My Odyssey

Ruth Robinson has provided SOF with her own precis of her talk to the 2001 UK conference:

My odyssey has lasted a lifetime. In my talk at Conference, I described my journey from a traditional position in the Church of England to a more inward understanding of spirituality from within SoF. To do this I used the computer analogy of "God" and "Jesus" as the icons on my toolbar ( issued by Christian Tradition) that I had initially used to open up my own spiritual programme in a folder called "Christian Belief".

Over the years, the contents of this folder have been transferred to another called "Human Trust". Traditional believers might interpret this as "losing my faith", but that is not how it feels. The expression of my spiritual awareness has changed but the inner commitment remains the same. What I have done is to "customise" the icons to remain true to that commitment.

In my mid-teens, I decided I was an atheist. But what, later, was I to do with the upsurge of religious feeling, the longing to be part of the landscape (it was always this world I wanted to belong to), to share the prayerfulness of the ages? It was then that I clicked on the icons "God" and "Jesus" and was confirmed in the Anglican church. From then on, the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James bible have been etched into my bones and become part of who I am.

At Cambridge I read Martin Buber's book I and Thou which gave me a more inward way of expressing what the old metaphysical beliefs had represented. At first I used to think of "God" as the supreme Thou into whom all the "lesser" Thous of this world were subsumed, but that Thou proved to be the last lingering smile on the face of the Cheshire cat. It is as we encounter the Thous of this world that we enter a different mode of being. "Man lives in the spirit if he is able to respond to his Thou." Later, when I came to read Jung, Christ became, not an individual from the past of whom I had fashioned a personalised image, but the hidden Self within us. To grow in consciousness, to become more human, is to grow into this inner Self. This was my "inner trinity".

The Student Christian Movement kept our feet firmly on the ground and our gurus were men like William Temple and George Bell who were concerned for social justice and political freedom. In the 1945 election we campaigned for Richard Acland's Commonwealth Party, which held a Christian socialist line - a lost cause as far as numbers went, but it helped afterwards to strengthen the Christian voice within the Labour Party.

Later I was always closely in touch with what my husband John Robinson was writing and with the thinking that led to Honest to God. In discussions, I was always wanting to press ideas further and many of my sentences began: "Yes, but..." and I was still "Yes, but"-ing when Honest to God was published. My main contribution to the book, though, was its title, rejected by its author as too flippant but pounced on by its publisher.

After publication, when John was largely preoccupied in bringing his readers to the point where he was, my own thinking began to go underground and find its own channel. In the seventies I joined a Yoga meditation group which provided the sort of life-line SoF does now. In the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures, I found much I responded to and realised how much our spiritual response is channelled into the culture we happen to be born into. If I had been provided with Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim icons on my toolbar my story would have sounded different.

This was emphasised by the journeys we made abroad at this time, which were a focal point in my Odyssey. There were some marvellous highlights and some terrible lowlights without which the highlights would be simply moments of escapism. First, the highlights: climbing a mountain near Isphahan before dawn to watch the sun, with a Christian bishop who came from a Muslim family, and a group of his friends. Instinctively I did the yoga salutation to the sun, a recognition across all religious boundaries of our human dependence on the natural world and the cosmos to keep us alive. The irreducible silence of the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto; a tea ceremony where we shared that delight and reverence for objects that are pleasingly appropriate to their function; the peace and stillness of the Buddha statues at Polunarruwa in Sri Lanka.

But then, the lowlights: arriving in South Africa on the day of Steve Biko's funeral and living the pain of being in an apartheid society; sitting in on the counselling sessions of the Black Sash organisation and witnessing the distress caused by the inhuman Pass Laws; a township school with no equipment, simply an earth floor and rough walls and a crooked board made out of a packing case chalked with the verses beginning "God so loved the world"; finding that the second-class citizens in Israel were the Arabs, harried by restrictions and being forcibly removed from their homes and family lands. And everywhere the humbling resilience of those suffering poverty and deprivation. For SoF members it remains true that there will be no growth without caring.

Six years after this journey John died. Those we love continue to remain part of our lives after their death, but I can't believe in any sort of individual after-life. I am just grateful for the gift of this life. But I do think perhaps we remain more than just a memory for those who have known us. We are told that the words we utter continue to reverberate through the ether, and take it for granted that the physical particles of our bodies are reconstituted. I find it not unreasonable to imagine our personalities creating a "spiritual" climate for those who come after.

This is perhaps just a mythical way of saying that who we are changes the world, but I find it a worthier incentive for being the best I can than an expectation of heaven which I never found any more believable than hell.

About twelve years ago Don and Susan Cupitt called on me during one of their Dales holidays and encouraged me to come to SoF Conference, which I did and have been coming ever since. Together with our North-West group, it has become my spiritual life-line. Now I am aboard the SoF ship it is important to me that it should sail, even if in dangerous waters, with purpose, vision and hope.

A member writing recently in the magazine said she sensed hostility to the mystical dimension of life. In this context I mention an illuminating book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. In it he suggests that our primitive forebears were much more in touch with the intuitive half of our brain than we are and that access to it was restricted as we relied increasingly on the thinking, logical half. Nowadays, intuition and feeling are often disparaged. I'm not suggesting that we return to an archaic, unthinking obedience to authorative inner voices. This would be a regression, though this is what fundamentalism does. But there are still inner voices to be heard , but now with conscious understanding and with discrimination. There is an "inscape" to explore as well as a landscape and an outer space and our lives are impoverished if we discount it.

A word about the function of SoF. I very much want us to remain a network of individually responsible, caring people and not yet one more organisation aiming to speak in the name of its members. "What is the SoF line?" is not an appropriate question. Our function is to alert and encourage each other to act in our own areas of concern.

So where has my Odyssey brought me? I have replaced belief by trust, not in any supernatural power but in the continuing incarnation of a caring and compassionate humanity, taking responsibility for ourselves, each other and our world and reaching forward in hope to discover what we might become. For me there is only one world not two, natural and supernatural. Much of what we call supernatural is likely to be what we don't yet understand about this one. It is by developing our intuitive as well as our intellectual faculties that we shall discover more about this world and what it might mean to be human.

I don't believe in an after-life in which we individually survive, but I think that nothing about us, any more than our physical atoms, will be lost. The inner atmosphere we create is what those who come after us will breathe. A recent television programme called Earth's Story suggested that it is life itself in the recycling of carbon dioxide that is keeping Earth alive. We really are one organism.

But we are more than physics and biology. There is also the other aspect of our world that, with acknowledgement to Gerard Manley Hopkins, I call its "inscape". This too has its atmosphere which we generate and recycle via our inner consciousness and perceptive awareness. Its atmosphere is no less "real" than the atmosphere we physically breathe. Real life, as Buber said, is meeting - we live in relation, to each other and the world, and how we relate makes us who we are and changes the atmosphere we create. This is where we need to grow, and for this we need to pursue an inner exploration.

If we relate to the world simply as a resource to be used and manipulated, and in which we can function, that is the world we will create for others to be born into. If we are seduced by too much information and de-sensitised by too much passive entertainment, that is the atmosphere others will breathe. But if, even only momentarily and from time to time, we have been able to respond to each other and the world with our whole being in Buber's sense of Thouness, this too will change the world we pass on. It is a responsibility undertaken in trust, empowered by hope and enabled by love and compassion, but it is a task to live and die for.

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