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.