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The Spiritual and the Religious: Is the Territory Changing?

Archbishop at Westminster Cathedral © Diocese of Westminster

Thursday 17th April 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture in which he acknowledges the rise in interest in spirituality, particularly in the Western World, but underlines the crucial role traditional religious allegiance continues to play in a genuinely plural society.

Dr William's lecture entitled "The Spiritual and the Religious: is the territory changing?", is the third in a series "Faith and Life in Britain" being given at Westminster Cathedral.

Acknowledging the contribution that increased spiritual awareness can make to social and corporate life, Dr. Williams argues for the continued relevance of traditional religious commitment in developing and sustaining some of the deepest resources needed in a responsible plural society.

"When the great German philosopher Jurgen Habermas acknowledged some years ago in debate with the then Cardinal Ratzinger that traditional religion offered necessary resources to the construction of social reason and just practice, he was paving the way for some such approach on the part of secular government.  There is an implicit acknowledgement, it seems, that what religious affiliation of a classical kind offers is not to be reduced just to an enhanced sense of the transcendent or of the interconnection of all things."

Dr Williams argues that religion is in fact:

" of the most potent allies possible for genuine pluralism – that is, for a social and political culture that is consistently against coercion and institutionalised inequality and is committed to serious public debate about common good.  Spiritual capital alone, in the sense of a heightened acknowledgement especially among politicians, businessmen and administrators of dimensions to human flourishing beyond profit and material security, is helpful but is not well equipped to ask the most basic questions about the legitimacy of various aspects of the prevailing global system.  The traditional forms of religious affiliations, in proposing an 'imagined society', realised in some fashion in the practices of faith, are better resourced for such questions."

The challenge for those "who adhere to revealed faith" but do not wish simply to be absorbed into an uncritical post-religious culture focused on "the autonomous self and its choices" was to rediscover what "the great Anglican Benedictine scholar Gregory Dix meant by describing Christians as a new 'species', homo eucharisticus, a humanity defined in its Eucharistic practice...'The unleavened bread of sincerity and truth' is the gift of the Easter Gospel, we are told in the liturgy; 'Lord, evermore give us this bread' (Jn 6.34)." 

To view a video of the lecture at The Cardinal's Lectures website, click link on the right. 

A transcript follows.


'I'm not into religion. I am completely anti-religious. Religion is a term for a collection, a denomination. I am interested in personal experience of God'. This remark from no less an authority than Bono of U2 (quoted from N. McCormick, I Was Bono's Doppleganger, Penguin 2004, p.114) elegantly sums up a view that has become increasingly widespread in Britain and in much of contemporary Northern Europe: substantial numbers of people identify themselves in questionnaires and surveys as 'spiritual but not religious'. The spiritual dimension of all sorts of things, from school education to business practice, is recognised more and more seriously. But all this is distinguished sharply from adherence to any specific religious tradition and community. While the spiritual may be a resource for health, even for 'capital' (as in the title of a recent book by DanahZohar and Ian Marshall, Spiritual Capital: Wealth We Can Live By, Bloomsbury 2004), the 'religious' is seen as ambivalent at best, dangerous at worst.

If we ask why exactly the religious is so unattractive in the eyes of many, including so many iconic and opinion-forming figures, the answers are not too difficult to work out. Bono's remarks provide an obvious starting-point. Religion is a matter of the collective mentality, with all that this implies about having to take responsibility for corporately-held teaching and discipline; so religious allegiance can be seen as making over some aspect of myself to others in ways that may compromise both my liberty and my integrity. It may be seen as committing myself to practices that mean little to me, or subjecting myself to codes of conduct that don't connect at all convincingly with my sense of who I am or what is creative and lifegiving for me. It may mean being obliged to profess belief in certain propositions that appear arbitrary and unconnected with the business of human flourishing. The spiritual, in contrast, is what opens up and resources personal integrity at a new depth, developing and not frustrating the sense of personal distinctiveness and allowing ordinary human activities to be understood afresh against a broader background of 'sacred' meaning. Such a vision doesn't commit you to believing six impossible things before breakfast or signing away your liberty or becoming locked into a tribal mentality, hostile to other sorts of meaning and commitment.

