Yesterday's overarching theme was: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne (Religion and secularism in the modern world). The theme of the second day of the symposium in Cadenabbia is: Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit. The contributions are very academic and intense – inevitable, given that the contributors are university academics.

The first paper this morning was given in English by Professor Gabriel Motzkin, Director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on the theme of Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen Fundamentalismus und Säkularismus. His starting point was that fundamentalism is possible only where there are texts – text-based communities then use other texts to discuss (and understand) the base text. Fundamentalism replaces the world/nature with a text, this differentiating it from secularism. Therefore, the conflict between fundamentalism and secularism has essentially to do with the possibility or admissability of authoritative texts. Motzkin went on to discuss how human beings “create God”, but concluded that secularists end up with more problems here than the fundamentalists who go beyond mere human agency in the world. This was fast and furious and the ensuing discussion was rich, but it rested on a contentious assumption about terminology and (as I questioned) a confusion between 'secularism'/'atheism' and 'fundamentalism'/'theism'.

The second paper, by Dr Ahmad Milad Karimi (lecturer at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster), addressed the theme: Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen westlichem und islamischen Denken. This one was in German and I didn't follow some of the complexity of terminology or argument – again, I need the text. However, the key discussion was around problems of transcendence and immanence in a context in which there is a contested assumption about revelation and/or experience.

We then moved on to Gott als Chiffre in der modernen Welt (Professor Dr Traugott Jähnichen from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum). He basically addressed the problems and legitimacy of 'God language' in political discourse, ranging from John Locke through the (failed) preamble Lisbon Treaty to the statement that we still haven't found a form of discourse that will compensate adequately for that represented by God-talk. Speech about God (which the church must not give away) (a) imposes limits to hubris, (b) owns up to fallibility and leads to the taking of responsibility, and (c) engenders humility.

Spiritualität ohne Gott saw Professor Dr Thomas Schärtl (Universität Augsburg) define – from a philosophical perspective – both 'spirituality' (“the way in which an individual sees/commits himself to the totality of existence within the framework of meaning”) and 'religion' (“how the finite stands in relation to eternity”). He went on to offer diagnostic elements for understanding what shapes spirituality, citing such phenomena as emancipation, immanentism, expansion of choices/options, and consumerism, before looking at Christian concepts such as sin, grace and salvation.

Thinking ahead to my paper tomorrow, I am concerned about two matters that impact on how we address these concerns in the world beyond the academic/conceptual: (a) the context in Europe of common philosophical assumptions about 'neutrality' in the public square, and (b) the need for translation in a pluralist society from the language of one worldview/praxis to those of others.

I need lunch…

 

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Here is a photo from last week of a young friend from Austria standing beside a road sign in Liverpool last week.

Penny Lane is famous the world over because the Beatles sang about it. But, when I was a kid, it was the place we went to the barber’s or the shops. The ordinary became the extraordinary. And, despite the Beatles tours, it still is a place ordinary people go to the bank, the barber’s, the shops… and engage in the stuff of ordinary life.

Why start with this? Partly because it formed the starting point for my book Finding Faith: Stories of music and life – in which I try to write about life and God and the world in ways ordinary people can understand. In other words, I am not writing for academics or people familiar with church. Secondly, however, is the reminder that there are two ways of addressing human questions: one is to start with God or the Bible or texts and go from them to our experience, the other is to start with human experience and then relate it to the other things. The former is OK for people already ‘in the club’, or who ‘speak the language’; the latter is where most people naturally start – with the experience they have, the questions they face, the life they live.

(In writing this I am reminded of my initial attempts as a vicar to write baptism preparation materials for our baptism preparation teams to use with the parents of those wanting their children baptised. The first materials failed – they began with biblical texts and were largely alien to those unfamiliar with them. I re-wrote them, with each session beginning with the experience of the parents, and then finding a biblical story or analogy that provided a vocabulary to express – or a framework in which to play around with – God, the world and us.)

Having watched the remarkable, soulful, poignant, funny, colourful, magnificent triumph that was last night’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (our Austrian friend was there), I turned to a book by Rosemary Lain-Priestley which she had kindly sent me, and which is called Does My Soul Look Big in This? I have a problem with books that look as if they will indulge in introspective narcissism and the title and cover didn’t encourage me. The reality was different.

