I have just returned from a trip to North Carolina, where I presented workshops on Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro. I learned some lessons I’ll be sharing in future posts, but for now here is a guest-post by ChristianAtheist, who sometimes comments on my essays. She writes about an idea that might be called “theological anthropology.”
Working at Oxford University is a wonderful way to get to know people from other cultures, and many of my conversations with visiting or newly employed researchers from abroad revolve around the bewildering unwritten rules of English culture. (These are amusingly described in Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, which I recommend to them.)
As part of their Oxford experience, I also recommend attending the service of choral evensong at an Oxford college chapel. This, like many other English rituals such as tea drinking, needs some deconstruction, both for the non-English and the non-religious.
I hate the idea of people going to a church service for the first time and not at least glimpsing some of the nuances of the rituals and symbols – it seems such a waste of an aesthetically rich experience. But, like most art forms, if you don’t get the references, you will only engage at a superficial level, and if you have any hang ups about religion, these can get in the way.
So maybe we should think about the cultural gap between English and non-English as similar to the gap between theist and non-theist: both should try to bridge that gap by explaining the unwritten behaviours, values, norms and beliefs of the alien culture. This can be done without any suggestion that one is right and one wrong, but just as a way of gaining insight into the culture and, in the case of evensong, appreciating its liturgy in greater depth.
This is an email I recently sent to a group of social psychologists before going to evensong and dinner at New College, Oxford:
Dear fellow amateur anthropologists of English culture,
If you are thinking about whether to come to evensong, but are worried you will feel like a member of the outgroup because you’re not a religious person (or maybe because you have negative feelings towards the Church as something oppressive or outdated), it may help to re-frame the experience of evensong in a non-religious way. The Church of England encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs, and is very un-dogmatic; although it is Protestant, in many ways it is not like the Protestant churches in the rest of Europe.
You will see the word “inclusive” used to describe New College Chapel on their website (as most of the college chapels do): this means they welcome people from all backgrounds, whatever their beliefs, sexuality, class, etc, and is a way of communicating that the chapel does not believe in the Bible as literally true, but attempts to find contemporary meaning in its stories (just as one might in other forms of literature).
The tradition of evening prayer goes back to at least the fourth century and at New College it has been conducted almost every day since the fourteenth century, so it can help to think of yourself as taking part in a historical tradition. It is also an uplifting aesthetic experience, which it is possible to describe as transcendent in some way that may or may not involve some kind of supernatural dimension! In other words, there can be some continuity between the aesthetic and the spiritual.
So I would suggest not thinking too much about the theological content or truth value of the words but about their poetry; and about how the symbolism of the architecture and rituals contribute to the experience.
There is also a political dimension to it – look out for the words in the Magnificat about the rich and the poor, for example. Oxford is very liberal theologically and politically, and this is the way many people come to a service like evensong, so don’t feel you are a member of the outgroup, but instead as a member of a superordinate group of people who are intelligent, sensitive, open minded, politically aware and with good taste.
I look forward to discussing your experiences over dinner!
Thanks to ChristianAtheist for suggesting ways of transcending ingroups and outgroups from a superordinate perspective. The more we identify with the group called “all humanity,” the more we will sense our kinship, regardless of our theological orientations.
Roger Christan Schriner
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