Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

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On PRMs and how their creative potential can help us to meet our global challenges

Progressive religious movements that are growing within the various faiths have amazing potential to nurture the kind of creative cultures which will help us to meet our global challenges.

People often think of religion only as a problem that divides and keeps people trapped in the past. Sadly this is all too often the reality but progressive religious/spiritual reform movements/communities show us a way forward for religion that will not only cure it of its own ills but could have a profoundly beneficial effect on the rest of civilisation as well.

What are Progressive Religious Reform Movements and how might they help us to meet our Global Challenges?

By Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong

This article explores the progressive movements that have arisen out of world faiths but which have moved beyond traditional religion towards a universal ethic. At the end I provide two lists; one of progressive networks, the other of networks which include progressives.

If you have further information on any of these or other relevant networks I would be delighted to hear from you.

What are Progressive Religious Reform Movements?

There are various definitions or articles of progressive faith and practice provided by the progressive organisations themselves. However, the following definition has been drawn from my preliminary research which has highlighted the factors which are most common and most prominent across the spectrum of networks:

Progressive Spiritual Communities are those which draw from the insights of our past and continuing spiritual, religious and philosophical traditions, while welcoming knowledge gained through science and historical criticism. The hallmarks of a Progressive Spiritual Community are its willingness and humility to learn, adapt and change its beliefs and practices as new discoveries are made, and its unwillingness to stand idly by in the face of suffering and injustice.

Below is a more comprehensive list of principles or ideals which are also shared across the majority of progressive networks, though of course groups will emphasise some more than others and this will vary between networks depending largely upon the issues they are responding to within the wider world faith community they are identified with. For example, the Quilliam Foundation and Muslim Reform Movement focus on their support for a secular state, democratic institutions and gender equality in particular, to counter trends in conservative Islam and Islamic extremism. 

Progressive Spirituality: The Common Themes

It is the ideals and activities common to all the progressive movements that have the potential to help us to meet our global challenges. Below is a fairly comprehensive list of these features which I have compiled from online research:

Please note that these are not para-phrases of principles published by the progressive networks themselves but my interpretation of numerous statements made by progressive thinkers and organisations regarding the below moral/spiritual subjects.

Progressive spiritual communities;

  1. actively strive for social justice and peace as integral to their way of life and community identity. They keenly defend human rights and principles of freedom and equality.
  2. have strong ecological concerns. They collaborate to protect and repair the earth and its non-human inhabitants and ecosystems.
  3. take religious texts seriously but not necessarily literally. They embrace historical criticism and a more interpretive and metaphorical understanding of texts.
  4. stress right actions over right belief. They consider that the way we behave toward others is the fullest expression of our real beliefs.
  5. embrace reason, as well as paradox and mystery, instead of a blind allegiance to right doctrines. They find more contentment in questioning and learning than in certainty.
  6. resist the temptation to claim that one religion is superior to others, or the only valid way to connect with God. They affirm the parent faith while sincerely respecting other faiths. They affirm the need for strong secular and democratic institutions so that all faith groups can live peaceably together with equal rights under law.
  7. emphasise the power and centrality of love, compassion and transformation in the spiritual life. They focus on bringing hope and healing to all living beings who are suffering or oppressed.
  8. are willing to question the morality, truth, accuracy and relevance of received traditions, teachings, dogmas and sacred texts. They seek to maintain both intellectual and moral integrity.
  9. encourage spiritual vitality and expressiveness, including the participation in arts-infused and lively forms of meeting/worship.
  10. encourage spiritual rituals, emphasising the importance of sacramental truth (physical events as vehicles for spiritual/psychological events/change) as well as contemplative practices such as meditation, while rejecting superstition and magical thinking.
  11. affirm human diversity and avoid the stereotyping of groups and individuals according to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion/irreligion, education, economic/class background, physical ability and mental health.
  12. nurture mindfulness of the human condition (e.g. our emotional vulnerabilities and cognitive biases) and the need to be cautious about judging others. They resist the temptations towards elitism and spiritual hierarchies.
  13. place strong emphasis on building inclusive local communities through meetings and shared activity in addition to looser networks, since these are the true testing ground for spiritual virtues and transformation.