Rosemary Lain-Priestley is a well-known broadcaster and writer, and I know her as a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which I currently chair. She begins where people are, uses her own experience as a springboard for ruminations on spiritual development that is rooted in the real stuff of life, relationships and society. Taking the whole person seriously, she muses around the things of life that make or break us, that build or demolish us. She starts with real human experiences, real questions, then digs down a bit and rummages around what is thrown up. She draws on biblical (and other) stories to illustrate or amplify, often bringing to life images that had become over-familiar.

En route she quotes from people like Richard Rohr, Andrew Rumsey, Purple Ronnie and others. She considers what feeds the soul when we endure or enjoy experiences such as change, loneliness, depression, pilgrimage, joy, connectedness and gift. It brought to my mind people such as Mike Riddell and evoked Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. Like Danny Boyle’s Olympic representation of Britain, it is self-deprecating and humane throughout.

Written by a woman, most illustrations are self-consciously female. But, as a bloke, it is always vital to be compelled (or invited) to look through the lens of someone ‘not like me’. The Church of England gets a kicking I would want to argue with, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would commend the book to anyone – it offers a recognition of common experience and invitingly suggests a way of living in and from that experience.

August so far has seen holiday, the birth of my first grandson and not a lot of blogging. A slip of the tongue on the Chris Evans Show (BBC Radio 2) last Monday had me claiming ten ‘weeks’ holiday instead of ten ‘days’. Time to get working again, I guess.

I have been musing recently on the debates and discussions provoked by Anne Rice’s recent well-publicised rejection of Christianity. Rice is OK with Jesus, but not with Christians. Not surprisingly, she has drawn a lot of sympathy – from within the churches as well as from the usual suspects outside. Follow-up articles have been interesting for exposing some of the thinking behind rejection of an institution whilst trying to hold on to the essence of the faith the institution claims to represent. Some of the thinking is interesting; some is surprisingly weak. Can you keep Christ and give up being a Christian? asks  Must Christian life involve religion? ponders Shirley Lancaster. Staying in the fold is tough, confesses Rebecca Jenkins. We must escape the institutions, argues Theo Hobson.

The first thing to say is that the reaction of Anne Rice to horrible Christians is understandable – as is the sympathy of those who wrestle with their own relationship to and involvement in the institutions of the church. All of us have to take our own responsibility for our belonging (with all that comes with it), departing or rejection of the church in any of its forms. Anyone with a conscience will find living within the church a delicate business: there will always be stuff that we or I think is wrong, misguided, wicked or unChristlike. And, inevitably, for some people I will be the object of their anger or suspicion, the one who is wrong, misguided, wicked or unChristlike.

What is interesting about the responses to Anne Rice’s decision is the emphasis respondents place on what I will summarise in two specific words: individual and spirituality. The suggestion seems to be that we can take Jesus seriously as an individual with a personal (private?) faith while staying outside of any corporate engagement (institution). Shirley Lancaster states that we really are only interested these days in doing the deep and personal spiritual ‘interior journey’ and then begs a series of obvious questions. This is what she says:

Every age has to redefine what is the essence of Christianity. Asking the question, can you follow Christ and give up being a Christian, strikes a chord with those of us who do take Christ seriously but don’t want to be branded with other people’s ideas of how a ‘Christian’ is defined: we earn a ticket to heaven if we are nice to everyone and don’t enjoy ourselves too much – the dull and life-denying being a prerogative of good Christian faith.

Really? Every age might have to rediscover the essence of Christianity, but ‘re-define’ it? According to which (or whose) criteria? Christianity cannot be self-defining in the same way Marxism cannot be self-defining. If I shape my notion of Marxism in ways that essentially negate the essence of Marxism, I haven’t re-defined it at all – I have abandoned it. Lancaster’s ‘ticket to heaven’ statement is a parody of Christian faith.

I am reminded of the Muslim who pleaded with us thirty years ago to judge Islam by the best of Muslim examples and not by the worst – just as Marxists wish to be judged by their best examples and not the worst parodies or excesses. Why do we so easily judge Christianity by the worst examples of hypocrisy and failure rather than by the best examples? (Shirley Lancaster later acknowledges these.)

However, Lancaster goes on to say:

The question being asked by many of those stepping back from organised religion is perhaps more radical. Is Christian life essentially a religion at all? Jesus was critical of formal religion that was only for show. St Paul’s passionate teaching, following his conversion, is centred on a personal relationship with Christ – we take on ‘the mind of Christ’ not a dress code or rule book. For centuries the Christian mystical tradition has mapped the interior journey as a way to uncover the ‘inward eye’ that Jesus insisted we need in order to perceive his truth.

