By Peter Bore
The sea of faith was once, too, at the full and round Earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
This is the part of Dover Beach that most of us know, but since I first read the complete poem a few years ago I have been intrigued by Arnold’s final section:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
A depressing view of the world, one might think. But the words which stand out for me, and probably for many others in the Sea of Faith Network, are “nor certitude.” Perhaps it is true to say that certainty is the one thing that many in the Network have decided they can, or must, live without.
Some months ago I put on paper my reasons for being a non-theist. They include the lack of scientific evidence of a physical entity which might be called god, the increasing ability of science to explain things which would once have been considered supernatural and my difficulty in relating to a god who has opted to stand back and not intervene to mitigate the injustices that occur in the world. But my most compelling reason for non-theism is that, perhaps arrogantly, I do not feel in need of a god-out-there or indeed anything that I would wish to use the word god to define or describe.
At this point I must digress. I am repeatedly using the word god. You, the reader, are no doubt wondering exactly what I mean by ‘god’. There are many different conceptualisations of god ranging from an idea that only exists in someone’s mind on the one hand, to an entity which created the world, listens to our prayers and actively intervenes in the affairs of mankind on the other. In consequence the word is now of uncertain meaning. I am using it very widely to include any and all of the likely interpretations of the word. However ‘God’ with a capital G would refer to the specific god of a particular religion and the distinction can easily be made in speech or writing by adding a qualifier to give the ‘Christian God’ or the ‘Jewish God’ or the ‘Muslim God’. In the following paragraphs I will use more words that do not have universally agreed meanings so I should define them at least for the purposes of this article. I define religion as the set of values, beliefs and practices that are usually derived from our concept of god or some god-like entity. This differs from a church which I would define as the administrative, hierarchic and political establishment associated with a religion.
Looking at what the various humanist societies say about themselves can be a bit confusing. A short definition of humanism is a philosophy based on being humane towards others. A long definition would be to quote the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and define a humanist as someone who subscribes to that declaration.
The definitions I have used for, ‘god’, ‘religion’, ‘church’ and ‘humanism’ are not intended to be universally accepted or immutable. They do however provide the linguistic tools that enable me to think about these matters and, in the context of this article, enable the reader to know, I hope, what I am talking about. As Noel Cheer has observed “the religious lexicon is a mess” (1).
Finally there is the vexed word spirituality, just as opaque as god but much more rewarding to discuss. Whilst I can subscribe to the UK SoF proposition that god is a human creation, I do not simply mean that man sat down and consciously invented god – though it seems most probable that the church has done that with regard to some aspects of god. My interpretation of these words is that there is some aspect of the human psyche which, perhaps unconsciously, generates a requirement for a meaning for life, (even if there is no meaning for life*) and which also generates the need for an ethos to underpin our ways of interacting with the rest of the world (for which, it seems, the need is very real). How we formulate a meaning for life and how we construct an ethos is inter-related to a large extent with how we conceptualise god. But, whilst I regard any conceptualisation of god as something emanating from humans (and perhaps more from humans collectively than humans individually) I am persuaded that these conceptualisations of god are generated by a very significant and very fundamental part of what constitutes a human being. This part of man is what Owen Thomas calls ‘spirituality’ and which he defines as follows. The sum of all the uniquely human capacities and functions: self-awareness, self-transcendence, memory, anticipation, rationality (in the broadest sense), creativity, plus the moral, intellectual, social, political, aesthetic and religious capacities, all understood as embodied (2).
Whilst I like the above words of Owen Thomas, I am not convinced that they form a definition of spirituality, Thomas’s definition lists the human abilities which generate the possibility of man asking fundamental questions about why we are here, what will happen when we die, how we should behave towards other members of our own species, other species and the world. Amongst the qualities to which Thomas refers I would emphasise self-awareness, memory, anticipation rationality and I would add the ability to think using language. It is these attributes which man uses both to ask and answer these fundamental questions. It is this process of asking questions about ‘matters of ultimate concern’ to use Tillich’s words, which I would chose to define as spirituality.
