Record of meeting, 12 November 2008

We met on 12 November at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Sara Clethero, Paul Graham, David Lambourn and Stephen Williams, with apologies from Michael Bennett and John Howard.

David Belcher referred to “Living with Difference” the London SoF conference on 22 November which he’ll be attending (1000-1600, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road; advert in latest Sofia). Tickets are now available on the door.

We started talking, not altogether irrelevantly, about the election of Barack Obama, before getting on to our planned topic “The meaning of the West”. The Obama story, certainly as reflected in his memoir (Dreams of my Father) seems to have both personal and global significance, and suggests a more complicated relationship between private life and public service than the distinction apparently being proposed by Don Cupitt in his Sofia piece. We inevitably referred frequently to that article during our discussion and found a lot to challenge, but reminded ourselves that it is just one chapter from a larger book and our questions may be answered elsewhere.

The Meaning of the West we took to be about the relationship between modern secular culture and the West’s religious, and especially Christian, history. Cupitt emphasises the continuity in that story (as he did originally of course in the original Sea of Faith programmes and book). Religious ideas and principles are transmuted through the Enlightenment to modern science and ethics, and contemporary civic society has been able to leave behind what is worst and embody within secularism some of the best of Christianity. That seems, at least in those direct terms, too simple, not really fair to either the pre-Christian Greeks or the post-Christian Arabs. Also while public service may share positive qualities with religion it can as easily share its negatives: ritualism has its parallels in bureaucracy. (Within the current debate about “Baby P” is the question whether procedures have helped or hindered).

Furthermore, the continuity from religion to secularism is always contested. The roots of the secular ideal within Christianity can be traced to the idea of Incarnation but the process has never had a clear run. It was arguably one of the underlying issues at Nicaea, where it lost out to Trinitarianism, and from the beginning the Church has used its clerical structures to contain and manage the challenge of a humanistic understanding of God and religion. We should not expect many within the churches to recognise Cupitt’s continuity.

Another strand in the process is the emphasis on reason and systematisation, rather than continue to hold to beliefs simply because they have always been believed. Cupitt’s example of the difference between a medieval Herbal and a modern Flora illustrates this well. However, alongside those Enlightenment virtues of reason and order, there is a place for something more expressive – Richard Holmes’ recent book The Age of Wonder sets the scientific discoveries of the late 18th century in the context of the Romantic Movement and describes a world where artists, scientists and poets inhabit the same intellectual circles.

We also wanted to set alongside the story of secularisation, one of sacralisation, a process whereby essentially secular institutions take on qualities of religion, in particular the notion of a superior authority beyond rational challenge. A positive example of this might be the Green movement, but more sinister examples lie in the history of totalitarianism (cf. Michael Burleigh), or for a more bizarre instance, Lord Dacre on the public right to invade the private lives of prominent individuals. Others would see that as simple hypocrisy, but it also illustrates the impossibility of achieving a definitive understanding of the world that can no longer be questioned. All thought happens in a social context (David Lambourn refers us to The Social History of Truth by Stephen Shapin).

The idea of a continuity between a Christian past and a secular present might be instinctively attractive to many SoF members, but the more we thought about it the notion of the West as essentially Christian looks a difficult one to sustain. There is probably a simpler narrative that brings us direct to where we are now. We agreed provisionally to return to this topic in a couple of meetings time when we should have had the opportunity to look at the whole of Don Cupitt’s book.

For our next meeting we agreed to share some significant poetry. John Howard had opened the way to this some time ago when he circulated his Desert Island Poems but we have never talked about these and other members will have poems or short prose texts that express important ideas for them. Hopefully most of us will be able to bring something.

As previously agreed, that meeting will be on Wednesday 14 January 2009 at1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 25 February.