What on earth is spirituality?

John Klopacz writes his impressions of the 1998 UK conference.

The Eleventh Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith Network was held in Sheffield, UK., Tuesday to Thursday, 21st-23rd July. Sheffield is probably best know to Americans these days as the location for the film, "The Full Monty." The factories that produced the once world famous cutlery are for the most part shut down. In the late nineteenth century, Sheffield was the home of Edward Carpenter, poet, socialist, radical theologian and one of the first "out" gay men in modern times. I like to think that some of his adventurous spirit filled our gathering.

Attendees appeared to be in agreement that the Conference theme: What on Earth Is Spirituality? was an appropriate and engaging topic. Stephen Mitchell, Chair of the Steering Committee, expressed the hope that we would all be challenged "to look at our own inner life and try to share it with other, and also to learn something of others' ways of approaching this important side of our existence. " The Steering Committee did a excellent job of assuring that speakers, workshops and other activities in some fashion addressed the theme. I must confess that, on a personal level, I still do not know what spirituality is, although I will report several definitions offered by our speakers Diarmuid O' Murchu, Robert Ashby and Don Cupitt.

As in past years, we were assigned to "base groups" of twelve members and a facilitator. Most of the facilitators were also Steering Committee members. The base groups met following the welcoming session to express hopes and goals for Conference, before lunch on Wednesday to discuss the speakers' presentations and formulate questions for the plenary panel and once more before the concluding "Epilogue." My group seemed to be the international brigade, encompassing three New Zealanders, one Australian and one American. We were most graciously welcomed by our British hosts. We also included the baby daughter of our facilitator, Mel Crossley.

Twenty-three workshops were conducted in two rounds, one after dinner on Tuesday and another after lunch on Wednesday. Attempts were made to have an experiential component whenever possible. Speakers O' Murchu and Ashby offered workshops based on their addresses. Several workshops examined what are traditionally regarded as "spiritual" practices such as prayer, worship and meditation from Quaker, Buddhist, Unitarian and Evangelical (yes, there are non-realist Evangelicals!) traditions. Jim Adams, another American in attendance and the director of The Center for Progressive Christianity, led a workshop entitled "Agnostics at Prayer: How humanists can find spiritual satisfaction in conventional religious settings." I regret to say it was scheduled for the same time as my own workshop, "Good News from Sonoma County: The Jesus Seminar and the Sea of Faith." Interest in the proceedings of the Seminar was high, but there appears to be a lack of availability in Britain of many of the books. I participated in the "Christian Eucharist" workshop led by Jude Bullock (who was once again my congenial lift to Conference). It was good to be reminded even in the midst of so much stimulating conversation of the power of the primal activity of sharing food and drink.

Now to the three main speakers who were, in Patti Whaley's words, "accessible and (for once!) all addressed the topic at hand."

Diarmuid O' Murchu, a Catholic priest and social psychologist, has worked with people with HIV/AIDS and with homeless people in London's East End. His book Quantum Theology is something of a theological bestseller in the States. I heard more than one comparison of O' Murchu to Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry and the other "creation spirituality' theologians. According to O' Murchu, "Spirituality concerns an ancient and primal search for meaning that is as old as humanity itself and belongs, as an inherent energy, to the evolutionary unfolding of creation itself." O' Murchu views homo erectus as a "skillfull artisan" and dates the beginning of humanity's spiritual story to around 70,000 BCE. Formal religion, humanity's "most distinctive form of idolatry," has existed for a mere 4,500 years. For O' Murchu, the self is the sum of one's relationships to people, planet and cosmos. This "interconnectedness" appears to be the touchstone of his spirituality. He outlined the task of contemporary spirituality as a movement from amnesia to re-membering, from commodity to covenant, and from despair to hope.

