Alister Hardy Annual Conference, 2003

This conference was held by three organisations together - the A.H. Society, the A.H. Religious Experience Research Centre and the University of Wales Centre for the Study of World Religions at the University of Wales, Lampeter from 12th to 14th September. It was a delightful location though difficult for those dependent on public transport. The content fully lived up to the expectations raised by the conference title: "Spiritual Experience and the World's Religious Traditions".

I have been asked to write something of the event. I ask readers to accept that I am no academic and that what follows is no more than a visiting layman's impressions.

Prior to the conference proper we had a three-session workshop commencing with an interesting introduction by our Society's Jill Hemmings and Adrian Rance.

On Friday morning June Boyce-Tillman delighted and moved us with a fascinating series of talks and exercises on the theme "Experiencing Spirituality - Musicking the Mystery". Her theme was that spiritual depth and growth can be found in music, especially when made by oneself. She told us of Hildegard of Bingen who exercised humility but certainly not timidity. June showed us how to find our individual note in an exercise reminiscent of Buddhist chanting. She told us of cultures saved by holding to their music and urged us to sing, hum, whistle, chant. Then she took us on a "Shamanic Journey" accompanied by a steady beat on a Native American drum, in which she took us through an imagined gateway to meet our own Special Being. Finally she shared with us a diagramatic model of the dualities of Western culture, showing how features are 'twisted' (I'd have said 'perverted') versions of their opposites.

In the afternoon Sandy and Jael Bharat gave an interesting presentation on the mystical commonalities of the great world religions, comparing religiosity with mysticism, and posed some provoking questions for us to discuss in groups. One related to an idea that we needed a new movement or faith, using this mystical basis (maybe the 'perennial philosophy'?) in addition to the great religious myths and stories. However the consensus seemed not to embrace the idea.

Later on Friday the main conference began with a keynote address from Dr Wendy Dossett, who recounted her experiences and findings when in Japan to research 'Pure Land Buddhism', which is practiced by 14 million people there. It is rejects most of the tenets of other forms of Buddhism, believing only in 'Naturalness' and the attainment of merit solely by unreserved and selfless praise to and adoration of Buddha. Meditation, ritual, even good works, are of no avail. Wendy Dossett's research was into three questions: the relationship between Naturalness and Discipline, the contrast between Truth (or Reality) and Naturalness, and the extent to which Naturalness is an elusive goal.

On the Saturday morning we had a fascinating lecture by Prof. Xinzhong Yao who prefaced it with a disclaimer; the area of "Chinese Spirituality" - his subject - was far too vast to be covered adequately in the time available. Having said that, he seemed to succeed in his task. This was by structuring his survey around the tension between the Other and the Self, which he said dominated Chinese spirituality in practice and in religious controversy. Within this framework he discussed the differences (and the many similarities) between Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and spirit worship (and several major sub-schools of these), with references to Japanese variants and Judeo-Christian beliefs. He used pictures to illustrate some of his points. I could not attempt to summarise his talk - tapes are available - but I will note one or two items which caught my interest. He mentioned a factor which I feel is too often neglected - the great difference between how intellectuals and laymen understand and practice a religion.

The arguments about the relevance of Self Power (zi li or jiriki in Japanes) and Other-Power (ta li or tariki), seemed to me to echo Grace and Good Works. The 'other' may be gods, dragons, or spiritual beings who were formerly human who had attained immortality by good works or by achieving wisdom. In time Self Power became more accepted, to the extent that not only spirits but any God becomes irrelevant, and people turn to secular spiritualities. "Don’t try to understand death, try to understand life first!"

Prof. Yao told us that although one school of Confucianism believed all are born good, others considered that we are basically evil and need much training and discipline, hence a continuing respect for teachers and education. None of the Chinese religions have a creator-god in the Judeo-Christian sense. The Cultural Revolution tried to suppress all religious practices, but in 1970 they quickly sprang back into life.

The next lecture was much more low key but deep and informative nevertheless. It was given by Prof Mohammed K. Shaker of Tehran who spoke on "Prayer in Shi'ite Islam". He frequently contrasted Shi'ite with Sunni Islam, explaining the origin of the difference - a dispute about whether the succession should remain in the Founder's family. He said that Shia Moslems were "steeped in kindness, compassion, and love". Their aim was nearness to God, their method - prayer five times daily, and continual calling upon Him. He spoke of the role of the Immams as spiritual guides and as healers. "Many healing miracles occur in Shia temples." Immams are not Gods, but in divine friendship with God. He spoke strongly against Wahabee Islam, predominant in Saudi Arabia, which is so much against images and shrines as to want to destroy even the shrine of the Prophet. He told us something of Shia prayers, which he said were very mystical. He then read one, which I found uncomfortable. It seemed to me excessively self deprecating, and to my ear overblown in its repetition of praise to God. However, his prayers were accompanied by some beautiful computer-generated graphics (fractals?) on a large screen. In question time Prof Shaker said that some Moslems believed in bodily resurrection but most thought it to be spiritual. Asked about the 'hidden Immam' which he had mentioned, he said the world must expect a Saviour. Asked about the use of images displayed during his prayers he indicated that he was probably unusually progressive. Asked about Sufis he said they come from both Shia and Sunni traditions, but as the Shia were more mystical they had less need of Sufi mysticism.

