Report of Meeting, 21 May 2008

We met on 21 May at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, John Howard, David Lambourn, Simon Mapp, and Stephen Williams, with apologies from Michael Bennett, John Breadon (and for some meetings to come!) and Paul Graham. Stephen referred briefly but optimistically about his first meetings with the SoF trustees and we talked a bit about the annual conference in Liverpool. At least a couple of us will be going.

As arranged our main topic for the evening was the book Conversations on Religion edited by Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson. The book was assembled for a drama of that title but at this stage is essentially a collection of interviews rather than conversations. The interviewees make up an impressive range of individuals, all drawn from broadly western atheist or Abrahamic traditions although several touched on eastern or “alternative” religious notions in their replies. Although many of them were previously familiar, the format encouraged an often personal response and they were largely very readable and jargon-free (apart from Rowan Williams who got into a very abstruse discussion of the Trinity). The flavour varies – for some people the spoken word transcribes better into print than for others – and some contributors were much more dogmatic. These were likely to insist on a definition of terms that in practice allowed them to shape the argument, while others were open to alternatives and seemed more relaxed with a degree of ambiguity.

We all found the Moslem contributions interesting, perhaps because the ideas were less familiar to us. There were some informative comments on how to read the Qur’an and on a tradition of interpretation and reinterpretation that is antifundamentalist. A lot of this is very creative, although you feel that that creativity is inevitably hemmed in by the notion of a “final” revelation – some of the other interviewees would happily see this as myth and none the worse for that, but that may be a step too far for even the most open-minded of the Moslem contributors here.

Julia Neuberger and Jonathan Sacks offer a distinctive perspective, in different ways emphasising community rather than dogma as the basis of religion (and not so much answering Grayling and Dawkins as suggesting that they have missed the point). The view is nicely illustrated by Sacks’ answer to the question of the notion of an afterlife in Judaism: “Yes, but we don’t talk about it very often”. The idea of community also came up in some of the Moslem contributions and there was an attempt to explain the reaction to the Danish cartoons (and the related issue of why criticism of the prophet is somehow more offensive than criticism of God) in these terms but the argument was difficult to follow.

Alister McGrath also took the argument away from the Grayling/Dawkins ground with his emphasis on religion as transformative but many of the other contributions grappled in their different ways with their interest in the nature of religious truth. It was interesting how often they came up in various responses, and while there are familiar criticisms of Grayling and Dawkins for the way they stereotype religion there are examples here of their own position being misunderstood or misrepresented.

Not surprisingly the contributions that rang most bells for us were those that not only expressed uncertainty but made a virtue of it. If the issue is about the future, then we liked the ideas of the way forward from Karen Armstrong (“Study”) and from Jonathan Sacks (“Stop Competing”). That religious openness is not new of course. David Lambourn referred us to Grace and Personality by John Oman, looking early in the last century at how religion has to be reenvisaged for a world that is known scientifically rather than by assertion. And there is still the key thinking of the later Bonhoeffer.

This led us to reflect on the vitality of religious thought in the 1960s and what went wrong. The fate of the Second Vatican Council was critical although developments went much wider than just Catholicism. There were clearly powerful groups within all religious establishments who found the changes threatening and looked for opportunities to mitigate or reverse them but there was also a broader social context so that new thinking in religion seemed was also viewed as part of the wider challenge to the moral consensus.

Conversations had been an interesting book to discuss but logistically a difficult one. The various interviews are largely self-contained and there is no obvious logic to the order in which they had been presented. We had not really done justice to it and agreed that we would like to return and spend more time particularly on the contributions of Don Cupitt, John Gray and Karen Armstrong.

This will be the topic of our next meeting, which as previously arranged will be on Thursday 3 July 2008 (yes, Thursday) at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 13 August when provisionally we agreed to look at art and creativity in the light of the upcoming SoF conference.