I make a distinction between liberal and progressive since there are a significant number of organisations that describe themselves as liberal but which do not share or promote key progressive values such as the acceptance of historical criticism of their religious texts. They often share some of these above principles, however, and may also have some members or affiliates within their membership, network or event attendance, who do share these progressive values.

The Importance of a Shared Story

Progressive thinkers and organisations understand the power of story-telling for human learning, building relationships, communicating ideas, nurturing community, establishing personal and collective identities, and enriching cultural life. They realise that though they have moved a considerable distance from traditional religion, they do not want to throw away their cultural heritage; the stories and concepts within the world faiths that still have value in modern times as purveyors of wisdom and values compatible with a modern understanding of the world.

They understand the value of stories for;

  • conveying moral messages and practical wisdom with greater clarity, impact and subtlety;
  • teaching us about other cultures and peoples while reminding us of how similar we all are;
  • reminding us of universal human strengths and weaknesses;
  • providing a fertile soil for almost unlimited artistic expression;
  • breaking down barriers of distrust and suspicion, allowing us to forge relationships and collaborations out of which change can flow;
  • teaching good principles to our children, and giving them an identity and a cultural heritage.

Distinctive Features of Progressive Movements

Every progressive stream has distinguishing features, particularly in terms of the stories they use to convey moral messages related to the principles listed above, and in terms of the rituals or practices they participate in in order to outwardly express (and remind themselves and their communities) of these principles and what they demand of them. These stories come of course from the faiths they are rooted in, though they are adapted and re-imagined for contemporary listeners.

For example, within Progressive Christianity – and I choose progressive Christianity as it currently has the largest and most varied progressive movement of all the world faiths – proponents emphasise on an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus, that is, the life of the historical Jesus as far as this can be known from the available biblical and extra biblical texts, and the teachings likely to be those of the historical Jesus, with in some cases the addition of other biblical teachings traditionally attributed to him which are compatible with progressive ideals. Progressive Christians may vary in which teachings they concentrate on but most recognises that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and the renunciation of privilege.

We also see an emphasis on salvation in progressive Christianity; salvation in the here and now rather than heaven and hell later. By salvation is usually meant being healed in the broadest sense of healed bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, societies and so forth or being rescued from injustice, danger, poverty and violence. The social and corporate aspects of salvation are stressed as much as the personal, so that it is recognised that entities like nations, companies, corporations, cultural norms and institutions are responsible for the good and ill of people within a society and that things such as poverty and social pressure can determine the behaviours of individuals for good or ill as much as individual will. It is important to note here the continuing debate among progressive Christians about the terms and language that should be used; about whether to reclaim the old terms for their original and forgotten meaning (or a new meaning), or whether to use new terms altogether to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

Progressive Christians also stress divine immanence as much as, or more than, divine transcendence, which means they see God as elements of (or present in) the natural and human worlds in the form of goodness, justice, the natural world and so forth. Progressive Christians therefore lean towards panentheism and away from supernatural theism. While pantheism asserts that ‘All is God’, panentheism is the claim that God is greater than the universe, or that the universe is contained within God. There are still many varying viewpoints and points of debate on this belief within the Progressive Christian communities but most agree on the importance of experiencing or encountering God/divinity in nature, in other people, and in ourselves.

Many Progressive Christians take part in the ritual activity of sharing bread and wine in Jesus’ name. They see this as a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples in which all resources are shared. They see this activity as a reminder to the community that the world’s resources belong to everyone and should be shared equally or according to need – the vision of what a fair society should look like in terms of its economics varies among progressive Christians and is a matter of lively debate. This ritual is a public statement in support of justice, a reminder to the community and a means of individual transformation/spiritual development all in one.

Progressive Christian organisations also encourage discipleship rather than membership of religious/spiritual institutions, though they of course encourage membership of the networks for the receiving of information and for donations towards the work of the communities. The meaning of discipleship is simply that people learn from those that have gone ahead in the process of understanding and practicing progressive faith rather than sign up to church creeds and dogmas many of which they might not support.