Again, I am sympathetic to the charge until I begin to think about the assumptions behind it. Jesus was an observant Jew who engaged fully with ‘formal religion’. Not all formal religion is ‘for show’. St Paul’s teaching involves the ‘personal relationship with Christ’ and then spills huge amounts of ink working away at how the ‘personal’ is to be related to the ‘common’ (or ‘corporate’) life of the committed community. He knows no possibility of a privatised faith set loose from relationships in, with and through a community called ‘church’. (And Paul, rather embarrassingly for the argument, says quite alot about dress codes and rules.)

I guess I can sympathise with the emotion behind Shirley Lancaster’s statements, but she cannot base them on such an obviously flimsy foundation. Theo Hobson, in an interesting reflection on the matter, repeats his oft-made assertion that the institution is awful and should be abandoned whilst hanging on to the essence at its heart. Yet the same individualism and notion of self-defining spirituality are there again:

… Christianity is so overwhelmingly dominated by institutionalism that it is difficult to lay claim to a non-institutional Christian identity. There is no recognized position of “non-institutional Christian”. But there ought to be one – and Rice is in a position to start the ball rolling.

My question to Theo Hobson is one I have posed before. Christianity knows no possibility of institution-free existence, so what would it mean to be a ‘non-institutional Christian’? You’d have to leave out the ‘Christian’ bit because, as I observed above, it is not possible to read Jesus (or Paul) and conclude that it is possible to be a ‘spiritual’ Christian isolated from any obligation to others both within and without the church. You can only hold this position if you leave Jesus out of the picture – or re-shape him into someone more convenient to our individualistic preferences, but divorced from the character in the Gospels and emptied of anything he said.

I agree with Hobson about needing a “corrective to the tired assumptions of the God debate”. he makes an interesting point when he goes on to say:

Our whole discourse about religion is far too dominated by philosophical framing. Maybe we should learn to see religion as a special sort of artistic tradition. And maybe this is the way in which a non-institutional Christian identity can gain traction. Though images are central to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, they actually have a powerful anarchic energy: they quietly imply that the essence of religion lies here, in the magic of representation, and not in rules and priestcraft.

Yes, jesus taught in pictures and stories which, once given are lost. That is to say that (for example) Jesus never offered a three-line definition of ‘the Kingdom of God’ and then demand that we all sign up to it; rather, he said repeatedly, ‘the Kingdom of God is like…’ and told a story or described an image. Then he left it to his hearers to work it out, using imagination as well as reason based on experience. A risky way to teach, maybe, because the image might be re-described in a distorted way or misinterpreted – or the story might be mis-remembered, half-told, twisted at important points, and so on. So, I get Theo Hobson’s point about ‘anarchic energy’ (even if I think his language overstates the case).

But, what would his desired ‘non-institutional’ Christianity look like? Where are these people – apparently motivated by Jesus – organising at huge personal and corporate cost service to a local community? Or feeding the hungry in inner-urban parishes? Or advocating for rural communities where the children can no longer afford to live near their parents? Take the ‘institutional church’ out of our communities and see what you are left with. ‘Individual’ or ‘personal’ does not seem a million miles away from ‘selfish’ and ‘self-referential’.

The problem with this is as old as humanity itself. Dismantle an institution and you are not left ‘institution-free’, but with a new form of relating or belonging… a new ‘institution’. The individuals, if they are to take Jesus seriously and make some impact on a beautiful-yet-mucky world, will have to converse somehow, relate somehow, organise somehow, set up organisations somehow, finance them, and so on. And within ten seconds of starting this we will already be involved in politics, power play, competing priorities, and all the other ‘institutional’ stuff we all want to reject.

I am open to learn, but I need that question to be addressed first.

brucedart2I have been out in parishes morning, afternoon and evening every day for the last couple of weeks and love it. But I was driving home slowly this evening from licensing a new priest in a Surrey parish and was feeling reflective. I had a Bruce Cockburn CD on and the haunting Bone in my ear filled the space while I drove:

There’s a bone in my ear
Keeps singing your name
Sometimes it’s like pleasure
Sometimes it’s like pain
It’s a small voice and quiet
But I hear it plain
There’s a bone in my ear
Keeps singing your name
MoltmannIt’s actually a love song. But those first lines hint at the experience of loving the God who loves us: haunting, longing, sometimes painful, often searching or feeble. It reminds me of the words of Juergen Moltmann, the great German theologian:
God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

Apparently some Christian doctors  are fed up with the nonsense about health workers not being allowed to pray or offer spiritual care of patients. Or are we supposed to call them ‘clients’ now? Stories have emerged in the last few years of nurses getting into trouble for offering to pray with sick patients.

