Monday 27 November 2017


An article in a medical journal suggested that robots will not only provide caring for patients (even made to look ‘cute’ like a child) and 24-hour supervision and ‘friendship’ for the elderly, the disabled, and babies, but that in future many medical consultations will take place using smartphones, home sensors and AI systems with access to NHS-wide data. The robots would then ‘partner’ with humans who would only need to become involved where the systems fail to solve a problem.  What will be our attitude to such simulation of human activities?  Does it matter if ‘compassion’ or ‘friendship’ is a product of clever programming?

Human robots?

In modern distribution centres, the work of real humans is already guided by robots who give detailed instructions to them to go to a certain row and aisle and lift such and such an item off a certain shelf, etc etc.  Are the people doing those jobs still working as humans or is their work so robotic that it would be better if they weren’t involved? And is there more dignified work they could or should be doing?  Where will the jobs of the future be?

Driverless (and shared?) cars

As a member of a House of Lords Select Committee, the Bishop of Oxford realised recently that his young grandchildren may never have the experience that we do of car ownership or even a driving test.  How do we feel about that, with our habitual British interest in individualism and staying in control? The Bishop's 8 challenging 'Key Issues' to be faced by all of us can be read here

From technology to ethics to politics

Matthew Taylor of the RSA and author of the Taylor Review on modern working and employment practices commented in an economics discussion in Bristol last week that it is high time this subject was politicised. We cannot just sit back and leave it to 'technological' forces - which in effect means free market forces.  We must ensure that technology develops the way we want it to and the political choices will require us to know the facts as well as face them. 

On Sunday, December 10th, at Wychwood Library, we will watch a video of an erudite and engagingly delivered talk by the author of the medical journal article referred to above, Professor John Wyatt of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University. Ian Cave has kindly agreed to facilitate the viewing and the ensuing discussion which is likely to be fascinating and far-reaching - and of ever-increasing relevance to all our lives.  Do join us at 7pm (ends 9pm).  

Thursday 16 November 2017


The event will consist of a viewing on-screen of a talk by Professor John Wyatt given at Malvern Priory on this subject, followed by an open discussion of the issues raised, practical and ethical, by this advancing technological revolution. We are grateful to Ian Cave for introducing the topic and leading the discussion.

Tuesday 31 October 2017



'When a poet writes a poem, he is trying to express something he has seen about the world, some personal vision of the world. He is not trying to describe it in prose; that might be quite impossible. ... The poetic use of language is not to increase your information about the world. ... The use of words in poetry is to evoke a certain attitude or way of looking at things or feeling about things. ...'
Thus Keith Ward, the same Professor Keith Ward who stunned many of his audience with his wit and erudition, back in September in his Wychwood Circle presentation on Religion and Rationality. He has written so much that it was not to be wondered at that poetry ('Language about God is something like the language of poetry') should crop up too within an argument about the infinity and indescribability of God in a very short book of 2015.

On November 12th, Elizabeth Hollins Main and Lesley Wasley will come at poetry from their own angle, probably neither pious nor theological, but born of a shared love of writing and reading poetry, and they will be hoping to provoke each one of us into a response of our own. 

R S Thomas (1913-2000), an overtly Christian but radical and thoughtful, mystical Welsh priest and poet, will feature amongst others, as well as Wendy Cope, neither overtly Christian nor Welsh nor a priest but widely loved for her pithy and irreverent, often ironic or oblique short poems. Wendy Cope's collections include 'Making cocoa for Kingsley Amis' and 'Serious Concerns' - titles which probably sum up her light-hearted and her thought-provoking sides rather well.  Seamus Heaney said of Thomas that he appears 'as a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit'.

Liz and Lesley will choose poets of the 20th and 21st centuries, and this is what they say about their evening with us, Only Connect - Turning to Poetry: 'Our emphasis will be very much on personal responses to the poems - our own and, we hope, our audience's.  We see the evening as a personal exploration and sharing.'

All are welcome at Wychwood Library at 7pm on Sunday, November 12th. 

