There’s something about getting together!

Pippa Evans (PE) co-founded The Sunday Assembly in January of this year, described “as a chance for disillusioned former believers, nostalgic atheists and anybody searching for a sense of community to meet and turn good intentions into actions”. Speaking in an interview with Ernie Rae (ER) on a recent BBC radio ‘Beyond Belief’ broadcast, Pippa explained how as a teenager in a charismatic church she had felt at home, but doubts began to grow when she observed both harsh judgementalism on the part of her church leaders and also lies told about the suicide of, and seeing the father of her close RC friend lose his faith at the funeral following the death of his daughter.

ER: Given that very negative experience, after a very happy childhood in church why did you decide to establish the Sunday Assembly?

PE: When I left the church I really missed church. [laughs] I really missed all those great things about church and meeting people and seeing each-other and having a place of solace once a week that you could go to. I’d always missed it and I just had this thought of is it possible to have church without God.

ER: So was this a need for community?

PE: I think it is, yes. I think it’s about connecting with people in a way that is above and beyond just going to the pub or a hobby, you know.

ER: But I understand that you’re inclined to call it a congregation, which sounds a very churchy word.

PE: Yes we do. We use a lot of church words. And we don’t really apologise for that I’m afraid. Those are great words. Congregations are people coming together and we don’t pretend we’re not essentially an alternative to church. We think church did and still does for some people provide such great things, in terms of community, connecting.

ER: But do you acknowledge that there’s something in the human psyche which certainly seeks answers to the big questions. Why are we here? Where do we come from? But also needs to acknowledge that there’s something beyond ourselves.

PE: Yes. I think absolutely. I think we often think that something beyond ourselves has to be a man in a cloud, whereas I think there’s something beyond ourselves which is just the connection between ourselves.

ER: But are you trying to create a church for people who are full of doubts and who acknowledge that there are no certainties?

PE: Yes. And no. I think we are a church for people who are curious, and who are interested and want to ask questions and want questions answered, but aren’t necessarily looking for a specific answer.

I’ve read on various blog posts that many people view the sense of community in the church, the opportunity for service and so forth, as something that can keep members attending, even whilst doubting. But this was the first time I’d come across an organisation specifically set up to replace a church community.

With Ernie Rae in the studio to discuss this were Richard Holloway (RH), well-known doubter, former Bishop of Edinburgh (Scottish Episcopal Church) and the author of several books about doubt; Principal of Ebrahim College, London, (which trains British Imams) Shaykh Shams Ad-duha (SA): and the Rev Professor David Wilkinson (DW),theologian, astro-physicist, and Principal of St John’s College, Durham.

Richard Holloway described himself as a Christian during the programme, doubts notwithstanding. He views Jesus Christ as a central figure in history who has opened up the possibility of the meaning of the mystery of the universe. He said “to me is an extraordinary miracle, that in us the universe is thinking about itself… I don’t believe things about Jesus, but I’m captivated by his going beyond human possibilities in telling us to love our enemies, to forgive until seventy times seven, and for this brute universe to discover and give birth to compassion to me is an astounding wonder, and I try to live by that.” He sees religion as a human construct, in much the same way as a work of art: “It talks about our deepest ugliness as well as our greatest beauty. It’s full of joy, but it’s also full of terrible things.” When asked for his response to Pippa’s interview he said:

“Well I hear this all the time and whenever I speak to a fairly broadly based group of people, invariably many of them come up to me after and said I’ve stopped going to church but I miss it I miss the coming together I miss the attempts to be serious I miss the attempt for self-examination. Are there any places where we can go where we’re not hammered by what we ought to think? I think a lot of people need certainty, and if they want certainty they go for it, and growing churches are the ones that give people that kind of certainty. But the ones that can’t cope with that kind of certainty…. they’re out.”

Shams Ad-duha sees God as an absolute, and the common ground between all religions. He thinks we shouldn’t over-rely on rationality in our faith. He describes rationality and revelation as coming together to produce conviction. He sees religious conflict as a problem of the human capacity for conflict, not as a problem of religion. He recognises that some believe entirely with their heart, but “.. I would say, if I was to say something conclusive that ultimately informed conviction is something that cannot be achieved entirely via the head and it cannot be achieved entirely via the heart and it has to be a combination of the two.” Responding to Pippa’s interview Shams said:

“I find it really fascinating that whenever people end up leaving faith they tend to always need to come back to something that once again is very faith-like, very religion-like. I always find that fascinating. You move from a religion to an ism. …in the case of Pippa she moved from a religious congregation but felt the need to kind of recreate a church all over again. It’s interesting that she kind of felt disillusioned about religion because of conduct. And isn’t that always the case. And I think if there are things that need to be questioned, and that’s beneficial to humanity, I don’t think it’s the basic truths that are proposed in religion, but its always the conduct.”

David Williams bases his belief both science and religion on both evidence and experience. He sees that religion can be “a modality for healing and humility and reconciliation”, and has participated in a scriptural reasoning project in which scholars of different faiths have sat down and read each-others scriptures. He said: “Thomas Henry Huxley talked about science as humility before the facts and that’s not a bad way also of trying to talk about religion or theological understanding.” He doesn’t believe we can have 100% certainty about anything in science or religion, but of that “within religion there’s something which is of the personal as well as the scientific or the evidential base.” David responded to Pippa’s interview:

“I heard her saying something about the importance of honesty … when faith doesn’t take into account the fact that there are some things that we don’t know. And we’re honest about it. Or when faith encounters horror, and we’re not honest about just how horrendous it is. That’s when faith often is brittle and breaks.”

  • Which of these responses most matches your own, or do you take a different view?

The discussion then moved to the subject of doubt, raising some interesting points.

