The One And The Many

Plenary talk by David Paterson, SoF UK National Conference, 2001

1. Introduction

Is religion a quest - a search for truth? Or is it a work of art, an invention, a new creation?

In my talk, I shall refer to various journeys - the human journey into consciousness, the Odyssey, the Ramayana, my own journey and the insights to be found all around us. I want to emphasise the value of a global approach to our religious journeys, quests, insights and creations.

To illustrate this, we'll do a short day- trip into the Vedas and Upanishads.

And finally I shall try to offer some thoughts about the purpose of the Sea of Faith Network, the dangers, potential disasters and creative insights which could be ours if we really set out on a perilous journey on the Sea of Faith.

2. What is religion?

"If religion is the opium of the masses, then it's the one drug-related issue that is clearing up fast.

"Spirituality is another matter. No-one quite knows what it is, but it's as popular as it's ever been, especially in its Supermarket shelf version, where you get in touch with your own higher reality.

"But religion is the old, bricks-and-mortar way of doing it, and it's dying fast (Or is it? Is that just post-enlightenment post-modern wishful thinking?)

"Finding religion is a way of giving your problems to someone else. Many religious people seem so happy because they are relieved from having to ask themselves any more difficult questions. Instead, they can submit to the authority of a divinely-appointed hierarchy or refer to their Holy Book, which is - of course - the Word of God.

"Religions are all human creations. That's why there are so many of them. They have different branding and different packaging. But they all hold out promises—mostly of the sort that can't be tested in a court of law.

"Each religion holds out some sort of ideal human nature to which you must aspire, and instructions and inspiration to get you there.

"Naturally, the best way to attain any religion's ideal is to follow that religion's directions. So naturally the religion you have picked is the best, and you are obliged to think less of other people's religions. This gives rise to all sorts of hatred and unpleasantness, for which fortunately your religion allows you to be forgiven.

"All good religions insist that other religions are mistaken - and of course they are absolutely right.

"If you have any doubts, what you have to do is increase the level of your fervour. Fervour is religious alcohol in that it makes you feel better on the inside but look stupid from the outside. Eventually the effect wears off, leaving you feeling worse than when you started."(1)

I adapted that from an article by Guy Browning in the Guardian of Saturday 14th April. (Perhaps we should get him as a speaker some year)

By contrast, here are some observations about religion from someone not short of a bit of fervour.

"I believe that prayer is the very soul and essence of religion, and therefore prayer must be the very core of human life, for no-one can live without religion.

"Whether by reason, or by instinct, or by superstition, everyone acknowledges some sort of relationship with the divine." (2)

"There is no religion higher than truth and righteousness. Religion which takes no count of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion." (3)

These - as I am sure you have realised - are quotations from Mohandas Gandhi, for whom religion was a matter of great practical significance. No separation of private spirituality, personal morality and political justice for him.

He had plenty of fervour and might well have been a prime example of what Guy Browning lampoons. Yet on the other hand it seems to me that they share many insights.

Here's a bit more from the Mahatma:

"True religion is the greatest thing in life and in the world. And therefore it has been exploited the most. And those who have seen the exploiters and the exploitation and missed the reality naturally get disgusted with the thing itself." (4)

"For me the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden. Each religion has its own contribution to make to human evolution, though, being received and interpreted through human instruments, they are equally imperfect." (5)

So what is religion? Is it "the greatest thing in life and in the world"? Or is it a pernicious drug which promises impossible things and delivers only hatred and unpleasantness? Or is it - somehow - both?

And is it dying out fast, or is it something humanity must have, and will have for ever?

All of these great, wonderful human activities, the crown of human achievement, lead us to truth and beauty, love and wisdom - and to hatred, exploitation, cruelty and destruction. Human beings, both individually and corporately, are both immensely creative and beautifying and also self-destructive and polluting.

How do these great creative and destructive talents arise in the human make-up?

3. Journeys

I think whatever the answer to that question is, it is closely related to another question - what is consciousness?

One of my favourite passages is the opening paragraph of Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:

O what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all what is it?

And where did it come from?

And why? (6)

Whatever it is, it is humanity's greatest journey so far. Jaynes goes on to argue that it springs from the two-chamber nature of our brains, which early in our evolution facilitated internalised coherence as a mechanism for the survival of groups of intelligent beings.

As the groups get larger - as civilisation is born and cities grow - leadership and the internal voices are vested in divine beings, at first on earth and then in heaven.

