Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Monk think.

I went along to an address at the Book Festival given by the Abbot of Worth, Dom Christopher Jamieson OSB, who "starred" in the BBC documentary/reality show "The Monastery". The theme: "Finding Happiness". It was interesting to hear a defence of the classical ethical world view of Plato and Aristotle (The highest good is to behold that which is true and beautiful and to do it) as opposed to the Liberal post enlightenment utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham (Minimise suffering, Maximise pleasure) and hear it used as a preventative to hedonism. And it was equally fascinating to hear the Cardinal Virtues of Justice, Temperance, Courage and Prudence extolled as a world view that would have stopped the credit crunch dead!!

However, the thought that teased my brain was his provocative throwaway line that "spirituality is not enough - you need to be religious". That ran plain contrary to my experience that any mutt can be religious - it's spirituality that transforms it. But when I think about it I can see a level at which this is true.

In the pick and mix, eclectic age in which we live, people choose their own ethics, world view and "spirituality" according to personal taste, preference or convenience. Often it comes out of a self help book or some potted wisdom manual and is a pallid travesty of the real McCoy. Much of the New Age approach does this. It lacks the depth and rigour say of full blooded Buddhism or Hinduism. If "spirituality" (whatever its source) is to be authentic, then it must be earthed and grounded in the actual praxis of a living faith community. Anyone can adopt the breathing techniques and stories of Sufi mysticism, but it can be pure self indulgent poseur-manship unless it is grounded in the daily prayer and practice of that faith. You cannot be a Sufi mystic and omit the diet and set prayers 5 times daily of a good muslim, can you?

To put this in the context and language of the Christian theology with which I am familiar: spirituality must be incarnated if it is to be authentic. To say "I'm a Christian - I follow Jesus but I don't go to Church" is, at a pragmatic level, deeply nonsensical. Christianity is not primarily assent to a collection of doctrines or the adoption of certain ethical standards. To believe in God and not to join in the life of a community of faith is to miss the key to understanding the whole venture of the journey of religious faith. One must both profess the faith (know the beauty of truth in the Platonic sense) and do good (living the Aristotelian ideal in accordance with the ethics of the faith). To do good and live in accordance fully with the tenets of Christianity or any other religion, requires not only ethical behaviour but also the praxis of the religious obligations of that faith. How can one be a Kabalist by simply following the lifestyle of Kabbala without also embracing fully the religious practices of Judaism?

It actually throws an interesting light on the recent case of the US Episcopal priest who regarded herself as both a Christian and a Muslim and was deposed by her Bishop. The point was made by a commentator who had been an RC priest and who had become a Muslim that it was actually impossible to be both due to the claims of both being mutually exclusive. Christianity: Jesus died and rose again. Islam: Jesus did not die on the Cross. You cannot believe both. But one can draw inspiration from both spiritual traditions, provided that one remains earthed in one solidly.

That said, I am pastorally uncomfortable with telling someone unless you combine religious observance with your doing good and believing in God, you are not really a Christian. It seemed to spring from the way and pursuit of religious and spiritual perfection that is implicit in the religious life. The monastic ideal contains much wisdom that is applicable to daily life and living, but it is a counsel to perfection and intrinsically the monastic life is about how one soul relates to God. Yes, it is about community and living well together, but at its' heart is the monk in the cell alone with the reality of God and the reality of self. It clashes somewhat with the reality of 21st century, multicultural, post-modern Scotland. But then, the way of the Religious Life is always and rightly counter cultural and challenging.

The deep wisdom (rather than the apparent dogmatic arrogance) of the Abbot's line is to recognise that the spiritual life cannot be privatised, individualised or reduced to mere posturing if it is earthed in the ongoing life of a faith community, be that the life of the Monastery, the parish or the Ecclesial Base Group. There is always the temptation to pick a spirituality that suits us and to reduce it to a notional and self indulgent shadow of itself, if we seek to be spiritual in isolation and not religious in community. "I say my prayers to my God" is something of a cop out. I genuinely wonder how these individuals who have got themselves ordained in Independent Catholic Churches function. How can one operate as a priest in isolation? Communion with a larger whole, relation to a community of faith is of the very essence of priesthood in any sort of Catholic understanding.

But I digress. It's late. Thanks Father Abbot for getting my theological juices flowing!


  1. Agree mostly, Dougal. But how about 'religion is not enough - you need spirituality'? There are people who practise religion (= observance of rules and rituals) and are spiritually dead. And since we are talking about provocative statements, here's one of the most thought-provoking I've heard: 'Christianity is not a religion; it's a faith'. What do you make of that.

  2. "religion is not enough - you need spirituality" is exactly what Lionel Blue says of divorce as opposed to matrimony. I think the abbot was warning against the genuine danger posed by those who would claim to spiritual but who aim for happiness in a self-indulgent feet planted in the air sort of way. As real a problem as those who don't see beyond religious observance as a route to holiness.

    Christianity a faith not a religion: yes, but there has grown around that faith a religious system. You cannot access the full riches of the tradition without undergoing the process of practice. You can't be a buddhist without meditating, like wise you cannot really be a practising Christian outwith some sort of group or faith community. "He who does not have the Church for his Mother cannot have God for his Father" (St Cyprian of Carthage)

  3. This discussion reminds me of my time in the Formal Logic class ( shudder)...
    And interestingly for me, you're helping me with the topic of my sermon for Sunday!

  4. Oooh! Gonnae post it? What's it about?

  5. Joy not duty...
    and it's only in note form: I'm trying to get back to the me that was a teacher!