How brave we are continuing the struggle to question and search in this world of everyday living which has increasingly become a purely secular realm, and one characterised by the burden of our personal and collective history and the destructive manner of our existence.
It’s generally seen that religion has become ‘toxic’ – a word even used by the Dean of Wells Cathedral in Bath Abbey one Sunday in October – but he didn’t say anything that offered an alternative other than better business practices for those in charge of Abbeys and Cathedrals. He spoke of research focussed on people coming into Cathedrals – the majority ‘are not religious’ and ‘don’t believe in God’, instead they’ve ‘come for the history’, but on leaving different questions elicited a subtly changed response such as they ‘lit a candle’ ‘left a prayer for someone’, ‘sat and reflected and thought about life’. If we can find what it is that affects these people, the Dean said, we can make sure we offer more of it!
The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote in the early 19th century about the dismissal of the transcendent by ‘the cultural despisers of religion’ which now two centuries later is often just seen as unbelievable and scorned by many. We know that influential popularisers have touted the procedures of modern science as the only route to the truth, and that our contemporary instant gratification culture has no appetite for the challenges of understanding confusing, complex and differing levels of consciousness. As Glenn Hughes, a philosopher and theologian writes, these levels of consciousness are also and ‘crucially – too poorly explained by religious authorities to be successfully met and negotiated by those who were once, as children, enchanted by genuine intimations of transcendence.’ Along with this is the ‘flattening of psychological experience, pseudo religions, and religious fundamentalism’ – think here of the formulaic CBT wheeled out currently by the cash strapped NHS, mindfulness for business leaders, and the business and political interests of most evangelical Christians, certainly those in the US.
Where can we find these intimations of transcendence … some of it is found in poetry where people’s experiences of what really matters is sifted and honed down. Raissa Maritain, the wife of the theologian Jacques Maritain, said that poetry and contemplation had great similarities.
‘Poetry thus appears to me as the fruit of a contact of the spirit with reality in itself ineffable, and with its source which is in truth God… Poetry is born when it is authentic, in the mysterious sources of being.’
Take this haiku from Basho:
Even in Kyoto –
hearing the cuckoo’s cry –
I long for Kyoto
Just like Basho’s cuckoo’s cry authentic poetry and indeed all creative art renews our awareness of love and love for the divine mystery that is at once a ‘beyond’ of things and the very presence of things – as Hughes urges ‘ let us taste again the flavour of the infinite while it re-enchants the world.’