Sadly some of the answers we generate may not be correct because, as even Richard Dawkins acknowledges, man’s ability to ask questions far outstrips his ability to answer them. Even if they are correct, the answers may be distracting or even damaging. As Sally Vickers points out in her novel “Where Three roads Meet” Oedipus’s need to know who killed the king was something he needed not to know because it was the undoing of Oedipus when he discovered that he himself had killed the king (3). Man’s need to know may generate knowledge that he may be better off not knowing especially if the knowledge is false. To believe that we are here to prepare for the next life can become an enormous distraction from engaging with the current, and perhaps the only, life we will ever have.
If we accept that our ideas of god are a product of, and not the cause of, our spirituality and that spirituality is an innate and important part of humanity then it is a short step to accepting that concepts of god will vary between individuals and cultures. Nonetheless the striking similarities between different religions of which the most outstanding is the emphasis on humanistic values exemplified by “love thy neighbour,’ support the notion that most if not all religions have something in common in their origin (4). That conclusion is just as much compatible with the hypothesis that ideas of god arise from some facet of the human psyche as it is compatible with the notion that they are derived from a god out there. This idea that all religion embodies a common humanity is elegantly, if indirectly, expressed in the definition of spirituality offered by Robyn from the Bayside SoF group. “Spirituality is what enables us to accept that we humans, individually or collectively, are not the centre of the universe.”
The human qualities which Thomas describes give man the ability to ask questions which I have labelled ‘spiritual’ but those qualities do not mandate that he must ask those questions. Thus there is still some uncertainty about the origins of spirituality (making it hard to refute the claim of some of my friends that it is god-given). Given that man has spent about three thousand million years evolving from a microbe to a human and that for all but the last few thousand of those years he has lived by the mantras of the ‘selfish gene’ and the ‘survival of the fittest’ which have decreed the ruthless and utterly selfish exploitation of other species and other members of one’s own species, it seems quite remarkable that in the last few thousand years humans have mostly become a species which respects other humans and behaves co-operatively and even altruistically. (A significant minority of humans do not and regrettably it seems that some of this minority end up in and positions if influence in large organizations including politics and the church. They thus end up giving a flavour to the whole of humanity which is out of proportion to their numbers.) To put the time scale into a more meaningful perspective it equates to someone living to be 100 years old, who is a consistently ruthless and selfish exploiter of everyone else and then in the last few hours of the hundredth year adopts an ethos which we would describe as humanist or Christian or religious. I have to conclude that a significant change has taken place in human development and I speculate that acquiring some of the features alluded to in Thomas’s definition have played a role in directing human thinking away from ruthless exploitation and more in the direction of cooperation and consideration.
Thus whilst my spirituality conceptualises god as a set of qualities embodied and revealed in humankind I am all too aware that the spiritually in others, conceptualises god in very different ways. I have neither the desire nor the authority to deny the validity of any of these other conceptualisations of god though I may sometimes take issue with the human actions which emanate from them. In short I am prepared to ‘believe in your god’ even if I do not ‘believe in my god’.
Which brings me back to Matthew Arnold. When it comes to god there is no certainty. Of course, we individually choose the conceptualisation of god that enables us to make the most sense we can of the world and which best enables us to cope with life. The recognition of that should prompt us to respect, even if we do not agree with, those whose conceptualisation differs from our own. The proposition that there is something innate in humans (god-given if you wish) that strives for meaning and which needs an ethos and which manifests itself as ideas about god, beliefs and values (something which we frequently call religion) is elegantly encapsulated in the words of Peter Rollins: “Religion might be described as a way of being in the world – not a way of making claims about the world” (5). To make claims requires a degree of certainty and the only thing of which we can be certain, is uncertainty.
* In speaking of the meaning of life I am conscious of the difference between an individual finding meaning in their own life and the concept of an external purpose for human life in general. This distinction recently became clear to me when reading Raymond Gaita’s “The Philosophers Dog.” (6)
(1) Noel Cheer ‘The Religion of the Wilful Disbelievers’ (UK Sea of Faith Conference, 2006)
(2) Owen C Thomas ‘Political Spirituality: Oxymoron or Redundancy?’ Journal of Religion and Society (2001, vol 3).
(3) Sally Vickers Where Three Roads Meet. (Text Publishing, 2007)
(4) ‘The Golden Rule’ (www. hsq.org.au/ golden%20rule.htm)
(5) Peter Rollins (UK Sea of Faith Conference, 2007)
(6) Raymond Gaita The Philosophers Dog (Text Publishing, 2002)