given that she thinks of herself as an atheist. I told her that what she has in common with the church people is that, like them, she believes in something (or if you prefer, doing good things) and shouldn't feel uncomfortable. At Wychwood Circle we meet to discuss what we believe and what we believe in, and one thing we all believe in is dialogue. 

Monawar Hussain certainly believes in something and as a result founded the Oxford Foundation which exists to deepen understanding between people of different faiths and cultures with a particular focus on young people. 
He also bothered to come all the way to Milton under Wychwood to address our discussion group and was rewarded with an audience of 30 who barely squeezed into the library. We felt privileged to be the first to set eyes on a new print-run of an Open Letter to the leader and 'the fighters and followers of the self-declared 'Islamic State' (also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL), a box-full of which he brought with him. Monawar was one of 126 Islamic scholars and others around the world who signed it. 

The Open Letter, dated 19th September 2014, begins with an Executive Summary with a list of 24 points, including the following (my selection): 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to issue fatwas without all the necessary learning requirements. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats: hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to torture people. 

Imam Monawar Hussain practises what he preaches, with an array of projects and interfaith educational programmes such as OMPEP, and on Sunday (Nov 30th) the Oxford Foundation is promoting United for Peace - Oxford's Communities United against Extremism, a multi-faith service at Oxford Spires Academy. Of OMPEP, Rabbi Julia Neuberger has commented:
"Imam Monawar Hussain's toolkit for schools is enlightening, encouraging, informative, and easy to use. What I love about it particularly is that it is designed both to impart information and to improve understanding and relationships, and, as far as I can see, it succeeds in doing just that."
We could say the same of Monawar who both educated us in the basics - and the variety - of Muslim beliefs and inspired us with his warmth and example. It may be said that he also reminded us of the origins of some of the Middle East's turmoil and sense of powerlessness in the face of Western colonialism and 'civilisation'. 

On December 7th we switch our attention to another Middle Eastern rebel of a very different kind in the shape of Jesus of Nazareth. He too didn't think much of occupying powers or for that matter the native religious leaders of his day. But he seems to have had a revolutionary, but peaceful, way of dealing with them.  Just how much we can really know about him - and whether he is or was, or even claimed to be, God - is amply discussed in our study-text for the day, The Meaning of Jesus - Two Visions (see earlier posts).

Sunday 23 November 2014


Thank God for diversity? 

We have the honour in Oxfordshire this year of hosting the Westminster Faith Debates on “The Future of the Church of England”. On Thursday at the University Church in Oxford the 4th of 5 debates took place on the theme of Diversity.  Much was said by a fairly diverse panel and some brave and thoughtful contributions emerged from the floor.  One such was the hope expressed that newly-empowered women priests (and bishops) should find it hard not to be sympathetic to the demands by gay people for equality within the church.  Another came a good two-thirds of the way through the debate when someone stood up and implied that we might have been skirting the real issue, which is that “we have a problem with the Bible”.

Of course some people don’t have a problem with the Bible – in fact it serves them rather well: just look at the size of their congregations, pointed out the representative of Anglican Mainstream, alluding to the throngs of students at St Aldate’s and St Ebbe’s in Oxford.  But a more striking comment came from someone from US (formerly USPG, a missionary society) who said that if we take the Bible seriously then we must realise that it contains so many theologies that the Church cannot but be diverse.  (He might have added that, with the Bible self-evidently a library of 60 or even 90 books of all shapes and sizes and voices and styles,  it’s tempting to say that, if this is 'the word of God', one might wish he would make up his mind…)

Symon Hill, associate director of the Ekklesia think tank, wrote in a commentary on a gospel passage about Pharisees and teachers of the law who were asking for a sign:
God wants us to think for ourselves. This is scary.  I have been to plenty of churches that are not comfortable with it, and do their best to ensure that their congregations are all taught the ‘right’ interpretation of the Bible.  In contrast, Jesus told parables but rarely explained them. It seems that he wanted his listeners to think through the meanings, whether individually or in discussion with others.”
We shall be doing exactly that on December 7th at Wychwood Library as we respond in our different ways to “The Meaning of Jesus –Two Visions” by Marcus Borg (a leading liberal) and Tom Wright (a leading conservative), both important and respected scholars, well versed in the ‘Historical Jesus’ debate.  As the publishers take care to point out on the cover, both have written books which show their commitment to explaining their faith:  Borg wrote The Heart of Christianity and Wright Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.  As usual at Wychwood Circle we will do our best to make sense of what we believe – and indeed of what others believe.

We meet at 7pm on Sunday December 7th at Wychwood Library in the High Street, Milton under Wychwood, OX7 6LD, ending not later than 9pm.  We will focus on Parts 1 (How do we know about Jesus?) and 5 (Was Jesus God?).  The book is available in different editions, including second-hand.  Originally published in 1999, it came out as HarperCollins paperback in 2007. 

Friday 14 November 2014



This is the title of our December book by Marcus J. Borg (author of The Heart of Christianity) and N.T. Wright (author of Simply Christian). The cover of the book describes it thus: 
The leading liberal and conservative Jesus scholars present the heart of the Historical Jesus debate.
There are eight sections to the book and in each the two authors are given a chapter each to present their fascinatingly contrasting visions. Thus Part I sets out the very basics of historical theology and asks How do we know about Jesus? with chapter 1 by Marcus Borg (Seeing Jesus: Sources, Lenses, and Method) and chapter 2 by Tom Wright (Knowing Jesus: Faith and History). 

