Next meetings: Thursdays 19th February and 19th March, 2015

We met on Thursday 22nd January, when the main item was an introduction by Simon Mapp to Wittgenstein's thought - with particular reference to the only book published in Wittgenstein's lifetime, Tractatus Logica Philosophicus (first published in English in 1921).

Against all the probable odds, it turned into a most enjoyable evening with arguments and counter-arguments, examples and counter-examples covering a wide range of experiences - and went on much longer than our usually already extended times. Engagement with friends expands to fill more than the time available for its completion (as Parkinson perhaps thought of saying).

Our next meetings, on the 19th of both February and March, will be led by David Belcher who offers to introduce a session on 'the role of story in the formation of belief' and Stephen Williams who will introduce a session on the death of Jesus which, for the Birmingham group, will be something of a departure.

We have decided to continue to run two groups and have decided on the pattern of meetings so that we can all plan our diaries well ahead. All meetings will be on the third Thursday of each month, with evening meetings (7.30p.m.) on even numbered months and lunchtime meetings (mid-day) on the odd numbered months.


Record of meeting,11 November 2009

We met on 11 November at David Lambourn’s home Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Sara Clethero, Stephen Cox, Paul Graham, David Lambourn, and Stephen Williams. Apologies from John Howard and George Gregg.

We discussed Don Cupitt’s latest book, Jesus and Philosophy. We agreed that it was an enjoyable and stimulating read, but felt that it could have been rather better; that the arguments were too loose and rather ill-disciplined at times. There were some contradictions and factual inaccuracies, especially with regard to Jesus’ interaction with his community. There was a feeling that in some ways Cupitt was still coming at his subject from a metaphysical angle with his emphasis on the spiritual significance of Jesus. It was also felt that some of his images (Jesus as secular prophet; the ‘slow-burning fuse’, nature as machinery) were either anachronistic or misleading. Perhaps in his search for a radical humanistic Jesus Cupitt had found what he was expecting to find. It was felt that the promise of the early chapters on the development of the ethical argument was dissipated by the effort later on to focus on a coherent ethical programme proposed by Jesus and rule out any contradictory material.

The discussion widened into more general considerations such as the Quaker perspective of refusing to distinguish ’between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’, the degree to which we should put our trust in the Jesus Seminar categories, and the importance of the interaction between individuals and community in the development of ethics.

Our next meeting will be on Thursday 17 December at 7.30pm at David Lambourn’s home, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. We did not propose a specific agenda for this meeting but suggested we might all have a go at offering some reflections on the Christmas phenomenon from a ‘Sea of Faith’ perspective.

Future meetings will be on 27 January and 3 March 2010 by which time we will endeavour to have read The Case for God by Karen Armstrong.


Record of meeting, 7 October 2009

We met on 7 October at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Sara Clethero, Paul Graham, David Lambourn and Stephen Williams, with apologies from Stephen Cox, George Gregg and John Howard.

We spent most of the meeting reflecting on the Oxford conference “Reclaiming the Narratives of Faith” which several of us had attended. It was felt to have been a successful day although there was much about the content that was debatable so we ended up debating it!

We then want on to consider our future programme and organisation. We agreed that in general we wanted to stay with our present conversational format and David Lambourn is happy to go on hosting this for at least the next year. If we wanted the occasional larger event there would be facilities and possible partners in Birmingham. There was a suggestion that we might want some time to base our conversations on the experience and concerns of members of the group rather than always look outside to books or conferences for our starting points.

With regard to the convenorship, we agreed to let Stephen Williams stand down as soon as possible. David Belcher will take on responsibility for chairing and managing our meetings, and David Lambourn will deal with mailings and correspondence. For the time being, we will no longer keep a detailed note of each meeting.

Our next meeting, as previously arranged, will be on Wednesday 11 November at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. As planned, we’ll be discussing Don Cupitt’s latest book Jesus and Philosophy. Most of us at tonight’s meeting had already acquired and read it so if anyone wants to borrow a copy before 11 November, please get in touch.

The meeting after that will be on Thursday 17 December.


Record of meeting, 19 August 2009

We met on 19 August at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Sara Clethero, Stephen Cox (welcome!), Paul Graham, George Gregg, David Lambourn, Simon Mapp, Andrew Teverson and Stephen Williams, with apologies from Andrew Homer and John Howard.

As agreed, those of us who had attended the national SoF conference last month offered our various, generally positive feedback of the event (including some of the different workshops we had attended). It led on to a wider discussion about science and religion, developing a number of themes from the conference. We spent some time on different ways of understanding “belief in God” and were pointed to the book How to Know God by Dipak Chopra. We are expecting the main talks from the conference to be reproduced in the next edition of Sofia which can be shared at our next meeting.

