Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in liturgical events that include creative writing, literature, ritual and other art forms.


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Poems by Jenny Johnson

Jenny’s poems capture some of the poignant moments we experience in nature, moments which, on the one hand, are reminders of our alienation from the natural environment (and from one another) and of the inner unease and loneliness this causes, but equally, moments in which we humans uniquely create meaning from nature’s dynamic but unconscious processes.

We are moved to reflect on both the blessing and curse of human self-consciousness.

Jenny’s poems reflect her view that “everything is permeated by spiritual energy, even so-called inanimate objects.” It is a perception many have shared before. Perhaps when people talk of a universal “spiritual energy”, they are getting at the potentiality in all of nature, right down to the atomic and subatomic levels, for human generated meaning.

I hope this collection resonates with your experience as much as it did with mine.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong, The Editor


 

SHANKLIN RAIN

All this July day, soft rain has soaked

my orange American cotton:

I have walked through a chine

that is like a subtropical biome.

Under the platform’s roof,

the station clock makes dripping sounds.

A small woman talks to herself on a painted bench

to assuage the loneliness –

her voice, like that of a radio broadcaster,

switched on and off … and on …

Behind us, a waiting room is locked.

Outside, mist nets the east cliff;

while diesel and steam, with their different

rhythms and gauges,

take visitors, commuters, backwards and forwards

like a pendulum, a tide.

 

ON THE OTHER SIDE

On the other side of the track,

you pass through a second kissing gate.

Canopied by a beech, you negotiate the rising of steps –

the unevenness of five.

A six o’clock breeze punctuates your heat:

the moon turns half diaphanous.

On the other side,

old wildness comes in purples and golds; soft whites.

The crickets are in their grasses:

 branches embrace, safe within their archways.

A white bird glides over the water, moving west:

a black crab hastens towards an estuarial stone.

In your own good time, you will accompany this river, Isca,

as it falls into the sea.

“Not now,” you say aloud.

Later on, turning round in a homeward field – turning west –

 you notice those roses, those vermilion heads above the hedgerow.

From the other side of the railway track, they are calling you back….

You are warned.

“Not now,” you repeat.  “Not now.”

 

CAMARADERIE IN THE MARGINS

I rest in my sleevelessness,

watching the sea mist silver the sun:

two canoeists make for what is left of its reflection.

Young men sit in their fearlessness,

bragging about exam grades –

till one of them, desperate for balance,

indicates an insect on his skateboard.

“Come and see the ladybug,” he pleads….

Camaraderie in the margins:

I have noticed it before,

on the borders of lochs and forests –

 

even in dystopian twitchels and ginnels.

 

THE HOST OF THE HOLLY

To a host of sparrows, home is the holly bush….

By the end of December, between storms,

the twilight sound of it tastes like raisins, orange rind.

The following morning, each bird

claims its place on the neighbouring rooftop –

sensing the river, the Exe, which has risen with the downpour.

The plumpness that comes is an East Devon herring gull:

the purpose is to bully,

to usurp the community perch.

But the host is used to this:

its rapid wings carry it to and fro between ridge and ridge –

till the game becomes dull.

Whenever a bird flies solo from its line –

perhaps to alight on the cowl or the aerial –

familiar sidesteps close the gap.

In spite of the heft of her tartan trolley, her birdcage umbrella,

the woman treads quietly on the twilight pavement:

she approaches the feathery belly of the holly – its prickly guards.

An only child, she is drawn towards extended families:

she choreographs for community dancers:

her poems are appreciated most when read aloud.

(First published in Poetry Salzburg Review)

 

TEMPEST

This titan of a gale

makes pendulums out of shop signs.

The road’s bollards are disabled.

Lifted over the licked stone

by promenade gusts,

 flotsam is a kiosk – candyfloss, lollipops!

Beneath where it used to stand,

 a bomb, unexploded for seventy years,

silences at once those tidal spectators.

Electric flexes go wild in the heightened water:

sparks are launched into quarrelsome sky.

In response to this crescendo of extremes,

the town is alight with euphoria, with terror –

not knowing one from the other.

As the sea lays claim to the plains it once covered,

the people become eccentric; chaotic:

are seduced by the drama of it all.

After the panic, there follows the need

to control, to capture –

if only in pictures on the screens of their phones.

(First published in Poetry Salzburg Review)

 

CROUCH

Just before the black van parks in the square,

panic begins with herring gulls piercing the sky:

most of them no longer keep their nests

close to the sea.

The Harris Hawk comes complete with his falconer’s glove,

 with jesses attached to his brilliant feet:

the man has a dream about freedom from scavengers.

In intelligent bursts, the bird flies hither and thither

at the word of his master, the command to scare:

herring gulls, pigeons, are not to be devoured….

Prized for his performance, he dines on steaks.

 “Crouch,” cries the falconer.  “Crouch….”

All of his hawks have footballers’ names.

Children are amused: they are queuing like fans:

they long to touch feathers, the leather of the glove.

From time to time, this particular raptor delays his return:

he alights on an outdoor table, waiting to be photographed,

or makes for the indoor market, the souvenir stand.

Banished from the square,

from its human detritus,

the herring gulls move to the cliffs.

 

NOT KNOWING

“Life is no longer a feast of

distractions from death:

all I can sense are those

twin grizzly roads: at no point do they meet.

You are here, my friend, not only for tea and raspberries

 but also to make enquiries, to listen.”

 “Tell me what grows within your gray,” you say.

“A pink rose.” I surprise myself.

 “But I still don’t wish to live,“ I remind you.

“I don’t wish to live like this,” you respond.

It’s the not knowing I can’t cope with….

 “When I have done with both bone and brain,” I continue,

“will consciousness remain…?

What if it won’t? What will have been its point?”

“Does there have to be a point?”you challenge.

“This vision of parallel roads,“ I persist –

“roads without even one byway between them –

is anathema to me.

 Death has become a distraction from living –

from interconnection.”

“Though not for the rose,” you observe.

 

CHIAROSCURO

The moment July is in the ascendant,

an assortment of sky-lit tenants

needs to be hypnotised by the heat.

In the iced blues of January,

south-facing windows permit slanting sun

to investigate much closer to the ground….

 It alights on every cheekbone and pin.

Walking south-east along a three o’clock street,

those who once longed for the prime red-yellows of July

are quite astounded at themselves – at how soundly they are absorbed

 into that shadow play, that chiaroscuro.

 

Copyright © JENNY JOHNSON  April, 2019


Devon based poet, Jenny Johnson, was born in Bristol in 1945 and educated at The Red Maids’ School (now Redmaids’ High School) – the oldest girls’ school in England.  She has written poetry since the age of five and has also created eighty dances for circle dance groups: see www.jennyjohnsondancerpoet.net for a sample of her poetry and a list of dances and musical sources.

All the above poems are on a waiting list for publication in the magazine Sarasvati. Jenny’s work has been published or accepted for publication in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Salzburg Review, Orbis and Stand. A large collection of her poetry – “The Wisdom Tree” – was brought out by Salzburg University for use by students in the Department of English and American Studies. Jenny is currently writing a series of poems based on her own dreams.

“I believe that the media concentrates far too much on the negative: the latter needs to be acknowledged, but it also requires the positive in order to provide a balance.  From the friction between these polarities, creativity flourishes.” (Jenny Johnson)

JENNY JOHNSON (portrait by NAA AHINEE MENSAH)

Jenny Johnson

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An Interview with Elizabeth White

While the focus of the SLN&F is on secular liturgies and liturgical events, as opposed to religious ones, we nonetheless take inspiration from the insights and reflective practices of many of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions, especially from the more progressive and inclusive streams and schools of thought.

With this in mind, I approached Elizabeth White, a Spiritual Director in the Ignatian tradition and Pastoral Supervisor, to learn about her approach to spirituality, reflective practice and pastoral care. I hope you will appreciate, as much as I did, her thoughtful responses to the questions I sent her.

A small group of us within the SLN recently adapted a Buddhist text on compassionate speech to make it a Secular Buddhist text, and then we applied a modified version of Lectio Divina (a Benedictine practice of scriptural reading) to study it, meditate upon it and engage creatively with elements of it. Similarly, many of the pastoral concepts and reflective techniques Elizabeth uses, such as the imaginative approach to a text inspired by Ignatious of Loyola, are inclusive, or can be adapted for use in a secular context.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong (Interviewer and Editor of Secular Liturgies)

 


Elizabeth White is a spiritual director, trainer and senior accredited pastoral supervisor. She previously coordinated the adult learning programme for the Diocese of Edinburgh (Scottish Episcopal Church) and now works freelance under the umbrella of Reflective Spaces, with a variety of individuals and groups, in person and via her online platform.

https://www.reflectivespaces.org.uk

Les Mis EW crop

Elizabeth White


 

What are the personal reasons and experiences which led you to your work with Reflective Spaces?