For the purposes of contrast, Liberal Judaism, which also has strong and longstanding progressive streams, emphasises an approach to God through the lives and teachings of the prophets, and in doing so affirms the dynamic and continuously developing character of the Jewish religious tradition. Liberal Jews are inspired by the Prophets, who combined a commitment to Judaism with a constant regard for the universal values that guide all ethical behaviour. Tikkun olam (repair of the world) is a fundamental mission for Liberal Jews, and they assert that Tikkun should happen on four levels: the personal/inter-personal, the communal, the Jewish and global. In the footsteps of the Prophets, Liberal Jews see themselves as constructive irritants to the mainstream, and/or influence the mainstream, taking tough and sometimes unpopular stances on issues of Jewish concern.

Notably, Liberal Jews take a particular stance on the state of Israel which might not be shared by all progressive minded Jews. They state on their website that they

“affirm a love for the Land of Israel and have a strong commitment to the State of Israel. They pray for her people and her security and wish to enact the vision of her founders of a Jewish state for all its inhabitants, at peace with its neighbours, democratic and prosperous. They promote a two-state solution, and oppose all boycotts.” (See http://www.liberaljudaism.org/about-us/what-is-liberal-judaism.html)

Though the website states this, there will be different political views within Liberal Judaism as there will be among liberal Jews who are progressives, and share in the progressive values listed above. In the case of Judaism it is not possible to separate out progressive Jews from liberal Jews who will take a range of theological positions along a right-left spectrum common to all religions. Just as within other world faiths, some Jews will be more middle of the road or undecided than progressive, which is why Liberal Judaism appears the second at the end of this article.

Assessing their Progress

As yet there has been very little research done on these progressive religious reform movements and there has also been relatively little active collaboration between progressives from different world faiths. Statistics are difficult to come by, especially given that many progressives are not named on official networks for all sorts of reason ranging from disillusionment with religious affiliations altogether, through to fear for their own safety given the potential for a backlash from the more traditional faith communities they might once have been a part of.

However, the success of these organisations and networks can perhaps be judged in the course of future research on the following criteria:

  • how frequently and in what numbers the members/affiliates meet meaningfully together and hold community events
  • the availability and quality of progressive liturgy, preaching, lecturing and arts
  • the availability and quality of progressive educational materials for adults and children
  • how well the network/organisation facilitates personal development e.g. with self-improvement materials, counselling, advice and advocacy
  • how well the movement promotes its work through books, websites, social media and other opportunities
  • how successful the movements efforts are in activism and making a real difference to the wider community and environment; the extent to which the movement is engaged at local, regional, national and international level in social and environmental justice campaigns or other initiatives
  • the extent progressive networks participate in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, networking and co-operative endeavour; how good the networks are at sharing stories and building relationships with the right people who would support their cause
  • how effective the networks are at strategy, leadership, and engagement with policy makers
  • how successful these networks are at building community; attracting, welcoming, nurturing and involving people in every aspect of community life

Some people join these movements because they are searching for a moral framework and cause or a means of living a spiritual life without superstitious belief. However, many people join these movements when they have become uncomfortable with the traditional faith communities of which they have been a part. They often find that the traditional religion they once took for granted is irrelevant, outdated and harmful in the light of modern understandings of humanity and the world made possible by science, comparative religion and historical criticism. They realise that many traditional beliefs perpetuate inequality and unhelpful stereotypes and prejudices. A significant number of these people feel they have emerged from nothing less than a period of indoctrination and abuse and so are especially vulnerable and liable to avoid religious affiliation altogether. To be successful the progressive movements must provide safe space for such people to heal and make their peace with the past. They can be judged also, therefore, on how well they stick to their own professed principles of inclusivity and tolerance.

Future Research

International movements such as Progressive Christianity, and more recently, the Muslim Reform Movement, provide alternative networks for those who do not hold dogmatically to traditional/conservative religious beliefs but who nonetheless identify with the cultural heritage and values of particular world faiths. These networks are outspoken in defence of human rights and secular democracy. They have the potential to provide a vibrant alternative to fundamentalism for those seeking a moral and spiritual identity and cause, and therefore an alternative for those vulnerable to radicalisation. Therefore, there needs to be further research to critically assess the ways in which these movements address bigotry and promote human rights, and to determine whether they are effective and to what extent, and if they are effective, how they can be better supported in their efforts.