Monday 18 September 2017


No more than a cosmic accident?

The National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) recently published the latest British Social Attitudes survey reporting that 53 per cent of us have no religion, and that the young are the least religious of all. As Angela Tilby says in her column in the Church Times:
As religious literacy has waned, young people have simply absorbed the anti-religious narrative of our time. ... The script that human life is no more than a cosmic accident, and that we acquire meaning only by choosing to be who and what we wish to be, is now deeply embedded in our culture. 

Speaking truth to power? 

Leaving aside exactly what constitutes 'religion', let alone what the variety of people questioned took it to mean, there is little doubt that this is now the prevailing mood. And along with the decline of truthfulness in public discourse (our Foreign Secretary arguing with the UK's Statistics Authority as I write) there is a question over what now typically guides our thinking on matters of moral standards, such as, for example, compassion towards our neighbour, the poor, and refugees. If we do not trust our leaders in public life, from our MP to our vicar and from international experts to our own academics, where will our principles (if we have any) take us? Consumerism? Mindless destruction of our planet? My family, my community against the rest? America/Britain/me first?

People like us

On a (possibly) more light-hearted note, the popular philosopher Julian Baggini (author of A Short History of Truth) comments in an article today on the huge support for a Tweet by a disgruntled London commuter. Along with others on the Kings Cross Victoria line the commuter bemoans the loss of his painfully acquired advantage on the Underground over 'tourists and provincials' now that London Transport has painted green lines on platforms to show where the train will stop. Baggini concludes, maybe with resonance for broader aspects of our national life: 
Traditional British fairness is not about treating everyone equally. It's about giving subtle, informal advantage to insiders and locals. The outraged commuters may not realise it, but they are following the ethics of both old-boys networks and "Britain first" nationalists.  Both see preferential treatment for "people like us" as more just than treating any Tomasz, Dag or Ali the same. 

Challenging the anti-religious narrative

Back on the subject of religion and our culture's unthinking attitude to it, Angela Tilby calls for more 'thoughtful, culturally literate' Christians to 'come out' and contribute to changing the narrative, from academics and scientists to media people and celebrities. She misses a contemporary C S Lewis.  Well, in the Wychwoods we are fortunate in having a number of inspiring speakers to make us think twice: Richard Coles came to Milton's village hall as did Angela Tilby herself as well as, just a year ago, biologist Andrew Briggs and artist Roger Wagner. 

On Sunday we look forward to a talk by Professor Keith Ward on religion and rationality - a task for which he is more than qualified with his background in both philosophy and theology. Angela Tilby is worth quoting again in order to set the scene which Keith Ward will no doubt tackle incisively: 
In reality, the anti-religious script is less intellectually secure than it seems. It has been shown again and again that it is not really scientific: it distorts history, neglects philosophy, takes no account of religious experience, and is not obviously superior to faith in terms of rationality.  While its rhetoric is strident, and even bullying, it steadfastly ignores the ultimate questions of existence. 

Keith Ward is our guest at Milton under Wychwood village hall on Sunday, 24th September at 7pm. Open to all.  Retiring collection. 

Wednesday 13 September 2017


This article, announcing the coming season, first appeared on the CHASE benefice website 

In the 1630s a group of intellectuals known as the Great Tew Circle met a short distance away from the Wychwoods to champion the use of reason in the religious polemics of the time.  At Wychwood Circle we could say we are focused on exploring the use of religion as well as reason in the political, moral and technological upheaval of our own time.

What can we know?
The clash, or otherwise, of faith and reason has taxed thinkers from the days of the Roman Stoic Epictetus (“I am a rational creature; so I must sing hymns to God”) through the spread of Christianity and other faiths and the so-called Enlightenment to the present day.  Is Religion Irrational? Foremost amongst contemporary theologians and philosophers is Professor Keith Ward who on 24th September will be at Milton under Wychwood’s Village Hall to help many of us to face this theme head-on. He is a prolific author and if you can’t make it, you will find a whole range of topics on his website, from science and the cosmos to morality and the non-literal interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.
In January 2018 we will be further challenged by Oxford philosopher Tom Simpson (formerly an officer in the Royal Marine Commandos and now resident in Chipping Norton) on the issue of trust, and not so much what we can believe, as who we can believe. His topic will be ‘Can We Still Trust Experts?’ – never so relevant as in our post-referendum and Trumpian world of post-truth and ‘alternative facts’.