Growing up in church, I became unwell in my teens and in my twenties began to meet with a spiritual director – an ancient way of being accompaniment on our inner journey. At a time when my own life experience and my experience of church did not connect, I greatly valued the companionship of another as we talked and listened together. It was a safe place to hold on – however fleetingly – to the things I still wanted and believed in, and to let go of others; to slowly rebuild my relationship with myself, others and God and to redefine my experience of faith and community. 25 years later I have more sense of being enabled to hold together my experiences of what I might call brokenness, grace and gratitude. And out of this I offer various ‘Reflective Spaces’ to others who come with their very individual ‘spiritual’ stories.

What methods do you use in your Reflective Spaces work to facilitate reflection and spiritual exploration?

Having received spiritual direction for several years I trained to accompany others and this contemplative listening undergirds a lot of my work in Reflective Spaces. Spiritual ‘direction’ is a bit of misnomer; the image I like best for accompanying is that of a midwife helping to birth what is already seeded and emerging within us, rather than the instructional teaching we might see in some faith traditions. Also in spiritual direction, people can bring anything to the (usually monthly) space, it can encompass all things, not just the ‘spiritual’. The ‘direction’ does not come from the director, but is in the direction your life has the potential to take at its fullest and most free. And it lies with ‘Spirit’, the true director of all. So we listen together for how people experience their soul; their deepest, truest self – perhaps experiences which are already within a person but they may not yet know it. Together we notice where Life, Spirit, Kindness, God etc is in all aspects of life, and what that might mean for the person.

Later, I completed a diploma in Creative and Pastoral Supervision and added this as a resourcing support to my portfolio of Reflective Spaces across helping professions, often one-to-one but also in small groups. I sometimes use cards, images, objects, somatic/body awareness and various other ‘tools’ to go ‘behind the scenes, beneath the words’ – it’s amazing what we become aware of when our heads gets out of the way! There is more about my supervision and reflective practice work on my website www.reflectivespaces.org.uk/supervision

What ideas, traditions and people inspired the Reflective Spaces work?

My spiritual direction training was in the Ignatian tradition and I had also previously made the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius – a series of mostly scripture based meditations, often using ‘imaginative contemplation’ (See the short article included below entitled ‘Praying with Scripture’). Together with the Ignatian guidelines which offered me a revolutionary approach to discernment and how I could make good decisions those years were a really formational time, which offered a different framework to hold alongside my evangelical roots. www.ignatianspirituality.com/what-is-ignatian-spirituality

Around 2003 I set up a fortnightly reflective prayer group with a friend, which I was involved with for six years. Writing and learning how to ‘hold’ 45 minute meditations was a large part of what formed my way of being with others – because I came to see that I could only offer what I had just lived that week; it’s the only authentic way to offer reflective material I think, so I was processing a lot of my own relationship with God, self, contemplative journey as well as my vulnerabilities by writing material with a very immediate theme for those who came to the group. We found a real hunger for stillness and ‘a different way of seeing’ in those who came over the years, and it’s absolutely true that what you give out is actually your own teacher. On a practical basis I enjoyed networking and began to send out news to this group of other reflective or spirituality events in and around Edinburgh which I was involved with or had links to. This email list still exists for new sign-ups today, and as my work has grown with individuals and groups it is all now hosted under the umbrella of Reflective Spaces.

On your website, you use terms such as ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘God’ and ‘prayer’. What do these words mean to you personally, and how do you approach your work with clients who have different views and understandings of these things?

l’ve just spent this weekend listening to a webinar conference with the Center for Action and Contemplation: “Incarnation is the oldest Christian Story; through Christ, God is pouring God’s self into all of creation. To be a Christian, then, is to see Christ in every one and every thing” (Richard Rohr). I’m still digesting this, but I think it says something of the shift in me from coming at life via the lens of who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, gay or straight, subject and object, heaven or hell, Christian and non-Christian. If I’d been born in India I would probably be a Hindu or a Muslim; I happen to have had a strong Christian upbringing and have moved away from a more black and white belief system to an experiential sense of ‘the other’. This is mediated to me most often through the familiarity of Christian symbol and story as well as nature, dance, relationship etc. At the same time I often ‘don’t know’, and I’m much more OK with that – living with not knowing, mystery, and paradox. It concerns me much more when poor church teaching or other influences leave people trapped in a ‘system’ of oughts around belief, prayer, behaviour and especially in unhelpful images of god etc.

I suppose I’m motivated as a personality by truth and freedom – so, truth in terms of starting with where people actually are not where they feel they should be (and sometimes that truth is buried under quite a lot of layers and takes gentle love and compassion to reveal), and freedom in terms of each of us being utterly loved, reconnecting with our ‘original goodness’, being freed slowly from old patterns that hold us back towards fullness of life. It’s the quiet, compassionate yet transforming contemplative traditions of different religions or philosophies where people can most happily and supportively ‘meet’ – whether that’s Christian or Buddhist meditation, Sufi practices, a deep yoga etc. We have much to share and offer each other,  I love to work with people who are searching, self-reflective and open to exploring whatever their ‘faith’ is – or isn’t. Language is often limiting and misunderstood which is maybe why I gravitate increasingly towards the wisdom of the body work and the use of more creative ‘ways in’ to what some might call our ‘spiritual’ lives. But I hope I can both show a face of ‘Christ’ to those I work with and meet ‘Christ’ in them, however they name or imagine the divine; we meet through experience rather than definition.

What are the key principles and methods of spiritual direction and supervision, and how do they differ from mainstream therapies such as counselling?

I’m not formally trained in theology or psychology; the principal of a theological school once told me that my theology was ‘sound and profound’, in the sense that I ‘speak of the things of God’ most days of the week – in my inner self, and for and with others. And having received personally from many gifted therapists over the years I work in a therapeutically-rich way. Good Spiritual Direction can at times be as deep as the best of theology and the best of therapy. A book written by a colleague ‘Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction: Two Languages, One Voice?’ puts forward the perhaps contentious question of whether Spiritual Direction is really ‘just’ another psychotherapeutic method. Whatever the answer to that, I think the key principles are initially similar – establishing a working alliance, building trust, confidentiality, inclusivity; my original direction training was person-centred so unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence as well as awareness of transference issues and unconscious process are all important.

The methods differ slightly in that direction (and supervision) happen usually every 4 – 6 weeks whereas counselling might more likely be once a week. Also direction often continues for many years, sometimes a lifetime, whereas counselling takes the time it needs until the ‘problem’ has resolved, or the client has built enough of their own resources for them to move on from sessions. Spiritual direction doesn’t so often use the relationship that is in the room in the same way that counselling might to work with issues (this does depend on the counselling tradition too) but it points more to the relationship with ‘the other’, the ‘more than’, with ‘God’.

So, overall good therapy can be ‘spiritual’ and spiritual direction can be ‘therapeutic’, it largely depends on who you work, how much of their own spiritual or therapeutic journeys they have engaged with and also what the person comes seeking as a directee or client. Perhaps one topical  distinction to note – which I have a particular interest in currently – is that there is more of a culture of accountability around counselling and therapy i.e. accreditation systems, insurance and CPD as ‘expected norms’ whereas Spiritual Direction is just beginning to grapple with these questions, perhaps where therapy was 40 years ago. Some training course and local groups have codes of practice and most (but not all) directors will now be supervised. But there is far less of a ‘professional’ culture around direction, which is linked to its roots growing up through religious communities, and because it is seen as ‘ministry’ which for some people is not compatible with professionalism. I’m involved in a fairly new project looking at the possibility of a national accreditation organisation for spiritual direction www.reflectivespaces.org.uk/consultation. The Association for Pastoral Supervision and Education already exists in this role for pastoral supervisors   www.pastoralsupervision.org.uk. Accreditation is an issue which raises very strong feeling for people in all sorts of ways, yet as our society changes and becomes more accountability-conscious perhaps even this ancient ministry needs to develop in new ways to support and enliven best practice. Watch this space!

What benefits do your projects bring to individuals and to wider society? Or, put in another way, what problems do they help to solve?

This reminds me of a story from Anthony de Mello (Jesuit priest who lived in India www.demellospirituality.com) about a spiritual seeker who came to him asking for a definition of spirituality, and de Mello answered with the word “awareness”. The seeker, said “oh you’ll have to give me more than that”. And Anthony de Mello replied “awareness, awareness, and awareness”. If my work can be a small part in helping people become more aware of their own inner lives and how they choose to live that out wisely and lovingly, whether related to how they pray, or in work, relationships with others, as a parent or activist, then the world – their world and the butterfly effect around them – will be changed. As soon as we become aware we have choice. And choice in wise hands can be a huge power for good.

Ignatius-Loyola

Ignatious of Loyola

Praying with Scripture by Elizabeth White

‘Tradition is large. It is crammed with a wonderful range of pictures of God – as seamstress sewing clothes for Adam and Eve, as architect designing the ark and the temple, as a dinner party host, as wind, as fire and rock and water. We need such storehouses of images to elaborate our own views.’