Language is the mechanism for this amazing development. If you need internalised instructions about what to do in a new and unexpected situation when your leader is not at hand, you need to hear your leader's voice in your head - or, later in the development, the voice of your god. Religion, indeed, is a product of language. Don Cupitt and Julian Jaynes both think so, so it must be true. (So do I - I don't know whether that makes it more or less certain.)

This language-dependent facility for internal dialogue develops, and that's what consciousness is.

Julian Jaynes' arguments and the evidence for them are quite complex, and I know he has had lots of second (and third) thoughts. But the close inter-connection between language, consciousness and religion seems likely to be a survivor as we seek to interpret our experience.

One more insight of Julian Jaynes for which I am grateful:

Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say, how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining on it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not. (7)

In fact, most of the things we do in life do not involve consciousness at all. They involve perception, reactivity, memory, skill, intelligence and countless other faculties which get on very well without our watching them. But we can watch them if we so desire, and this is the great mysterious wonder of consciousness.

And it is the great mysterious wonder of religion, spirituality, art and the sciences and all our creative abilities. The richness of our experience is there in our bodies and brains, in all the complex tissue of which we consist, in all the messages of our senses and all our skills. But we can also, as it were, stand outside ourselves and look at it.

And one of the first explorations of what that implies is to be found in the Odyssey.

Odysseus is a liar. Wily Odysseus, who seems to have a deep aversion to telling a story straight. Why tell the truth when a figment of your imagination is better?

The ability to lie is a function of consciousness.

The Odyssey is a story of adventure and violence. Odysseus is bloodthirsty and vindictive, a real macho man - a liar like Jeffrey Archer, licensed to kill like James Bond. And the world of the Odyssey is integral with the world of Socrates and Plato. The basis of Western thought has all the glory that was Greece, and the limitations too. The last 2500 years have been a great voyage, full of incident, full of danger, full of beauty, full of profound insights, immense leaps in technical ability, full of cruelty and destruction.

Last month, I went to an event put on by Tara, a British drama and dance group whose members are of Indian origin. They imagined a meeting between Odysseus and Rama, and told each story - the Odyssey and the Ramayana - in music, dramatic action and dance.

Two journeys. One is by sea, the other by land. But the greatest contrast the company portrayed was that the Ramayana is not merely or mainly about adventures. It's a journey, but a journey of the heart. There are gods and demons, but the divine character is primarily in Rama himself. This is a spiritual battle between good and evil.

There are many similarities between the two stories: A voyage, battles, courage and victories, and coming back home. Written at roughly the same time, probably redacted from earlier oral tradition but with an imputed author; written in verse, based on what might well be a background of historical fact - Greece and Troy, Ayodya and Lanka.

But in the Ramayana we are in a different thought-world from the Odyssey. A world not of fierce and bitter struggle to survive and excel, to win and to dominate, but

everything that is beautiful and sad, the very atmosphere is purifying the predominant emotion is pain - ennobling, purifying, satisfying(8)

The Ramayana is inward, spiritual, mysterious, full of word-pictures which reveal the sufferings of the various characters.

The scene is set from the start. A holy man (a rishi) called Valmiki is thinking of whether there could be anyone who possessed all the good qualities which make for a perfect human being - integrity, heroism, righteousness, concern for all living beings; learning and beauty; perfect control and no jealousy. Narada, son of the creator god Brahma, tells him that there has been such a man, called Rama, born to the King of Ayodya. He was the eldest son, but another of the King's wives wanted her son, Bharata, as king. Rama was banished.

So Rama, his wife Sita and his half-brother Lakhshman lived in the forest. After many adventures and conflicts, they aroused the wrath of Ravana, the Lord of Lanka, who sought revenge for their victories. Ravana abducted Sita, and she was carried off to Lanka.

Rama and Lakhshman set off to rescue her, and had many experiences on the way. Aided by Hanuman, the wise monkey god, Rama fought and killed Ravana and rescued Sita. They returned to rule Ayodya in righteousness and peace.

Having told Valmiki this story, Narada leaves him to his morning worship.

As Valmiki looks in wonder at the beauty of nature, he sees two birds singing happily and making love. Valmiki is amused and enchanted.

The male bird suddenly falls dead, hit by an arrow shot by a hunter, sinful and cruel. The female bird's song is now turned to piteous wailing. Valmiki's heart is full of compassion. He cries out to the hunter:

Without mercy have you murdered love Short and unshriven be your life.