It's unlikely that we will be able to do the book justice in one week's discussion and so for this first meeting on December 7th we will focus on those first two chapters and then go on to see how the two authors interpret the subject of Part V: Was Jesus God? There is a clue to their differing approaches in the title of their respective chapters:  Borg (ch 9) calls his Jesus and God, Wright (ch 10) sets out his stall in The Divinity of Jesus

Maybe in the month of December and a time of celebration (in theory) of the nativity we should have opted for Part VI The Birth of Jesus, but there will be many more occasions to tackle other topics in the book, not least Part IV which gets quotation marks for its title - presumably to keep everyone happy: "God raised Jesus from the dead".  More anon, I imagine. 

One review described the book as a "thorough and accessible scholarly exchange" and another as "a refreshingly respectful exchange". No doubt our discussion at Wychwood Library will be, as always, respectful if not particularly scholarly! 

Was Jesus God? The discussion at Wychwood Library on December 7th, from 7pm to 9pm (latest), will be based on the book by Marcus Borg and N T Wright The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, published by HarperOne (1999), focussing on Parts 1 and 5. As always, anyone is welcome to attend and contribute their own views and comments on the book. 

Friday 7 November 2014


Monawar Hussain changed the title of his talk to us on November 16th and gave his own response to the events of the Middle East: in his own words, 'a mainstream Islamic response to modern day terrorism'.  He was a signatory to the Open Letter to IS and as such had much to tell us. 

This commentary on the letter might also be of interest for those who want to know more. For more on Monawar's Oxford Foundation and their splendid interfaith work visit their website.

Friday 24 October 2014


Please note that the title of this event has since been changed.

Imam Monawar Hussain was on Radio 4's Prayer for the Day in early October (at the time of Eid al-Adha, the major Islamic festival) where he was introduced as Muslim Tutor at Eton College.  Closer to home he is better known as the founder of the Oxford Foundation and more recently of Oxford Muslim College. His original theme, following from the research which he is still engaged in, was to have been the spiritual journey, which he explained on a later Prayer for the Day that week was referred to by the Prophet as 'the greater Jihad'.

His topic will now be his own response (and that of 100 other Muslim clerics in the Open Letter to IS - see next post) to the current events in the Middle East: 'ISLAM: mainstream or extreme?'  This will be a fascinating introduction and a great opportunity to widen our Wychwood Circle horizon. All are welcome, as usual - of any religion or none - and please bring friends. 

Monday 6 October 2014

National Quaker Week and Eid Mubarak 2014


It's National Quaker Week and a good opportunity to announce that we have invited Geoffrey Durham to come and lead a Wychwood Circle event next year. His website is worth checking out as are the links to both magic tricks and introductions to Quakerism. His book Being a Quaker - a guide for newcomers is both approachable and informative.  We look forward to receiving him on Sunday 12th April 2015. 

We have been fortunate in welcoming a Buddhist funeral director and two Anglican canons so far and next month we look forward to hearing about Islam from a liberal imam who happens also to be local to Oxfordshire: Monawar Hussain is Muslim tutor at Eton College as well as founder of the Oxford Foundation and Oxford Muslim College. 

Again this is a topical moment since Muslims were this weekend celebrating Eid Mubarak 2014 or Eid al-Adha, also known as the greater Eid, one of two significant days in the Muslim calendar. Monawar Hussain's topic will be the spiritual journey, which in Islam is also known at The Greater Jihad. Join us on November 16th at Wychwood Library

Friday 3 October 2014


"Intelligence is tied to the ability to think logically; so intelligent people ought not to believe in God."

This is the provocative line taken in the first part of Edward Dutton's article in the Church Times. But that is not all there is, just as logic is not all there is. 

His offended Evangelical friend says in paragraph one, "So basically your book is saying I'm thick". By the end, after examining a number of personality characteristics with their 'life implications', he can say of her: 
She is an intelligent person, but is likely to have very high agreeableness, conscientiousness, and, perhaps, openness and neuroticism.
He himself, though an atheist, says: "I believe in God sometimes."  

By contrast Professor Brian Cox even questions the relevance of logic to the question of the existence of God. He was asked about his attitude to religion and told the Radio Times recently: 
In the spirit of Gottfried Leibniz [17th century mathematician and philosopher], you can say, "Well, I don't accept that something can come into existence without a cause." You're allowed to say that; it's not illogical. So if you want to think there's an eternal presence that causes things to happen, that's not illogical. I don't happen to think that - I almost don't have an opinion on it.

Join us on Sunday at Wychwood Library as we explore these different angles on faith, rationality and personality. The article is available online here:



Thus Canon MARK OAKLEY in an article just published in the Church Times. Many of us were, if not persuaded, then at least enlightened by Mark at our Wychwood Circle meeting in September. Here he takes up his theme in print:
Mark Oakley in the Church Times 3rd October 2014

A short extract: 
Poetry will always be healthily sceptical of our cheerful pulpit fluency when it comes to the divine reality, and will work harder to see everything, from the human heart to the humility of heaven, from fresh and dislocating angles. It will warn us of the curse of religious literalism, its immodest certainties setting flames of hate across so many parts of the world.
Poetry encourages our mind to think in metaphors. It teases our soul to be ready for the surprise of wonder and the gift of tears, the moment when we say "Yes, that's how it is, and I never quite knew it like that."
Poetry has both immense intimacy and intimate immensity, and, in its pledge to a more attentive perception, faith celebrates the sacramentality of poetic words as a beautiful and frightening gift of the God who is in this world as poetry is in the poem.
Alas, the book which his publisher is already advertising on their website has not yet been completed!  It will bear the same title as Mark's talk: The Splash of Words: believing in poetry. Due out in the spring. 