~ Ann and Barry Ulanov: The Healing imagination ~

A Bigger Story Meets Our Own

In a society of high stimulation, moving images and rapid change, how can we pray in a way that also brings colour, creativity, surprise and is an anchor in our lives? I have found that ‘Imaginative Prayer’ opens doors to new experiences of myself and of God. When I think prayer ‘should’ be quiet and holy but my being yearns for a more obvious life-impacting connection, praying imaginatively with Scripture has brought something visceral or yet deeply intimate.

Let’s take Jacob, for example (Genesis 32:22–32), locked in a battle with an angel? With God? With himself? I’ve prayed with this story many times when I’ve felt tossed about by life, wrestling with myself or others. I’ve found companionship with Jacob who ‘wins’ – in terms of keeping his life – but who is wounded. I have come through alive, but changed forever, and bearing the scars. And like Jacob I have been touched by God.

Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46–52) calls on Jesus passing by and, in imagination, I have heard Jesus’ same question to Bartimaeus echoing in my own life: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Surely Bartimaeus’ answer was obvious, with his unseeing eyes? But as I imagined this character from long ago I have discovered come to some unexpected responses of my own. What it is that I reallywant of God?

And Mary, oh Mary, the womanly ally and motherly friend I have come to know through imaginative prayer using various passages: a small cosy stone house, baking bread in the kitchen, Jesus popping in occasionally, a stone window seat and a carpenter’s rocking chair, places I return to talk and find comfort ‘when all else fails’ (and why not sooner?). I know this place well.

Scripture is full of symbol and metaphor: Jesus’ sermons, parables and life stories often bring unexpected images – a camel through the eye of a needle, pigs flinging themselves over a cliff, a bleeding woman. Imagination, like our senses, is a gift from God. Used reflectively with discernment, it leads us to insight and ongoing revelation of self and of God.

St Ignatius, in particular, encouraged the use of imagination in his 16th-century ‘Spiritual Exercises’, a series of prayerful and deepening meditations around the life of Christ. Rediscovered by today’s spiritual seekers and pilgrims, you can ‘Pray Now’ using this same imaginative method in simple steps:

  • Choose a passage – narrative stories from the Gospels are often a good place to begin.
  • Find a comfortable yet attentive place and allow yourself to simply arrive. I often light a candle and take a couple of slower breaths, beginning to touch in to wherever I find myself on the inside and to the sense of ‘the more than’.
  • Take a few moments to consider what you hope for as you begin this prayer. Ask God for what you most desire in your heart: what is the gift you are seeking today?
  • Read the passage several times until you are familiar with the story. Don’t try to make anything happen, but just listen to the story as a content child might listen at bedtime.
  • Then slowly allow the scene to arise within you, taking your time. What initial images comes to mind? What do you see? Is it hot or raining? What do you smell, touch, hear? Use all your senses to ‘see’ the story.
  • Who is there? And begin to notice where you are in the story: one of the characters, or someone looking on. Which part of the story do you identify with or see yourself in? Let the story unfold, without consciously directing it. Don’t worry if things surprise you, or if the story develops a little differently from what you expect; God can come to us in many ways.
  • What happens next? Is Jesus there? What do you find yourself saying or doing? How are you feeling as you are part of all this? Stay with the story as long you want to, waiting as it evolves.

In my own praying, I sometimes find surprising things strike me, and sometimes not much at all. But in either case, often a shift comes as I close the imaginative prayer and speak with God about what has just happened– or not happened! The more honest I am with God, the freer I feel, and then a new awareness may come; I am met by God – and Jesus’ story meets my own.

(‘Praying with Scripture’ first appeared in Pray Now: Word of Life, Copyright © Resourcing Worship Team, Mission and Discipleship Council, The Church of Scotland 2017)

 


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Did Leonard Woolf get sad too? by Connor Hansford

Dear Virginia,

I didn’t say this while you were alive

Because you were always too busy

And it didn’t feel right but I gave up so

Much to make you happy, Virginia and –

Is it healthy? I wanted children, you didn’t –

Fine. Not fine. You didn’t ask, or, if you did

I lied. But it doesn’t matter now. It did.

I suppose you will say, if you’d wanted

Them that much, you should have said.

You’re a writer and a reader, you should

Have read. But no. That’s fine. It’s not but

Now you’re gone it matters not a jot and I

Can buy as many crystal palaces as I like

To put my plants in, which sounds like I

Disliked or didn’t love you when I did but

You didn’t make it easy, alright? Loving you

Was like reading one of your books. I love

Your ways – loved, I should say, but some days,

What I like best of all is to enjoy myself

Without having to think too much.

But living with you every day was a crossword,

Which incidentally I never could do without

Wondering where you were or if you were

With her in the garden at Sissinghurst.

The sun shines out of her arse, you think

But sod me! What the hell have I ever done

For you except give you somewhere to sleep, breathe,

Things to do. BREATHE. Your name. I wouldn’t go so far

As to say I made you but for Christ’s sake, Virginia,

Please – think. It’s not – was not – all about you.

And I did mind that you slept with Vita and the

Other one. Ones. I just didn’t say anything

In case you tried to – you know, which anyway

You did, in the end, even though I told you to

Speak to me speak to me. Sometimes you did and

Sometimes now I feel bad because I preferred you when

You were out, alive, chatting, acerbic, witty.

Words words bloody words.

Funny that because now I only want you back

Whichever way you come. And despite what you wrote,

I still sometimes think, was there more I could have done?

I get sad too you know and always have but you never

Asked, or if you did, I never said because it’s easier

Not said than done this depression thing.

Women can talk about it, men can’t.

I’m dead without you.

 


Connor Hansford

Connor Hansford is a stage-three English with Publishing student at the University of Plymouth who aspires to become a professional book editor like his hero Maxwell Perkins. Additionally, Connor hopes to one day start a small press in his home town of Dorchester where he also hopes to work on his golf swing and angling skills. Connor runs the University of Plymouth Journal INK and a WordPress blog which he updates sporadically called Memoirs of a Snowflake. Connor is a Quaker who is descended from a long line of Cree Indians.


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Architecture and Place by Zoe Latham

Key words: architecture, place, landscape, ritual

 

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place.

– T.S. Eliot 1954

 

The understanding and interrogation of place encompasses some of the most powerful intentions and values one can have as an architect. A place is a space where life occurs, where people can orientate themselves and subsequently identify themselves within an environment. Place is what architecture should strive to be – a process of building off of shared understandings, conceptions and connections to place.

Architectural connections to landscape were deeply embedded in pre-1900 ways of designing and making buildings. Traditionally architecture reflected the place and the people in which it was situated – ‘cultural creations, orderings of experience, like poems and rituals’ (Glassie, 2000). No formally trained architect’s existed but local builders had the skills and expertise to design structures with what they had to hand. Architecture was a craft, developed by local craftsmen builders, and rooted in place through materiality, climate, environment, construction techniques and regional traditions (cultural/ historical). This form of architecture evolved out of a specific place and time; not replicated outside of the region, where materials, skills, needs, climate vary. These factors all informed a regional architecture, an expression that was ‘place-specific’, creating a distinct sense of place (Brown & Yates, 2001).

Industrialization, sprawling transportation and the early modern movement severed deep-rooted, regional connections to landscape by severing ties to historical and geographic contexts. Materials and skills that were once available only locally became available to more people nationally and even internationally. Geographer Edward Relph, in his seminal text Place and Placelessness,describes this placelessnessas an uncritical acceptance of mass values, and techniques.With this overshadowing, notions of place specificity become lost. The overall impact of such processes is the “undermining of place for both individuals and cultures, and the casual replacement of the diverse and significant places of the world with anonymous spaces and exchangeable environments” (Relph 1976, p. 143).

Within the built environment the concept of place is typically reduced to a series of ‘techniques for ‘placemaking’, a term that is generally undefined but appears to refer to the creation of pleasant public spaces (CABE 2000 in (Relph, 2008)’. The rich complexity of human relations with territory and the creation/ conception of place is not part of the discussion in existing practices of placemaking. Every person inhabits a variety of place, not only over their lifetime, but also at any given moment – this is due to the fact people engage with the environment and with other people at varying scales simulteineously (National Research Council, 2002). Relph, argues that in the modern world the loss of place diversity is symptomatic of a larger loss of meaning – the ‘authentic’ attitude which characterized pre-industrial and handicraft cultures and produces the ‘sense of place’ (Relph, 1976). Although a fundamental part of modernity, industrialism transmutes places and the relations people have with it – industrialisation transforms natures, for example, from wild falling water to piped domesticated water (Birkeland, 2008). These processes often form an alienation of humans form nature (Kidner, 2001).

Today, continued processes of industrialization, modernisation and globalization have lead to a deficiency in the creation of meaningfularchitecture and places. Relph offers the following examples of placelessness: the international style architecture, tourist landscapes, commercial strips and new towns.

Villa Savoye

Fig. 1 & 2. The International Style, Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier.