If we wanted to identify the two most significant grounds for objection to religion in this connection, they would, I think, be the claim to some kind of exclusive truthfulness (with the implication of the untruthfulness and thus illegitimacy of other convictions), and the demand for an abdication of personal liberty. If we are looking for spiritual resources in our modern environment, they have to be inclusive and generative of liberty. So DanahZohar can write, in the introduction to the book just referred to:

'My use of the word spiritual here and throughout the book has no connection with religion or any other organized belief system. Religious organizations and religiously based cultures have undoubtedly built some genuine spiritual capital. But they have done so within the limitations of belief systems that exclude those who hold other religious beliefs and those who have no religious belief. The broader kind of spiritual capital needed for organizations, communities, and cultures participating in today's pluralist and global society must draw on deeper, non-sectarian meanings, values, purposes, and motivations that might be sacred to any human being' (p.3).


Behind all this lies a broad historical trajectory which has been skilfully mapped by sociologists like David Martin and Grace Davie. Martin has identified it as the process of a 'loosening of monopoly' (see for example his essay, 'Central Europe and the Loosening of Monopoly and the Religious Tie' in On Secularization, Ashgate 2005, pp.112-119): the historic churches and the historic nation states alike – and often in collaboration – provided for all citizens a narrative within which they could live and die, a narrative that justified discipline, sacrifice and solidarity. As the economic power of the average individual changes and thus the availability of a wider assortment of chosen identities opens up, 'monopolistic' claims about what constitutes identity lose their social and imaginative plausibility: we are always going to be aware of perfectly credible and attractive alternatives to the demands made by traditional forms of belonging. It is no longer obvious why we should live like that. Thus what remains of traditionally shaped identity will slip further and further towards a reservoir of material which people can draw on as they put together an identity they have chosen. Socially speaking, this is not just a description of what happens when 'religion' encounters 'modernity', and it has little to do with any supposed erosion of religion's credibility by science (see pp.115-16 of Martin's essay). It is part of the general shift in economically developed societies away from the idea of a controlling narrative, a story about shared meanings and goals.

This is one of the most pervasive changes in the shared mindset of the modern West. As Martin, Davie and others have insisted, it is a different thing from secularisation. It does not mean that people have stopped asking the questions which were once framed by religious narratives or looking for sources of significance in their lives beyond the realms of measurable worldly success. The difference is – to use a distinction sometimes made in this connection – that we generally prefer these days to be patrons rather than subscribers: we reserve our liberty in regard to our various affiliations rather than committing ourselves to regular and unquestioning support. Parish clergy will probably note with wry familiarity this shift in attitude and how it impacts on regular church attendance; and another of the substantive cultural changes that we have seen in our lifetimes has been the gradual spread of the 'patron' mentality in Catholic as well as Protestant environments. The patron remains in control and his or her relation to the community of affiliation is one in which questions will regularly be asked about how well the patron's needs are being recognized and met. The subscriber characteristically considers himself or herself bound in important respects by the needs of the community or organization. Quite apart from the problems of the Christian Church in contemporary Britain, the almost insoluble challenge for many charities these days, competing as they have to for support, is how to persuade people by what are essentially market methods that they should take up a very non-market-minded position of committed involvement.

So the challenge to those of us who maintain our involvement in traditionally conceived religious communities is not just an assault by principled secularists on all religious belief - though that is hardly insignificant. More immediately in most contexts it is that we can't help being committed, like the charities I mentioned a moment ago, to living with a market mentality. We have to learn how to make ourselves look credible and attractive, marketable. We cannot avoid a deeper examination of what it is that is said to make 'religion' problematic or even threatening. We have to work out how just such an estimate might be, and we have to argue what it is that the search for 'spiritual capital' independently of corporate religious affiliation leaves as unfinished business.

These are complementary challenges, of course. In trying to meet them, I want to be clear that I have no desire to belittle the concern people have for spirituality, or the importance given to discovering a vision that can be held and acted on with personal integrity; nor do I want to suggest any idealising of uncritical religious allegiance (as we shall see, the word 'religious' has its own shadows and pitfalls for believers). But I do want to confront the idea that the future of human spiritual awareness and maturity can lie only with a post-religious consciousness, with what might be 'sacred to any human being', over and above the affirmations of any specific religious body.