I must here confess my own prejudice, as I had supposed Robert Ashby, the Executive Director of the British Humanist Association, would be a gentleman of a certain age, quoting the appropriate chapters and verses of Ingersoll and Russell. He is, however, a youthful 32 and has worked in the public relations field. His address was somewhat less formal than the other speakers', but displayed no less thought and the intention to keep the discussion on a personal and experiential level. Ashby, in his own words, "is far form being anti-religious," (I thought he was rather easy on the C of E) and he sees "the individual as the true seat of spirituality." He wondered aloud "Why is spirituality such a fashionable term, while no one defines it?" This lack of an agreed upon definition, he remarked, creates problems for British school administrators, who are charged with and evaluated on the "spiritual development" of their students. He then revealed that he had spent the past several months writing down moments he thought of as "spiritual." While he listed experiences involving music, nature, art, words and even a walk on Dover Beach, he noted that all these experiences were solitary and often melancholic. He noted that the powerful evolutionary force of returning to the tribe often results in our ignoring discussion of the solitary spiritual experience. To conclude he offered the definition of spirituality as "moments of being composed of imagination, memory and emotion."

Don Cupitt, an Anglican priest and Senior Fellow of Emmanuel College, now speaks in public only at Sea of Faith events. His address this year, the eleventh he has presented to Conferences, was not as exuberant as that of 1996, but it touched on the same topics: the possibility of a world religion and the development of a "global religious vocabulary" to accompany the emerging global and humanistic moral vocabulary." Cupitt pointed out that "a generally-accepted world religious vocabulary will surely help all the faiths to escape from their respective cultural ghettos," but, he continued to ask, "What will be the key words in a world religious vocabulary?" He maintained that the continued use by religious liberals of words like "spirit, spiritual and spirituality" would end up sounding vague and confused because "it is very difficult to use any religious vocabulary today without invoking a history of extreme Two-Worlds dualism that one must hasten to disclaim."

Cupitt characterized the believer in traditional dualistic forms of spirituality as "an amphibian" and her life as "a journey through time towards our true and final home in the eternal world." Following a review of the world-denying spirituality of classical Christianity, he came to the conclusion that "we need to develop a purely this-worldly understanding, and practice, and justification of religion." He suggested "that we should now simply equate the religious life with our attitude just to life itself, experienced as temporal be-ing," while continuing to "accept the old view that a spirituality is a way of acting out and confirming our picture of the way things are with us human beings, and of the way to happiness." In the end, according to Cupitt, "Questions of religious meaning and truth need to be judged, not dogmatically, but pragmatically: religious teachings and practices should be appraised simply in terms of the kind of person and kind of world they tend in practice to produce."

The speakers raised a number of questions I and other attendees shall continue to ponder. What if any are the implications for a Sea of Faith position of the "truce" (at least according to the NY Times and Newsweek) in the war between science and religion? Is the cosmic evolutionary history an apt substitute for the old "Grand Narratives?" (American philosopher Loyal Rue has some provocative thoughts on this matter.) Patti Whaley, in post-Conference e-mail, noted that "none of the three really pointed to the necessity for either formal/communal religion or any type of what I would call spiritual discipline." Robert Ashby raised the troubling issue of spirituality and goodness, when he related his encounter with a serial killer, whom he described as "very spiritual.'' In an other post-Conference e-mail, Graham Rooth wrote "It was regrettable that we had no one representing the Eastern approach to spirituality," nor a discussion of "self-transcendence."

In addition to the speakers and the workshops, there were a number of opportunities for spirituality in practice, "a range of different corporate ways of starting and concluding the Conference day," filling the slots that used to be called "Alternative Worship." Diarmuid O' Murchu led an early morning "meditation with clay," while Cherry Vann concluded the day with "Alternative Compline." Circle dancing was confined to indoors due to the weather. David Boulton arranged a musical meditation with our American Samuel Barber's setting of "Dover Beach." (I had brought the CD over with me.) This year's Epilogue included a choral performance of Blake's "Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love," set to music by an anonymous Network member, who is a cloistered monastic.

I do encourage all of you to consider attending Conference some time in the future. The working title for next year's is "Let's Tear it Up and Start Again!" The dates are Tuesday to Thursday, 26th-29th July, 1999. The location, whether Leicester or Sheffield, is yet to be determined. David Boulton is keen on establishing the international character of our movement at the 2000 Conference. He has suggested a meeting of representatives of religious humanist organizations to precede or follow the annual Network Conference.

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