Sunday 14 September 2014



"It is not only fervent religiousness that is associated with low intelligence, but any fervent advocacy of an ideology - whether it is Marxism, multiculturalism, or conservative nationalism." 

Edward Dutton's book Religion and Intelligence: an evolutionary analysis finds, from a number of independent studies, that atheists have higher IQs than liberal religious people, who in turn have higher IQs than religious conservatives. Dutton's article begins:
"So, basically, your book is saying I'm thick," an Evangelical friend of mine said to me. In fact, I am saying no such thing.
What he does say is that "faith" means "strong belief based on conviction rather than proof" and that in this way faith is not rational or it wouldn't be faith: 
The failure to see that implies bias, which is caused by having an emotional investment in something. 
He goes on to look at the implications of the five 'essential personality characteristics' that psychologists generally agree, in order to look at their implications for many aspects of our lives - including obesity, alcoholism and depression... and religiousness. He examines how pronounced personalities (such as high levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness) might overwhelm the intelligence of religious people, even academics. Interestingly his research also finds - as suggested in the quotation above - that a certain balance of personality traits and intelligence can make for fervent advocacy of any ideology.
Indeed, I would argue that ideologies are, in many ways, replacement religions. 
Join us as we discuss his article at the next Wychwood Circle meeting.

Edward Dutton is Adjunct Professor of the Anthropology of Religion at Oulu University in Finland.  His book is published by the Ulster Institute for Social Research. The article which summarises the book's findings, and which is the basis for our discussions at Wychwood Circle on October 5th, was published in the Church Times in May 2014. Copies are available at Wychwood Library (OX7 6LD) or from 

Saturday 30 August 2014


The Collage of God was published by Mark Oakley in 2001 and re-issued by Canterbury Press in 2012. This is an article of the same name from the Huffington Post written in March 2012 and introducing his book. 

Broadly speaking, Christian people fall into two types: resolvers and deepeners. Resolvers are keen to clarify and solidify doctrinal and ethical matters. They like systems of thought, information, prose, full-stops. They often speak of their conclusions being somehow "revealed," either through their reading of the Bible or the teaching authority of the Church they belong to.
Deepeners, on the other hand, distrust systems and jigsaws of the mind where everything fits together nicely. They prefer poetry to prose, intimation to information, and feel that full-stops need turning into commas because, with God, everything is as yet unfinished. Deepeners will talk of divine revelation but feel more comfortable with God-talk that takes human experience seriously and which is as unafraid to reason as it is unashamed to adore. For these, the mystery of God should be deepened by our God-thoughts, not resolved, and revelation cannot be monopolised by the interpretations of religion.
A healthy Church will undoubtedly need a good conversation between these two types always on the go. Individual Christians probably have a similar dialogue going on in themselves from time to time. At the end of the day, however, they can usually identify which of these two approaches they feel more drawn to.
My book, "The Collage of God," is written for deepeners. Ever since my experience working in a hospital chaplaincy as part of my ministerial training, I have had to admit to myself that neat and tidy theologies just don't add up for me. The only way I can make any sense of faith is to see it not as a system but as a collage. By which I mean it is a life-long collecting of fragments, epiphanies, hints and guesses, lit and shadowed -- all slowly pieced together into something that often feels painfully senseless close up but which, taking a step or two back, can appear with some surprise to have an integrity and beauty to it. Faith is therefore a beach-combing enterprise and the shores we walk along include the Scriptures, the Christian tradition, relationships, beauty, justice and imagination. The pieces of the collage are placed with truthfulness, prayer and, where possible, a playful delight in the gifts that are being placed into our hands. The pieces don't all fit neatly with each other but that's OK. One of the best collages of faith we have is the Bible, where many images and memories jostle together to stir up our response.
For the deepener, the relevance of faith is not as important as the resonance of faith. One of the most important parts of the collage of God for me is poetry. I wonder if God is in this world as poetry is in the poem. If so, perhaps poetry is the truest way to explore God's being and the diverse, multi-layered world of life of which God is the source? A quick look at the texts of the Bible and at Christian liturgies would suggest this is so. The problem is that having grown so accustomed to many of these texts we literalise them and make them into something the original poetry never intended. Instead of the poetic words splashing into the pond and sending out its ripples of meaning toward our shore, the literalising process makes them thud and sink into the pond with all resonance gone. As the American poet and literary critic Jay Parini has written: "Poetry matters because it takes into account the full range of moral considerations, moving against the easy black-and-white formulations that may sound effective in political rhetoric but which cannot, finally, satisfy our deepest needs for a language adequate to the emotional and intellectual range of our experience."
In other words, theology must always have more integrity and depth than a bumper sticker and the Church cannot be like a swimming pool where all the noise comes from the shallow end.
Resolvers will be distrustful of the deepeners' airy talk. The lack of dotted lines to sign on is frustrating to them. I understand. After all, there is something resolving about this article. Living with longing rather than arrival isn't easy and yet, for me, it is only the longing for God that keeps the pulse of faith strong. Once I feel I have somehow contained or summarized God, the pulse weakens. To begin a collage of faith secures the yearning, the search for God, and allows for rebelliousness as well as reverence. It permits us to admit the sense of dereliction as well as the devotion that make up a human life in relationship with God. As the collage changes, so do I. Each new piece enlarges both the collage and the maker of it. This is important because God's gift to us is our being. Our gift to God is our becoming.
The collage never ends.