As he muses on the incident later, he realises that his words were rhythmic - like a mantra or a sloka. Brahma appears to him and says "I want you to compose a poem in the same metre. Relate the story of Rama which Narada told you. The world will be richer for this composition of yours."

Valmiki repeats the sloka over and over again, and with each repetition his wonderment grows. As he meditates, the story of Rama, all the characters of the story, their inward thoughts, their joy and their pain, become clear to him, and he sets about writing the great epic poem.(9)

The story as told by Narada now becomes a vehicle for insight into the complexities of the human mind.

The Tara arts company, in the advertisement for their performance "2001: A Ramayan Odyssey" say this:

"Exiled from their homelands come two of the greatest heroes the world has ever known: seafaring Odysseus and forest-bound Rama. In each man's voyage there are encounters with magical monkeys or many-headed monsters, as they journey towards the very heart of what it means to be human.

But when Rama speaks, will Odysseus hear? And finally, when all the battles are fought and done, what is the true meaning of love, and loss, and home?" (10)

Are we able to value the deep diversity of what it means to be human? Can we preserve the integrity of the vast variety of cultures the world has developed? Can we learn from them all, respect them all?

There are vast philosophical questions here, but for some it's stark and bleak. What does it mean to be British Asian?

How will the insights of the Indian subcontinent - Hinduism, the Sanatan Dharma - develop in a Western country? Buddhism in the West is already re-inventing itself. Perhaps the most important of all - what is the future for British Muslims?

To study the human condition is to open up our understanding of the religious traditions which have brought us, individually and collectively, to where we are.

To explore religious faith as a human creation is to explore what humanity is, what we have made ourselves. What I am.

In our own country, the old pagan traditions are being revealed, re-invented, so before I move on, I would like to tell another story of a journey. Just a walk into the woods. Come with me.

As you walk along, warmed by the sun, listening to the birds singing you come to a clearing where you sit down for a rest. You sit on a fallen tree, and - idly - your fingers explore the bark. It's rotting, and it comes off in your hand.

And beneath the bark there is a whole new world. A world of a myriad insects and slugs, grubs and fungi. A world of intense activity, constantly creating and destroying, transforming and preserving.

And you think "wow". The intense wonder of it fills you with deep delight. For a few minutes you worship.

And then you go away - back to your everyday life. All those creatures continue with theirs. But for a few minutes, what happens under the bark of that log had a new dimension. It was brought into consciousness, self-awareness, delight, worship - by you.(11)

This is a story often told to illustrate what modern paganism is about. The pagan insights are not to be found in any books - there are no scriptures, laws or hierarchy.

Paganism has affinities with indigenous religions all over the world. Indeed, the scriptures and customs of the major world religions still show many signs of such a primal experience of consciously relating the world to the world.

Who but I truly know
blowing on the hill
Tree growing in the grove
Water found in the well
Dance of the sun and moon
Onnidadur (12)

And finally, in these stories of journeys, one version of my own.

As an undergraduate in my first term, I rejected the religion I had been brought up in, and set out on a journey to find the meaning of life for myself. As you do.

There were plenty of people around who wanted to guide me. Within a few weeks I was undergoing separate conversion experiences with the Evangelicals and with the Jesuits. They both had a lot to say. A lot of my own experience was beginning to make new sense, too, but the two authoritative voices still dominated.

It was when I told the Evangelical how wonderful the Roman Catholic insights were, and became aware of his reaction, that I realised how much conflict there is in Christian insights.

So I resolved to remain open to as wide a variety of influences as possible. I was studying Science and Mathematics, I was thoroughly ecumenical, and I was mixing with other students studying various disciplines, including English and Philosophy. Already I had decided that 'existence' was not a valid predicate for God. Either you meant that God was the source of existence or you didn't use the term God at all - except to describe how other people use language. What encapsulates your joys, sorrows, hopes, fears, ideals and regrets, you can personify and call God, or not. The distinction between theist and atheist is false, or at best trivial.

That conviction survived throughout the years and matured when I met with the people who co-founded Sea of Faith. But that's another story

I remained an Anglican and decided to go for ordination.

Years passed.

As Vicar of Saint Peter's, Loughborough, from 1964 I watched the arrival of people from Panjab and Gujarat. Hindus and Sikhs became our neighbours. The duty of hospitality was clear, but soon there was more than that. It was completely natural to extend the ecumenical breadth I already enjoyed to opening up understanding across the faiths.

