st nectans waterfallDo we put together our own belief systems? What does this say to those of us who, as Christians, are part of what gets called ‘organised religion’?

At the weekend, David Mitchell discussed in the Observer Neil MacGregor’s new series on belief, during the launch of which MacGregor highlighted how unusual Britain is in not having an overaching shared religion.

Agreeing with this, Mitchell writes:

I always say I’m agnostic because I’d like there to be a God – a nice liberal one – but I can’t be sure there is and the idea of regular religious observance unnerves me because it would be unusual in my peer group. Not a very well thought-through philosophy, I know. But in the absence of family or societal pressures, in a context of almost complete religious freedom, many of us rely on similar back-of-an-envelope answers to eternal questions, because adopting the answers thousands of full-time ponderers have come up with over thousands of years feels like squandering that freedom.

He sees this as part of a wider trend:

more and more of us, maybe most of us, cobble together our own belief systems in spare moments while holding down other jobs. And it all leads to vacuous assertions of being “spiritual” and record sales of wind chimes and yin and yang symbol tea towels.

This week, I encountered a good example of this on my holidays in Cornwall. We visited St Nectan’s Glen near Tintagel, a woodland SSSI with a spectacular waterfall (shown in the photo). In the sixth century, it was apparently the site of St Nectan’s hermitage, but now the remains of the chapel has become a “meditation room” (tellingly, a statue of St Nectan is outside the door not in the room itself), with goddess statues, pictures of loved ones, ribbons and so on inside. The website says:

Saint Nectan’s Kieve is to some a sacred place, and numerous ribbons, crystals, photographs, inscriptions, prayers and other devotions now adorn the foliage and rock walls near the waterfall. Some visitors add small piles of flat stones obtained from the stream, known by some as fairy stacks.

and concludes:

one undeniable fact is that it is a place of outstanding natural beauty.

So what does this mean? Is this different to how things were in the past? I’m not that sure. (There is “nothing new under the sun” in many important ways). Folktales, superstitions, and folk religion rather tell us that even when there was “an overarching shared religion” it was a religion with a lot of holes and gaps in it which people filled in a variety of different ways.

And even this is nothing new. The narrative of the Bible including the denunciations of the prophets, and examples like Kuntillet ‘Arjud tell us that this has been going on for a long time. Another good example is Paul’s talk in Athens, starting from his observation of an altar to ‘an unknown god’. Human nature doesn’t change very much; the level of expression of different aspects does.

Mitchell concludes that this lack of shared belief is probably one reason that our society is so stressed and stressful. But this lack of a social overarching shared religion perhaps gives those of us who are “full-time ponderers” an opportunity to help people explore afresh that ‘unknown god’, which clearly interests and attracts many people. The focus on natural beauty and the wonder that this gives us is one starting point. The emotional appeal of Christianity, explored by Francis Spufford in his fascinating book Unapologetic is another. As Christians, and churches, we do need to get a lot better at taking these opportunities!


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