How then shall we live?
For those who are willing to put in the preparation, our 2017-18 season will include three discussions taking the recent book How Then Shall We Live? as our theme.  The author, Sam Wells, is both Vicar of St Martin in the Fields and Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at Kings College London – and a contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC.  The book, readily available in paperback, usefully divides up into three sections: Engaging the World (October discussion), Being Human (February), and Facing Mortality (May). Please email for more information.  

And are robots people too?
So some have asked, as they stop to think about the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and humanoid robots who might not only make and then drive our cars but offer home care and even medical advice in the near future.  What impact will these developments have on our identity and self-understanding? In December we will watch a recorded lecture by Professor John Wyatt and discuss the massive ethical and other implications of AI.

Only connect
Other upcoming events, as usual open to everyone and anyone, whatever their standpoint, will give us an opportunity to look at poetry under the heading of ‘Only Connect – turning to poetry’ (November 12th) and an evening at the Village Hall where local (and international) Yoga teacher Ruth White will help us to consider How To Turn Adversity into Advantage (March 11th).  Most of our meetings take place in Wychwood Library, warmly welcomed by librarian Ruth Gillingham, on the second Sunday of the month: but check for occasional changes of date or venue. 

Saturday 8 July 2017


The Village Hall is about halfway along the Shipton Road into Milton

Thursday 18 May 2017


Julian Bond, former director of the Christian Muslim Forum (more detail below), has kindly provided the following taster of his theme on June 4th at Wychwood Library, to which as usual all are welcome: 
There is a lot of negativity towards Muslims in some parts of society, including amongst Christians. Having come to be involved in inter-faith, and especially Christian-Muslim interaction, through openness and actual encounter, it was only later that I started to look for Biblical or Gospel reasons for positive engagement with Muslims.  One of the key texts is 'Love your neighbour', or as I prefer to say in particular contexts, 'Love your Muslim neighbour'. Continued reflection on this, coupled with my writing project 'Jumbled up in Jerusalem', a contemporary retelling of the Gospel story, led me to begin thinking about how Muslims might be incorporated into the story and teaching of Jesus. A few examples are shown below:
 "If anyone causes one of these beloved ones - who believe in me (this includes Muslims) - to trip up, they'll wish they'd been thrown into the sea with a heavy weight hung around their neck."
"You have heard it said, 'Don't let these Muslims come over here and Islamise our society'. I say - don't be so bloody arrogant and hostile; society is for everyone and if you hate people you might as well kill each other!"
"You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbour, and to hell with all these bloody immigrants and refugees ...' But I say to you, 'Stop reading the tabloids.  And yes, loving your neighbour would be a good start, but love your enemies too, love foreigners, strangers, Muslims, LGBT folk, atheists, secularists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, tax men (and women) and DWP employees. Bless them!" 
"A man and a woman go into the Temple to pray. One of them is a Methodist preacher and prays like this, booming and echoing round the building: 'God, I thank you that you've chosen me and I am one of your people, that I am counter-cultural, I don't drink, don't gamble, don't invest in unethical companies, fast during Lent and give to Christian charities.' But the other one, a Muslim, prays like this: 'O Allah, in your love and mercy have mercy on me and all my failings; keep me on the straight path.'"