By 1980 I had many personal friends in the Sikh and Hindu communities and we were becoming interested in what was important to each other. The result was a monthly inter-faith discussion, which has been going on ever since.

I have also worked with Muslims and Hindus in Gujarat and it has been inspiring and creative. In Britain it is possible to treat inter-faith relationships as a sideline. In India, good relationships between the faiths can be a matter of life or death.

All those years ago at University, seriously seeking for religious truth led me inexorably to the pluralism of ecumenicity. And then, ecumenical understanding led naturally to respect for other faiths, and delight in the horizons they opened up.

Through encounter, friendship, working together, and dialogue, we can get to the point where we start to understand why our friends find their strange ideas and customs so important to them; and where we are able to tell them about our ideas and customs - equally strange to them - and why they are important to us. When this happens, you may be able to bring the insight back home into relations with your fellow Christians.

For some people, a belief that there is - somewhere out there - a benevolent being in which they can trust, is vital. Quite literally. It may have enabled them to survive in circumstances which have left them with little or no self. Somewhere there is a Self with which they identify

If you're an ecumenically-minded Church of England Vicar who's a member of the Sea of Faith and devoted to interfaith dialogue, the people you find hardest to understand are those who still purvey as fact ideas which you have long since rejected as spurious, useless or plain untrue. And that escape from untruth is important to you. How do you learn to understand how important to some people are the things which you have rejected, and how do they learn to understand how important that rejection is to you? Mutual respect and understanding is in short supply very often.

So wouldn't it be better to start with the easier exploration. What's out there in the rest of the world. Thought processes alien to our own, sufficiently different to offer new horizons, not the family squabbles of our own back-yards.

Here we can - for a time - be free of the arguments about creeds or no creeds, about Plato and Nietzsche, about the Church of England Doctrine Commission - even about realism or non-realism.

4. Sanatan Dharma

I've chosen the Vedas and the Upanishads both for their strangeness and for their accessibility.


We meditate on the beauty of the God of light. May it stimulate our thoughts.(13)

The Hymns of the Rg Veda are addressed to a God or gods.

Hymn after hymn describes the wonders of the world, the authors' aspirations and hopes, and their pleading for prosperity, victory, happiness and insight to be granted.

Sometimes, though, parts of a hymn may be addressed to "the wise ones" - are these gods or holy men? The sanatan dharma (eternal wisdom) tradition makes no hard and fast distinction. Wisdom, goodness, benevolence and enlightenment, once attained, are sources for others. Potentially, we are all gods. And our language makes the world we perceive:

What was the primal matter? What the beginning?
How and what manner of thing was that from which
The Maker of All, see-er of all, brought forth
The earth, and by might the heavens unfolded?
Let us today invoke the Lord of Speech,
Maker of All, inspirer of the mind,
To help us in our sacrifice
Bring us all blessing, working good to help us (14)

For the Vedas, the Via Negativa is never far away. Terms often translated with positive English concepts are negatives or double negatives: primal matter = what is not created; reality = what is not an untruth.

The Upanishads are famous for such thinking: "neti neti" ("not this not this"). The perfect is the not-imperfect. And it - whatever it is - is everywhere. At the heart of things is what does not share the limitation of things.

That is perfect. This is perfect.
Perfect comes from perfect.
Take perfect from perfect, the remainder is perfect.
May peace and peace and peace be everywhere.
If you can see all creatures in yourself, and yourself in all creatures, you will know no sorrow. The wise, knowing the unity of life, will not be deluded. The Self is everywhere, without a body, without a shape, pure, wise, all-knowing, far-shining, self-depending, all transcending. (15)

The Brahman and the Atman are one, the Universal Self and the individual self.