It is already evident that leaders of progressive streams within world faiths will have to consider new spaces and possibilities for the building of progressive moral and spiritual community in secular, pluralistic societies, and in the light of rapid technological change; spaces (physical and digital) and communities which will also be accessible to those living in societies that are predominantly religious and/or where a certain religion is privileged above others. If they are to have a greater impact on public life beyond the religious sphere, they will also have to think more strategically about inter-faith global networking and cultural exchange among progressive spiritual communities emerging from different world faiths. If they learn how to speak a global moral language which is deeply enriched by the stories and cultural heritage of many different regions and civilisations, they may well have the potential to move from being small independent streams within world faiths to a global revolution in thinking about religion and what it can do for us.

Progressive Networks

From Christianity

PCN Britain (nationwide progressive network)

Free to Believe (originally URC progressives)

Ekklesia (think tank, Christianity and public life)

Radical Faith (website exploring faith in a changing world)

Common Sense Christianity (online resource/community)

UK Spirituality Network (resource and events)

Sea of Faith (network of progressives)

Non-theist Friends Network (Quaker group)

Student Christian Movement

Foundation for Contemporary Theology

Ship of Fools (online community and resource)

SPAFER (southern progressive alliance for exploring religion)

Center for Progressive Christianity (USA based, now at progressivechristianity.org)

Progressive Christian Artist’s network (USA based)

Progressive Christian Alliance

The Canadian Center for Progressive Christianity

PC Net South Australia

Progressive Spirituality New Zealand

Charter for Compassion

The Progressive Christian Network of Victoria Australia

En*theos (Educational materials)

Common Dreams (An alliance of Australian and New Zealand kindred organizations)

Project Peace on Earth (organise international peace events)

Darkwood Brew Online TV (Renegade Exploration of Christianity’s Outer Edges)

Spirituality Practice (Resources for Spiritual Journey)

Westar Institute – Dedicated to the Advancement of Religious Literacy (and Polebridge Press)

Living the Questions (LTQ) – Learning resources

Patheos- Hosting a Conversation on Faith Progressive Christian Channel

The Salt Project- Dedicated to reclaiming and sharing the beauty of Christian life through film, photography, music, poetry, and ideas Protestants dans la Ville (Progressive French Priest and Followers)

CeTR Research on Human Quality (progressives in Spain)

St Mark’s Church (Centre for Radical Christianity)

From Hinduism

Progressive Hindu Association & Coalition of Progressive Hindus

From Islam

Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV)

The Quilliam Foundation

Muslim Reform Movement

Networks that Include Progressives

Bahá’í Faith (a monotheistic religion emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind)

Liberal Judaism

Quakers UK

Resurgence and other ecological/environmentalist organisations with a spiritual dimension

Secular Buddhist Association

There are liberal wings of all the broad churches (e.g. the Church of Scotland’s OneKirk) though these include only a few progressives.

There are liberal denominations such as the UCC in America, the Metropolitan Community Churches, and ecumenical communities such as Taize and the Iona Community which include a minority of progressives.

The link below will take you to my PowerPoint presentation for a Public Lecture and seminar I gave in 2014 on progressive communities and networks for PCNBritain in Exeter:

Progressive Spiritual Communities – A Global Movement (1)

 

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On Writing the Poetry of Places

Places, the theatres of human life, pervade almost every line of poetry I write, giving my work its sensory qualities. Just as a piano accompaniment is both responsive and instructive, the environment creates and reflects the world of its inhabitants. Our environments play a particularly crucial role in the human experience of transcendence – those moments of enlightenment when we see reality, and the truth about ourselves and others, more clearly, as if from above. Writing poetry is for me, at least in part, an exercise in conveying the philosophical wisdom gleaned from these moments, and as far as human language allows, inducing the same experience in my readers, captivating their imaginations with impassioned storytelling and vivid imagery. In this article I use three short poems from my “Poetry of Places” collection to illustrate this creative process.

While occasionally a verse or even a whole poem pours out of the soul in a state that is best left unadulterated, like many other poets, I normally review a first draft over and over again, immersing myself in the associated memories and imaginings, and imbuing each and every word and phrase with layer upon layer of meaning through careful selection and re-combination.  I take enormous delight in resurrecting neglected or under-exploited words, and in being inventive with words and expressions, rather than constraining my work with received notions of what is ‘correct English’. However, while some readers prefer to grapple with a poem that is opaque, trying to decipher its meaning, if indeed it has meaning, I prefer my poems to be understood on first reading, at least at some level (even if simply an emotive one), by readers of all backgrounds. This is because at the same time, I hope to entice them into second, third and multiple readings as they begin to discover the hidden layers, textures, sub-narratives, allusions and symbolism according to their own ability and experience. It is a way of being inclusive without sacrificing depth.