   Religion as understood by those who find it unacceptable in the way Bono outlines is something seen essentially in terms of an appeal to the will: decide to believe these propositions and to obey these commands. Heard in this way, the appeal to religious faith invites the response, 'Why should I?' It seems like a simple bid for power, an appeal to irrational submission. The more religious commitment is seen in this essentially political mode – something to do with securing conformity to a system of ideas and government – the less it connects with any aspiration to personal integrity as most people now conceive it. But one of the peculiar curses of modernity has been to create in this particular area of human reflection a series of false polarities. Because pre-modern religion did indeed often represent patterns of authority beyond accountability and challenge, the connection of religious affiliation with an abdication of responsibility was not difficult to make. The result has been the classic Enlightenment standoff between a faith which refuses criticism and questioning – and therefore refuses real self-knowledge as we understand it – and the realm of critical rationality, in which every assertion is justified by argument and evidence that is in principle accessible to anyone. At its crudest, this can be stated in terms of religion offering bad and unreasonable explanations for phenomena that science can explain reasonably. But even at a more sophisticated level of argument, we still hear the same underlying theme: religion introduces an alien element into reasonable human discourse; it makes life difficult for anything approaching a universal language of rights and liberties, law and equity, a language to transcend the various forms of murderous tribalism which afflict our world. Against this background, it is very naturally viewed by many as something which may be tolerated as a purely private matter of conviction, but no more. When we talk about the public sphere – education, business, rights – we may need a spirituality, but it will have to be of the Zohar/Marshall variety, freed from the shadow of 'sectarianism'.

But what if it is wrong to see traditional religious affiliation as a matter of deciding like this, as if we were just talking about 'lifestyle choices'? Traditional styles of religious commitment were nothing much to do with resolving to think or do this or that: they were environments in which people were supplied with a set of possible roles within a comprehensive narrative, a set of possible projects shaped by the governing story. The aim of life was to act in a way that lets the story come through, that shows to the world what we believe is most real. Freedom was imagined as the liberty to embody anobjective truth. Freedom was what happened when we were delivered from a state of illusion and unreality, the unreality of letting our lives be shaped by nothing but instinct or arbitrary choice.

And here is the salient point in response to what can be claimed for post-religious spirituality. The spiritual intelligence outlined by Zohar and Marshall perceives the interconnectedness of things and the consequent imperative of acting responsibly, acknowledging that level of interconnectedness. But it also begins with the assumption that human beings have, so to speak, already decided on the range of activities they will undertake, so that the only question is how to perform them more responsibly. Acquiring spiritual capital, as Zohar and Marshall clearly admit, is an aspect of acquiring sustainable wealth for the greatest possible number; hence the illustrative stories of how spiritually alert people in global organizations (even McDonald's; see pp.61-63, 73) can improve the performance of the organization, qualitatively and even quantitatively.

There is a perfectly proper warning here against the easy assumption that some kinds of organization are just too evil to merit the engagement of spiritually serious persons. But at the same time, it is hard not to feel that something has been left out of the picture, some question about the overall worth of what we have already decided to do. What is it that makes, say, a global fast-food enterprise a proper enterprise in shaping a life that expresses a larger, interconnected truth to which we are answerable? How deep is the spiritual question allowed to cut? It is possible to recognize interconnectedness and yet to miss a major moral point. It isn't just a matter of how we do the things we've already decided to do; it's also what sort of things we have already decided to do, and how or whether those things could possibly be signs of the interconnectedness of things or indeed of that relation to the 'sacred' as something beyond our individual minds and feelings (c.f. Zohar and Marshall, p.142).

There's the problem; if you can recognise patterns of cosmic interconnection and yet not know how to start asking question about what sort of actions are revealing of the sacred order of things, something is missing, something that ahs to do with motivation for radical challenge and possible change in what we take for granted. Deciding that you are obliged to be responsible is not something you can instantly derive from belief in an interconnected universe. Responsibility has about it an irreducible element of being called to 'answer' for and to other agents; its roots have a lot to do with the sense of being the recipient of something at the hands of another. Something is bestowed which both enables and requires an answer. Yet to speak like this of 'bestowing' or 'endowing' is to move immediately into a realm in which I confront something like another personal presence. A generalised 'sacred' dimension of reality may be independent of my mind, but doesn't in itself need or suggest this language of 'bestowal'. Talking about God, not just about the sacred, assumes, on the contrary, that there is not only a sacred reality but an initiating agency that is independent of anything in our world. I am invited to make myself answerable for the good, the human welfare and spiritual health, of the human other, to make myself disposable in some measure for them, in part because of how I have learned to 'read' the world around, reading it as suggesting that an agency independent of any circumstance within the world has 'taken responsibility' for my welfare – has not only given life in general but put at my disposal the life that is its own.

