Report of the Ninth Annual Conference

Leicester, UK, 25-27 July 1996

More than 200 people participated in the lectures, discussions and workshops on the theme Creating Human Values at the 1996 SoF UK Conference. Whether we had come from religious, humanist or atheist traditions, the theme invited us, in the words of the Steering Committee Chairman Stephen Mitchell, "to work together to create and sustain the values needed to meet the social and global issues facing us today."

This year's principal speakers were Mary Warnock and Don Cupitt. Mary Warnock, a philosopher, educator and Life Peer, has chaired several Royal Commissions and Government Committees concerned with education and with medical ethics. While Warnock takes Cupitt to task for what "is plainly a galloping and, I believe in the long run, destructive relativism," she also says that we can no longer claim "objectivity" in the values we place on things. She interprets traditional language about immortality and life after death as "useful metaphors."

Warnock's lecture drew heavily on her recent book "Imagination and Time" (Blackwell). She sees the major threat to human values not in honest conflict or multi-cultural diversity, but in "the large group who recognize no moral values." She believes, nevertheless, that there is hope of creating and sharing universal values through "compromise, consensus and respect" and that "we don't have to imagine values come from without."

Cupitt's lecture World Religion was a slightly edited version of closing sections from his forthcoming book, Religion after the Gods (1997). He urged us not "to lament the passing of old ways and old certainties," but rather to "welcome as a liberation the revolutionary changes in religion and morality that are now spreading the world." Especially provocative were Cupitt's comments: "It is conventional to criticize the multinationals for being mobile, rootless, anonymous and interested only in profit, but I'm pointing out that it is precisely these features that make than morally so superior to our old locally-based national and religious identities.... It is very postmodern suddenly to realize that we don't actually need roots, identity, stability or a provenance any longer. We can do without all those things. Me, I don't want them any more."

Cupitt noted the end of "the Grand-Narrative cosmological sort of religion." What now survives of the old religion, he maintains are "tricks and techniques," "a spirituality" that "can help us to love life and live well." In his writings he has described three: the eye of God, the blissful void, and ecstatic immanence ("solar ethics"). Yet in the world-religion "our spiritual life, our quest for redemption and our world-building activity all turn out to be the same thing." "As we saw earlier," said Cupittt, " in the old agricultural civilization religion became a distinct sphere of life. But in the type of world-religion that we have been foreseeing cultural activity will simply coincide with religious or cultic activity, and with artistic expression."

Participants also chose from over 30 workshops for more detailed discussion. Among the workshop presenters was Lloyd Geering, author of Faith's New Age and Tomorrow's God. Geering presented his lecture Economics, Ecology, Ethics: Making the Connections Theologically. He, unlike Cupitt, does see a "Grand-Narrative" arising when "for the first time in the whole history of humankind all races and cultures are beginning to share one cosmology, that which is provided by science. It is in the cosmology that we see some of the first signs of a global culture."

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a native of Denver now living in Canterbury, led a discussion on "The Family in a Modern Jewish Perspective." Jude Bullock, a Roman Catholic priest and teacher, and David Hart, an Anglican priest, presented "Varieties of Sexual Experience" (Sorry, Professor James!), a crowded and animated discussion. Philip Knight, who is completing his dissertation on the Sea of Faith, spoke on "John Dewey and the Reality of God.". Equally intriguing were Alison Webster's "Theological Non-Realism: Feminists' Dream or Nightmare?", Stephen Mitchell's "Bluffers' Guide to Non-Realism, the Self and the World." and Patti Whaley's "Moral Foundations of Human Rights."

"Alternative Worth-Ship Sessions" were held on both mornings. For the first time in several years "a Eucharist for All" was led by Jude Bullock. The Conference Book read "Wherever you are on the Anti-Realist - Realist spectrum this celebration is designed to wake you up!" "A Musical Meditation," "celebrating the value of music in human lives" was conducted in the University's botanical gardens. Lest you think all SoFers are early risers, I can assure you the bar was crowded for the "Fringe," a time when members and friends may present personal interests and causes.

The concluding event of Conference was a "brains trust." where five panellists spoke on questions such as "How can we be out and out non-realists and still say that things are right or wrong?", "As members of the Sea of Faith can we take on board more of Don Cupitt's optimism and less middle-age pessimism?", and "What place or value (if any) does mysticism have in Sea of Faith?" The conference closed with a celebration of music and poetry, leaving the tired but happy participants to make their way home full of new ideas, laden down with new books, and already looking forward to next year's conference.

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