We look forward to Mark Oakley's visit to Wychwood Circle on September 7th ahead of the publication of his forthcoming book, The Splash of Words: believing in poetry. 

Friday 15 August 2014


The next meeting is on September 7th when we are delighted to welcome Canon Mark Oakley from St Paul's Cathedral. He will lead an interactive session on poetry and faith, anticipating his new book, The Splash of Words: believing in poetry.  Some time ago he wrote The Collage of God, a treasure trove of thoughts and quotations which resonate with the modern reader with even a passing interest in spiritual things.  

On October 5th, our title will be: WHY ATHEISTS ARE BRIGHTER THAN CHRISTIANSWe will base our discussion on an article by Edward Dutton whose book, Religion and Intelligence: An evolutionary analysis, was published recently. Copies of the article will be available from the library or by emailing 

November 16th (note - the third Sunday) sees another guest speaker in the form of Imam Monawar Hussain, Founder of both Oxford Muslim College and the Oxford Foundation. His title will be THE GREATER JIHAD. 

Sunday 3 August 2014

SOIL, SOUL AND SOCIETY; an inclusive and holistic trinity

"Human aspirations have often been expressed in trinities..." - What's yours called?

Satish Kumar prefaces Part Two of his book with a quotation from T S Eliot: 
The only wisdom we can hope to attain is humility; humility is endless.
In his continuing 'Quest for Wholeness' (the title of Part Two) Kumar refers to the Bhagavad Gita, according to which "nature, society and self should form a triangle, an interconnected whole. Every day we need to take care of these three aspects of our lives," he says. These are the grounds of his own thinking and he has chosen the words Soil, Soul and Society to describe his version of this trinity. He compares it to other, better-known, trinities, such as the Christian Trinity, the French revolution slogan ('Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite'), and the new age trinity of 'Mind, Body, Spirit'.  

It is hard to disagree with much of what Kumar writes in this book: even the varied participants of the Wychwood Circle discussion on this topic showed an unusual degree of agreement. Kumar sets out his own stall, travelling via Jainism and Hinduism, with more than an obeisance to Buddhism, and a nod in the direction of Islam. Christianity, oddly enough, hardly gets a mention - which made a refreshing change for our discussion group but is odd when writing for a Western readership. 

This 11th chapter in Part Two is a case in point. He wants to emphasize the superior merits of his own trinity which 'brings nature, humanity and spirituality together' and has little trouble dismissing the humanism of the Enlightenment because it seems to discard spirituality. Similarly what he calls the new age trinity is too personal, he says, ignoring social justice and ecological sustainability. And Christianity is written off in a sentence: 
'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' is a spiritual trinity, but it takes no note of the social and ecological dimensions.
Reading this book for refreshment and a good dose of 'Eastern wisdom', one can happily move on swiftly as he does.  But coming back to this, it is striking what a narrow interpretation this suggests for the Christian trinitarian faith. Whatever one makes of it in practice, it is a recurrent theme in scripture and the liturgy, not to mention two thousand years of theology, that the Trinity is - at least for some - precisely a way of formulating the sort of vision that Kumar recommends.

Maybe more of us are Celts

In classical theology, God the Father is creator and sustainer of the universe and we are to worship and adore him for that role; can we possibly do so without reverencing nature as it speaks to us of God and his creation? Kumar refers to nature and creation in chapter 25 on dualism, where he acknowledges that 'the Celts saw the presence of God in creation itself'.  But he is convinced that the 'dominant Judaeo-Christian influence' has been that God told man to 'subdue the earth and multiply'. He is quoting Genesis and taking a not untypical interpretation of it as the 'dominant' one. He may be right, but maybe more of us are Celts nowadays. 

Similarly, Jesus as the second person of the Christian Trinity is usually understood as God's self-expression as a human being, who as flesh and blood goes round Galilee preaching the establishment of 'the kingdom of God', a community which foreshadows an ideal which may be called heaven: is this anything other than the 'humanity' or the 'society' which Kumar wants us to take seriously? 

Finally, the Holy Spirit - well, that's your spiritual or 'soul' bit, which Kumar does not question, even quoting Thomas Aquinas as referring to anima mundi - the soul of the world. But the whole point of the Trinity is surely to understand the three persons as one God and therefore to separate or play down one element of 'soil, soul or society' goes against even orthodox Christian teaching. Or so one could argue. 

Humanity, humanism and human-ness

In practice Kumar has a point in that Christians have seemed to see and talk about their faith as a personal journey, individualistic rather than social, largely about self-fulfilment and reaching towards a future goal of 'eternity'. But it's hard to follow the Jews through the Egyptian desert or listen to the Sermon on the Mount (Blessed be... etc) without realising that this is a very human, not to say humanistic, faith and a very social lifestyle. 