Villa 2

Al Babbas

Figure 3. Burj Al Babas luxury housing

Shopping Mall

Figure 4. Shopping Mall Interior

In considering ‘place [as] a phenomenon that expresses the nature–culture interface’ one could argue this interface is out of balance with the continued created of placeless places – places with no regard for diverse socio-cultural patterns of living in different natures (Birkeland, 2008).

In a call for a more balanced perspective on interrelations between humans, nature and society the following text looks to other disciplines to extend the definition of place and interrogates concepts of place, landscape and ritual for appropriation within the creation of architecture. (Birkeland, 2008) Similarly, the phenomenological nature of this text requires continual shifts amongst disciplines, stepping outside of more positivist architectural discourse into environmental building studies[1](Rapoport & Seamon), cultural/ human geography[2](Tuan, Relph, Wiley, Cosgrove) and anthropology (Ingold).

Architecture in this body of thought encompasses all buildings and places of our everyday life that are modified by human intervention – grounding and defining architecture, and arguable the landscape[3]as a product of human processes, habits, beliefs and values. Increasingly, landscape is being brought into architectural discussions as a model/ movement for considering architecture and urbanism (Waldheim, 2016). The inclusion of landscape in this discussion exceeds narrow disciplinary and theoretical boundaries allowing for the consideration of wider, more complex yet meaningful, relationships between people and place to be explored (Brace & Johns-Putra 2010). Stan Allen suggests moving beyond the consideration of landscape architecture ‘defined as the art of organizing horizontal surface’ (Allen 2001, p.124) and to look closer the material and performance that create places.

Place can be understood through both a wider, shared conception as landscape and as a more intimate personal interactions grounded in ritualised behaviour.  Landscapes are generated and conceptualised through layers of human processes, interrogating these landscapes can reveal hidden meanings cultivated within them over time through ritual.

Tuanian notions of place emphasize human conceptions of meaning and experience, refocusing human geography discourse on the relationship between people and the world though the realm of experience – how we relate to our environment and make it a place we feel we belong (Tuan, 1977). Furthering this existential philosophy architect Christian Norberg-Schultz believes the study of place is what ties together the existential dimension and concrete manifestations of architecture; with identity and belonging dependent on a relationship with that physical place. Norberg-Schultz believes architecture should offer an ‘existential foothold’ for it’s inhabitants; stating “man dwells when he can orientate himself within and identify himself with an environment, or, in short, when he experiences the environment as meaningful’ (Norberg-Schultz 1980). In order to achieve this, architecture must address many facets of place: the physical manifestationof place/ environmental character and the specific habits, beliefs and values of people inhabiting the place. This architecture of place has the potential to situate us in a meaningful way – shaping our connections to buildings, places and other people.

One of the ways to interrogate, and better understand our being in the world is through the study of ritual. Studying ritual allows us to delve into the existential roots and the structures of our being-in-the-worldthat are cultivated through the re-enactment of rituals that help orientate us through our everyday embodied practices of interaction.

The term ritual is similarly considered in an expanded sense. UNESCO (Intangible Cultural Heritage) identifies rituals as key ‘habitual activities that structure the lives of communities and groups,’ and which ‘remind a community of its worldview and history.’ The study of ritual can be seen as a tool for understanding cultures, and as a malleable “tool” by which all ‘people make and remake their worlds’ (Bell 1992). Useful here is identification of rituals as practices that cultivate who we are (Parkes 1995), and as reaffirming the meaningfulness of life by reaffirming one’s understanding of life (Plutschow 1999). With such importance and value placed upon rituals of everyday life, how can we ensure architecture that frames our existence is suitable for these rituals?

The built environment informs how we inhabit a space, (consciously and subconsciously) how we create meaning associated through experiences and the relationships we form around them – whether that be with other people, the architecture itself, or the place it is situated. These relationships between how we interact with our environment (whether built or natural) is highly complex – how one experiences a building is related to one’s own way of viewing, and thinking about the world. Peter Blundell Jones, in his book Architecture and Ritual, expands upon this multivalent relationship between architecture and our experience of it,

“once such ‘meshing’ between spaces and rituals of use is achieved, buildings and activities tend to reinforce each other … [providing] prompts for action and frameworks to define relationships with fellow human beings in forming societies or communities. This is why variations of buildings and social practices expose differences in understanding and in conceptions of the world (Blundell Jones, 2016, p.3).”

Similarly, anthropologist Tim Ingold states, ‘it is through being inhabited that the world becomes a meaningful environment’ (Ingold, 2000, p.173). To better understand how we inhabit the world, and why we inhabit it in different ways can be revealed through the study of everyday rituals – insights into our individual ways of being-in-the-world. Rituals can be seen as ‘a complex orchestration of embodied meanings’ (Kawano, 2013, p.52) that can be interrogated in order to reveal how meaningful connections to architecture are potentially forged.

Reflecting upon the world in such a personal way makes the places we inhabit feel all the more intimate and abstract – especially difficult to communicate to others. Tuan suggests people ‘suppress that which they cannot express’; and that ‘if an experience resists ready communication, a common response […] is to deem it private – even idiosyncratic – and hence unimportant (Tuan, 1977).  Truly understanding ourselves and what we value about a place is not always easy – and adding to that complexity is that fact that places are rarely inhabited by a single person. Quite the opposite, typically, architecture is for many people with varying habits, beliefs and values.

Blundell-Jones states ‘buildings provide a mirror that reflects our world, our knowledge about it, and the way we interact with it’ (Blundell-Jones, 2016, p.3.). With this rich conception of what architecture is or can be, one can read into or create buildings that are a result of the rituals of it’s inhabitants. To practice this broad, ritual informed architecture takes time; unpicking the significance of places we chose to inhabit and subsequently internalize – becoming part of our identity – whether individual or collective. In this sense, one’s relationship with architecture and landscape is reciprocal, we define the places we inhabit and simultaneously they define us (Lovell, 2003).

This way of considering and practicing architecture has no style or time, it is not dictated by politics or science – but ‘is existentially rooted in our everyday world’ (Norberg-Schultz, 1979). Our connections to places giving us identity, when we understand our places and relations to them, we can move forward more knowingly, orientated in our roots; strong foundations reminding us who we are.


[1]EBS is a cross-disciplinary research area integrating the fields of architecture, town-planning, and urban design with socio-cultural and behavioural sciences.

{Zinia Kar, 2017 #82}{Zinia Kar, 2017 #82}{Zinia Kar, 2017 #82}{Zinia Kar, 2017 #82}Zinia Kar, A. & Sarkar, A. (2017) Exploring the role of Environment-Behavior Studies (EBS) in Residential Architecture-From Literature Review to Field Study.

[2]Humanistic Geography is founded on Tuanian notions of place, inspired by philosophies of phenomenology, focusing on the relationship between people and the world through the realm of experience.

Tuan, Y.-f. (1977) Space and place : the perspective of experience.London: London : Edward Arnold.

[3]This definition of landscape aligns itself with New Cultural Geographies term ‘cultural landscape’ – a landscape modified by human cultures – continually in a state or process of change and adaptation to human needs.


Figure References

Fig.1 & 2. The International Style, Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. Photo Paul Kozlowski http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysName=redirect64&sysLanguage=en-en&IrisObjectId=7380&sysParentId=64

Figure 3. Construction of the Burj Al Babas luxury housing development has stopped. Photo courtesy of Getty

https://www.dezeen.com/2019/01/18/drone-abandoned-turkish-chateau-burj-al-babas/

Figure 4. Shopping Mall Interior

https://www.curbed.com/2017/1/5/14169760/china-construction-shopping-malls

Bibliography       

Allen, S. (2001) ‘Mat Urbanism: The Thick 2-D’ in CASE: Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital, ed. Hashim Sarkis (Munich: Prestel)

Bell, C. (1992) Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Birkeland, I. (2008) ‘Cultural Sustainability: Industrialism, Placelessness and the Re-animation of Place’. Ethics, Place & Environment, 11 (3), pp. 283-297.

Blundell Jones, P. (2016) Architecture and ritual : how buildings shape society.

Brace, C. & Johns-Putra, A. (2010) Process: Landscape and Text. Brill.

Brown, B (2007) Learning through Ritual: An Exploration of the Tea Ceremony Provides Insight into Japanese Sensibilities of Design in CEBE Transactions, Vol. 4, Issue 1, April 2007, pp 55-75 (21) ISSN: 1745-0322 [Online]http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.487.1093&rep=rep1&type=pdf(accessed 18 March, 2019).

Brown, R. & Yates, D. M. (2001) ‘Between Myth and Reality: The Architect’s Self-Image’. 19th EAAE Conference. Ankara, Turkey.

Glassie, H. (2000) Vernacular Architecture. Indiana University Press.

Ingold, T. (2000) The perception of the environment : essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill.

Kawano, S. (2013) ‘Ritual practice in modern Japan: Ordering place, people, and action’. Philosophy East and West, 63 (2),

Kidner D. (2001) Nature and psyche: radical environmentalism and the politics of subjectivity (New York: State University of New York Press).