One of the most rewarding experiences of being a poet is hearing the interpretations of others. The satisfaction of hearing them relate back to you an intended meaning embedded in the text is surpassed only by the excitement of hearing readers share a new perspective on my work that gives it another dimension I had not anticipated.

somerville-wong IMAGE

Portrait of Ana Wong ©All Rights Reserved

Places Known: A Patchwork of Memories

Rather than being descriptive of a single environment, my poems are often inspired by a patchwork of memories of similar environments I have known which have provoked the same gravity of thought and feeling. My poem “A Life Left Near behind”, for example, relates an experience I have had on numerous occasions in those small idylls of nature that have found themselves haphazardly distributed throughout and alongside our towns and cities.

Growing up urban, as the majority of human beings now do, we often find ourselves alienated from the environments which we evolved to flourish in, and upon which we and the rest of life are still entirely dependent.  As an artist I believe I have a responsibility to bring our attention back to these places, to communicate both their wonder and their significance for our inner lives; the life of the mind, as well as for our physical health and wellbeing.

A Life Left Near Behind

I came across them; a burst of wild flowers

in red autumn cold. Among mottled trees

by the road’s edge, its secrets bared their scarlet faces,

where lace and vein in well-worn fractal paths

reset the firings of my mind, and markers in the stream

relayed to me a sign, as twigs upon the flow.

 

Only an impression now, the life left near behind;

a skit upon the inward eye. For here red could no redder be,

nor greener spectrum overturn our digital arrays.

Within the copse, a streak of life, a tuft of death

at once lie indistinct. At reasons rightful end

I am re-minded here, of comfort without self-deceit.

 

I wait to let it work. I do not interfere this time

but only look and hear as some remotest lens might sit

and wait upon a shy and seldom snout or gleaming eye.

The light begins to falter at some unknown, un-minded hour

within the fold of trees, and petals drawn to inner hides

are held, as thoughts of mine are not.

 

Ana Wong © All Rights Reserved

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Early notes for “A Life left Near Behind”, a poem by Ana Wong © All Rights Reserved

Places Passed Through

Many of the poems I write are inspired by transformative experiences, those that happen to us largely due to a chain reaction of events beyond our control. The rare and profound insights we have into the reality and truth about ourselves, humanity and the universe often happen this way. However, an interesting characteristic of these latter experiences, over which we can exert some control, is that they often take place when journeying through an environment on foot, train, plane or other form of conveyance. The act of travel, and the gentle movement of the body, helps to occupy the mind just a little, distracting it temporarily from its all-too-immediate assumptions about what it perceives, while also allowing it to wander and make new connections. As the scenery changes and new and complex information floods our senses, we are forced to let go of our expectations and open up to new possibilities.

By allowing ourselves more opportunities for new experiences and enhanced creativity, even if it simply involves taking a daily walk around our neighbourhood, we give ourselves the chance to reflect, understand, and eventually reach our full creative potential. These moments of insight are not always pleasurable dopamine soaked affairs, indeed some are acutely painful, or a dizzying mixture of the two, since reality can be an awesome or terrible thing – the truth can indeed hurt. However, transcendence, rising above our mundane activities and assumptions, is the only means by which we gain a more objective perspective, and eventually master our emotional responses. If we hide in a fantasy world, fooling ourselves into thinking the truth is not really out there we miss out on all the greatest things life has to offer. By embracing wisdom, which is both the knowledge and experience of the truth, we can make better choices in the long run, and live more fulfilling lives.

My poem “The Seagull” was formed from the memories of several journeys, flying over the Firth of Forth on my descent into Edinburgh airport. It conveys one of these moments of heightened consciousness, and the recurring memory of it; a moment in which I was almost overcome by the closeness of life and death, but which helped me ever after to appreciate the beauty of life that little bit more. Grasping the tragedy of life at the same time was a potent reminder that when dealing with my fellow creatures, I should be kind, always.

