Report of Meeting, 3 July 2008

We met on 3 July 2008 at David Lambourn’s house. Present were John Challenor, Paul Graham, John Howard, David Lambourn, Simon Mapp, and Stephen Williams, with apologies from David Belcher and Michael Bennett. As arranged, we discussed the interviews with Don Cupitt, John Gray and Karen Armstrong in Conversations on Religion, the book we looked at more generally last time.

John Gray has been described as a contrarian, an arguer for unfashionable causes, but whatever, we found much to reflect on in his observations. He sees religion as a special case of myth and it is myth, the narratives that transmit meaning, that he regards as a near-universal characteristic of human consciousness ( although somewhat condescendingly he puts himself in the category of the few who don’t need it). Thus he includes the secular ideologies of the twentieth century as well as presumptions about the inevitability of scientific progress or the workings of the free market in the same general class as religious myth. He suggests, however, that some of the old myths have acquired a depth of meaning and interpretation that is missing from their more superficial modern counterparts, and that process is developed further when myth is recognised for what it is and when those who subscribe to them are prepared to “interrogate” them to uncover new meanings. He refers positively to Rowan Williams in this context. Myths gain their power through being shared, both contemporarily and as traditions developed over time, and that is why we cannot invent our own private myths but select from the repertoire available to us. We liked the thought of myth-making as an artistic project!

There is a problem that “myth” has an everyday definition that puts it in the realm of legend or fairytale and trying to talk about myth can often put us at cross purposes with those who would equate it with falsity. Gray takes on A C Grayling for oversimplifying this issue, but many religious people would make the same association and find in the language of myth a challenge to realist belief (the CofE is not yet ready to adopt the 39 myths!). In Gray’s terms myth works because it is functional and its content transcends what is supportable by evidence. It is about uncertainty and ambiguity and he sees the future in a greater understanding of this and a human willingness to embrace and value it. (Is this Gray’s myth?) He quotes Keats on “the irritable demand for certainty” and P G Wodehouse finding it “frightfully hard to tell” if he had any religious belief. We enjoyed these as well.

The idea of embracing uncertainty or contingency, as we would expect, figures in the conversation with Don Cupitt. Here, time, contingency and mortality are the central preoccupations of religion and remain so even when we leave church religion behind. We felt Don’s contribution was quite personally revealing, inviting us to share his sadness at the inability of church Christianity to accommodate his perspective. The implication of what he says, however, is that if there was ever a time when the church could have used his ideas to speak relevantly to the modern world, that is now past, and he now puts forward an every-day-life-centred view of religion in which the old religious concerns are now worked out in the here and now rather than through ecclesiastical institutions. It is still, however, a fulfilment rather than an abandonment – “The Sea of Faith” was of course a story of the development not the rejection of religious thought. Of the three pieces, Don’s was the most forward-looking and optimistic, albeit at an individual rather than a communal level, and for those who don’t know what he’s about, these few pages would be a very good introduction.

Karen Armstrong’s contribution also reflected a very personal story in which religion had been oppressive and authoritarian. It leads her, however, to a generosity towards religious thought and ideas, especially towards non-credal religion. Christianity in particular looks to define what people think and believe and in the process restricts human personality and potential; she is more tolerant of those religions that concern themselves with practice and behaviour. Perhaps, because of her critique of dogmatism her own ideas are often hinted at rather than directly expressed. Unlike John Gray or Don Cupitt she accompanies rather than leads you through her thinking. She understands the significance of religion to the communities who live by them – it is arrogant to reject them as irrational when the real issue is whether they help people to lead fuller lives as human beings. Her sense of the communal value of religion is, however, not one that she can share. Her own history makes her a non-joiner.

All three conversations had touched on the artistic and cultural context of religion and make relevant the topic for our next meeting. By then at least three of us will have been to the SoF conference on creativity in religion and the arts, and for those who won’t be there the latest edition of Sofia is devoted to the same subject.

As previously agreed that meeting will be on Wednesday 13 August 2008 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 24 September when provisionally we agreed to look at christenings, weddings, and funerals.