Lovell, N. (2003) Locality and Belonging. Taylor & Francis.

National Research Council 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10262

Norberg-Schultz, C. (1979) Genius Loci, Towards a phenomenology of architecture

Parkes, G. (1995) Ways of Japanese Thinking. in N. Hume (Ed.) Japanese Aesthetics and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp 77 – 108.

Pawley, Martin. (1990). Theory and Design in the Second Machine Age. Oxford, , UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Plutschow, H. (1999) An Anthropological Perspective on the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Anthropoetics 5 (1) (Spring/Summer) [Online]

http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0501/tea.htm (accessed 18 March, 2019).

Relph, E. (2008) Place and Placelessness. Pion.

Relph, E. C. (1976) Place and placelessness. Pion Limited.

Tuan, Y.-f. (1977) Space and place : the perspective of experience. London: London : Edward Arnold.

Waldheim, C. (2016) Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory. Princeton University Press.

Zinia Kar, A. & Sarkar, A. (2017) Exploring the role of Environment-Behavior Studies (EBS) in Residential Architecture-From Literature Review to Field Study.


About the Author

Zoe Latham is a fully funded Doctoral Researcher and Associate Lecturer in the Architecture Department at the University of Plymouth. She recently completed a Master of Architecture from the University of Plymouth. The main focus of her study during this time was cultural landscape, ritual and place-attachment. She is currently an MPhil/ PhD candidate continuing research in these areas at the University of Plymouth.
Zoe has experience working in Shenzhen, China and New York, USA. During this time my projects ranged from large-scale landscape design and high-end interior to historic preservation and adaptive reuse.
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Zoe Latham


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Rational Spirituality and How I Got Here by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

CIMG1782 (Enhanced)

Photograph by A.E. Somerville-Wong: Coast line of St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly

Beginnings

We discussed everything at home, almost everything: philosophy, literature, religion and politics, no holds barred. We were free to develop our own views, however irreverent. I am thankful for that especially, since I was born irreverent. The question of God was the one that kept coming back. Why did so many of my school friends and their families believe in something they couldn’t see, hear, touch, smell or taste? Since I couldn’t write them off as insane, nor could I write off their God. However, during the disillusionment that comes with being a pre-teen, when one realises that adults are wrong about a whole lot of things, I finally did write him off. After all, those fairies who lived among the stems of bamboo at the bottom of our garden didn’t actually exist. There was no evidence for them. Why make an exception for God? Wasn’t he too, a work of the imagination? And why were people so desperate to conjure him up anyway? He seemed pretty troublesome to me. I didn’t like the term ‘atheist’ though. After all, I wasn’t an ‘afairiest’ was I? I didn’t want to be defined by something I wasn’t. I wanted to be defined by the things I was.

Faith and Disillusionment

Being self-reliant, however, was not wholly satisfactory either. Without a god, how do we cope when our own minds and bodies let us down? After a period of prolonged stress in my mid-teens, brought about by the dysfunctional nature of family relationships, I somehow became frightened of myself, of my own mind. It started playing tricks on me, making me feel afraid when there was nothing to fear. I no longer felt alive. No one I knew understood anxiety disorders in the 1990s. They could have told me my symptoms were of stress and not of madness (the first step towards recovery), but they didn’t, so I suffered. My symptoms fed from my fear of them like ravenous beasts. It felt as if I had been thrown into a cosmic battle with an encroaching darkness against which I had no real defence. I headed up to university feeling like someone else, not myself at all, and with no idea of how I was going to cope.

Staring through the window of my room in halls one morning, at the very edge of despair, the sun came out, and I was enveloped in what I can only describe as deep, unconditional, all-pervasive love, of a kind I had never known before. It gave me a hope and a future. It was a shield that would keep the darkness at bay, far more powerful than anything I possessed, or so I thought. I could find no explanation for this love. It did not seem human. Thus, I became convinced it was a supernatural presence, a divine one. I had further moments like these, of overwhelming love, of profound peace and of pure elation, which at the time, I perceived as coming from outside myself. These experiences became more frequent, and they began to break through the clouds of my anxiety, forcing the darkness into retreat.

For the first time in my life, I was open to religious belief. I came across the New Testament in my student halls and devoured it. Around that time, I discovered a rarity, a religious young person, older than me by only two years – an exchange student from Germany. Our conversations contrasted with the anti-intellectualism of wider British society and our friendship seemed far more meaningful than the superficial, alcohol-fuelled relationships of convenience that were prevalent among students. Ours was an alternative path of moral seriousness, intellectual inquiry and warm companionship. Unlike the rest of the world it seemed, we could enjoy an emotional and intellectual intimacy, without judgment, and without any chemical assistance. This was where I belonged, and it felt ‘holy’. Surprisingly, I picked up a few others of a similar sort in various places, and before long there was a rather motley crew of us, living an alternative lifestyle to the typical university student.

It wasn’t long before I believed Jesus was the divine presence that had apprehended me the day the sun came out. Eventually, somewhat to my own surprise, I found myself a devout Christian, albeit with a certain sense of having run ahead of myself, a sense I began to repress. I followed the other religiously inclined youth into the Evangelical Churches, and into what I hoped would be the heavenly body of Christ on earth. These churches resonated with the joy of communal singing, and their adherents were enthused by what seemed to be a genuine pursuit of truth.

My devotion to the ‘divinity’ to which I believed I owed my life, was so strong, that I suppressed my inner discomfort with some of the things being taught at those churches  – creationism, young earth theory, biblical literalism, female submission, male headship, the condemnation of homosexual lifestyles and so forth. Also, these things were often taught stealthily, so as not to frighten away any potential new converts, and events were deviously advertised in ways that hid their proselytising agenda! I openly disagreed with those things when the opportunity arose – and I aroused considerable suspicion and criticism for doing so – but to some degree I also ignored them, hanging out as I did, with internationals and intellectual types on the periphery of these congregations. When bigotry became impossible to ignore at one church, I moved to a church with a more diverse congregation (and consequently, less uniformity of belief), and then, when that proved too conservative, I moved to a church which was described as liberal evangelical, where there was still a good number of young people but where women were permitted to preach and a larger proportion of the congregation rejected six day creationism.

In truth, it hardly mattered where I went to church. My own spiritual life was centred elsewhere, in an ecumenical ‘faith group’ established by my German friend, where I would lose myself in song, in Taize chanting, in the strumming of guitars and ukuleles, and in the words of a Japanese friend who spoke in parables. Perhaps most of all, I would lose myself in an unprecedented freedom of creative expression, and in the joy of being appreciated for who I really was. It was only when my friends returned to their respective homelands, bringing an end to the faith group, that I became more involved in the core activities and communities of the churches, and began to feel deeply disturbed by what I saw. There had been glimpses of heavenly community among the eclectic ecumenists but there was certainly no heaven on earth in the churches.

Christians and their churches were, in spite of their claims to the contrary, just like every other group of humans and their institutions, and often a good deal worse. Indeed, they proved just as capable of cruelty as their heathen cousins, in spite of all their talk of love and forgiveness. All the pretence and hypocrisy they indulged in made them grotesque, and a feeling that I needed to escape grew increasingly urgent. The deeper a person’s involvement with these churches, the more they became like the religious authorities whom Jesus had spent his life rebelling against, and the further they strayed from the path he had chosen. Suddenly, the excessive drinking, promiscuity and other issues of wider society, which these churches so roundly condemned, seemed remarkably innocent in comparison to their moral vanity, bigotry and false spirituality. I watched my remaining friends become more established there, their hearts hardening by the day, while others lost their faith altogether and literally disappeared from my life with barely a ‘goodbye’.

Towards Naturalism

I felt able by then to question my faith more thoroughly, to go back in time to where I had gotten ahead of myself and reassess my decisions. I sought the truth about religion in general, the truth I had been studiously avoiding. I explored the history of the world’s religions and engaged in the historical criticism of their texts. I discovered the parallels between the stories and dogmas of different faiths, and the parallels between the varied expressions of these faiths – from the dogmatic, traditional and ritualistic to the mystical and charismatic. I explored the ways in which theology and religious practice had evolved to meet human psychological and social needs. Different types of religiosity and belief appealed to different personalities. Those more dogmatic, controlling, dominant and ruthless types who had established the traditional faiths, and whose personalities often stood in stark contrast to those of the founders and early enthusiasts, had exploited human psychological weaknesses to create complex power structures.

The elements of faith – the approved teaching, the scriptures, the dogmas, the rituals and the leadership structures – were all designed to control people, just as much as they were designed to provide people with a spiritual path. They had always been used by the few to control the many, and by the men of a society, to control the women. I had known this once. I had perceived it, even as a child. I remember as a seven-year-old, observing the obsequiousness of a nun before a priest, and instantly despising both cloth-bound creatures for their revolting display of pride (in his case), folly (in hers) and the underlying sexual motivations of which they were both in denial.  However, we humans can learn to ignore and even disbelieve the things that we would prefer weren’t true, and for a time in my own context, even if to a lesser extent, I had also been guilty of that. Likewise, we humans can believe just about anything if we desire it to be true. The gods themselves have been created in the image of those who have imagined and invented them because that is exactly what so many of us wish for – an external, ultimate and eternal validation of who we are. Some, however, want a good deal more, seeking external and divine legitimacy for their dominion over others, hence the divine right of kings, the papacy, and the king-maker priests.