Well, according to the BBC website:

Doctors are demanding that NHS staff be given a right to discuss spiritual issues with patients as well as being allowed to offer to pray for them. Medics will tell the British Medical Association conference this week that staff should not be disciplined as long as they handle the issue sensitively. The doctors said recent cases where health workers had got into trouble were making people fearful.

The problem is, according to the doctors:

The General Medical Council code suggests that discussing religion can be part of care provided to patients – as long as the individual’s wishes are respected. But at the start of this year the Department of Health issued guidance warning about proselytising. It said that discussing religion could be interpreted as an attempt to convert which could be construed as a form of harassment.

The debate goes a bit further before (inevitably) the tiny National Secular Society gets invited to put its oar in:

We have to be very careful about how we tread on this issue. If we say it is ok for doctors and nurses to provide spiritual care and pray for patients it can all too quickly get out of hand and we will have staff preaching on the wards. The risk is that it makes patients feel uncomfortable. They may feel compelled to say ‘yes’ thinking their care will suffer. Really, it is an infringement of their privacy. I think we should be very clear that patients should have to ask for this, not offered it.

But Joyce Robins, co-director of Patient Concern said:

Most complaints from patients are about being on a conveyor belt of care. They don’t rate with staff as real people. Offering to say a prayer is a warm and kind thought. Most patients will accept it as such. It is no more offensive than being offered a sleeping pill. You can say thanks but that sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea. But if Christian doctors see this as an opportunity to promote their faith to people at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, that is totally unacceptable.

Two things spring to mind here. First, proselytism in such circumstances has never ever been advocated by any Christian with a shred of sensitivity or good theology. But for doctors or nurses to hold back from taking seriously the spiritual needs of patients is a nonsense of the first order. That is like treating a patient as ‘the cancer in bed one’ or the ‘broken leg in Ward C’ instead of a fully human being whose spirituality influences their mental and physical wellbeing.

Secondly, the NSS just doesn’t get the blindingly obvious fact that negation of a religious worldview does not leave some neutral territory occupied by atheists or secularists. This nonsense really needs to be knocked on the head. Take away a religious/Christian perspective and you are left with a particular perspective on life, death, illness, being human and so on that is positively shaped by particular assumptions  – that are no more valid or invalid than Christian /theistic assumptions.

Of course doctors and nurses should be free to pray for patients where such is requested or where the appropriateness is evidenced by the case history and what is known about the patient. Of course no one should be forced to accept prayer inappropriately. Of course the patient should be protected from mad people – be they religious or atheist. And of course Terry Anderson and the NSS should realise how out of touch they are – speaking only with the authority of a few thousand people on their register.

I would love to see a National Secular Society response to the article by Paul Vallely in June 2009’s Third Way (which doesn’t seem to be available online just now) entitled Being Reasonable. In it he questions why bodies like the NSS ‘spend almost all their energy on rubbishing religion rather than telling us what distinctive insights humanism has to offer contemporary society.’ He decries the ‘false polarity between an intolerant rationalism and an oppressive religiosity.’ He concludes with an appeal for ‘an articulation from the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society of the distinct contribution that humanism can make to modern moral dilemmas.’ He goes on:

The challenge to them is to set out that vision in entirely positive terms which can be comprehended in common by those of all faiths and none. They must do it without constantly resorting to negatives, statements of what they are against or contrasts of the things their vision is free from.

Any offers?

Just about to go and open a new Children’s Centre in Redhill when I got the daily press briefing and spotted an article in the Telegraph about the church. Now, before I go any further, this is not me ‘having a go’ at the Telegraph or questioning the credentials of my friend Jonathan Wynne-Jones whose name appears at the top of the article. But it does illustrate the game we are in and it got me thinking again.

The headline proclaims:

Church of England attempts to broaden appeal with songs by U2 and prayers for Google

Christian services that feature DJs, songs of the Irish band U2 and prayers for the chief executives of Google and Wal-Mart are being promoted by the Church of England.