Religious traditions that speak about an active divine presence thus maintain that my responsible action is in some way a reflection or even continuation of the foundational act which initiates everything we perceive. And that act may be discerned vaguely and generally in some aspects of the world; but it is not given precise shape in terms of freedom and initiative without some more specific story that can be told about the free self-communication of the sacred which makes this act visible. Morality becomes not a matter of compliance with arbitrary rules enforced by threat but the struggle to identify and move with the direction of fundamental creative action as it has shown itself to us. Freedom is indeed the freedom to be in union with this act; anything less is going to be ultimately frustrating and self-destructive. But freedom in this sense, a freedom that allows for radical change, is triggered only by the clear representation or realisation of an unconditional divine gift within the world's own story. And this at once involves us in claims about uniquely revelatory or transforming events, in dealing with questions about where we can best stand in order to see, with some measure of authoritative clarity, the direction, the 'flow' of things with which we seek harmony.

Religious identity that works in this way allows for a complex of elements that 'post-religious' spirituality cannot easily deal with or accommodate. There is, most obviously, the whole world of language and feeling that connects with personal relation – supremely with love, in the Christian tradition. The process of exploring the 'endowment' offered is more like the discovery of a person than anything else, and the responses we develop are closely analogous to the kinds of self-examination we may undertake in the light of a serious and lasting relation with another human being. Yet when this has been said, what comes most sharply into focus is a vastly intensified sense of what can also appear in human intimacy – the inadequacy of thinking and responding as if the other were simply a version of oneself. And so, while Christian theology in particular gives unique privilege to this language of the personal and of love, it also constantly reminds the believer that the analogy is partial; we do not know what it might mean for an infinite agent utterly outside our frame of interlocking, interdependent reference to be 'personal'. We have no other framework that can carry the truth of what we want to say, but we cannot specify exactly how what we say correlates with how it is with the divine. The confident deployment of the language of love always goes along with the critical awareness that the words take us to the edge of what we normally think of as knowledge, not to a clear position from which we can authoritatively survey the truth.


Interpersonal imagery, then, combining with the recurrent and unavoidable recognition of its incompleteness, is regularly part of what the 'religious' as opposed to the 'spiritual' entails – at least in the Abrahamic traditions. The specific reality of the human self is not abolished, but it is dethroned or decentred. To discover who I am I need to discover the relation in which I stand to an active, prior Other, to a transcendent creator: I don't first sort out who I am and then seek for resources to sustain that identity.

What I am trying to convey is what the creative imagination of the 'mystical' writer most fully embodies, an awareness that the policy of living in faith and worship constantly opens upon a landscape still to be explored, resisting mastery and mapping, yet also authoritative in its distance from what the individual or collective human will produces. The traditional religious marks of gratitude and obedience can be translated, in this register of writing, simply as what an enjoyment of the real entails – an 'enjoyment' which is also a comprehensively and painfully self-displacing process, allowing what is there, and prior to us, just to be itself. Anyone who concluded that the risks of exclusivism, 'sectarianism', were too high and that the future had to lie with non-revelatory, non-dogmatic spirituality, would need also to acknowledge that a particular register of speech and understanding would have to disappear – all that evokes this complex blend of joy, yielding, relational intimacy and so on, all that it is tempting to call, in the broadest sense, the 'erotic' in spiritual imagination, which has figured so largely in historic practice. Redefinition in terms of spiritual capital has a price. And part of the price is the loss of the unqualified enjoyment of what is there for what it is ('We give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory'). Whether it is a necessary price to escape from the evils of exclusivism is a matter I shall come back to before finishing.