The Seagull

High, high adrift on prevailing winds,

you circle the bay

as I, hurtling by in my descent,

peep from metallic gills;

a tiny fidgeting morsel,

bellied by a sky-shark.

 

The sun reflects harshly off our flanks,

glinting coolly on yours –

a cross-breeze gently ruffles a feather or two.

Muscles flinch and flicker almost imperceptibly

about that beady-eyed stare – determined –

having life by the throat. I envy you.

 

Seated in suspension, falling, falling,

in a world above our own,

anyone might contemplate the thinness of life,

the flimsiness of lungs as they inflate –

but best to forget our frailties and fly

with the ever forward trajectory of time.

 

The fleeting vision of you, gliding wild,

seared its outline on the mind’s canvas, unconsciously,

thereafter to resurface in those lonely moments

that come unbidden, just before sleep.

Burnt in white it would appear,

on the backs of drooping eye-lids.

 

High, high adrift on prevailing winds,

you circle the bay

as I, hurtling by in my descent,

strain to watch your dwindling, yet buoyant frame

catch the last rays with the strength to reach me

and vanish into overwhelming blue.

 

Ana Wong © All Rights Reserved

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Early notes for “The Seagull”, a poem by Ana Wong © All Rights Reserved

Places seen through Another’s Eyes

My poem “Watching the Sky” is written from the perspective of a young child, whose fragile innocence and fledgling sense of justice has already begun to grapple with the insanity of the world created by adult humans, yet before those adults have been able to obliterate it with their hatreds and indoctrination.

In this poem, the country of Afghanistan is not only seen through the imagined eyes of this little girl or boy, but is also seen through the eyes of the journalists and photographers who have over the years of conflict brought images to us, which illustrate both the beauty of the natural environment and the horrors of war.

Modern media, and especially the internet where pictures taken by ordinary people from all sorts of perspectives are uploaded thousands of times a second, has opened up literally a whole world of opportunities for artistic inspiration, and this continues to have exciting implications for my work as a poet.

Watching the Sky

Here I stand at the rocky outcrop

where the sky is a gigantic tent.

With one foot raggedly shoed,

I grind some pebbles mixed with sand and wait…

 

Eyeless come the birds of war,

to carve their piece of sky

while I look beyond to the hillside climbs

and up to drifting clouds where life seems to be

about something else altogether

 

There is a world inside my head,

quiet and plane-less,

where the things the elders say are true,

which I never see, are never heard

 

And there I hope to meet someone

with a mindscape like mine,

out in the world of mountain, and of sky,

someone to play, and laugh, and run with me

under the sun and moon.

 

Ana Wong © All Rights Reserved

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Early notes for “Watching the Sky”, a poem by Ana Wong © All Rights Reserved

I write under the title of “The Poetry of Places” because my work naturally and spontaneously draws out of scenes or settings, the echoes and reverberations of the human loves, losses and learnings that have taken place there. I also find myself constantly exploring the ways in which we interpret and are formed and transformed by the environments that we experience, and the ways in which we in turn impact upon them.

At this moment in earth’s history, when we are on the brink of either saving or destroying the environments that make us human, it is essential that we reflect on what these places mean to us, not just for our survival, but for our flourishing.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong is a poet and researcher at the University of Exeter, currently working on a series of film-poems for The Poetry of Places Project.


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5 Reasons why Future Living Spaces need the Creative Arts

This article has also been published online by Creative Digest:

http://www.creativedigest.co.uk/5-reasons-why-future-living-spaces-need-the-creative-arts/

As both an artist and a researcher, I am interested in how and to what extent the creative arts are incorporated into the environmental design of buildings, landscapes and interiors which are likely to shape future human communities. I am also interested in the extent to which creative spaces for performances, exhibitions and screenings are included in these designs. The role the environmental arts play in these spaces is particularly important, since they have the added advantage of bringing natural environments, or representations of natural environments and related subjects, to urban populations who are often alienated from the environments themselves.

