When Spirituality Met the Full Monty

David Boulton reviews our 1998 Sheffield Conference

Well, did the earth move for you? Did you find out what on earth is spirituality? If you are one of the 250 or so who attended the Network's annual conference at Sheffield in July, you may have an answer. If not, you can catch up now: most of this issue is taken up with the three major addresses on the conference theme, What on earth is spirituality?

Network vice-chair Patti Whaley opened proceedings by posing the tough questions which lay behind the conference title. "Spirituality", she suggested, is a word many of us are no longer comfortable with, either because we think it is something we have lost or because it represents the kind of "woolly beyondness" that Sea of Faith should be moving away from. Patti's pertinent questions got our brains into gear.

Refreshingly for a professional churchman, Catholic priest Diarmuid O'Murchu sought to distance religion and spirituality. Religions, he suggested, were invented by human beings when spirituality began to fade. Religions were perhaps "the most destructive and outrageous form of idolatry ever known", fuelling "pain, bitterness, oppression and destruction". Spirituality was, in contrast, a benign phenomenon, universal, crossing barriers of time and culture, and "an innate human predisposition to mystery and to meaning in life". It is something we moderns have lost and need to find again. Diarmuid's view is modern rather than postmodern, and unashamedly realist—though postmodernity and nonrealism are not part of his vocabulary, as his critique of something he called "unrealism" demonstrated. Questioners wondered whether he had not strayed too close to Rousseau's now dated notion of the noble savage, but there was warm support for a concept of spirituality transcending religion and all its baggage.

Robert Ashby's approach could hardly have been more different, though his too was expressly non-religious. For the director of the British Humanist Association, declaring himself to be without a religious bone in his body (where would a religious bone be? the humerus?), "what on earth is spirituality?" is a political question. It is political and pragmatic because Parliament requires our schools to aim at the "spiritual development" of our children, and our hospitals and prisons to promote the spiritual welfare of their inmates. If Humanists want to contribute to spiritual development and welfare in schools, hospitals and prisons—and the BHA does—then they must perforce subscribe to some notion of "spirituality". Humanists have worked hard to carve out a place for the wholly human spirit, and have won recognition, even among the churches, that "spiritual is not synonymous with religious".

Robert's examples of personal experiences which he felt he could call "spiritual" (if he really had to) were what some might call "peak experiences": listening to Shostakovitch's 8th quartet, or Billie Holiday, or looking at Rodin's drawings or Leonardo's cartoons. Each experience he listed was wholly human, intensely personal. For Robert, the spiritual experience was "a particular focus on this life". It had nothing to do with the supernatural, with gods, mysticism or a sixth sense. We do not have a separate spiritual life. We have a life.

For Don Cupitt there is an old spirituality and a new. The old spirituality is something invented by the churches and religious institutions as a counterweight to everything they are against. They are against this "material" world here below and for another "spiritual" world up above. They are against the material body and for the spiritual soul. "Christian spirituality...attempted to deny this world, and with it the body, the entire secular realm, the passions, sex and time". That's the old spirituality. It is dying, even if it won't lie down. The new postmodern spirituality owes nothing to those ancient Platonic dualisms. It is a here-and-now spirituality, a spirituality we make rather than discover or rediscover, "fully this-worldly and time-bound" and "concerned not with the things of another world but with the continual givenness of our this-worldly existence, and what we are making of it". What on earth is spirituality? The question contains the answer, italicised.

Those who missed the conference can at least catch up on the three main addresses. Unhappily we cannot similarly reproduce the true spirit of nearly thirty hugely diverse workshops, ranging from "The Jesus Seminar" to "Spirituality and Sexuality", from "Monastic Chant" and "Buddhist Meditation" to "Understanding the Quaker Meeting", from "Agnostics at Prayer" to "Dennis Potter and Jeanette Winterson", from "Philosophical Pragmatism" to Mahler's Resurrection symphony and the haunting jazz saxophone of Jan Garbarek, which became the theme music of the conference, linking workship, worship and epilogue.

Nor can we adequately convey the sense of common fellowship which pervaded this conference. We disagreed with each other, as ever, but always within the boundaries of a Network at ease with itself and its aims, "to explore and promote religious faith as a human creation". "Fellowship is heaven," says the radical hedge-priest John Ball in William Morris's Dream of John Ball, "and lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death." At Sheffield—home of that magnificent triumph of the human spirit, The Full Monty—we enjoyed the fellowship of each other and the communion of saints and sinners. There was a great spirit. That's what on earth is spirituality.

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