Sea of Faith, Yorkshire


Opinion Piece October 2010

Small and Imperfectly formed - but still in the Spirit.
A personal view of the Sea of Faith

The recent Papal visit was a perhaps overdue reminder that there are still many people with an attachment to Christianity in this country. Religion rarely features in the news unless there is scandal, controversy or conflict to report. It is true that attendance at the mainstream churches continues to decline steadily, but there are new Christian organisations springing up everywhere - witness the Abundant Life megachurch in Bradford, the Aire Valley Community Church, and Sheffield's Centre for Radical Christianity, among many others in Yorkshire.

Possibly more suprising is the existence of a small national group the Sea of Faith (now officially called just by its initials 'SOF'), with its own Yorkshire Network. Despite its original name, this is a group whose mission is 'exploring religion as a human creation'. Distinct from atheists and humanists, SOF people seek to conserve what is valuable in religion, while moving on from what they see as irrationality, naive superstition, complacent conservatism and just plain injustices in the traditional (and some of the new) religions.

What is left of value, then? SOF meetings focus on the unavoidable reality that philosophy, the arts, and even science all grew out of religion. Obviously these babies are not being thrown out with the bathwater of religion, but all of them have a spiritual aspect which it is at least impoverishing, and at most tragic, to deny. Science, and nowadays even philosophy, confine themselves to asking small-scale 'How?' questions, and have ceased to ask the big questions such as 'Why?' This practical, no-nonsense approach has been a fruitful one, by cutting out questions that were incoherent or impossible to answer. But it has borne many bitter fruits as well.

Modern philosophy, and especially the social sciences and psychology have become narrow, technical and arid. There are individuals who try to break out of the frame, sometimes successfully, but they are always seen as mavericks. The consequences of science and technology conducted without a wider humane vision have global impacts in weapons development, environmental damage, irresponsible methods of food production and processing, and the power of drugs companies to influence national health policies.

Only the arts have shamelessly kept alive their original link with spirituality, and where would we be without the drama, images and music that infuse our everyday life, even if only in the mass media, fashion, pop music and advertising? The energy, vigour and zest for life that the arts, and especially the popular arts express stem from the very opposite of the 'no-nonsense' attitude.

Dangerously, the arts all depend on our society's deliberate acceptance and cultivation of them, calling for investment, education and training. Luckily, the arts also depend on people's natural immediate responses to colour, shape, pattern, movement, music, drama, fantasy and imagination, and these responses are not likely to wither away any time soon. Business people may scoff at their 'creatives', yet must acknowledge the power of advertising that makes use of these natural responses.

Drama, fantasy and imagination are the ingredients, and expression, of the all-important questions of morality (questions about how we should live) that, in some form or other, exercise everyone. Outside the churches, we are faced with paradoxes like outright rejection of the idea of God (too fantastical), yet interest in the patent fictions of film, television drama and novels. Even Santa Claus rides out stronger every year.

These are the fascinating puzzles about modern spirituality that SOF seeks to explore - not hoping to promote Santa (he hardly needs it), but trying to understand the underlying contradictions of modern life that are dissolving the traditional expressions of spirituality.

Carol Sherrard (Yorkshire Network contact)