As for the ecology, maybe we should be looking for a few more references in contemporary sermons to sustainability and symbiotic relationships. Or we should be singing more psalms (or the Canticle Benedicite, omnia opera in the Book of Common Prayer) where the glories of nature are cited as evidence of 'All ye works of the Lord'; and then we should go home and think hard about our own responsibilities. 

Of course, Kumar is right in his conclusions - as was TS Eliot in his prescription. Unless we can bring together compassion and humility, concern for the environment, and (however we interpret it for ourselves) spirituality, then maybe we are missing something and the whole balance of our world is under threat:
Without reverence there can be no ecology, and without spirituality there can be no sustainability.

The next open forum is on September 7th when we are delighted to welcome Canon Mark Oakley from St Paul's Cathedral. He will lead an interactive session on poetry and faith, anticipating his new book, The Splash of Words: believing in poetry.  Some time ago he wrote The Collage of God, a treasure trove of thoughts and quotations which resonate with the modern reader with even a passing interest in spiritual things. 

Saturday 26 July 2014



Excerpts from chapter 25 of Satish Kumar's You Are Therefore I Am

‘I think, therefore I am’,  proclaimed RenĂ© Descartes… As I learned more about Western culture, I realised how Cartesian dualism was an essential feature of a thought process which divided mind and matter, separated soul and body and looked at the world as a collection of objects…  This Cartesian subject-object dualism or mind-matter split has become the dominant paradigm of Western culture…

These theories [the dominant Judaeo-Christian influence, Newtonian physics, Darwinian biology and Freudian psychology] are, in my view, at the root of the ecological, social and spiritual crisis of our times.  The dualistic world-view gives the illusion that I exist independently of the Other…

This is Separational Philosophy.

The whole beyond the parts

There are other philosophies which seek the whole beyond the parts… Here are examples of such Relational Philosophies: [those of the Jains, the Buddhists, parts of Africa where they use the word ‘ubuntu’ (‘we are’), Native Americans, Hindus]…

There is no separate, isolated, disconnected self.  Things appear separate if we see them as separate, they appear related when we see them as related.  It is all in the seeing.  Seers see the whole.  Unlike Descartes, who believed the soul to live in the pineal gland, St Thomas Aquinas saw that the soul is not in the body, but the body is in the soul.  We are part of the anima mundi, the world soul…

The consequences  of Cartesian dualism is to put individuals in opposition to each other and the world at large, making life a battleground. … Individualism gives birth to exploitation of the weak by the strong, fights for power and wealth, subjugation of animals and nature, and the ultimate frustration of an unfulfilled and meaningless life.
In Separational Philosophy the individual is encouraged to take, take, take, and this ceaseless taking leads to nothing but anxiety…

Relational Philosophy

In the relational paradigm, the individual receives from the universe at large. … We are all givers and receivers. This leads to caring for each other, and nurturing the earth, because ultimately there is no distinction between the Earth and ourselves.
Separational Philosophy leads to a position of either ‘one’ or the ‘other’.  Either individualism or collectivism, either materialism or spirituality, either art or science…  Relational Philosophy equips us to recognise the reality of ‘both… and …’  Individual and society are two sides of the same coin. Matter and spirit exist together; art and science complement each other…  We need rationalism in balance with intuition and emotion.  Life is not a battleground …  Rather, life is a ground of symbiotic relationships, where even battles and conflicts have a place, as do compassion and harmony…

What is the fundamental cause of conflict, highlighted by 11th September but in evidence all around the world? It is the paradigm that all individuals, families, communities, classes, societies and nations must seek their own, separate self-interest.
The Marxist class analysis is very much based on dualism …

Even the environmental movement … is often driven by a pragmatic, utilitarian, dualistic and anthropocentric world-view.  This is a kind of selfish ecology…  The unity of life is not just about human survival, it is about deep respect and reverence for all life… This is Reverential Ecology…

A Reverential Ecology

Without reverence there can be no ecology, and without spirituality there can be no sustainability. Unless we are prepared to make a radical shift in our thinking and act accordingly, we will not be able to bring an equilibrium between conflict and harmony, and attain wholeness. 

(Ed:) And just for comparison, with no explicit connection whatsoever, here some words of Pope Francis in November 2013:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.  Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interest and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.  God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”

And Roger Scruton:
"By remaking humans and their habitat as objects to consume rather than subjects to revere we invite the degradation of both." (Gifford Lectures, 2010, published as THE FACE OF GOD, 2012)

Join us on August 3rd as we discuss Satish Kumar's philosophy at Wychwood Library in West Oxfordshire. 

Wednesday 9 July 2014


Sunday 3rd August sees our discussion move on to Parts 2 and 4 of Satish Kumar's book (see earlier post). Do join us at Wychwood Library at 7pm. 

Part Two begins with the philosophy of Soil, Soul and Society. In Part Four Kumar reaches the real goal of this spiritual journey: 

You Are Therefore I Am : A Reverential Ecology

Saturday 5 July 2014

The eye of the imagination, the eye of intuition, the eye of the spirit


Excerpts from chapter 3 of Satish Kumar's YOU ARE Therefore I AM 

Gopalji (a Hindu scholar): 

Language can only approximate a particular aspect of truth. And beyond that, one can only remain silent.