Former Director of the Christian Muslim Forum Julian Bond is currently working as Connexional Grants Team Leader and was previously seconded to the Archbishop of Canterbury's Initiative in Christian-Muslim Relations for two years from the Inland Revenue. He was one of the originators of the Christian Muslim Forum's leaders programme which has been encouraging influential Christians and Muslims to engage with each other at a local level.
Julian Bond has engaged with the Muslim community around the country while also encouraging Christians to meet with Muslims both through the Christian Muslim Forum and as a member of the Methodist Church - member of The Square, Dunstable and previously District Inter Faith Advisor for Bedfordshire, Essex and Herts. His passion is for committed friendship and collaboration between Christians and Muslims.
He is a Theology graduate from the University of Aberystwyth and is keen to encourage wider dialogue with, and 'translate' religious ideas for, the non-religious. He is currently writing a short book on 'Jesus our Role Model'.

Monday 17 April 2017


Mark Clavier thinks the insights of sociology have been largely untapped in theological discussions compared to the influence of modern philosophy and the life sciences.  In particular, the popular notion of ‘postmodernism’ is often just consumerism ‘dressed up in posh, philosophical clothes’.  His reading in sociological discussions of consumerism has led him to wonder whether consumer culture, partly because it makes the same claims on identity, is 'best understood as a religion – a highly destructive one, too – that needs to be better understood and challenged.’

In a recent book he says consumerism is not morally neutral, as some have claimed, but is more like a global movement that has many of the same characteristics as the great religions.  Christianity and Islam offer the nearest historical parallels, both international movements that ‘either eclipse or transform local cultures’.
One of the ways that religions transcend local culture is by connecting with people at the important moments and stages of their lives and situating those events in a larger narrative. Almost all religions have rites of passage and other rituals meant to provide meaning …
Drawing comparisons with the ‘sacraments’ in Christianity (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, marriage, etc) he devotes the first part of his book to demonstrating how consumerism is a global religion, by mapping out ‘a consumer’s life according to a sacramental grid’.  Thus chapter 2 is entitled, Initiation into consumerism, and chapter 3, The consumer rites of adulthood

As well as criticising the churches for conforming to consumer culture, Clavier goes on to draw attention to just how much damage consumerism is causing to 'culture, societies and the planet'.  It’s not just environmental degradation, of which we all become ever more conscious, but also the fact that we can only enjoy the fruits of consumerism because the vast majority of the world’s population cannot.
Ultimately the enjoyment in wealthy nations of maximised choice, self-actualisation and ready access to goods and services is based on profound inequality. … [W]e are only free to be who we want to be because almost everybody else is not. 

Anyone is welcome to join the discussion at Wychwood Library on Sunday, May 7th at 7pm.  A retiring collection will be taken to cover costs. 

Monday 20 March 2017


The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant - introduced by Stephen Pickering 

IMMANUEL KANT (1724 -1804) is regarded by many as one of the three great Western philosopher alongside Plato and Aristotle.  By all accounts Kant was a popular lecturer, and he also published extensively establishing an international reputation. At first he taught the well-established philosophy of Leibniz, but became increasingly dissatisfied with it, and in 1781 published his master work, the Critique of Pure Reason. A second edition was published in 1787, followed by the Critique of Practical Reason (moral philosophy) and the Critique of Judgement (aesthetics) in 1788 and 1790 respectively.

What does Kant’s Critical Philosophy aim to do?
The aims of Kant’s critical philosophy can best be understand from their historical context, which is the Enlightenment. Kant invented the slogan ‘Dare to know!’ to describe the Enlightenment. Enlightenment therefore meant rejecting dogmatic claims to knowledge, in particular religious dogma, and dogmatic or speculative philosophy. But what should replace dogma? There were two contenders: rationalism and empiricism.

Rationalism and empiricism are competing and mutually exclusive theories of knowledge. Rationalists believe that our understanding of the world should be based on reason alone; empiricists, that it should be based on observation and experience. The rationalist school (Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz) and empiricist school (Locke, Berkeley and Hume) had been in competition over a hundred years. Kant’s greatest claim to fame was to unite them – thus ending the war among the philosophers – while at the same time leaving room for religious belief as well, thus also ending the war between science and religion. This unification needed a revolution in philosophical thinking.