Spanish home

Attractive and Sustainable Spanish Home by Zwei Estudio Creativo, Photo credit: Wave Avenue

The greater integration of creative art works and creative arts spaces into eco-designed landscapes, buildings and interiors will bring the following crucial benefits:

1: An Infusion of Culture

We are in urgent need of human-designed environments that not only provide economical and technical solutions to problems of resources but which are more broadly nurturing of stable and thriving human communities. Artistic works and activities that are integrated into our surroundings and into our daily lives have the potential to bring cultural richness as well as aesthetics to the environments which will nurture future generations. It is inclusion and participation in a shared cultural life that leads to both social cohesion and individual fulfilment.

All human beings need a creative outlet through which they can express their individual personality. Young people in particular are vulnerable to dogmatism, dissipation and extremist ideologies when they are denied this kind of freedom because of material poverty, poverty of opportunity or oppression.  When the environments in which we develop are infused with the arts, they are infused with language, ideas, and examples from personal and collective histories and story-telling, which are the only means we possess for understanding and communicating with one another and expressing ourselves, our thoughts, our angst and our dreams in the most fulfilling ways.

While science enables us to aspire to knowledge of the deepest physical truths about ourselves and the universe, and allows us to use this knowledge to manipulate the world in our interests, the arts enable us to aspire to excellence in the human-made realm of the moral, the imagined and the philosophical, which gives us our sense of meaning, purpose and identity.

statues in park

“Block der Frauen” (Women’s Protest) in the Holocaust memorial park of the old Jewish quarter of Berlin by the East German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, Photo from Wikimedia Commons

2: The Cross-Fertilisation of Ideas

Bringing the arts into the arena of daily life, especially into the workplace with its technical challenges, creates ideal conditions for mutual inspiration and knowledge exchange across boundaries of disciplines and notably across the art-science divide. The messages and ideas conveyed by the works themselves, and the discussions they stimulate, increase the potential for non-linear thinking and therefore for innovation.

Bringing together excellent science with its focus on objective fact and artistic reflection with its ethical insight and ability to make new connections, is now more widely accepted as essential for the long-term reputation, inventiveness and adaptability of businesses and institutions.  The reflective nature of the arts can play a particularly important role in controversial areas of research and industry, where there are broader ethical implications and where better public understanding and accurate media reporting are essential.

This explains why many organisations have already invested considerable sums of money in collaborative projects and events in order to get artists and professionals in other fields working together more effectively. For example, the Met Office HQ in Exeter is an ecologically designed building which contains environmental art works that are meant to encourage employees to reflect on, promote and debate the activities of the Met Office through exploring the inter-relationships between art and science. The Met Office has worked with Ginkgo Projects (an independent art and design consultancy) since 2002, with the view that effective commissioning of the arts will contribute to the creation of a positive working environment that encourages innovation. Phillip Mabe, Chair of the Art Project Board (2004) stated “We have found the works are challenging, introspective, humorous or simply beautiful; together, they provide an intuitive insight into the delicate relationships that bind us to our environment.”

met office

Met Office Head Quarters, Exeter, Photo credit: The Met Office blog 23-08-2015

3: Benefits for Human Well-being

Experiencing and participating in the arts has been repeatedly shown to have physical, psychological and social benefits. It would seem a no-brainer given that they help keep both our bodies and our minds active and constructively engaged and also provide a medium for social interaction. The arts also help us to express difficult emotions that are hard to articulate or awkward to reveal in a more direct manner, which is why art therapy is such a popular form of psychotherapy, particularly with children.

For these benefits alone a more comprehensive integration of art works and practices into private and public spaces would be a worthwhile investment. It would also seem sensible to include more spaces and activities that explicitly promote the improvement of health such as quiet zones for mindfulness meditation, ‘temple’ rooms which are especially light, airy and expansive, and well-being or sensory gardens. The need of hospitals, hospices, care homes, prisons and rehabilitation and community centres is perhaps the most acute. This is of course an ever growing area of research and experimentation and presents innumerable opportunities for art-science collaboration.