On the Saturday afternoon we had a choice in which we could hear up to three presentations by the college's MA Theology students. The first that I attended was on "Spiritual Imperialism" given by Karen Assmuss, who is also an assistant chaplain at the University. She had studied the (mis)appropriation of Native American spirituality by Westerners, particularly by the New Age movement. Rituals and practices were taken out of context and grossly misused. While some Native Americans were willing to profit from the trade, and others were prepared to share with serious and respectful visitors, many were becoming militant in their anger over the trivialisation and misrepresentation of their sacred practices. She also told us of the gross mis-representation of the history of relations between the 'Indians' and the U.S. government and army. Karen illustrated her talk brilliantly with a series of short clips from feature and documentary films, as well as pictures and maps. Technically and educationally a masterpiece! I learnt a lot in a very short time.

The second presentation I selected was very different in style, but also enormously educational. By Theolyn Cortens, it was on "The Archangels in Jewish Mysticism as Spiritual Archetypes." Phew! First the archangels. This was a brief overview of the Kabballah - the Jewish mystical tradition which it seems is centred on a complex diagram showing the inter-relationships between the angels of the Old Testament. Each is associated with various human propensities, such as Understanding, Judgement, and Beauty. Healing and other powers were associated with these linkages. Theolyn's thesis seemed to me to be that they could be related to fundamental aspects of our psychological makeup, and to our cultural myths as described by Jung.


The third short presentation was greatly different again. This was Sheelagh James on "Spirituality and Dance". She talked with a passionate interest about the decline and revival (by westerners) of spiritual dances both in the Midddle East (the Whirling Dervishes) and in India. Anna Pavolva was instrumental in the latter. She described various dance movements and the relevance of some hand positions. She described dance patterns, such as circular, spiral, vertical, and various purposes, such as hunting, harvest, celebrations and spiritual rapture. Often dancers follow rituals of purification, such as fasting, before the dance. She ended by telling us of the Dance of Universal Peace which was devised in the C20 and which is currently being spread throughout the world. Sheelagh spoke with a passionate interest in her subject.

The three short but intensive presentations were an excellent feature of the Conference, but I was glad to get back to the more comfortable experience of another longer lecture. This was given by Dr Maya Warrier who obtained her degree and Masters in Delhi and is now lecturer in Anthropoloy and Religios Studies here at Lampeter. She received a scholarship to study the contemporary female guru, Mata Amritanandamayi (who has been in the news since the Conference). Mata, also known as the Globetrotting Hugger, has an enormous following in India and in many other parts of the world. She visits London annually - this year in October. Even the President of India is expected to attend her birthday celebrations. Dr Warrier described her anthropological research (as a participant observer) which included experiencing the famous hug, and interviewing many of the devotees. Mata's hugging ministery has a profound effect for the good on most of those who experience it. Her movement spends vast sums on charitable institutions, hospitals, schools, and on engineering works and pensions for widows.

Dr Warrier told us that to regard living people as divine is not uncommon in India. An Avatar Guru is an incarnation of God. The Mata wears the apparel associated with goddesses. She is regarded as a renouncer - having given up social and family life, and personal wealth. However, it seems she is very astute, and controls her huge empire with great efficiency. Most such renouncers are very poor. They become such as a method of escaping from their karma and the cycle of rebirth. Generally avatars do not flaunt their divinity; Mata is unusaual in this respect. Dr Warrier having described the many good works of the Mata's movement went on to describe how some commentators are concerned about the attitude of surrender in Mata's followers. Others are concerned about her appeal to fundamentalist Hinduism, suggesting that politicians are using her.

The next lecture was by Dr Mary Grey, on "The Community as Mystic - an Ecofeminist Approach". Prof Grey said that hers is a relational theology. Her talk was to be based on her new book "Prophecy and Mysticism". She said an eco-mystical approach is needed if we are to reduce the pull of materialism. (I noted similarities with Jonathan Porritt's address to the AH Society in 1996.-SP) She spoke of faith having been the prerogative of the elite, but that Rowan Williams seemed not to be following this tradition.