By my mid-twenties, I had become a Progressive Christian but I had done so on my own, through my own doctoral research and personal studies. I was rather taken aback later to find there were others, including celebrated authors such as Borg, Armstrong and Spong and a movement called Progressive Christianity. I was a panentheist then, believing God to be in the world but also greater than the world, and therefore, in some sense beyond it. God was the good within and beyond. This meant that I could appreciate divinity in nature (including people) when I perceived it but that equally, when nature (including human nature) revealed itself as corrupt, or even rotten to the core, I could turn to the God beyond it, and stand in solidarity with that God against the evils of the world. I still believed there was something ‘out there’ that was divine in the supernatural sense, something essentially mysterious and indefinable, and therefore, something which could not be reduced to the traditional conception of God as a person, creator and lawgiver – the conception which had always inspired dogmatism, tribalism and bigotry. Mine, however, was not a ‘God of the gaps’, who grew smaller and smaller the more we learnt about the universe – a God defined by what it is not. Rather, mine was a God who grew larger the more we learnt because this was a God who contained but was also greater than the universe.

I continued my pilgrimage from church to church in search of something as progressive as I was. I wrote my book of progressive liturgies and led special services using those liturgies at local liberal churches. I joined a preaching rota at one local church and taught a progressive Christianity there until I became too radical for them and was consequently edged out. I even went through the Church of Scotland ‘enquiry’ process to become an ordained minister but was turfed out of that once they realised they could not mould me into a more traditional minister. Yes, they welcomed me as a progressive at first, claiming to be a broad church, and then later admitted that they had no intention of ordaining a minister as progressive as I was! They had hoped they could change me, rather than allow me to change the church! It was around this time that I read my first book  on Progressive Christianity, ‘The Heart of Christianity’, by Marcus Borg, and I also attended his conference in Edinburgh. His book and lectures reflected much of my own thinking, and gave me a great and comforting sense that I was part of a wider awakening. However, there was still something troubling me.

The problem was, that apart from not finding a sympathetic church community, there just did not seem to be any evidence for anything beyond the natural world. The God of panentheism, therefore, began to seem somewhat surplus to requirements, and even fanciful. Another problem was that the Progressive Christianity movement, which I was still discovering at that time, though vibrant, seemed largely to be a home for those recovering from the delusions and abuses of conservative religion. It was a valuable and necessary home but I still didn’t feel defined by what I wasn’t, and I still felt like I didn’t belong. After-all, I had not grown up in a Christian home, so in spite of the six or so years I spent as a devout Christian, my identity felt very different to the Progressive Christians I met who were unpicking a whole lifetime of indoctrination. I began to identify more as a humanist and secularist, though I still appreciated the Christian cultural inheritance I had gained, for some of its valuable insights and practices. And, having long admired elements of Secular Buddhism, as practiced by close relatives and family friends over many years, I identified with that heritage as well. Eventually, my journey around the churches led me to a Quaker Meeting, where the unassuming stillness and quiet offered considerable solace.

I tend not to speak of ‘God’ now, unless I am in the company of those who know I mean it in the literary sense, as a metaphor or personification of things that are in fact natural. However, while I do not believe in the God of any traditional religion, I do believe that we have profound emotional and psychological experiences of things like awe and wonder, love, self-transcendence and transformation, which we, being the social animals that we are, naturally personify, using words like God, YHWH or Allah, and which we experience as ‘divine’ in the sense of their ‘otherness’. These ‘spiritual’ moments seem a world away from our normal experience of reality but they are not supernatural, they are psychological and imaginative, and as such, they may still be true and meaningful to us at the subjective level.

We humans turn to words like ‘divine’ and ‘God’ as superlatives, when our ordinary words just don’t seem to do justice to the things we find awe-inspiring. We use our imaginations and our language to crown such things with greater meaning and importance when we communicate them, to show others that they are of great value, even if they are only really of great value to us, and even though they are, in truth, entirely natural things. One might survive a violent incident or illness against the odds, for example, and feel the only word that does justice to how much it means to us is the word ‘miraculous’. To others, however, and even to one’s own objective self, such events, though of immense human interest, are simply rare or unusual, like so many other events that take place in the world. Many things are, after-all, statistically unlikely but by no means impossible, and are therefore to be expected from time to time.

Eventually, I distanced myself from supernatural theism of any kind but I nonetheless embraced the fact that, at least for the time being, we humans, in spite of our rational capabilities, are largely driven by our irrational impulses. I acknowledge, with respect, the temptation for human beings (including myself) to invent beings and worlds of the imagination in order to ease our pain or enhance our joy. Even those of us who are committed to a rational approach to knowledge do this when we immerse ourselves in books and films of fiction and fantasy, when we talk to someone we love who has died, when we cry out to the God we don’t believe in because we are in crisis, or when we express gratitude to the universe for something that has worked out wonderfully in our favour. In those brief moments, alternative realities; gods, ghosts, a conscious universe – all these things are real to us, and sometimes more meaningful to us than anything else, even though they are not real in the literal sense.

Rational Spirituality

With or without God, we still need companionship and intimacy with other persons. We still need shared values and a purpose, and we still need words, symbols, places, buildings and rituals as reminders of these. We still need the free and creative expression that leads to self-actualisation. We still need love, forgiveness and hope. And for many of us, we still crave the experience of rapturous communal singing! I still don’t like the word atheist. I still define myself by what I am rather than what I am not.

I am confident that humanity can meet its psychological and social needs with a rational conception of spirituality, without the need for traditional faith. After all, a genuine spirituality is a rational one. It does not try to deny or escape from reality. Instead, it meets a messy reality head on, with compassion and positive action – demonstrating orthopraxy (right action), rather than imposing orthodoxy (right belief). Genuine spirituality does not set some people apart from others. Rather, it acknowledges our common humanity, its weaknesses and strengths, and brings us closer together. It embraces reason and pursues the truth, whether the truth is what we want it to be or not. It acts from kindness and refrains from doing harm, even when doing so runs counter to our feelings and impulses.

Genuine spirituality is the experience of wonder, of creativity, of love and self-transcendence, of connection to other living beings. It includes the cultivation of empathy and compassion for others through reflective exercises such as meditation and contemplation. Genuine spirituality demands honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, values running counter to the religious power structures that have been dominant for so long. It is a process of rediscovering and having a renewed appreciation of our place in nature, an emphasis which contrasts with the efforts of traditional religion to set humanity apart from its natural origins and even to set us apart from the needs and pleasures of our own physical bodies.

And what about the problem of self-sufficiency? Well, I can still seek that which is outside myself to rely upon when my mind or body let me down – the good in others, modern therapies and the natural healing capacity of the body and brain. It was the modern medical understanding of my anxiety condition, after all, which saved me in the end, after a second bout of the condition, which actually came about because of the stress and inner conflict my faith and my involvement in the churches had caused me.

Awe and wonder are often the source of belief in a supernatural God but they need not be. We can worship instead in the sense of honouring (the original Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word) that which is good in reality, in nature, including in our human nature – though I do not recommend using the term ‘worship’ in general since it is far too widely associated with obeisance to a dictator of either the human or divine kind. This ‘honouring’ is not something strange and new-agey but something we actually do already when we celebrate one another at births, birthdays, milestones, marriages and funerals, when as a community or society we celebrate people who excel in their work and do a great deal of good for others, and when we celebrate the seasons and wonders of the natural world. We can, however, learn to do these things a whole lot better, with a whole lot more creativity, meaning, imagination and depth. Another look at what we count as success, and at who we choose to reward with our civil honours lists wouldn’t go amiss!

We can write secular liturgies and choreograph secular liturgical events, not only those that are morally or intellectually instructive but those which facilitate and create spaces for reflection and socialisation. We can create rituals that instil common secular values and goals, healthy habits, practical wisdom and critical thinking. We can create sustainable ‘sacred’ (special) spaces for liturgical events, events such as reflective ‘services’, which include readings, art-forms, meditations, rituals and so forth, and social events, such as community feasts.

A story, a poem, a dance, the process of painting a picture, a journey, a piece of music, a period of silence, and even the shipping forecast- these may all be described as liturgy. We can also explore the possibility of integrating liturgy, and what I call ‘liturgical moments’, into everyday life. Liturgies often define the values, goals and cultural identity of groups, from the tattoos and graffiti of youth subcultures, to the word-art one finds in the homes and workplaces of the aspirational classes. They are, therefore, even more than the writings and other liturgical expressions, which are read or take place at secular private or public gatherings. Secular liturgies explore, define, celebrate and convey the secular values of compassion, truth, freedom, equality, courage, tolerance and responsibility. They also seek to capture and communicate, in creative ways, the latest information and research that can help us to advance well-being and alleviate suffering. They have the potential to make secular cultures more resilient in difficult times, and inspire us to meet our global challenges.