Ben CantelonIt seems from the article that follows that the Archbishop of Canterbury is launching a book from the Fresh Expressions stable that urges creativity in forms of worship that relate to people of different cultures. But what the article does is repeat the mantra that this is all an attempt to get younger bums on pews. This is the tired old lens through which any new initiative is seen by the media generally: pews are emptying (they don’t bother to look at the filling-up pews because they don’t fit the ‘story’), so any initiative is a sad but trendy attempt to ‘appeal’ to younger people – all slightly embarrassing and half-baked.

I have not read the report, but I bet it is not saying what the start of the article suggests it is. I bet it is saying that we need alternatives to the mainstream, not replacements for it. In other words, the traditional stuff also has its essential place and wears particular cultural clothing; but there is room for other creative and appropriate cultural clothing for worship, providing other ‘languages’ for worship. This is not new! Nor is it aimed at young people; rather, it is aimed at getting the church to think about the plethora of cultural ‘languages’ spoken in our society and trying to learn them. So, it is not ‘either-or’, but ‘both-and’.

This is obviously too difficult to grasp for some observers. When my last book came out (based on songs), the Sunday Telegraph ran a piece about it in which the same mantra was trotted out: bishop wants hymns replaced with pop songs in order to get younger bums on pews. I don’t believe that; the book doesn’t say that and the book isn’t about that in any way at all. But that was the line agreed with the editor and that was the story that had to be published. (It caused me endless grief from – mainly American – fundamentalists accusing me of all sorts of sins and using this article as an example of just how pathetic the Church of England has become. And all based on a headline and report that was fundamentally misleading.)

u2_croke_parkThe article goes on to describe the Fresh Expressions programme as aiming ‘to boost church attendance with more relevant and exciting services’. This also is nonsense. ‘Relevant’ in the sense of ‘comprehensible’, maybe; but where does the word’ exciting’ come from? What I know of Fresh Expressions suggests that worship can be lots of things, but doesn’t have to be ‘exciting’. It might be profoundly moving, might involve silence and stillness, might draw a small number of people into deeper reflection on Scripture, and so on.

As with all journalism now, it is imperative to find someone who holds a contrary view in order to quote them and fulfil the ‘conflict’ demand. So, Prebendary David Houlding offers the following response: “”All this is tosh. It’s just a passing fad, irrelevant, shallow and pointless… There’s no depth to it and it’s embarrassing because it’ll make people think that we’re eccentric and silly.” I wonder if David has read the report and what question he was answering over the phone to the journalist?

CandlesMy real problem is that the headlines bear little or no relation to the article beneath them. That is not the fault of the journalist who wrote the article, but of the sub-editor who has probably not read or even heard of the report being described. Once you get beyond the first couple of ‘conflictual’ paragraphs, the article makes all the reasonable points you might expect and is more  nuanced in its coverage. But I bet  – as with this post – some people won’t read that far; they will see the headline and blow a fuse over the Church of England… all based on a misleading (but prejudice-reinforcing) report.

Yesterday I went to Stansted Airport to collect my elder son and his wife from their holiday in Germany. Airports intrigue me because of the complexity of life and relationships you walk into. I think I was the only person speaking English in the Arrivals area. As travellers came through the doors they were greeted by screams and hugs and laughter. The cacophony of languages and the joy of new beginnings inevitably made me reflect on today – Pentecost – when people of all nations and languages were able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways they could understand and celebrate.

In Germany for the Kirchentag last week, I was asked during a panel discussion (on the future of the church) what I thought was the major challenge to the church. I could have offered many responses, but I settled for saying that the most urgent challenge for the church is to speak a language (or languages) that people ‘out there’ can actually hear and understand. For too many people church is associated purely with bad-tempered conflict between people who haven’t got a life – they never get as far as ‘God’ and ‘spirituality’ and ‘good news’. So, the challenge is to enable people to hear and see good news – to create the space in which they can find that they have in fact been found by the God who created and loves and redeems them.

In the light of this, I remember preaching a sermon at Pentecost that clearly did not strike the right notes for some of the visitors in the church that day. Then I concluded by singing (badly) a Bruce Cockburn song with a lovely guitar accompaniment. The song – with Cockburn’s poetry – went where my sermon had not managed to reach:

Cockburn nothing-but-a-burning-lightSomebody touched me
Making everything new
Somebody touched me
I didn’t know what to do
Burned through my life
Like a bolt from the blue
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Deep in my bones
Turned a key in the hole
There was somebody home
Some would say that I’m dreaming
But I swear that it’s true
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Like the rain on the wind
Left me alone
Feeling like I’d been skinned
But I know you’re with me
Whatever I go through
Somebody touched me
I know it was you