Saturday 31 January 2015



We hear a lot about spirituality these days, whether with faith or without, whether ‘modern spirituality’ or traditional religious spirituality.  Even Sam Harris, arch-atheist as he is supposed to be, is searching for spirituality without religion. And the RSA, with its strapline ‘21st Century Enlightenment’, has just published a report entitled ‘Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges’.  It quotes a 2013 survey by the think-tank Theos suggesting that 59% of people believe in 'some kind of spiritual being or essence'.  


And why not?  When we discussed this at Wychwood Circle someone suggested that to be ‘spiritual’ is just to be serious about life, the world and humanity.  And that means thinking about how we live and what values we live by.  Madeleine Bunting, panellist at the Beyond Belief: Taking Spirituality Seriously events at the RSA, said that the conversation was about 'what is our human nature, what are we as human beings?'

At Wychwood Circle we have been clear from the beginning that we wanted to discuss not just 'what we believe' but 'what we believe in' and for our first few months in 2012 we took Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life apart chapter by chapter.  We encountered religion and philosophy, politics and psychology, ethics and justice – but one thing which united our contrasting approaches was that we all agreed that we believed in Compassion. 


Borg, good liberal scholar that he is*, seems to endorse in the final chapter of our current book a view which we also came across with John Caputo (On Religion, 2001), namely that it’s not so much what you believe as how you live that matters.  Borg is big on metaphors (his own, and the many biblical ones he writes about) and he says here, referring particularly to some of his students’ more conservative views:  
Thinking of the Christian life as being primarily about believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus is thus a modern mistake, with profound consequences. …  What matters is hearing the voice that speaks to us through the tradition, not believing in the tradition.  
His favourite metaphor in this book is the more visual one of seeing ‘the Bible, Jesus, and central postbiblical traditions’ as ‘a lens through which we see God and our relationship with God. What matters it not the lens but seeing through the lens.’ 


So, if you’re not a Christian, or ‘religious’ – but maybe ‘spiritual’, who knows? – is there anything for you in this ‘vision of the Christian life’?  The Church of England, with its classic habit of speaking only to itself, has called a crucial and very relevant recent report Developing Discipleship.   In modern English that off-putting word ‘discipleship’ means (as Borg uses it) 'following after Jesus', in other words, taking seriously what Jesus took seriously.

NT Wright in his parallel chapter on Christian living developed the theme in terms of four areas of ‘Christian experience’: Spirituality, Theology, Politics and Healing.  Borg answers the question of what about Jesus we should follow in terms of 5 inter-connected characteristics which he thinks are ‘most central’:
a life centred in the Spirit, lived by an alternative wisdom, marked by compassion, concerned about justice, and lived within the alternative community of Jesus


The key words ‘alternative’, ‘compassion’, ‘justice’ and ‘community’ demand – particularly in an election year in the UK – an essay to themselves.  The Archbishop of York has just published a book which apparently criticises governments for creating ‘a tale of two cities’ and contemporary society for being dominated by consumerism and selfishness.  The Archbishop of Canterbury meanwhile preached this week in New York about ‘a society in which the weak are excluded’ and where religion is reduced to morality.  The life of Jesus, he said, 'challenges every assumption'.  More on this in a later post. 


What cannot be ducked is this insistence on things spiritual.  This is what Borg has in mind:
Spirituality is one of the major focal points of the Christian life. … It typically involves regular prayer, whether verbal or non-verbal, and perhaps other traditional spiritual practices.  It also happens through worship that manifestly mediates the Spirit, whether the charismatic worship of Pentecostals, the silent gathering of Quakers, or the sacramental worship of more liturgical traditions.
This in turn allows us 'to see everybody and everything' differently; it leads us to see common categorisations of people and behaviour (eg as good or bad) as 'very often simply based on deeply ingrained cultural convention'; it 'awakens not only compassion but also a passion for justice'.

William Bloom, author of The Power of Modern Spirituality (2011), began his career with a doctorate in political psychology at the LSE before going on to work with people with special needs and deliver training in the NHS and elsewhere.  The word ‘God’ doesn’t feature in his book but he is clear that spirituality is all about Connection, Reflection and Service.  He begins his penultimate chapter thus:
It is empowering to be clear about our values and to live our lives in accordance with them and to be of service to those around us through acts of sharing, generosity, care, courage and compassion.  Yet in spirituality there is also another dimension to service that is more subtle, invisible and metaphysical.