In the Katha Upanishad, a young lad Nachhiketas goes into the forest and sits in meditation within the house of Death. Death appears and offers him wealth, long life, pleasure, anything he likes. Nachhiketas refuses them and asks only to know where man goes after death. Death answers:

The wise, meditating on God,
concentrating their thought,
discovering in the mouth of the cavern,
deeper in the cavern,
that Self, that ancient Self,
difficult to image,
more difficult to understand,
pass beyond joy and sorrow.
The man that, hearing from
the Teacher and comprehending,
distinguishes nature from the Self,
goes to the source;
that man attains joy,
lives for ever in that joy.
I think, Nachhiketas!
your gates of joy stand open.
Beyond right and wrong
beyond cause and effect,
beyond past and future
is the word the Vedas extol,
austerities proclaim,
sanctities approach -
that word is AUM.
That word is eternal Spirit,
eternal distance;
those who know it attain their desire.
That word is the ultimate foundation
those who find it are adored by the saints.
The Self knows all
is not born,
does not die,
is not the effect of any cause;
is eternal self-existent,
imperishable, ancient. (16)

The Upanishads are rich in story and metaphor. Later in the same Upanishad, we find:

Self rides in the chariot of the body,
intellect the firm-footed charioteer,
discursive mind the reins.
Senses are the horses,
objects of desire the roads...
He who calls intellect to manage
the reins of his mind
reaches the end of his journey,
finds there all-pervading Spirit... (17)
And later still
God, the inmost Self,
no bigger than a thumb,
lives in the heart.
Strip him of the body,
as the arrow-maker strips the reed,
that He may be known as perpetual and pure;
What can He be but perpetual and pure? (18)

From the Taittiriya Upanishad:

He who denies Spirit, denies himself
he who affirms it, affirms himself
This joyous Self is the soul of the knowing Self. . (19)

The Chandogya Upanishad has many well-quoted passages, but how about this?

How many gods are there? 303 and 3003
Right, but how many in reality? 33
Right, but how many in reality? 3
Right, but how many in reality? 2
Right, but how many in reality? 1
Right, but how many in reality? One God only
Then what were those 303 and 3003?
The divine powers, the more important being 33
What are those 33?
Fire earth wind sky sun moon stars heaven
five living fires, five senses and the personal Self
Twelve months of the year, carrying everything
Indra the thunder
Prajapati sacrifice
What are the three gods?
The three worlds. All the Gods live therein.
What are the two gods?
Food and breath.
What is one and a half?
The wind.
The wind is one, why is it called 1?
Because as the wind blows, everything grows.
Who is the one God?
Life is the one God. It is that Spirit (20)

5 Peace and peace and peace

Spirituality is an aspect of being human.

We are all conscious of ourselves and others, and we need to relate to some significant other.

Spirituality is self-definition both individually and in community. It is the need for meaning, the search for meaning, and the creation of meaning.

So it's a search or a creation, not an ultimate reality. Is it the same search for everyone?

No, there are many ways of being human.

Different geography, climate and history lead to a wide variety in human awareness of the world we live in.

In the creation of meaning, we start with different things to express, different questions to answer, different problems to solve.

So we can't really learn anything from each other. We might as well stick to the tradition we know best, and if that fails us, reject it in existentialist despair.

Well, maybe, but the problems - however culturally diverse - are variations of the basic questions "Who am I?" "What is life?" "What is death?" "What is the meaning of it all?"

The rich variety of ways of addressing these questions can illuminate each other, throwing new light on our deepest struggles.

But we must beware of unrealistic expectations - each spiritual tradition makes sense only in its own terms. It is a complex web of story, ritual and philosophy, dependent on language, art and music.

When we move from our own tradition into another, we enter an entirely different thought-world, which we cannot expect to understand in the same way that those born to it do.

First, then, we must make friends with those whose thought-world is very different from our own. We have to enter their world as a guest, not an inspector.

Some religious traditions believe in the existence of a being or beings beyond this world in some way responsible for it. Others find the root of all being in the world around us, with nothing beyond what our senses can tell us. But for many traditions, this theist/atheist divide is not significant.

All that is, however human consciousness has observed it, created it, interpreted it, is ultimately one, and immensely plural.

The nature of things and of our experience of them is an unlimited field, and the ways of describing, investigating and interpreting it are also unlimited. One insight does not invalidate another. The end of spirituality is the experience of oneness, of unity with all things - its unity and mine within it.

The rich variety is what it's all about.

If Sea of Faith is serious about exploring and promoting religion as a human creation, it needs to widen its horizons.

Most of the time we are still arguing about things we've inherited from Greece and Palestine. They need to be put in context. There's a whole load of stuff from the past we haven't even looked at; and what's going on now and into the future?

As Duncan Park wrote recently, if religion is a human creation we had better get a lot more creative. (21)

Religion is a human creation because it's a consequence of our genetic make-up. Not an inevitable one, perhaps, but that's the way it's turned out. We should be glad and rejoice in it.