What can we know?
Kant starts his revolution quietly enough by first distinguishing between knowledge derived from experience, in particular scientific or empirical knowledge, from other knowledge. That other knowledge mainly comprises Euclid’s geometry and Aristotle’s syllogistic logic. That knowledge is over two thousand years old and has never needed revision. It is the surest knowledge we have. Moreover, it is completely independent of the way the world is. It is knowledge we can claim to have before we begin a scientific investigation. For that reason Kant calls it  a priori knowledge, to distinguish it from experiential or scientific knowledge, which he called  a posteriori knowledge. And it is about a posteriori knowledge that Kant holds a remarkable and revolutionary view.

Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’
Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ was to see space and time not as features of the external physical world, as Newton imagined, but rather they are an internal feature of our faculty of perception If space and time are mental entities, then we do not experience reality directly. Indeed, reality does not exist in space or time at all.  The world of objects that we experience through the senses is a world of appearances. However, these appearances exhibit regularities that can be studied and described by the laws of physics. In that sense, the world of appearances is empirically real. And because, unlike dreams, there is regularity and order in the world of appearance, we can be sure that there is some underlying deeper level of reality which is causing the appearances. Kant calls the underlying reality the noumenal world (in contrast to the phenomenal world of experience). All we can say about the noumenal world is that it is not spatio-temporal. And because reason and the categories exist for understanding the phenomenal world, their use to speculate about the noumenal world is questionable and probably invalid. We cannot therefore know anything about the noumenal reality that underlies appearances. Rational arguments aimed at proving (or disproving) the existence of God  therefore fail because reason is being used outside its domain of validity. We may choose to believe such arguments as a matter of faith, but we are constitutionally incapable of knowing the truth of such matters. But that also means that religious beliefs are beyond the remit of scientific investigation, and thus science and religion can coexist without contradiction.

Was Kant ultimately successful?

Kant made a great impression on his contemporaries, but he stressed that his work only laid the foundations for a philosophical system because he had merely shown the limits of reason, and that it would be for others to complete it. Philosophers took up the challenge with enthusiasm. Unfortunately they all went their own divergent ways leading not to one unified system but to a diversity of systems that persists to this day. But it is for just this reason that he remains an pervasive influence in modern western philosophy.

Join us if you can at Wychwood Library on Sunday April 2nd at 7.00pm for Stephen's introduction and discussion of Kant's philosophy.  No prior knowledge required - but you might be glad to have read this post before you come! 

Sunday 22 January 2017


Mark Vernon is a writer and psychotherapist and as such has written much of interest – not just books about Ancient Philosophy, but numerous articles which cover Socrates and Plato, Freud and the unconscious, spirituality and the soul, faith and transcendence, wonder and well-being, and the big question: God.  He was ordained in the Church of England, but later left the priesthood and the church, and then – from what one reads – went from theism to atheism and on to agnosticism.  An obvious guest to invite to Wychwood Circle, then, where we question everything, whatever our world view.  We look forward to hearing much more from him in person on February 5th.

Faith and the unconscious

Dipping - in anticipation - into a book on Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (by Meissner, pub 1984) provided the following quotations about Freud and religion, though the author went on to place Freud himself on the couch, so to speak – also an illuminating exercise:
All religious behaviour and belief is a form of obsessive-compulsive neurosis … an exercise in passivity, compliance, and dependence – essentially a feminine preoccupation… Freud could not conceive of religion on other than emotional grounds…
Mark Vernon will surely not have ducked such claims in making his own journey and in an article celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s “The Unconscious” in 2015 he concluded thus:
The founder of psychoanalysis is not often thought of as a friend of religion.  But read him more closely: his curiosity concerning the dynamics of the human soul produces reasons for confidence in, as well as the development of, the insights of generations of people of faith.

