I have been waiting for 'life to settle down a bit' before reflecting on last week's public event Beyond Belief: Taking Spirituality Seriously, but that looks like it's not going to happen, so here goes:
The main thing to say is that I felt a sense of relief. I'm 36 and it's about time I felt at ease in my own skin, so it was liberating to talk about something in public that is an important part of my life and work- it wasn't quite like coming out of the closet, but the event as a whole did have that slight confessional feeling to it.
And it was an encouraging start. The event booked out very quickly, the Great Room was packed with over 160 people, there was a chatty group (I'm told) in the spillover room downstairs, an online audience, many stayed behind afterwards, there was some tweeting (though we could have done a better job of stoking the fires) and the RSAreplay video has been viewed almost 3,000 times in just over a week.
There were also thoughtful public responses from co-panelist Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, and Philosopher Jules Evans, who is working as a consultant on the project, and many more positive (and a few constructively critical) emails and comments came to me privately.
The general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.
Qualitatively speaking, it is harder to judge, but the general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.
In this respect I liked Jules's remark that: "I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breathe easier."
I know that some in the audience may have hoped for a less qualified discussion and a more transformative experience, but given the diversity of perspectives,the nature of the medium, and the organisational context, I only have a certain amount of sympathy with that view! The four of us on stage were not there as sages or gurus; the event was about publicly airing our collective concern with such matters, rather than advocating a particular spiritual practice or metaphysical worldview.
I plan to share the text of my speech from the event here in due course, but first wanted to pitch an amended version of it to a few external sources, to spread the word, as it were, as far as possible.
I am not fond of speeches that are read out, but on this occasion it felt appropriate to mark the moment with choice words, rather than roll the dice with improvised remarks. The crux of my pitch was that we have lost sight of the essential link between personal and social transformation, and that we need spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences to bring that link back to our attention. (For what it's worth, this morning I noticed that no less than Russell Brand is making a similar case in his guest editorship of New Statesman, but I would want to check the details before claiming him as an ally!)
In my opening remarks, I introduced a core distinction to encapsulate a common theme among different forms of spirituality (e.g. religious spirituality, 'spiritual but not religious', secular spirituality) namely the distinction between our ground (the basic facts of our existence) and our place (our social standing) and suggested that many of our existing social and ecological problems stem from getting distracted by a fixation with our place, and losing sight of our ground.
This pervasive neglect and imbalance manifests principally through the constant pressure to work in order to consume, but is also evident in our widespread de-facto denial of climate change, and an increase in mental health problems.
This is not an easy subject to talk about. I find myself torn between repeating the main messages in 'The Brains Behind Spirituality' essay in this summer's journal that opened the discussion, and trying to forge new ground, as I began to here, and in the speech. Some are willing to follow these lines of thought, but others struggle to forge ahead without a clearer sense of what kind of work we are asking the contested word 'spiritual' to do for us. Some people seem to want a canonical definition, but the very nature of the term is much more like a placeholder concept to mark out key questions that otherwise lack a conceptual reference point.
For those who are not merely ambivalent about the term, but actively hostile towards it, I should say that I have written before about why spirituality is not a distinctly capitalist phenomenon, about buying new age products and services, and has a much deeper relevance as a critique of certain aspects of capitalist society.
It was good to hear Madeleine Bunting draw attention to the fact that such a discussion was entirely consistent with the RSA's history, and also acknowledge that, sadly, hosting such a discussion today was 'brave'. I also agree with her that while semantic discussions rarely feel productive, sometimes the words we choose to discuss such matters are the single most important thing. Part of the bravery is to stick with the discussion about the words, while being clear about the limitations of what such a discussion can reveal.
Elizabeth Oldfield's reference to 'the human propensity to f*** things up', or 'HPtFtU' is useful. It stems from the outstandingly written book: Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and is presented as an accessible way to understand the idea of original sin. In some respects HPtFtU is very much what my introductory talk was about, and there might be interesting connections between the shared psychological underpinnings of the Christian notion of 'sin' and the Secular Buddhist notion of 'ground' to be explored for those who are so inclined.
I was grateful to Robert Rowland Smith for beginning his remarks by saying: "I'm wondering why Madeleine is so freaked out by the word 'spirituality...'" because is spared me from doing so, and more broadly it was helpful to have an historical and dialectical perspective on how we came to this moment of cultural confusion about how to discuss fundamental human questions in public.
In Defence of Scented Candles....
It was also funny to see 'scented candles in the bath' given such a hard time as a metaphor for spirituality as self-indulgent pampering rather than self-transforming practice. I am very keen to move discussions of spirituality away from such references, but for the record, I am quite partial to a nice scented candle!
RSA events are now a global brand, and as such they have certain constraints. One of these constraints is that our public events have a limited range of formats and almost never extend beyond 75 minutes. Last Wednesday we ended with unanswered questions about a version of 'the objective transcendent' that wasn't God, and human aspiration not being big enough to reconceive the spiritual in a challenging way. I felt like a real curmudgeon to end the discussion when I did.
There is certainly more to say, so please keep in mind that the conversation is just beginning!
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