The need to sustain a healthy and content work force is another reason why employers are increasingly investing in cross-disciplinary projects. However, many are only beginning to understand just how great a role our working and living environments have to play in our over-all wellbeing and therefore in how effective we are at our work.

wellness garden

James and Paula Coburn Wellness Garden, Photo credit: Lynda Erkiletian 10-06-2011

4: Motivating through Experience

The creative arts have a power and subtlety in conveying important messages that need to reach and motivate us at a deeper level than rational argument. For example, where climate change and social justice are concerned, it is now widely acknowledged that simply trying to scare people into changing their opinions and lifestyles with alarming facts and linear arguments has very little effect. On the other hand, an immersive and moving experience that takes us on a journey revealing the intricacies and degree to which we are interdependent through the parallel stories of real people is likely to leave a more lasting impression and lead to real changes in our behaviour. It is this kind of experience that artists of all genres have the power to create.

Unlike activists, artists have the luxury of exploring the nuances of a subject, prompting reflection on difficult questions, such as what we mean by ‘sustainable’ and how we determine what should and should not be conserved, or what constitutes a ‘fair society’. They provide safe spaces to explore new perspectives and question received beliefs and practices, and therefore help to shape and re-shape wider cultural values. By facilitating reflection and dialogue, they can lead us to a new consensus and resolution to do what is necessary for the survival and well-being of our species and the planet.

children in dirty water

Children sitting on a makeshift raft play in a river full of rubbish in a slum area of Jakarta. Photo credit: Enny Nuraheni/Reuters

5: Educating through Encounter

An infusion of the arts which convey our history and knowledge in original and exciting ways is of course of great educational value, and not just in the obvious places such as schools, colleges and universities. To give an example, encounters in public and private living spaces with natural environments such as gardens or living installations, or with artistic explorations of these environments in photography, sculpture, film, theatre, dance, creative writing or any other artistic medium, have the potential to educate increasingly urban populations on the value of our natural environments. They can reveal how such environments maintain the vital ecosystems upon which we and other creatures depend, and how they provide us, not only with resources such as water and food, but with the biodiversity of genes and compounds required for crop and human resistance to pathogens and for medicines such as anti-biotics. They can also demonstrate how natural environments contribute to our general well-being, including our states of mind and our enjoyment of culture – they have after all been the scenes and settings of so many of our human dramas.

The arts can educate us by bringing home the uncomfortable truths about what we have done to our environments, as illustrated by the picture of children playing in filthy water (above), or by inspiring us to work towards a healthier vision of our future, as illustrated by Callebaut’s designs for a future eco-city (below). They can communicate multiple facts and alternative perspectives with an immediacy and impact that could never be achieved by a report. Experiencing a work of art is like meeting a person; you see many characteristics at first encounter and are compelled to discover more about why they are as they are and what can be learnt from them.

future city

Ecological Designs by Vincent Callebaut, for the ‘Flavours Orchard’ project in the city of Kunming in the Yunnan Province, China, courtesy of Vincent Callebaut Architectures

It is for all these reasons that I believe creative artists should play a far greater role in the environmental design of the buildings, landscapes and interiors where future generations will live and move, and of course this will mean working in close collaboration with research, industry and culture sector partners. We need to make sure that imaginative and effective spaces for performances, exhibitions and screenings are included in designs as well as ensuring that we have a more direct influence through the incorporation of art works into the structures themselves.

I hope this article has begun to persuade you that as artists, we have a vital role to play in helping to create the human-designed environments of the future. Experiencing and participating in artistic creativity has positive effects on both individuals and communities; on educational and cultural enrichment, innovation, social cohesion, and general well-being. The creative arts, especially the environmental arts, are essential for creating environments that nurture informed, stable and thriving human communities, which are therefore ultimately more sustainable.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong


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The Fault in Our Heritage – why we need Culture-Makers

The arts have the power to create and re-create culture, tradition and the heritage we pass on to future generations. My article ‘The Fault in Our Heritage’ (see the link below) explains how this influence has been misused in the past to perpetuate prejudice but can be used today by artists who are also culture-makers to undo the damage and promote understanding.

The-Fault-in-Our-Heritage

The article is published on the University of Exeter Science, Culture and Law (SCuLE) blog (http://scule.org.uk/?p=165), and the home page of digitalmeetsculture (scroll to the middle of the page) and in the Europeana Space and RICHES project blogs (on the left column). The article was first published on 22 September 2014 .

http://www.digitalmeetsculture.net/

http://www.digitalmeetsculture.net/projects/europeana-space/

http://www.digitalmeetsculture.net/projects/riches/

Anastasia Somerville-Wong