I’m giving free classes to people who stay with me through Airbnb – basically, if they’re interested, and come along early, they can join me for morning yoga classes. I thought it would be fun to bring an international vibe to the yoga class!
I had a lovely young couple to stay last night who are the first to take up the offer. They are from California – Shane and Dana – here visiting the UK for the first time. They came up from London, after being blown away by the British Museum, then drove up in a hire car for dinner in Stratford, before arriving at my place last night. Today they’re seeing York, before heading by train to Edinburgh this afternoon, then Ireland. The London, York, Edinburgh route is a very common one for tourists I’ve found; I have people staying at my place from all over the world – China, the US, India, South America, Europe – really everywhere – and a lot of them are doing just that.
We didn’t talk much last night as they were here late, and we went straight to yoga in the morning. After yoga we were having coffee back at mine and talking, and I asked what they did, and was amazed to hear they were both Evangelical pastors in a Californian superchurch – Bayside Church, in Granite Bay. This is VERY different to what I was expecting!
To be honest, in Europe, for me and my friends anyway, the idea of an American superchurch is kind of frightening. Religion is pretty low profile here in the UK, generally speaking. As I told Dana and Shane – it’s pretty much normal to be a ‘sort of an Atheist’ in Britain. At least, it’s quite normal to not have very much time for organised religion, and not take church too seriously. I also have friends who are practicing Christians too, but it’s just that either way is quite normal, and generally religious practice is quite low key in our culture here.
So it was very interesting to be sitting with these two very nice people, chatting about something that is so culturally distant for me. 7000 people come to their church for a Sunday service. It’s like a rock concert. It’s not a church really, it’s a complete complex – like a sort of God Mall – a place to hang out and spend time at the weekend. It’s actually called a ‘campus’. It turns out Dana, clearly a talented and gifted communicator, did an undergrad degree in philosophy from a secular university. Very interesting. I chatted to her about William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a favourite book of mine. When I put across my position re religion, she suggested I read Kierkegaard, which she found very interesting in college.
I didn’t delve too deep into Shane and Dana’s religious philosophy in the short time we spoke together, because I didn’t want to find points of disagreement or conflict. I was more interested in exploring where we could meet in the conversation, points of convergence. They seemed to come from a more liberal, open minded and intellectually curious branch of the Evangelical church, which I didn’t actually know existed.
Whatever the belief systems that might be involved, a lot of us are searching for connections, for meaning, for community. That same impulse and desire resurfaces in many different cultural contexts and takes different and divergent forms around the world. William James made a good point back in 1910, with The Varieties of Religious Experience – that whether religious belief systems are true or not true is one thing, one question to ask. But it’s not the whole point, not the only question to be answered regarding the nature of religion and religious practice. The more interesting question for James was to think about what religion is for – what are the experiences, thoughts, emotions and feelings at the root of religious practice and what is their function? If religions arise from, and are enmeshed with, individual people having experiences, what is the nature, function, meaning and purpose of those kind of experiences?
What’s fascinating is to think about and to understand the impulses, feelings and experiences that lie beneath the surface – the raw experiential material that sits below the level of the narrative structural carapace. Dana and Shane care deeply about the church, about their work as pastors. I might not agree with their philosophical position or the core of their belief system, but I can connect with their desire to make a difference in the world. I know how it feels to want to be loved, I understand how it feels to want to be connected to something greater than myself, and I can connect with a desire to feel that our culture has clarity, meaning, a moral centre.
I might not be a Christian, but I can relate to and connect in some way with the feelings and experiences that William Byrd might have felt and drawn upon as he wrote one of his great vocal polyphonic masterpieces in 16th Century England (I’m thinking Ave Verum Corpus – check it out – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFZZMF7SRRo). By my own modern standards, he was probably something of a religious fanatic, yet I understand the longing for forgiveness perhaps, the longing for release from emotional and spiritual turmoil. I understand the feelings, because I’ve had them in a different context. The traces of shared human experience – the contours of the emotional journey he traces in that piece – transcend the details of any particular narrative or specific spiritual philosophy. Here is a record of life being lived and being felt – a sonic, embodied distillation of the bitter sweet nature of our living and our dying.
I’m really glad I met Dana and Shane – these kind of meetings help to make our lives richer and more complex. Through communication, we can better understand what we share in common – what lies beneath the messy narratives that can so easily confuse and confound us if we’re not careful. It strikes me that the narrative structures that surround us, and that we are embedded in, have often been imposed from elsewhere, having grown haphazardly out of the cultural conditions, or the vested interests, of the past. We need to keep an eye on them….
(The photo was taken by me, and is from Chandrasila peak in the Himalayas)