I found Mary Grey's talk to be a spiritual experience, and as such hard to report using a rational approach. I understood her overall structure, and I revelled in a succession of delightful phrases and quotations, but I cannot translate the experience into a clear exposition of her message. Perhaps, as a man, I cannot be expected fully to understand her, the more so since much of it was about a need for new language, which she perhaps was using. As with spiritual experiences such as great music, one recollects the feeling, the mood, the transforming power - not the notes. So I simply recommend readers to obtain the tape. I will mention however her call for a new liturgy echoed the Bharats' suggestions (see above).

Having said that, I cannot resist a few quotations. "William James defined the mystical experience as private, and non-female." "Religion should give us a language of desire that touches our spiritual needs." "Read Thomas Berry's 'The Dream of the Estate'." "We need a communal mystical way." "Let us focus on a transforming fluidity… admit the organic nature of our lives." "Genuine mysticism is fuelled by our longing for God." "Love, passion, eros are at the heart, but are perverted." "Gandhi is more relevant (than Karl Marx)." "People having mystical experience can make them passionate in politics." "The feminine is not used because it is patriarchally defined." "Eco-feminism evokes connection between women and the earth." "Be matricentric, not matriarchal."

The final lecture was again something different. The conference organisers must be congratulated for having found such a variety of speakers, with so much variation in style and approach, yet all so relevant to the conference theme. Tom O'Loughlin, Head of Humanities at Lampeter, a towering, bluff mountain of a man, gave an intriguing lecture on "The role of Imagination in Christian Experience". It seemed to me that he had decided to use his ability, wit and erudition to round off the conference by being amusing and provocative.

He started by asserting that most of our realities are shaped by our imagination. It was a dogma that all religious experience must be treated equally by researchers. This may be true of the collection of evidence but all of us select. We compare and choose, creating a mental map of the real universe that suits our needs. Such maps must meet all our needs, including a need for mystery, complexity, creativity The history of Christianity is of maps continually being altered and replaced..

Tom O'Loughlin took as an illustration of Christian imagination the doctrine of purgatory, the intermediate place between death and reward. He described its history, and showed how it met the needs for a religious map. We know that we and our loved ones fall short of God's demands, but also that He is merciful. The concept of Purgatory allows us to complete 'perfection' post mortem. I found fascinating his observation that conversion (to perfection) can exist with a community. A sinful person might be saved by membership his God-favored community - be it family, church, nation or race. Bede's "History of the English Nation" implied the whole nation was in the process of conversion. Tom asserted that praying for the dead, maintaining cemeteries, working for the community, praying for it, could be seen as creation of one great slush fund, buying indulgences from the Almighty. When the society has a treasury of merit, the questions become how best to add to it, and how best to benefit from it. The complex credit system includes good works and degrees of suffering, the 'Cult of the Requiem'. Tom then tested this map against the parameters of usefulness he had outlined earlier, and showed how it failed on several counts, thus explaining its decline in acceptance since the Reformation. But in some ways it was had been successful, for instance it drew people out of individualism - alms giving had been unknown in Roman times. It produced great art, and (above all?) it kept many academics at work. His conclusions? Theologians, as communicators, need to KISS, to follow a law of parsimony. Purgatory was too complex. A simple God that says "You're OK" is preferable. But the theologians' dilemma is that they need to keep the religious maps simple, yet the land mapped must be complex.

In the last session we were treated to a formidable panel seated in a long line at the front of the lecture theatre. They were subjected to a wide variety of questions, some profound from the many intellectuals and theologians in the audience, some perhaps (e.g. mine about the objectivity of Dr Maya's participant observation) less so. Adrian Rance said that one chooses a belief that is helpful. (This was very helpful to me.) Belief itself is not reality. Mary Grey said that we receive multiple identities, but must show responsibility in not giving way to relativism. Tom O'Loughlin said that in Christianity and Islam, God is greater than one can imagine. Prof Shaker said that God created all and made humans special, "His Kalifate". A Kalife was an agent, appointed to do all his master can do but still a servant, empowered by grace. Tom said that systematised theology is bound to fail - human experience is always more complex. In answer to a question that seemed to denigrate 'pick and mix' religion several answers were given demonstrating the eclectric approach of authorities such as Thomas Aquinus and the Second Vatican Council. Adrain Rance said that the human being is closer to God than is religion, and can be like or even equal to God. Another question evoked an agreement that one can combine the roles of theologian and academic. Another answer was that the core of all religions is the same but religious beliefs cannot all be correct. We must work on pluralism. Dr Shaker said that Law (including Sharia) must support justice and human rights, which must be sought even if not in agreement with the Koran or the pronouncements of our Imman. In his concluding remarks Tom O'Loughlin said that a religion small enough to understand is not big enough for our needs. Mary Grey said our great need was for development of both individuality and community

The conference ended with well deserved thanks for the organisers and the speakers. Next year the theme is to be "The God Experience, Who Has it and Why". It will be in London on July 13th to 16th.