David Belcher reminded us of the regional conference on 12 September. Details have already gone to those on Email; we liked the new title with the emphasis on stories and narratives (as we found at our last meeting, the Faiths/Beliefs distinction is quite confusing!).

We went on to look at future arrangements for meetings of this group. Stephen Williams pointed out that he had been convening the group for over five years. For much of that time, the group had been quite small with just 4/5 regular members and we had developed ways of doing business that suited that size of meeting. We are now rather larger and everything to do with the meetings, the content of our programme, time and venue, minutes, catering etc, should be up for review. We discussed some of these issues and will return to them at our next meeting. Stephen also gave notice that he would like to pass the convenorship on to someone else. As part of the project of moving the group forward this would be a good opportunity for someone with a different slant to take over the role; also, now that Stephen is a trustee and national treasurer, it seems better not to have too much concentrated in one person. (As a precursor to a change of convenor and so as not to set up expectations for a successor, Stephen will no longer aim to provide such a detailed write-up of our meetings).

As well as a further discussion on our future programme, we will also spend time at our next meeting on feedback from the regional conference. As previously arranged, that meeting will be on Wednesday 7 October 2009 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston.

The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 11 November when we will discuss Don Cupitt’s latest book Jesus and Philosophy. (Hopefully most of us will have had the opportunity to acquire or share a copy before then).


Record of meeting, 8 July 2009

We met on 8 July at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, George Gregg, Andrew Homer (welcome!), John Howard, David Lambourn, Andrew Teverson and Stephen Williams, with apologies from Sara Clethero and Paul Graham.

As agreed, we discussed Faiths and Beliefs in anticipation of the Oxford day conference on that subject on 12 September. David Belcher introduced the topic suggesting that behind the idea is a distinction between beliefs as propositional statements expressed in a form that is in principle either true or false; and faiths which are the values by which we live our lives and for which the test is essentially pragmatic. In everyday speech the differentiation is less clearcut and words are used more fluidly but we stayed with it for our purposes. (Judging by the reviews – no-one has read it yet – the latest book by Karen Armstrong – The Case for God – seems to be based on a similar distinction.)

We reflected on the role of religious education. It looks as though the otherwise desirable multifaith emphasis has often resulted in religions being presented as sets of propositions which can be compared and contrasted; religions are looked at from the outside from an implicitly atheistic perspective rather than in terms of their meaning for the lives and actions of their adherents. Many faith communities, it must be said, collude with this and seem much more comfortable asserting authoritative propositions (eg, the age of the universe, the authorship of the Koran).

So the question is not “what do I believe?” but “what do I do next?” It can be answered by reference to rules or by deference to authority. Or we can act on the basis of the expectations others have of us. Or we can aspire to personal authenticity, the act of will or self-expression (a leap of faith!). There are attractions in the spontaneity of free action but it is not entirely realistic. We function on the basis of what we remember or what we have learned; only an infant is rootless.

This led to thoughts about free will. It is now recognised that this is not the self-evident notion it was once assumed to be. Many of our actions are almost unconscious (and in what way is answering a call of nature is an exercise of free will?) More fundamentally, big choices are often shaped by habit and expectation. Free will is thus a myth, an idea that invites scepticism and challenge, but one that is still expedient for managing the business of everyday life.

Similarly, we may need more than spontaneous free will to make changes in our lives. We reflected on the idea of “ceremony” as a way of confirming and marking change and giving licence to move forward. Absolution, for instance, both expects and licences us to act differently. This is yet another angle on “faith”.

We may come back to this after the Oxford event. Before that is the SoF annual conference on science and religion which a number of us will be attending and we agreed to devote at least part of the next meeting to a report back. We will also pick up on the issue floated last time of reviewing the organisation and programme of these Birmingham SoF meetings.

We agreed last time that that next meeting will be on Wednesday 19 August 2009 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 7 October.


Record of meeting, 20 May 2009

We met on 20 May at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Sara Clethero, Paul Graham, George Gregg, John Howard, David Lambourn and Stephen Williams.

Stephen Williams referred to informal discussions he’d had since the last meeting about future arrangements for the group and it was agreed that we should return to this at a meeting in the early autumn. We are a larger group than we used to be and it is timely that we should take stock of the frequency and content of our meetings, the way we go about things and our relationship with the national Sea of Faith network. Although I didn’t mention this at the time, I would also like to put on the table the role of group convenor. (I have been doing the job for five years and it may be appropriate to pass the role on to someone else with different ideas; I’m also not sure that it’s a good principle to combine the role with being a SoF trustee as I am since becoming treasurer last year).