But all I have said highlights the point briefly touched on a while ago: practitioners of traditional religion are generally, if they think about it, reluctant to reduce what they do to the model of a corporate adherence to a set of doctrines and policies. They sit uncomfortably with the very category of 'religion', largely because it has been so trivialised by this kind of reduction. To turn specifically to Christian identity – though others may want to spell it out in terms of their own narratives or communal practices – the idea of 'the Christian religion' is a late and weak formulation: what first exists is the Assembly, to give the literal meaning of the Greek word for 'Church', as a fresh configuring of the whole of experienced reality – a new set of human relations, a new horizon for what human beings are capable of, a new understanding of the material world and its capacities. The Christian involved in the celebration of the Eucharist is not affirming a set of propositions with the help of an audio-visual programme, but inhabiting, in speech and action, a drama which purports to 're-locate' him or her in the space occupied by Jesus Christ in his eternal relationship with the Father, a relocation which is enabled by his sacrificial death and his rising from the grave and ascension into heaven. 'The Eucharistic sacrifice represents the cost of love's unarmed appeal to the city and of what followed from the rejection of the sign of the peace...[A]ll the ordinary citizens of the city are able to become a brotherhood by a sharing in the broken body and the shed blood. They are made whole and peaceful again by absorbing and imbibing its brokenness and its violence'. This is part of David Martin's summary of what it is that the 'Assembly' offers the 'city', the society in which it is set: not first a complex of doctrine and regulation but a ritual of healing through being drawn into a common space, a 'Kingdom', an alternative City (Martin, Does Christianity Cause War? Oxford 1997, pp.153-4). And this ritual of healing claims to be effective because of an actual event or set of events in history, in which the sacred reality from which everything derives freely identified itself with the victims of human violence so as to absorb and swallow up the cycle of violence once and for all. Doctrine is indispensable for the statement of this, and regulation and moral valuation flow inexorably from it; but first it is exposure to an action believed to be effective in altering the world we experience, human and non-human.

In other words, the Christian alternative to the post-religious spirituality outlined earlier is not simply 'religion' as some sort of intellectual and moral system but the corporately experienced reality of the Kingdom, the space that has been cleared in human imagination and self-understanding by the revealing events of Jesus' life. Standing in this place, I am made aware of what is fundamental and indestructible about my human identity: that I am the object of divine intention and commitment, a being freely created and never abandoned. Standing in this place, I am also challenged to examine every action or policy in my life in the light of what I am; and I am, through the common life of the 'Assembly', made able to change and to be healed, to feed and be fed in relations with others in the human city. Faced with the claims of non-dogmatic spirituality, the believer should not be insisting anxiously on the need for compliance with a set of definite propositions; he or she should be asking whether what happens when the Assembly meets to adore God and lay itself open to his action looks at all like a new and transforming environment, in which human beings are radically changed.


   We have noted the large-scale cultural shift which has made post-religious spirituality seem in some ways better adapted to contemporary conditions than classical religious practice; but we should also note some encouraging signs which suggest that the movement is not all one-way. The growing presence in Europe of a substantial and confident form of classical religious practice in the shape of Islam has put the quest for detached non-sectarian spiritual capital in perspective: post-religious spirituality has to compete with an articulate corporate voice which stubbornly resists being made instrumental to the well-being of an unchallenged Western and capitalist modernity. The natural and instinctive reaction of government is to attempt to co-opt the strong motivations of such corporate vision into the project of strengthening social cohesion. Yet, as we noted earlier, it, like much of our current culture, still tends to view religious belonging as simply a form of private lifestyle option, and finds difficulty coping with the fact that there will be areas of standoff between the practices of the community and the assumptions of the culture at large.

There is a fair amount of confusion in all this, and it will take time to clarify and find our way through. Still, the gradual and cautious welcome given in official vocabulary to what 'faith communities' – rather than just spiritually sensitive individuals – may contribute to the strengthening of motivation towards mutual support and nurture suggests that the picture has altered a little in recent years. When the great German philosopher JurgenHabermas acknowledged some years ago in debate with the then Cardinal Ratzinger that traditional religion offered necessary resources to the construction of social reason and just practice, he was paving the way for some such approach on the part of secular government. There is an implicit acknowledgement, it seems, that what religious affiliation of a classical kind offers is not to be reduced just to an enhanced sense of the transcendent or of the interconnection of all things. Mark Thompson observed last week that there is evidence of 'not just a persistence but a sharp revival of interest in the spiritual potential of traditional religious practice and belief.'