And our task is to take responsibility for it. It's a wonderful achievement in which every culture on earth has been involved. It has liberated and inspired millions. And it has ruined people's lives, enslaved them, crippled them with guilt, exploited their gullibility, reduced them to idiots with its false promises and shallow dogmatism.

But it's ours. No-one else is responsible for it. And if we want to survive as a living species we've got to take that responsibility seriously.

As Hans Kung wrote,

No survival without world peace.
No world peace without peace within and between the religions.
No peace between the religions without dialogue.

The Christian tradition of Europe and its colonies, though theocentric in theory, are anthropocentric in practice. We think of ourselves as God's gift to the planet, the Crown of all creation, with all things under our feet, licensed to kill.

Criticism of the Sea of Faith often points to the damage that human arrogance is doing to the world. "And what you're doing", they say to us, "is to go along with this. Not only do we think that the minerals, plants and animals, the earth, the water and the air are ours for the taking, but you even deny the restraining hand of God on our activities. The earth is no longer the Lord's but ours, and even the Lord is our own invention. All you are doing is colluding with the spirit of the age, which we can clearly see is destroying us all".

But I believe that to realise that God is a human creation can - indeed must - liberate us from our delusions of grandeur. We have created the God who puts all things under our feet. We have no one to blame but ourselves. Yes, our inventiveness has brought immense beauty to the world. Today's WOW! is much bigger than it was in the past. And we have opened that up. The universe as we observe it is our own creation. What Sea of Faith asks, I think, is that we should realise the wonder and the fragility of it all, and take responsibility for it.

If beauty is a human creation, then so is ugliness, and there's plenty of that. If transforming, inventing and creating are aspects of humanity, then so is cruelty, greed, viciousness and destruction.

"Why doesn't God do something about it?"

Oh no: "Why don't we?" And our religions are great resources for our task, provided that we don't use them to avoid asking any more difficult questions.

Other characteristics of our post-modern age are the driving force of competitive greed and cultural destruction. Many critics of Sea of Faith's position seem to have overlooked that. All around us we see purveyors of religion determined to gather people to their way of thinking - to win the battle of ideas as ruthlessly as others are trying to corner a market - to persuade and convert, to grow big and rich and powerful. Sadly, it is not only American evangelists, but also Indian gurus who are at the forefront of this total collusion with the spirit of our age.

If we imagine our ideal of a perfect planet, is it one in which everyone is a peace-loving, right-thinking, loving Christian? Or a world in which everyone has submitted to the will of Allah? Or whatever recipe your own faith holds out to you -a world where everyone is a liberal non-realist, for instance? Like lack of bio-diversity, this would lead to death. And so boring! But a world of diversity, of many cultures, many faiths - of growing ability to respect each other and to widen our horizons - there is a vitality there, a dynamism and a risky voyage.

However, there is another potential disaster looming for Sea of Faith's position. Post-modern thought gives a very high place to the importance and development of the individual. What a person believes is his or her own affair. Human life is about consuming things - finding out what you like and then getting lots of it.

We are accused of colluding with this and advocating a supermarket-shelf attitude to religious faith. Each of us believes what we need to believe; we take a bit from here and a bit from there.

This is not easy to answer, but I think a sense of solidarity with our fellow beings and of responsibility for our world is the key. We need to watch the tendency to privatise religion. Sea of Faith is also prone to it.

Sea of Faith is a network for "exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation." What religious faith ? My answer would be "all of them".

What does "as a human creation" imply? That we are collectively responsible for how we use our religious traditions.

Why use them at all? Because they DO have the ability to transform and save our planet. They are tools carefully invented and maintained, even though often misused. Our use of our religious traditions then must be very public, and the motive must be world peace and prosperity - shalom in its deepest sense.

Each of our faiths has a profound tradition of peace-making, a commandment to love, a will towards justice. Differently understood, differently expressed, each with its strengths and weaknesses.

If religion is a human creation we no longer need to claim that ours is perfect. Each is flawed.

Finally, three analogies. I like them all, and maybe you'll each respond to at least one of them. So I offer all three.

A journey of exploration starts and finishes at home. Odysseus did in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Rama, Lakhshman and Sita did in the Ramayana.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our explorings
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time (22)

That one's getting a bit hackneyed these days, but it is a valuable insight. Whatever journey we take, its lessons must inform our own life and times.

The second is about light.