A frog in a pond who has never seen the sea may dispute with a fish that there is any such thing as the sea… A frog may even, in its preference for a particular pond, ridicule another pond. …  Why waste time in disputation, one truth against another truth, or one religion against another religion? Why not open the third eye and see multi-faceted reality?
The third eye sees the connections, the relationships, the patterns, the mutuality.  The two eyes see three-dimensional reality – the gross and the obvious.  But to see non-dimensional reality we require the Third Eye – the eye of the imagination, the eye of intuition, the eye of the spirit. The third eye perceives unlimited reality, the eternal, the infinite, the whole, the complete. 

Kumar's mother (a devout Jain): 

In the Jain tradition … there are truths, and they are always contextual;  a text can only have meaning in its context.  Truth is sublime. Truth is not a ‘correct’ belief system.  It is not a point of arrival: it is a continuous process, a continuous search and a continuous way of being. … As the mind expands , truth expands.  Therefore Jains attempt to live without trampling on another’s life and thoughts, and practise generosity of spirit

Join our discussion tomorrow (or next month) at Wychwood Library - even if you've only read the extracts on this site. 

Sunday 29 June 2014



Some excerpts from the early chapters of Satish Kumar's YOU ARE THEREFORE I AM

Ch 1 – Learning from Nature

“Nature is the greatest teacher,” said my mother while we were walking from home to the farm. 

Mother believed that the whole of life should be lived as a spiritual practice, as a meditation. Self-realisation is not something for tomorrow, not somewhere in the distance;  it is here and now in all our actions, guided by reverence for matter, reverence for work, reverence for life.

[Mother:] We human beings have to let go of our pride, our separateness, and not bother about our individual identity.  If we immerse ourselves in the process of life, and trust in the process of the universe, and identify ourselves with others, we can become the tree of a thousand branches and a million plums.

Bees go from flower to flower, taking only a little nectar here and little nectar there, and doing no harm to the flower.  How gentle and restrained they are. … But what do human beings do? When we start to extract the bounties of the earth, we know no limits, we go on taking and taking until the earth is depleted.

[Satish’s father said:] “ I am in business to make friends, and serve the community.  Profit for me is by the way.  One has to make profit and balance the books, otherwise the business will go bust, but profit is not the main motivation. … Profit is necessary but not primary. Making friends and forming relationships is much more fun.  This is why I am in business.”

[Mother:] Too many possessions take too much of your time. You have to clean them, look after them, use them, store them;  if you are busy with material things, when do you have time for reflection, meditation and service to the community?

For Mother, walking was much more than physical exercise, it was a meditation.  …
Mother was not self-centred. That is why she was out and about, flowing with the wind and finding spirit in nature. …
As I walked with her, Mother would teach me to breathe properly, and ask me to pay full attention to breathing. “Paying attention is meditation,” Mother would say.  …
Breathing connects you with the world.  You are sharing the same breath of life, the same air, with all humanity. You are connected with everyone through this invisible medium…

Ch 2 – A Hindu Mind

Why is “Aum shanti shanti shanti” universally recognised as the supreme mantra? 
[Satish’s mother asks of Gopalji, Satish’s brahmin teacher, a forty-year-old philosopher:]

If you chant this mantra, the very sound of it is enough to make you return to your centre.

Aum is an affirmative mantra.  It simply means ‘yes’ – yes to existence, yes to the sun and the moon, yes to trees and rivers, yes to our friends and families, yes to you and me, yes to this brew we are drinking, yes to life and its beauty.  It is a mantra of acceptance and openness, a mantra of positive thinking. We should chant it as often as we can.

‘Shanti’ in Sanskrit simply means peace. …
First of all we have to make peace with ourselves by accepting who we are. … Without inner peace no outer peace can be realised. …
Once I have made peace with myself I have to make peace with the world. … So we need to recognise the essential and intrinsic goodness of the world, and build upon it the ideal world of our dreams. Then we will have world peace.  …
When there is world peace, then we make peace with nature, with the cosmos, with the gods – with the universe. … We send our noble thoughts of peace to all corners of the universe, and we let noble thoughts of peace come to us from all corners of the universe. …
Personal, political, and planetary peace are to be pursued together.  One includes and reinforces the other. 

Monday 2 June 2014

YOU ARE Therefore I AM

On July 6th, we turn to a book by Satish Kumar, subtitled 'A Declaration of Dependence': 'YOU ARE Therefore I AM' (Green Books, 2002), focusing on Part One, Encounters with Meaning. This first part gives a flavour of Hinduism and Jainism and hints at Kumar's own particular brand of Eastern wisdom. Join us at Wychwood Library from 7.00pm to no later than 9.00pm. 

Satish Kumar wrote an autobiography, also published by Green Books, called No Destination. You can read more about him on the website here

Wednesday 21 May 2014


God is too important to be left to the religions and the theologians

The comedian Jack Dee was recently on Desert Island Discs and told KirstyYoung that he was a person of faith but had less and less time for religion. He also talked about going and sitting in a church on a Sunday afternoon.  Many of us would have some fellow-feeling with him on this: we might indeed avoid churches altogether, or attend early morning BCP communion with a dozen others to experience the peace, the grandeur and the 400-year tradition. Or we may love the stained-glass windows or the ancient architecture. Or we may even, like Philip Larkin in his
poem Church Going, gravitate to empty churches and holy ground, ‘which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, if only that so many dead lie round’.