ER: You don’t often hear doubts being aired from the pulpit though. There’s a sort of conspiracy of silence when people get into the pulpit, whether we like it or not a lot of the people who are sitting in our churches, and I suspect in our mosques, are experiencing those doubts on a weekly basis. Shams?

SA: Well if I’m an Imam and I have a congregation in front of me and I know my congregation, I know the majority of them do not doubt for example the question of the unity of God, it would seem a bit strange for me to bring it up and my congregation would find it strange. Yes, if there is somebody who’s struggling with doubt, be completely incapable of dealing with that because as an Imam, as a person of knowledge, as a person of leadership to have not gone through training that enables you to tackle that I think that is where the problem lies.

ER: Richard?

RH: In my own experience I found that over the years owning the difficulties and doubts I had, relief would flood over a lot of people, because a lot of people that I was apparently with confidence addressing were in fact having exactly the same struggles. And invariably what I would say to those people, if you have radical doubts about God you can take a version of Pascal’s wager. You can live as though the ultimate meaning of the universe is love and kindness and unconditional forgiveness and if you’re ultimately proved wrong, but isn’t that a wonderful way to be wrong?

ER: I wonder if there are any theological training that goes on to prepare people to deal with people who are struggling with doubt. David?

DW: A couple of things that we try and do with our students here who are trained for Anglican ministry and Methodist ministry and Pentecostal ministry and that’s first to allow the scriptures themselves to speak. And one the amazing things about the Christian scriptures is the way that the questions are embedded already within the Bible.

ER: They very often give ambivalent answers.

DW: Well sometimes they do, but they’re very real. The Psalmist asks about the fact that the wicked seem to prosper in this world. Why is that? In the New Testament, in the ministry of Jesus there’s questions about how important is the law and should Jesus be constrained by that. In the acts of the Apostles there’s a question of whether the gospel is for just the Jews or for the whole world. Now sometimes the answers are ambivalent.

  • Are you with Shams in feeling it is inappropriate for a leader to express doubt to his congregation, with Richard in thinking they’d find it a relief, or with David are you happy to allow the scriptures to speak?

The discussion ranged through religious law, and to what extent that gets tied up in the cultural practices around at the time the laws were given:

ER: …as Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Laws were made to help man, but you can’t do it the other way round and what has happened with our religious traditions is that we have become bound up with laws and have lost our sense of compassion.

DW: Oh, I agree absolutely. And there is a sense in which law frees a person, but if applied in the wrong way without that overarching modelling and teaching of Jesus, that compassion and love interpret the law, and human flourishing interprets the law then absolutely.

SA: I think law is the area where there is the most doubt and there is the most room for doubt, and I think that’s where there is a lot of dishonesty. Ultimately most of law, even in Islamic theology, most of the legal tradition is arrived at probabilistically. And I think there isn’t enough admission of that.

On the exclusion of women:

RH: … So you get stuck with mercy and forgiveness which are eternal but you also get stuck with the subordination of women which is not eternal. It took my church until 5 minutes ago [not literally] even to agree to ordain women.

SA: In Islam we’ve struggled with patriarchy and the manner in which that has affected women. We ended up with far fewer women educated as we had at the time of the prophet and the generations afterwards, as Islam interacted with more and more patriarchal communities. You.. That cultural interaction actually negatively impacted Islam. When we ended up in a situation that 1300 years earlier would have been unrecognisable with hardly any female scholars, hardly any female academics. Because we don’t have ordainment in Islam, knowledge and piety are the two things that distinguish people that make out the leaders from the followers and so forth. And in those things women have always principally been equal but somehow as a community we’ve managed to edge women out of the knowledge scene. As somebody at the forefront of this I’ve actually found that it’s easiest to justify giving women a bigger role in society through scripture.

ER: Richard.

RH: I quite like something that Shams said there about the fact they don’t have what he called ordainment. And they have as it where a kind of knowledge economy. The problem with hierarchical Christianity is that we create professional believers who therefore have to stand by it. Its a bit like listening to professional politicians giving the party line.

I’ve seen lots of comments about the problems of cultural practices that have become enmeshed with doctrine in the LDS church.

  • How much do you think this contributes to the problems of those with doubts?

And that last bit kind of made me wonder. In the LDS faith all worthy males are ordained.

  • Does that perhaps turn us into congregations who feel obliged to give the party line, who feel less comfortable about acknowledging or expressing doubt?

And on the challenge of doubt to certainty:

ER: …one of the functions of doubt is it does challenge certainty. It challenges fundamentalism and it acts as a restraint…

…Adam Phillips the psychoanalyst is very good in this he says very often over-belief is a compensation for the deep fear of being able to admit your own doubt.

SA: There is something in Islam that I find quite interesting. First there is a tradition of the prophet where he was approached by his companions and who said to him that we find things in our hearts that we find impossible to utter to be so disturbing and so perturbing and the prophet said to them that feeling those doubts is the very essence of faith. And theologians went on to say that feeling doubts and tackling doubts with oneself internally and with those one can trust does not conflict with faith at all. One of the things that al-Vaziri who really discusses this more than anybody else, the famous theologian, he said that there’s a difference between how rational theologians define conviction and how religious scholars and the Sufis define conviction. And the difference in definition is that the Sufis say that conviction is a strong preponderance in ones mind that impacts upon their moral character and upon how they begin to behave so they give into that more than they give in to their doubts…

DW: …Intellectual doubt can often paralyse then, the moral action and sometimes we just have to hold some of our doubts and just get on with it.

… there are certain questions which I have to accept there just will not be easy 3 point answers to. And that’s part of faith.

  • Do you believe over-certainty or over-belief are a result of fear of facing doubts?
  • Is doubt then, better than certainty?
  • What do you think of the Sufi definition of conviction?