A way of reaching towards the unknown

Vernon's 2011 book How To Be An Agnostic includes chapter headings such as Cosmic Religion: How Science Does God; How To Be Human: Science and Ethics; and Socrates or Buddha? On Being Spiritual But Not Religious.  In chapter 7, Following Socrates: A Way of Life, Vernon has some interesting things to say that may illuminate where he is coming from, which makes it even more intriguing to know where he has got to in 2017:
Religion is not just a set of beliefs or a moral code.  It is a way of seeing the world and a way of approaching what is unknown. …
This also adds to why, although I lost my faith, I found atheism unsatisfying.  Atheism is not a practice but a principle. You can no more believe in atheism than you can in science: the whole point is that you don’t believe; you know. … We need something bigger than ourselves to be ourselves. My religious imagination demanded this something else. …
Agnosticism as a way of reaching towards the unknown reaches back before Christianity. It rest on the shoulders of Socrates.  And he can provide a complementary resource to the Christian one.
Elsewhere he has noted that spirituality has become 'a kind of taboo': serious people are embarrassed by it, rather like Victorians felt the need to cover up piano legs!  But we are depriving ourselves (and our souls?) of making certain essential connections and this lack of perspective may be one reason why 'we find ourselves so frequently to be ethically and personally at sea'.

Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, and then Theology? 

The conclusion of Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience, by the way, is that psychoanalysis only goes so far: it is very useful in negative terms for studying the ‘impeding psychic forces’ which we need to be released from, but then theology needs to take over where psychoanalysis leaves off.  And then the theology also needs an anthropology which benefits from psychoanalytic input...

So if we are to understand ourselves and our human needs it seems we need three or more disciplines to interact. Mark Vernon will be able to provide insights from at least two of them and maybe persuade us that 'secular enlightenment ... is not enough'. 

Dr MARK VERNON joins us at Wychwood Library on Sunday, February 5th at 7pm. 
On Sunday, March 5th at the same time and place, our guest speaker is Canon BRIAN MOUNTFORD, author of Christian Atheist - Belonging without Believing (2011) and formerly vicar of the University Church in Oxford, whose topic is Spiritual but not religious
Anyone is welcome. Entry is free and donations are requested at the end. 

Tuesday 10 January 2017


'The classics hold a surprising fascination for we 21st-century moderns,' says Mark Vernon, commenting on the way Greek philosophy and classical history often feature on primetime TV and radio:
'Yet contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless, or aimless.'
Mark Vernon goes on to relate the 'loss of this crucial dynamic' to much that is of concern to us today, 'from mental health to climate change'.  As he points out, our modern narrative tends to exclude anything which doesn't fit with a secular view of things. The ancients developed human reason but not in order to shut down any sense of wonder or contemplation of a greater reality which might exceed our understanding.
'Reason's greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open on to transcendent vistas on which the soul can gaze and feed.'
A year ago at Wychwood Circle we were welcoming Oxford psychologist Professor Mark Willliams who has done so much to recommend the practice of mindfulness to the modern world, from the classroom to the houses of parliament.  Mark Vernon would not be alone in saying that this is the sort of practice which has long been part of religious traditions such as Christianity, as well of course as Buddhism. We shall be discussing again in March (with Brian Mountford) what it is to be 'spiritual' and there is no doubt a difference between secular and spiritual mindfulness. In a 2014 collection of essays entitled After Mindfulness a distinction is made between 'problem-solving' and 'spiritual' mindfulness. The latter might be said to address 'the questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular, the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine', says Mark Vernon.

Dr Vernon is a psychotherapist and he has pointed out that (evidence shows) the now quite common Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - originally inspired by Stoicism! - has not always delivered on what it promised.  'The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why', he says. 'If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.'  Well, at Wychwood Circle, we only cut out the censor, and whatever our point of view as we come to Wychwood Library on February 5th we shall learn a lot that we probably ought to know about reason and contemplation and doubtless a bit more about mind and mindfulness.

WHY WE NEED BOTH PLATO AND FREUD IN THE 21st CENTURY - a talk and discussion by Dr Mark Vernon at Wychwood Library at 7pm on Sunday 5th February. Open to all. Retiring collection.