David Belcher reported on progress on the regional conference now fixed for September 12 with the provisional title “Faiths and Beliefs”. We talked around it for a bit, getting our heads round the topic and raising some points which David will feed back, but it looks good. The Oxford group are in the lead role but we are cosponsors (together with Banbury and Southampton) and if people from this area are to hear about it, it will probably be down to us. We should have more details by the time of our next meeting.

David Belcher then introduced the main topic of the evening, a discussion based on his reading of David Boulton’s recent book Who on Earth was Jesus? It is a long book with the greater part taken up with a review of all the efforts to date to pin down the historical Jesus. It’s done very thoroughly and would be very useful for anyone wanting a readable summary of the material but we focussed on the later chapters where David Boulton seems to conclude that there are no conclusions. Everyone has preconceptions of Jesus and can find what they’re looking for. We can accept the probability of a few key facts about Jesus but beyond that there are so many gaps in the record and there have been so many vested interests eager to fill them that it is better to recognise that we can be certain of nothing.

We thought the quest for certainty about Jesus, even from the most academically respectable, had parallels with fundamentalism. It involves tidying up the texts to present a coherent picture, but if we think the Jesus story worth spending time on at all then we must be prepared to live with its ambiguities and paradoxes. It’s down to us to make what we can of it. As good SoF people we see Jesus as a human creation!

This led on to a broader discussion of Truth with the suggestion that it has become an idol. There are technological truths which we rely on for the conduct of our everyday lives but sometimes the pursuit of truth seems to be about fixing ideas which should be kept open. At its best science is about establishing truth by eliminating what is false and is therefore always open-ended (we should generally have a clearer idea of what is false than of what is true). What we think we know is always provisional (a concrete example being aspirin which we continue to use even though we now have a completely different understanding of how it works).

Scepticism is a virtue, prompting the question of how it is to be fostered. It is often seen as an adult quality but children are moving towards adulthood from the time they are born and should be helped to develop habits of scepticism. More often the assumption is that children require certainties, something well demonstrated in the practice of churches. The church infantilises even its adult adherents so that the questioning common to theological students is so rarely shared with the laity.

We have already set the date of our next meeting Wednesday 8 July 2009 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. We agreed to explore our understanding of “Faiths and Beliefs” in anticipation of the September regional event. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 19 August.


Record of meeting, 8 April 2009

We met on 8 April at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Paul Graham, George Gregg, John Howard, David Lambourn, Andrew Teverson and Stephen Williams (welcome to George and Andrew) with apologies from Sara Clethero and Simon Mapp.

Stephen Williams and David Belcher gave brief updates on the national conference in July and on the more local “roadshow” being planned for the autumn. We then moved on to our planned topic for the evening: “Easter”.

We noted the prevalence of spring festivals in most religions and cultures of the northern hemisphere, even if Christianity got it at second-hand from Passover. Ideas of renewal, new life and fresh beginnings resonate with the time of year, while the Christian and Jewish stories express an added force as their narratives begin with the experience of death and despair before the eventual triumph. They have a dramatic quality which is picked up in the theatricality of their celebrations (and not just in the purely religious rituals – a secular event like the Good Friday performance of the St Matthew Passion has a sense of occasion about it).

We pondered the variable date of Easter. It defies our customary calendar by being tied to lunar cycles; it is in that sense out of our control and demands that we be humble in embracing the experience of renewal and regeneration.

The power of the Easter/Passover/etc stories is their ability to move from the particular to a universalisation of human suffering and the hope of the new. But does that mean that they are available only to “believers”? From a SoF perspective we would want to celebrate and own these myths as the products of human creativity meeting human needs and aspirations but the structures for marking the season are largely in the control of institutions wedded to supernaturalism (less obviously perhaps in the case of Passover where Judaism can exist independently of belief). The supernatural is highly valued by those who believe in it and can be personally beneficial and therapeutic (although also serving to justify evil actions) but the potential of “Easter” is lost if it cannot be shared without dogma. Only art and music have made that a possibility; we ended back with Bach and an exuberant recording of one of his Easter cantatas (BWV 66).

We had referred at times during the discussion to the history underlying the Easter story and to David Boulton’s book Who on Earth Was Jesus?. David Belcher, who is currently reading it, offered to introduce it at our next meeting with the help of anyone else who may have read it by then. Offer accepted!

As previously arranged that meeting will be on Wednesday 20 May 2009 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 8 July.