My granddaughter took some magenta, yellow and turquoise paint. The colours you get in little spots on the back page of a newspaper. You can make all the colours from them. She mixed magenta and yellow, and made orange; yellow and turquoise and made green; turquoise and magenta and made purple. Then she went on mixing and produced some excellent colours. They got darker and darker and the end product was a dark muddy brown. In fact, if the colours had been pure enough it would have been total black. That's what we are afraid of. If we don't keep our own ideas pure, they'll get muddied by the others.

On the stage of the local theatre there are coloured footlights and floods - red, green and blue. On the backdrop is a large painting of a red rose with green leaves against a blue sky with white clouds. The stage is totally dark, you can see nothing. It's all black. In red light you can't see the red rose against the clouds, because they look red too. The leaves and the sky are black.

In green light the clouds and leaves are green, the rose and sky black.

In blue light the clouds are blue, so they vanish into the sky. The rose and its leaves are black.

Now start mixing lights, and you get the same fascinating new colours, but this time, instead of getting darker and darker and ending in mud, the picture gets lighter and lighter until with all three lights on full, the clouds are brilliant white, the rose red, the leaves green and the sky blue.

The religions of the world don't have to be suspicious of each other, and destroy one another. They are each a vital part of humanity's vision. Indeed, their different insights are of value in themselves.

And now a mathematical one:

There's a strange phrase used a lot these days: Lowest Common Denominator

It's strange because it's completely misused. Yes - I know that's how language develops, but it is still irritating to those who remember what the phrase originally meant.

By Lowest Common Denominator most people are likely to mean "something that everyone can agree on - the boring, irreducible minimum. We don't want that, do we?" But of course what they mean is not Lowest Common Denominator, but Highest Common Factor.

Take the numbers 12 and 18, for instance. 1 is a common factor, 2 is a common factor, 3 is a common factor, and so is 6. But that's the highest.

But common denominators - or common multiples (same thing) must be equal to or greater than the numbers you started with. Of 12 and 18, the Lowest Common Multiple is 36, and that's just the LOWEST - the sky's the limit.

I don't think there are many common factors among the religions. Some version of the Golden Rule perhaps, but even then the assumptions are very different. Geography and climate influenced thinking from the start. History produced an everwidening variety

But we're not looking for common factors, we're building up common multiples - you find when you pool your resources of insight, and the picture is illuminated, more and more different colours of light.

There is no irreducible minimum. No self-existent God, no Grand Narrative, no objective Truth.

I think the future lies with those who can set out on a voyage of exploration which finishes, with a wealth of new respect for life, at the place we started - in our own lives.

I would like to think that Sea of Faith will play a significant part in this.


1. Guy Browning: "How to ... be religious" Guardian Weekend 14th April 2001

2. Mohandas Gandhi: Young India (23 January 1930) p 25; quoted from The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, published by the Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad 1969, Vol VI page 117.

3. Selections from Gandhi (1959) p 254. Quoted from op cit, Vol VI page 263.

4. A bunch of old letters (25 April 1925). Quoted from op cit, Vol V page 362.

5. Harijan (30 January 1937) p 407. Quoted from op cit, Vol VI page 265.

6. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, page 1.

7. Op cit page 23.

8. Tara Arts Company. Programme notes: "2001: A Ramayan Odyssey".

9. Adapted from Ramayana, translated by Kamala Subramaniam, pages 1-11.

10. Tara Arts Company. Programme notes: "2001: A Ramayan Odyssey".

11. Mark Graham's often-told story when explaining the Druid tradition.

12. From a modern Druid ritual.

13. Rg Veda Book 3 hymn 62 strophe 10, The Gayatri Mantra.

14. Rg Veda Book 10 hymn 61 strophe 2, translated by R C Zachner in Hindu Scriptures 1938.

15. Isha Upanishad: put into English by Shree Purohit Swami and WB Yeats, The Ten Principal Upanishads, 1937, p 15.

16. Katha Upanishad 1:2 (op cit pages 30-31).

17. Katha Upanishad 1:3 (op cit pages 32).

18. Katha Upanishad 2:3 (op cit page 38).

19. Taittiriya Upanishad 2:6 (op cit page 71).

20. Chandogya Upanishad (op cit pages 146-7).

21. Duncan Park, "Is this a creed I see before me?" SOF 48, July 2001 page 5.

22. TS Eliot, Four Quartets: Little Gidding V.

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