Mitchell, Stephen - God in the Bath

  (09 March 08)

God in the Bath

 


A review by Peter Bore of God in the Bath: Relaxing in the Everywhere Presence of God by Stephen Mitchell (O Books 2001) 

(Reviewed December 2006)


Books like this are a problem. From the brief time I spent with Stephen at the recent UK SoF conference I would not have expected us to differ significantly in our conceptualisation of god/religion/spirituality. Thus, though I have little difficulty in agreeing with most of what he says, I would not be converted to his views if they were not already concordant with my existing perceptions. This is not a new problem: John Stuart Mill recognised it more than a hundred years ago, but it is one which always troubles me somewhat. I always hope that when someone agrees with my particular prejudices they will be able to produce evidence and coherent argument to give my views some ‘scientific credibility’ and thus go beyond a simple agreement with my experience of the world. Perhaps next time.

The recent Sea of Faith in Australia conference focussed on communication between ‘realists’ and ‘non-realists’ to use the accepted, if somewhat unclear, shorthand. At one extreme Don Cupitt lamented that the many meetings between members of differing faiths or denomination rarely result in conversion to the other’s point of view or even to some common middle ground. Whilst true, it is probably some progress if we talk to those whose views we do not share rather than regard them as some alien species as politicians so often choose to do. Michael Morwood, on the other hand, spoke in detail about his efforts to create language and imagery which allow realists and non-realists (and those who think that the boundaries between the two are ill-defined and probably not overwhelmingly important) to share what they have in common.

Michael defined faith as that which enables us to make sense of the world and in God in the Bath Stephen says: “It takes imagination to understand the world” and “With imagination the person who comes from a totally different way of life can be seen, despite the differences, as one of us.” Michael was not using the word faith to mean belief in the unprovable and Stephen is not using the word imagination as synonymous with fantasy. Both are using the words to mean something which is based on evidence (i.e. our experiences of the world/life/people) and drawing the rational conclusion that those experiences can be extrapolated to give us some guidance about what we might continue to expect of the world/life/people.

A book of this complexity will inevitably contain many messages of which an individual reader is likely to perceive only some. The message that I read is that it is possible to think about and talk about spirituality in language which does not exclude those with whom we have some differences but, at the some time, much in common. God in the Bath did not reach Australia until after the Sydney conference but it would have served as an excellent example of language which can embrace and express ‘realist and non-realist’ models of spirituality. Of course there is always the danger that such ‘multi-lingual’ expositions can become little more that a series of motherhood statements which can mean all things to all people. However, SoF contains sufficient hardline ‘fundamentalist’ philosophers to balance that risk.

Despite its being an entertaining and easy-to-read book it is a serious and pragmatic attempt to overcome some of the problems of difference. At the risk of its title being taken literally and perhaps provoking a fatwah against Stephen, I would suggest that the world is desperately in need of a sequel: God in the Bath with Allah.

A book worth reading!! 

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