Yet the Anglican Dean of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Frances Ward in Why Rousseau was wrong: Christianity and the secular soul suggests that:
‘Religion can offer … a different understanding of what it means to be human. One which takes virtue seriously, and looks for trustworthy and responsible character as the bedrock of the soul who is responsive to God and its neighbour’.
In her attempts (as a good senior priest in the Church of England) to persuade people to go to church – if only so that they will know what they are rejecting, which is not a bad reason – she also says of faith that it does not have all the answers, that it ‘offers fruits in life that are not immediately obvious’, that it requires us ‘to be open … to some of the deeper questions and to some of the most profound art and music, allowing the aesthetic to  move us and prompt us to wonder if there is more to life than we previously thought.’

In Chapter 5 of our current theological launching-pad, philosopher John Caputo seems to agree with these sentiments, about being open, about the relevance of virtue, about not seeking certainty but being ready to respond.  Contrasting the misguided pursuit of “one true religion” with the “virtue” of what he calls ‘being genuinely or truly religious’, he takes up a metaphor offered by the Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida that ‘religions are rafts that sail on an endless sea’.  Says Caputo: ‘God is more important than religion, as the ocean is more important than the raft, the latter bearing all the marks of being constituted by human beings.’  

The religious element in us all: religion without religion

A repeated theme in Caputo’s book is that religion is a human practice, but also that the religious sense is not something we acquire or weigh up or reject, but rather something we recognise in ourselves. ‘I am arguing that there is a fundamentally religious quality to human experience itself,’ he says.

He has taken us through a broad history of ideas from medieval to modern to ‘post-modern’ and his main thesis thus far has been that contemporary thought about God or religion should be ‘de-capitalized’ – by which he means ‘the willingness to get on as best we can without capital letters and without final authoritative pronouncements’. Religious truth is not like scientific truth. At the same time as Nietzsche rubbished the claims of the moderns, he also dug the ground from under his own feet. If we think we have unmasked the medieval viewpoint of metaphysical reality, then we should recognise that the Enlightenment view of Reason and Objective Truth has also been unmasked – and so have Marx and Freud and Nietzsche himself and statements like ‘God is dead’.  

Love is a how, not a what

What we have left (‘having passed through modernity’ to ‘a more enlightened Enlightenment’), he says, is ‘the passion and the not-knowing’.  Only the driest, most bovine human creature does not believe in love, and, in Caputo’s view at least (and that of the writer of a New Testament epistle), “everyone who loves is born of God”.  And what do I love when I love my God? (St Augustine's phrase) Well, loving God is not a formula but a deed to do. In fact Caputo would have liked to be a medieval copyist and slipped in the word ‘how’ in place of the word ‘what’.

Rather than looking for the one true religion we should seek religious truth, or, dare one say it, to be religious, in the sense that the New Testament writer talked about ‘loving God in spirit and in truth’. The medieval meaning of religio was ‘virtue’ and from the Old Testament prophets (eg Amos) to contemporary philosophers (eg Derrida) the pursuit of justice has figured large in most decent people’s beliefs:
But let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.' 
Similarly ‘faith’ – as we have discussed before in our group – used to mean ‘being committed to’ and if we testify (cf Greek martyreo) to the love of God, this must mean doing something about it.  Old St Paul in one of his letters (little knowing that he would be quoted to death and out of context in sentimental modern weddings) goes on about love (or ‘charity’) at some length and concludes that of the three ‘passions for the impossible’ (as Caputo calls them) – faith, hope and love – the  latter is definitely the greatest.  

Three steps to a passionate life

When Wychwood Circle first met a little over two years ago, the book which we discussed over a period of months was called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by former nun Karen Armstrong. As Caputo argues for passion, for a ‘restlessness with the real’ and a response to ‘something that has swept us away’ at some time or other, it feels a bit like we are coming back to where we started, but with more vigour. We debated 
the meaning (and appropriateness) of the word ‘compassion’ at the time, wondering whether it meant pity, or mercy, or just sympathy (‘feeling with’, ‘with-passion’), but on balance we agreed with Armstrong that our discussions had to lead to action, to doing the deed, and not worrying too much about the formula.  

Armstrong got us there in 12 steps, like Alcoholics Anonymous; Caputo concludes his final chapter with 3 axioms of a 'religion without religion', each one leading to the next.  ‘I do not know who I am or whether I believe in God’ - to settle for ‘radical undecidability’, which he recommends as a step in the right direction, is fine but too academic, too cognitivist, even complacent.  To ask, ‘is what I believe in God?’ is better because then we are beginning to talk about commitment and a quest which might lead to action. But the third step has to be: ‘what do I love (when I love my God)?’, in other words how do I love, or even how do I choose to live.  This for Caputo reveals the passionate side in us and leads him on to quote contrasting examples of passionate people from Dietrich Bohnhoeffer and Mother Teresa and others who started out within a traditional religion, to all those outside religions who have done great things, ‘because there is no safely secular sphere where we can be so sure that no religious fires burn’.  

On being human

It is hard (even though the final chapter could be said to be a little long-winded) not to be swept along by Caputo’s enthusiasm, indeed his passion.  He has after all admitted at the outset that ‘lovers of God’ are ‘a little unhinged’, and that one idea of the word “love” is that it represents ‘a giving without holding back, an “unconditional” commitment, which marks love with a certain excess’. Not very English, but maybe very human, if only we dared. 