The phrase ‘rational spirituality’ seems aptly to capture both a rational approach to knowledge and the general gist of what most people mean when they talk about spirituality – sincerity, love, empathy, compassion, respect, oneness, creativity, wisdom and reflective practices like meditation, contemplation, ritual and so on. It is this kind of spirituality to which I aspire at the end of a long, and at times painful, journey. It is the kind of spirituality I sought as a child. It is the kind of spirituality I try to nurture in my own children.

‘Is God a real or a nonsense thing?’ asks my son (aged five). ‘What would you like it to be?’ I reply. ‘Hmm, love, I think.’ he says. ‘Good choice’, I say, ‘then that is what ‘God’ is.’ After all, the literary sense, makes the most sense of all. He can believe in love and call it what he likes. He can also talk to it if he pleases. After all, children at his age talk to a lot of imaginary beings, which they don’t expect to actually encounter, indicating that most of the time, they do not really believe in their existence in the literal sense. Belief itself is a strange and transient thing. It cannot be pinned down, and many of us remain in a state of half-belief about a great many things. Belief is so very undeserving of the prominence that many religions have given it. One might believe in such a thing as ‘God’ (e.g. as love personified) when immersed in that other reality, within the mind, and yet act in the physical world with no reference to any supernatural agency at all – and many do, both the religious and nonreligious alike! There is only hypocrisy in this when a person insists their God is real in the literal sense, and that others should believe in it.

When children grow into young adults, many become deeply fearful or uncomfortable with the complex and ephemeral nature of real life, and they go in search of ideological and religious certainty – a very grave mistake! Sadly, just when so many of them need a little wisdom, love and reassurance from the those with more life experience, they are met instead with an adult world touting an array of erroneous and harmful ideologies, and with people who, out of their own delusion or for their own selfish ends, are more than willing to exploit the vulnerability of the young and the suffering.

I am, therefore, sometimes hopeful and sometimes despairing of our species – of its ability to overcome its cognitive biases, of its ability to change its behaviours in time to save the planet, and of its ability to develop a rational spirituality which will provide a healthy alternative to religious and political ideologies. However, putting aside those inevitable moments of despair, our efforts must take their strength from from our hope, rather than from any kind of certainty, and this precarious state of affairs is something we must make our peace with, while we do our best to bring about a better future for ourselves and our world.

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What Makes Me Happy by Connor Hansford

 

Do what makes me happy

I come from the land of the Darkling Thrush but

My heart claps its thanks to the buffalo where

The word means more than the hot wings sauce

And some wigwams arranged in a row.

It’s not as linear as that. They should learn to understand our poetry using our terms.

Doubt and incomprehension are two different things.

My mum said, don’t listen to the voices

In your head. But you can’t control what you think,

Or if you can then write to me. Indians did.

Do.

There are more things in Heaven and Earth than you need

In your philosophy, Horatio, so sod them.

You were telling us your family history.

Don’t interrupt me, this is poetry.

What do we need all this shit for.

Live your life like you could flee in a moment,

Eh, H. D. Thoreau.

H.D. the poet had the right idea too but don’t make it new necessarily

Just turn the whole upside down and bully it till the cash

                                                                                                           Falls

                                            Out.

That’s my kind of cash flow.

A self-sufficient lifestyle reminds me of when the

White man went to my home town and

Smashed babies’ heads against rocks and

Burned the Peach Trees down because they didn’t understand

Why these red people (really?) worshipped the sun, the sea and the sky and the flowers and trees and the shrubs and the dirt and the grubs and the sand, the wind, other little things, every little thing –

And not Jesus who has become a metaphor for

How good white people are even though he was probably

NOT WHITE.

And did those feet in ancient times

Walk upon England’s mountain’s green. Bizarre construction.

Anyway, maybe. But don’t worship the land He walked on (allegedly).

There you go again with your cult of personality. I believe he existed but that

England’s green mountains were anyway holy. And Canada’s.

Pacifism, sustainability, truthfulness, simplicity. Repeat.

Have you made a lot of money out of your music [Mr Marley]?

[…] my riches is life forever.

Easy for you to say, you say. Easy to live too but you don’t for

Some reasons. You’re so plugged in but you don’t hear anything so that

If the world stops respirating

Who will notice?

#beforeitstoolate.

Social media is powered using fossil fuels so

Don’t tell you’re helping help.

And while you’re at it help yourself.

“You can learn a lot from the internet”.

But you don’t, do you? You idly scroll as time

Unfurls, not realising

Life is finite.

You want to die, you say jokily.

But you don’t really. You all subscribe – unconsciously –

To Nietzsche’s God is Dead theory but

If that’s true and there’s

No afterlife

No god

No Jesus

You will have spent your brief eternity looking at memes, Jess’s holiday to Mykonos, Ellie’s weight loss…you don’t care?

THEN TURN IT OFF.

Breeathe.

And learn the names of birds.

The reason why the seagull screams is because I can’t hear him over the sound of trains.

 

Connor Hansford

Connor Hansford is a stage-three English with Publishing student at the University of Plymouth who aspires to become a professional book editor like his hero Maxwell Perkins. Additionally, Connor hopes to one day start a small press in his home town of Dorchester where he also hopes to work on his golf swing and angling skills. Connor runs the University of Plymouth Journal INK and a WordPress blog which he updates sporadically called Memoirs of a Snowflake. Connor is a Quaker who is descended from a long line of Cree Indians.


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On ‘God’, the SLN/F and its USPs by Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong

cheroke new moon blessing

Increasingly often, it is semantics alone, which separates atheists and humanists from those within the progressive streams of the world faiths. Many atheists would consider the word ‘God’ to be so tarnished with supernatural theism that it should no longer be used at all, especially not in public speech or liturgy of any kind. They have good reason for concern, when one considers that millions of people worldwide still believe in a supreme supernatural being, cast predictably in the image of their religious and political authorities; male, impatient, self-righteous, bigoted, vengeful and cruel. This supernatural being is an all-powerful, all-knowing, creator of the universe, who dwells in ‘heaven’ and interferes on earth at a whim, when he feels like saving those he deems righteous or punishing those who go against his will. With more of the world steeped in this superstition than not, why on earth would we want to use religious words whose weight in history is against them? The traditional ‘Gods’ have hardly epitomised kindness, open-mindedness and fairness in the past, so we have no reason to suppose they will do so in the future.

Meanwhile, progressives of many faiths would say that for them, the word ‘God’ still has usefulness in its literary sense, as a personification or metaphor of all that is good in the world and in us humans, just as a word like ‘salvation’ might be understood to mean liberation or healing. They may say that ‘God’ is love, truth, goodness, beauty and hope. Progressive religious groups tend to stress divine immanence over divine transcendence, which means they largely (or completely) reject supernatural theism and focus instead on seeing the ‘God’ or ‘good’ in people and nature. They might argue that an immanent conception of ‘divinity’, helps us to be more attentive to our inner conscience, to the good that is within ourselves, and within others. Some progressives go as far as asserting that ‘all is God’ (pantheism), while most simply view ‘God’ as in some way manifest in and through nature. What happens, though, when nature is destructive and full of cruelty, as it so often is, and when human nature, in particular, is rotten to the core?

One could argue then that a transcendent notion of ‘divinity’, as the good that is beyond or better than us, can help us to be more attentive to higher moral standards, standards which we should aspire to, even though we will never fully attain them, standards which can therefore help to guard against human pride and self-righteousness. In the history of theology and philosophy, people have swung back and forth between the two emphases on divine transcendence and immanence (or on the ‘good’ within and beyond us) depending upon the socio-political context. While in peaceful times, they have often focused on the ‘good’, or ‘god’, or ‘light’ within (immanence), during conflict and times of cruelty and tragedy, the focus moves to the transcendent ‘God’, ‘good’, or unattainable ‘light’, ‘holiness’ or ‘perfection’, because people view humanity as fatally flawed and see that the only way to have hope is to believe in something much greater, infinitely better, and set apart from us – something that can save us from ourselves.

We see this swing in emphasis from immanence to transcendence in post-war theology and in the works of those writing in the wake of the Nazi atrocities. Human nature has repeatedly shown itself to be deeply vulnerable to cognitive biases, manifest often in self-righteousness, and sometimes in narcissism and megalomania. It has shown itself to be cowardly, easily deceived, and apt not only to follow dictators and despots but to deify and worship them. One might ask how ‘God’ can be seen as a light within humanity, when that light has proved so easy to extinguish? Theologians have thus presented their transcendent ‘God’ as an infinitely better choice of ‘leader’ than the immanent ‘God’ or the archetypal human despot but since this transcendent ‘God’ is in reality, nothing more than a work of the human imagination, its character too is entirely dependent on the goodness (or not) of its human inventors and advocates.