This is not, as I have stressed earlier, a reason for the traditional believer to dismiss the role of the post-religious 'spiritual' sensibility; but it is important to be clear, so far as we can, about where the differences lie and precisely what critical questions might be put to the advocate of the non-sectarian spiritual in terms both of the roots of motivation and of the scope of moral challenge within the framework of global capitalism. And, as again we observed earlier, there is at least a shared concern for more than the enhancement of the individual's self-awareness. In the Zohar/Marshall book (chapter 10), there is even a proposal for a sort of elite network of disciplined strategists, aware of something like a vocation to change the moral complexion and culture of their organisations. The rather unhappy analogy used is of the Order of Knights Templar; but the salient point is the recognition that shared discipline and a sense of calling, of a kind typical of traditional religious practice, are a necessary undergirding for any sustained attempt to question and transform institutions at more than a surface level.

But what, finally, about the issue of the innate exclusivism of revelation-based faith and communities of faith? We have noted that any claim about what is good for humanity as such will have about it an element of exclusivity: it is the reverse side of trying to hold to a perspective of universality and equality in the human world. We cannot, however passionately we want to avoid 'sectarianism', settle for a philosophy that believes radically different things are good for different sorts of people – different races, sexes, classes – without entrenching a politics that would be rightly objectionable to most of our contemporaries and which would make nonsense of any discourse of rights. David Martin, in the book referred to a little way back (Does Christianity Cause War?), notes that 'universality itself sets up a boundary...The announcement of peace sets off a profound tension' (p.159), and concludes that such conflict is an inescapable aspect of our human condition. No-one can identify the argument that will establish convincingly for everyone that their variety of universalism is correct (and this holds for post-religious spirituality as much as for anything else). The question is, Martin suggests, less about the universal character of the claim than about how we imagine (that word again) our methods of commending the vision.

The better we understand the distinctiveness of religious claims, the better we understand the centrality within them of non-violence. That is to say, the religious claim, to the extent that it defines itself as radically different from mere local or transitory political strategies, is more or less bound to turn away from the defence or propagation of the claims by routinely violent methods, as if the truth we were talking about depended on the capacity of the speaker to silence all others by force. Granted that this is how classical communal religion has all too regularly behaved; but the point is that it has always contained a self-critique on this point. And that growing self-awareness about religious identity, which has been one paradoxical consequence of the social and intellectual movement away from such an identity, makes it harder and harder to reconcile faith in an invulnerable and abiding truth with violent anxiety as to how it is to be defended.

In short, as religion – corporate, sacramental and ultimately doctrinal religion – settles into this kind of awareness, it becomes one of the most potent allies possible for genuine pluralism – that is, for a social and political culture that is consistently against coercion and institutionalised inequality and is committed to serious public debate about common good. Spiritual capital alone, in the sense of a heightened acknowledgement especially among politicians, businessmen and administrators of dimensions to human flourishing beyond profit and material security, is helpful but is not well equipped to ask the most basic questions about the legitimacy of various aspects of the prevailing global system. The traditional forms of religious affiliations, in proposing an 'imagined society', realised in some fashion in the practices of faith, are better resourced for such questions. They lose their integrity when they attempt to enforce their answers; and one of the most significant lessons to be learned from the great shift towards post-religious spiritual sensibility is how deeply the coercive and impersonal ethos of a good deal of traditional religion has alienated the culture at large. But, more importantly, if we who adhere to revealed faith don't want to be simply at the mercy of this culture, to be absorbed into its own uncritical stories about the autonomous self and its choices, then we need to examine the degree to which our practice looks like a new world. And if this debate drives us Christians back to thinking through more carefully and critically what the great Anglican Benedictine scholar Gregory Dix meant by describing Christians as a new 'species', homo eucharisticus, a humanity defined in its Eucharistic practice, it will have served us well. 'The unleavened bread of sincerity and truth' is the gift of the Easter Gospel, we are told in the liturgy; 'Lord, evermore give us this bread' (Jn 6.34).

© Rowan Williams 2008

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