A serious house on serious earth it is, // In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, // Are recognised, and robed as destinies. // And that much never can be obsolete,  // Since someone will forever be surprising // A hunger in himself to be more serious, // And gravitating with it to this ground, // Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, // If only that so many dead lie round. 
 Church Going (final stanza) by Philip Larkin

We discuss Chapters 4 (Impossible People) and 5 (On Religion: Without Religion) of John D Caputo's book On Religion (click to read online) in the series Thinking In Action (Routledge 2001) at our next meeting at Wychwood Library on June 1st at 7pm. Anyone is welcome to join the discussion, preferably having read the relevant chapters. 

Saturday 10 May 2014



On Sunday June 1st at Wychwood Library we discuss the last two chapters of John Caputo's book On Religion, which are the culmination of his argument. Chapter 5, borrowing from Jacques Derrida, is entitled: On Religion - Without Religion. 

Caputo says this: 
This essay on religion is also an essay about being human. ... The distinction between theism and atheism, religion and unreligion, is beset by confusion ...
The book is available in its entirety to be read online - click on this link. A summary of chapter 2, a vital step in his argument, can be obtained from 

Sunday 27 April 2014


How the secular world became post-secular

Last week someone called Eleanor Mottram posted a blog which is both topical and very readable.  She has just moved from being Festival Producer of Greenbelt, which she describes as ‘a space hosted by Christians’ and ‘a collision between the arts, faith and justice’.  Her new job? Working for The Sunday Assembly which she describes as ‘a godless congregation that celebrates life’ but is ‘not anti-religion’.  Have a look at the website and you’ll see that it is ‘a global network of people who want to make the most of this one life we know we have’. (Hands up if you know anyone who disagrees with that mission)

Eleanor Mottram tells of feeling ‘a bit like I’m coming out when I say, “I’m an atheist”’ and goes on to describe her devout Catholic parents, 'whose faith is an integral part of their lives'. At Wychwood Circle we’re beginning to feel we’ve been here before: there are few in this (Western) world who haven’t been through the fire of parents and various shades of religious upbringing, or Sunday school, or faith school, you name it - and spent the rest of their lives wondering just how to deal with the legacy. 

John Caputo, our current author with the task of providing a springboard to discussion, says that he prefers to talk, not of religious people, but of the religious in people:
And once again, we need to remind ourselves, the religious sense of life would never mean just one thing for everybody, as if it had some sort of common ahistorical, universal, transcendental structure.
And, in answer to those who want to celebrate ‘this one life we know we have’, we can quote him a few pages later:
If the religious sense of life is sometimes thought of in terms of eternity, under the influence of Plato, my advice is to rethink it in terms of time, as a temporal way to be, a way to ride the waves of time, trying to catch its swells while trying not to end up like a drowned rat.

A more enlightened Enlightenment

After arguing for a sense of the religious as ‘a restless stirring with a passion for the impossible’ (ch 1), Caputo moves in chapter 2 to the task of describing how western civilisation has moved over time from the medieval, metaphysical way of seeing things, through ‘modernity’, to what is variously described now as the post-modern, post-industrial, post-critical, or, as he prefers, post-secular.  But his argument is not that we have moved on in the sense of leaving the ‘modern’ perspective behind, so much as moved through it to ‘a more enlightened Enlightenment’, ‘one that is enlightened about the limits of the old one’.

The Independent on Sunday reviewer commented that Caputo had ‘put Marx, Nietzsche and Freud in their historical places’ and Nietzsche in particular is taken up by Caputo and then, as he claims, hoist with his own petard:
Nietzsche had argued for the historical contingency of our constructions, the revisability and reformability of our beliefs and practices, all of which, as he said, are “perspectives” that we take on the world and that have emerged in order to meet the needs of life.  … But Nietzsche thought that science was one more version of Christian Platonism, that the death of “God” implies the death of “absolute truth”, including the absolutism of scientific truth; physics too is a perspective.
But Nietzsche’s critique, says Caputo, is also a critique of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche and their critiques of religion: 
Enlightenment secularism, the objectivist reduction of religion to something other than itself – say, to a distorted desire for one’s mommy, or to a way to keep the ruling authorities in power – is one more story told by people with historically limited imaginations, with contingent conceptions of reason and history, of economics and labor, … of God, religion, and faith.

Philosophy in a humbler, uncapitalised condition 

What is perhaps most pleasing (at least to one who has already decided that the way forward lies in breaking down boundaries) is the implication of such post-modernism for our twentieth-century habit of categorising and separating thought into non-overlapping disciplines, as also of arriving at pseudo-objective conclusions.  The ‘more enlightened Enlightenment’ of Caputo ‘will have a post-critical sense of critique that is critical of the idea that we can establish air-tight borders around neatly discriminated spheres or regions like knowledge, ethics, art and religion.’  Post-modernists realise that
there is no such thing as an undistorted perspective and try to correct for that. … There are many different and competing beliefs and practices and we should make every reasonable effort to accommodate them, to let many flowers bloom.
So whether in Canberra, Chicago or Chipping Norton, our own version of a ‘Sunday Assembly’ should follow Eleanor Mottram and Greenbelt’s example: 
As for being an atheist in a religious setting, it didn’t matter to Greenbelt and it didn’t really matter to me. What Greenbelt stands for is more in line with my personal philosophy than a lot of organisations and the fact that it actively believed in making the world a better place made it an organisation I could be part of. 

On June 1st we go on to discuss Chapters 4 and 5: On Religion - Without Religion.