Written by Adam Locke
I consider it a blessing to have a younger brother who, in recent years, has grown into an exceptionally insightful friend, whose capacity for thoughtful conversation I admire and aspire to. We were recently walking through Peterborough Cathedral talking about life in general and, appropriate for the scene, the topic of religious belief came up. Neither of us is strictly religious but there is a place for spirituality in both of our lives; that conversation, is, as far as I can remember, the first I’ve had about faith with a family member, and likewise the first in a while.
Our society has a complex relationship with religion and faith. In Britain, where I live and which I call home, England has a State Church and Scotland her own National Church. Our MPs regularly swear an oath to God to serve our monarch, who is also a Defender of the (Anglican Christian) faith. Much of our constitution has a distinctly Christian flavour, including its arguable cornerstone, the Magna Carta. Many of our most notable educational institutions feature religious connotations, such as my own University of St Andrews and numberless colleges or halls of Oxbridge (Trinity, Jesus, and Magdalene being but a few). The influence of religion on our culture – our history, our morality and amorphous “British Values”, our political ideals, our language and phrases – is also considerable.
Yet despite the influence of religion on British life, we are a secular society. Churchgoing is in decline and irreligion on the increase. In the words of former Chancellor Alistair Darling, our politicians “don’t do God”, while traditionally Christian celebrations such as Christmas see their original Christian meaning turned to “secular” values, such as the importance of family, friendship, and generosity (all, incidentally, key values in several religions). Religion is often not discussed out of fear of offending others, leaving that conversation too-often dominated by militant atheists, fundamentalists of different faiths, and those willing to weaponise religion for their own, usually unpleasant, agendas.
Inserting myself with none of the due humility into this complex equation of religiosity and secularity, I have a personal struggle to define my faith in an age where society in general likes to put faith in a box.
Much of this is, of course, my own doing. I dislike boxed identity, and so I begrudgingly fit into that amorphously and infuriatingly loose but effective label of “spiritual but not religious”. But this isn’t quite accurate, because so much of my spiritual identity comes out of reflection from and study of religion. I owe my agnostic-theism to Martin Luther and Søren Kierkegaard; my disregard of iconography and my teetotalism to the Reformed tradition; my fondness for meditation and dislike of petitionary prayer to classical Stoicism; my appreciation for religious discourse to innumerate Islamic jurists and philosophers; and my general scepticism, as well as my love of study, of traditional religious structures (e.g. established Churches) to innumerate historians and commentators. I happily borrow church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s definition of “a candid friend of Christianity” as a good personal moniker. Perhaps most accurately, I’m a religious mongrel, drifting from door-to-door and stealing scraps of theology and spirituality from religions and philosophies that turned their back for a minute too long. It’s a lifestyle I’d recommend to anyone, by virtue of how much of the intellectual world you get to see and admire.
The issue with such an amorphous spiritual identity is that discussing such has, in my experience, often been awkward and sometimes intimidating. I’ve been told that to have any religious belief is a mental illness, and I’ve seen the disdainful shock on someone’s face as they ask “Do you really believe that?” when discussing religious views. Naturally, such interactions are discouraging. I’d imagine this is a challenge faced, also, by more conventionally religious young people as well, and in a variety of ways.
And yet. I remember, fondly, a wonderful conversation with a Christian friend at university about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. Two friends discussing, respectfully and openly and as peacefully as the night sky above us, one of the great wonders of the great religions.
That’s the kind of conversation I love and miss. Conversations like that build identity, build community. In that conversation it didn’t matter that one of us was Christian and the other religiously amorphous. In the same way that discussing politics, though fraught with danger, can reveal fundamental building-blocks of someone’s identity, such conversations are an opportunity to explore something that matters. In doing so, we grow in our capacity to share sensitivity, inspiration, curiosity, and understanding. For conventionally religious folk, with a church or a congregation, I imagine this might be regular; you have your community explicitly because you want to share your wonder and admiration for something that matters so much to all of you, together.
This, I think, is the most complex part of being spiritual without firm identity in a secular society. The lack of a voice to hear and a heart to resonate with. I’m not the world’s most socially savvy person but I can recognise that opening a conversation with “I’ve been thinking about God, thoughts?” is enough to make some people – many people I know – uncomfortable. How can you build better understanding, how can you express that curiosity, how can you manage to be sensitive, if that subject is one that fundamentally discomforts most people you know?
That question is a challenge for myself, and possibly for anyone who feels the religious question isn’t quite settled for themselves. Maybe the answer is to throw the God question around more and surprise myself at people’s answers. Maybe it’s to look for people who do want to have those conversations. Maybe it’s to get off the fence and engage with a Church or another religious community. What remains true is that there are as many ways to do faith – or not – as there are hearts beating. Exploring them will always be a delight, whether in quiet moments to myself, whether over coffee with friends, or stuck in a good book – as long as there’s wonder, curiosity, inspiration, and above all respect.
Adam Locke has interests in a wide range of philosophical and religious traditions and holds a Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. He currently works in the public sector in the UK.
Cover Photo courtesy of TravelingTart on Pexels.com