Some progressives might say that the word ‘God’ is a convenient and more profound way to refer to that which is mysterious, awe-inspiring and beyond the comprehension of finite minds. However, this is of course the ‘god of the gaps’, who grows smaller and smaller the more we learn about the universe, and who is consequently, for most of us, surplus to requirements. Some progressives view ‘God’ as greater than the universe, and consider the universe as contained within God (panentheism), in order to maintain both the immanent and transcendent perspectives, but of course, there is no evidence for anything supernatural and beyond nature. While some people have made their peace with an entirely naturalistic world view, others still cling to the idea or hope that there is something or someone ‘out there’. However, belief is a strange and often transient thing, and many of these people, while they claim such belief when questioned, behave for all intents and purposes as if they do not believe it at all.

There is consequently much debate within progressive communities about conceptions of divinity but most do agree on the importance of experiencing or encountering ‘God’ or ‘divinity’ in nature, in other people, and in themselves. Some also argue that there are character-building and other psychological and well-being benefits to be gained from speaking, or ‘praying’ to God, as if God were a ‘person’ who embodies our most treasured values. After all, prayer may have real positive effects on our own psychology, and perhaps as a consequence, on the way we treat others. One could argue that prayer is a healthy and productive use of the human imagination, in which we create a transient reality of our own in order to cope with, release and relieve moments of intense emotion. Those with backgrounds in the mystical traditions may find it easy to indulge in their imaginings, dreams and altered states of consciousness, without losing track of their rational selves, while others will consider this a dangerous activity and an irresponsible example to set for others. The latter may find it impossible to ‘pray’, without feeling foolish, or as if they have been disloyal to their rational selves.

Of course, I have my own personal preferences when it comes to the use of words like ‘God’. I tend not to use them unless I am in the company of progressives, or nonreligious friends and relatives, who know I mean it in the literary sense. Indeed, I tend to think that we humans, because we are  emotional beings, turn to words like ‘divine’ and ‘God’ as superlatives, when our ordinary words just don’t do justice to the things we find awe-inspiring. We use our imaginations and our language to crown such things with greater importance and meaning when we communicate them, to show that they are of great value (to us), even though they are entirely natural things. However, I am sympathetic to people from both atheistic and progressive backgrounds and perspectives, since there are large numbers on both sides who have far more in common than not. There is much overlap, for example, with many progressives having a humanist outlook and many humanists having a Christian/Jewish etc. cultural flavour or cultural identity. Most importantly, the vast majority of both humanists and progressives would also support the secular ethics of the SLN/F, expressed in its ‘Nine Themes’:

  1. Critical Thinking – truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
  2. Good Life – character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
  3. Good Society – social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
  4. Sustainability – our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism
  5. Health and Well-being – reflection, meditation, mindfulness
  6. Big Culture – cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
  7. Community – companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
  8. Life-Cycles – birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
  9. Seasons – annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar

As it stands, atheists and religious progressives do often have very different personal experiences or associations with certain words, and the appropriateness of use of these words, will therefore depend very much on the context of a particular event. At an inter-faith or multi-faith event, for example, use of words from a faith tradition, reimagined and stripped of superstition, may still have meaning and positive impact for those present. Indeed, the creation (or rediscovery) of positive meanings for well used words and phrases can be a source of healing and joy for those emerging from traditions where the terms were used in a negative sense, either because that was the original meaning or (as has often been the case) because the original meanings had been obscured and the words misused ever since.

The word ‘worship’, for example, for most people, means bowing down in reverence and submission to a divine authority. However, some progressives have reinstated its original Anglo-Saxon meaning, which simply means giving something great worth, or ‘honouring’, and may be applied to natural rather than supernatural things. Thus, in certain circumstances, where, for example, a liturgical event is held in a progressive faith/inter-faith setting, it may be possible to speak of ‘worship’ in the sense of honouring our shared values, and of ‘divinity’ or ‘God’, as a metaphor for certain things we experience, such as love, kindness, beauty and hope. In contrast, such words will have quite the opposite effect at an event for atheists and humanists, where people will be immediately alienated. There is a great deal of debate even among progressives about which ‘faith’ words (if any) can be resurrected, and which are beyond salvaging.

The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum welcomes people with a wide range of views who support our aims and objectives. Some use terms like ‘God’ in the literary sense, just as many nonreligious people speak of the ‘soul’ in the literary sense (as a metaphor for natural things, such as our core sense of identity or self), while others are uncomfortable with the use of that language altogether. Therefore, I advise my fellow writers of liturgy to consider the context of words that have religious connotations very carefully, making sure such words are qualified and explained as far as possible within the liturgy (or within the broader liturgical framework), to avoid unnecessary ambiguity and misunderstanding. People can then decide for themselves what kind of language they are comfortable with using when planning a particular event and can modify the text where necessary.

While our focus is on liturgy and liturgical events, which are free from religious dogma and superstition, we nonetheless want to preserve the sense of awe that attracts people to religious services. While awe is often the driving force behind belief in the supernatural, especially in the divine, or ‘God’, there is actually no need to describe the experience of wonder and self-transcendence in a way that implies there is a supernatural deity. We may speak about (and experience) these emotions and psychological states as entirely natural. Some people, such as religious naturalists, even go as far as speaking of ‘religion’ in naturalistic terms, demonstrating that even the word ‘religion’ may be redeemed from its popular meaning.

I should mention here that there are a few members of the SLN/F who are very sympathetic to our work, while still believing in something divine (in the supernatural sense) but who believe that this divinity is essentially mysterious and indefinable, and therefore, that it cannot be reduced to a traditional concept of God, which inspires legalism, dogmatism, tribalism and bigotry. I have no desire to ‘make windows into other people’s souls’, or to pressure people to conform to some kind of secular dogma. We are in the business of discussion (hence the Forum) and greater cooperation among those who have similar aims and objectives (hence the Network). Indeed, the SLN/F has a profoundly positive outlook and agenda in which we are focussing on the things we have in common, such as the ‘Nine Themes’, rather than our differences.

I should also make clear that while we do recognise and acknowledge the errors of the traditional faiths, and while we do acknowledge the pain that some people may be suffering after enduring religious abuse, we look to expend our energies bringing about a better future, rather than in being reactionary or hostile towards any religious individuals or groups. We seek an approach which is both big-hearted and intellectually rigorous. We aim to be respectful towards individuals who do not share our views, while nonetheless being courageous in ‘speaking truth to power’.

Unlike an organisation for humanists such as Humanists UK, or a liberal institution for those with a shared faith history like the Unitarian Church or British Quakers, or a progressive organisation for those emerging from a particular faith/cultural tradition like PCN Britain, the SLN is a catch-all, pioneer movement. As it says on the tin, it is a creative Network and Forum, a Think-tank of sorts, with online discussions, Forum meetings, publications, and innovative and experimental liturgy and liturgical events. Our work complements the work of the existing humanist, secularist and progressive organisations. Indeed, we often work in collaboration with these and other organisations on various projects and events.

Millions of people, including me, who grew up or are growing up in nonreligious homes, have little or no connection or shared background, however, with the existing progressive institutions and organisations. We do not, and realistically will never, fully identify with their history, practices and philosophy. One must also bear in mind that 50% of the UK population is now no longer religiously affiliated, that the stats are similar elsewhere in Europe, and that the nonreligious are fast becoming the majority. The small and declining numbers attending churches, including the liberal and progressive churches, reflects this societal change. The liberal and progressive organisations also tend to be dominated by retired people and their offerings do not appeal to the younger generations. It is time for someone like me with a fresh (and younger) perspective, to start a new initiative, which allows more people to have their voices heard.

While many of us may still appreciate the useful insights and practices of faiths and philosophies, we are looking for something that isn’t ‘churchy’, and which isn’t narrowly associated with just one particular faith or cultural tradition. We are looking for something much more inclusive, diverse, experimental and collaborative. This is why I felt it essential that the SLN/F was born and continues to grow. This website and blog itself is here to facilitate knowledge exchange across the whole spectrum of the humanist philosophical and progressive faith streams.

The foundations I have established for the SLN/F are highly original. We are focused on developing the concept and practice of rational spirituality. My current working definition for rational spirituality, is the creative expression and development of secular ethics in writing, ritual, community, reflective practice, ‘big culture’ (see the ‘about’ section), and the choreographing of innovative secular liturgical events along the SLN/F’s ‘Nine Themes’. This work draws inspiration from multiple philosophical and religious streams of thought and practice.

Therefore, just like a business, the SLN/F has its USPs but it still has much in common with other organisations. A significant number of its members are of course members of the other humanist and progressive organisations! However, unlike a new business, I do not seek to compete with our ‘sister’ organisations but to complement them in their work.

I do hope you will join us, whether you are from a humanist, progressive or other non-traditionally religious background (or a mixture of these!), and I look forward to meeting some of you at our event in June!

SL Event Flyer