The William Temple Foundation plays a key role in the Philosophy and Religious Practices Network, with our Director Chris Baker a co-investigator, and Associate Research Fellow John Reader as a member of the advisory group. Over sixty academics and practitioners attended the network’s highly engaging conference at the University of Chester last month.
John Reader reflects on the event:
“It is now almost 3 years since the opening consultation which culminated in the recent conference at the University of Chester, bringing together for the first time philosophers of religion and religious practitioners. It is worth reflecting the progress which has been made in identifying possible locations for engagement. Earlier workshops in the series have focused upon such varied subjects as Buddhism and wellbeing, and the role of religion in conflict and peacemaking. The conference dealt largely with the more obvious sphere of religion in public life and two of the keynote speakers (Adam Dinham and Elaine Graham) offered their interpretations of this theme: where we are now, and prospects for the future.
In the light of the even more recent comments from the UK Prime Minister about the UK being a Christian country, and the responses both positive and negative that has elicited, this seems a clear location where philosophical notions of the postsecular and faith-based attempts to respond to the consequences of welfare cuts bring philosophy and religious practice into contact. My personal reflection on this, however, is that I learnt more about other possibilities from the contributions of those who joined us from outside the UK, as these threw the “parochial experiences” into a sharper relief. These included two colleagues from Italy who gave us glimpses into a context where the relationship between church and state is now one of clear separation. The fascinating aspect of this is that it appears that the relationship is mediated through other disciplines, and this offers other possibilities for the role of, for instance, philosophy and sociology in the process of debate.
Our third keynote speaker, Clayton Crockett, as well as offering the conference complex and challenging ideas about hyperobjects and his own Lacanian inflected version of Object Oriented Ontology, gave us glimpses of how religion fares in the USA, and a somewhat disturbing picture of faith groups who uncritically accept traditional teaching and ethics, thus colluding with, rather than challenging existing political divisions. We also heard accounts of how faith encountered and engaged with traditional cultures and ethics in parts of Africa, and this again threw the UK experience into sharper relief.
What this says to me is that the UK context is a very particular one and very far from being the whole story. Put simply, we share a historical relationship between church and state, but this in no way guarantees a clear and definitive future, hence the struggle to decide how faith groups locate themselves and who should determine the terms of the ongoing relationship. In that setting philosophy of religion and the particular contribution of continental philosophy that some of us in the process have shared, does seem quite limited.
The discussions do focus upon public policy, meanings of the postsecular, the supposed decline of institutional Christianity, and the ethical ambiguities of engaging with political programmes for the welfare state. Important those these are, they do feel limited and unnecessarily narrow in terms of what philosophy can now offer to wider debates. For instance, as Crockett reminded us, it is actually in the environmental debate that we can discover an even more creative and exciting engagement between faith practice and contemporary philosophy. His proposal was that human beings need to change our/their nature in response to the growing challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pressures of population growth and depletion of natural resources. This in itself requires that those of faith begin to mine the sources of an alternative discourse and conceptuality, difficult and uncomfortable though this might be.
Very few of us in the room had done much more than scratch the surface of ideas about anti-essentialism, the preindividual and metastability, each of which points towards other possibilities of being or becoming human (in relation to the non-human) that look like a positive way forward in this process. There was talk in some of the sessions about being human necessarily entailing also being religious, but this would be exactly the sort of position that would need to be examined and deconstructed in the light of the change of nature to which Crockett referred. Similarly going back to the more mainstream discussions at the conference about relationships between church and state, these also would need to be subject to the anti-essentialist critique of the new discourse. To treat either church or state as monolithic entities – and this is where the current UK debate about being a Christian country becomes clearly inadequate – is simply to misunderstand the lived complexities of faith, politics and civil society.
So, what progress has been made and where does the process go from here? Conversations have begun, and that in itself is a significant step. Most at the conference acknowledged the value of creating a space where these might happen and of encouraging others to engage. Inevitably though, this feels like just the beginning of a journey of exploration where some of us need to press onwards into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory rather than remaining in the relatively safe and familiar sphere of faith-based involvement in public policy and interpretations of the postsecular. It is legitimate to begin there, but only as a jumping off point to other possibilities. Perhaps this is the step towards turning “the virtual” into “the actual” that a Deleuzian approach to ontology now challenges us and for which we need perspectives that take us beyond the shores of the UK.”