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


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


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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2 thoughts on “Rational Spirituality and How I Got Here by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

  1. Got to this articvle via Resurgence and Ecologist. It’s extraordinary article – many thanks for its honesty and clarity. What struck me immeidately is the number of parallels between your journey and mine (despair, experieces of revelation/unio mystica, disillusionment with religion, acceptance, loneliness, various attempts to start a new movement based in rationalism, despair again, maturity) that it’s almost as if there were an archetypal journey some of the more thinking of us follow. One additional way of looking at the world which you might enjoy because of its essence of reflecting nature (human and universal) and because it’s kind of a rational development of panentheism is ancient philosophical taoism (rather than the folk religion). There again, once you get into it, you realise orthopraxy subverts orthodoxy. For any unaware and interested, a light hearted, non preachy and humorous introduction to the subject is the Tao of Pooh by Benjhamin Hoff.

    • Ah, the Tao of Pooh! I enjoyed that a long time ago but I believe I was interrupted while reading it so I will have to return to it. I agree that there seems to be an archetypal journey. I often meet people from very different parts of the world who have or are heading along a similar track. It is definitely something to do with parallels in thinking and life experiences. It would be really interesting to analyse this further but currently, I am only capable of pondering the sheer absurdity of human existence as it is passed 10pm. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

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