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Disorganised religion

02 January 2015

OF ALL the New Testament stories, the epiphany is the most often demythologised. The single source, the astronomical problem of the star, the number of magi, the date - all have been debated endlessly and, to a large extent, fruitlessly. The key element is the most obvious: Christ was visited by non-Jews, who had worked out who he was, and his significance to them, without ethnic or ritualistic ties to Judaism. It is a message that bears repetition. The tendency to be proprietorial dogs the history of religion: hard-won insights into the nature of God, the functioning of the created world, and the capabilities of the human race can easily be recruited into methods of control.

In the face of what is seen as institutional possessiveness, a distinction has been drawn between religion and spirituality. Religious adherents are caricatured as attending to outward forms, compared with "spiritual people", who draw strength and purpose from some sort of spiritual essence. As a consequence, neither religion nor spirituality is seen in a true light. The new report from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges, by Dr Jonathan Rowson, does much to restore respect for spirituality. After the inevitable struggle to define the term, he assigns to it a crucial position in the fight against shallow utilitarianism. It is an intelligent report, balancing an insight that spirituality has no practical purpose with the view that it can give depth and meaning to people's lives in a way that nothing else can.

What is novel is to read a report from a non-aligned source which talks sympathetically about spirituality, sacredness, religion, and well-being. Rowson writes openly about the "post-secular society", and quotes without demur from Robert and Edward Skidelsky's How Much is Enough?: "Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to pursuit of the common good? We doubt it." It is a claim that few religious leaders would be bold enough to make. Rowson does not escape the trap of interpreting spirituality as a largely individual matter, but, in his defence, this view can be found easily within the Church, subject as it is to the mood of the age. The balance between individual conscience and collective agreement has been tipping for some time in the direction of individual self-determination. Rowson acknowledges the central question for each generation of adherents, what he terms "the challenge of accessing institutional wisdom without the risk of being subsumed by it". A key element here is a perceived ability to change the institution - or at least ignore it.

One thing is clear: neither the language nor the debate about sacred matters is owned by a particular religious faith, even less by a particular denomination, and least of all by a particular segment of a denomination. In the past, the territory between religion and the public square has been assumed to belong to the religions. Their success in spreading their views and attracting new adherents has depended on how well they market themselves. Rowson's report suggests, in fact, that this territory is held in common with those who contemplate life and death, individual growth and collective endeavour, in spiritual terms but outside the confines of institutional faith.We stand at the crib in the company of strangers.

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