Co-author Tom Wright’s approach to the Christian life starts from a more conservative view and he is keen to integrate ‘the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith’ as well as the different facets of Christian experience. With a lifetime of experience as academic, churchman and communicator, Wright's conclusion is to ‘focus both history and faith on Jesus of Nazareth’ as he has described him, which may lead us to
find that creation, sacraments, human life, politics, history, and faith come rushing together in new integrations for which as yet we have no language but worship.

For upcoming Wychwood Circle events, starting with the discussion anticipated above which takes place on Sunday February 1st, see the previous post.  

*Sadly, Marcus J. Borg died earlier this month and so references here in the present tense are to his words of 1999.  His most recent book (2014) was his own memoir, Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most, which could well form the basis of a future Wychwood Circle event.

COMING SOON ON THIS PAGE:  Reflections on Archbishop Sentamu’s new book On Rock or Sand (maybe also a future book for discussion in election year), which brings together contributions by Andrew Sentance, Julia Unwin and Ruth Fox (and others) on topics in which they are experts, such as economics, poverty and democracy. 

Tuesday 6 January 2015



Brian Cox, rockstar turned scientist, is on record as saying that he doesn't think about God until he is asked to do so. But then he says:
'Philosophers would rightly point out that physicists making bland and sweeping statements is naive.  There is naivety in just saying there's no God; it's b-----s. People have thought about this.  People like Leibniz and Kant. They're not idiots. So you've got to at least address that.'
Elsewhere in the same interview he also says of 'inflationary cosmology' and the possible existence of an infinite number of universes: 
'These things have not been discussed widely; they need novelists and artists and philosophers and theologians and physicists to discuss them.'
Research from YouGov last September found that almost half of British biologists are atheists, compared with less than one in five of the general population, with a smaller proportion being found among physicists. But the theory of evolution is apparently far from settled. Dr Mark Vernon, celebrated agnostic and writer, recently drew attention to growing 'unease about neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, the version of Darwin's theory championed by Professor Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene'.  The failure of the sequencing of the human genome in 2003 'to deliver on its promise to account for human diseases and behaviours through genetic mechanisms' has led to 'the mainstreaming of the new science of epigenetics'. This new science, says Vernon:
'undermines the idea that inheritance happens only via DNA, and that evolution is built solely on random mutations. To put it simply, life is far more complicated and responsive than "selfish-geneism" allows.'
Professor of Palaeobiology at Cambridge Dr Simon Conway Morris speculated at a recent conference that we should pay more attention to the co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace. Vernon again:
'Right from the start, Wallace argued that human consciousness was far more sophisticated than would be needed merely to afford human beings survival advantages.  We don't use language just to warn our fellows of danger but to compose sublime, searching poems.  We don't use sound just to attract a mate but to nurture the ecstasy and insights of music.'
The Reverend Richard Coles, another former pop musician, now broadcaster and vicar, was on a panel with Robin Ince at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2013.  He made a not dissimilar point to Brian Cox's about naivety and religion. "Most people stopped thinking about religion when they were 8," he lamented, implying that the popular view of religion was formed in the nursery and has barely escaped the land of Narnia. Spurred by that provocative comment, we have invited him to come and speak to the Wychwood Circle on March 8th at Milton under Wychwood village hall on the theme, "Christianity for grown-ups." 

On February 1st we hold our first open discussion of 2015 with a further look at the book by very different biblical scholars, Marcus Borg and N T Wright, which was our springboard in December, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Our theme this time will be their contrasting visions of Jesus and The Christian Life - the subject of the final two chapters in the book forming Part VIII (about 40 pages). As always, anyone is welcome as long as they have read the relevant piece for discussion. Wychwood Library, 7pm. 

On March 8th we welcome the Reverend Richard Coles, ex-Communard and vicar of Finedon, who is well-known to listeners of Radio 4's Saturday Live. His topic will be CHRISTIANITY FOR GROWN-UPS. 

April 12th sees our second speaker of the year, former comedy magician and actor Geoffrey Durham, who is now better known as an author, creative consultant and outspoken Quaker.  He has appeared on Radio 4's Thought for the Day and has written two introductions to Quakerism, Being a Quaker and The Spirit of the Quakers