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‘Spiritualise: Revitalising Spirituality To Address 21st Century Challenges’ : Review by Canon Martin Coppen

RSA 'Spiritualise' report on Pdf

Associating, in the archaeology of memory, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) with typing qualifications, the first surprise for this reviewer was that the Society had become a university (not in the modern sense). The second shock was to read a booklet which actually welcomed religion to a place at the richly-provisioned table of spirituality, even though there are many younger and brighter fellow guests. Dr Jonathan Rowson marshalled the two year project which led to the publication of Spiritualise with the strategic grasp of the chess Grandmaster that he is, but also wrote the report with the conceptual fluency of expression which suggests he could turn a sow’s ear of almost any argument into a silk purse. His width of reference is impressive, choice of quotations illuminating and he has an ability to find gold even in glutinous socio-speak worthy of Pseuds’ Corner.

The report is hopeful, but with a thread of nostalgia running through it. An early quotation (p.8) from the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson captures this so brilliantly: “I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do … I miss civilisation, and I want it back.” In a ‘market society’ (p.83), extrinsic values dominate at the expense of intrinsic. Rowson has to face the difficulties of defining spirituality for the purpose of writing about its virtues for the sceptical public square, while bravely admitting that it is necessary to think the concept cannot be satisfactorily defined (narrowed, reduced), nor those, for instance, of spirit and soul. That is part of the problem in a utilitarian, ‘scientistic’ (a wonderful neologism! p.77) society. Also problematic are strident misconstructions of what religious belief is, which Rowson meets with admirable gentleness in his section rebutting the misunderstandings (pp.30-4).

The six public seminars underpinning the report, which are briefly summarised in boxes in the text and videos online, brought together contributors from a number of disciplines, though there were no ‘professional’ religious. Perhaps some were invited but declined? There are few of us who can hold our own in discussions about neuroscience. Theologians have been padlocked in a cellar out of the way of modern knowledge, but even if mindfulness and atheistic developments in spirituality are helping to bring depth to modern life, the Christian spiritual tradition (just to single out our special interest) potentially offers so much towards what Rowson argues for in his exposition of the four irreducibles of Love, Death, Self and Soul (ch.3, pp.56-78).

In summary, there is so much to admire, cheer, inspire, challenge and stimulate in this booklet that it deserves being taken with real seriousness in the Church of England. Institutional reorganisation may be critically necessary, but misses the point that we reveal our spiritual treasures old and new grudgingly to our faithful and but poorly to the public. I would be really interested in the CofE’s best theological and spiritual minds engaging imaginatively and carefully with Spiritualise. Now that would be Mission.

Martin Coppen is a retired CofE priest living in Andover, Hampshire.

Dr Jonathan Rowson, Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges (RSA, December 2014) Download from .

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