Christianity Culture and Society Spirituality Spirituality in the Ordinary

The Kathleen Syme Centre has No Bible

img_4785.jpgIn Carlton, where I work and spend a lot of my time “studying” (aka drinking coffee in cafes, occasionally adding a little cake, (purely for my health’s sake)), the local government has built a beautiful library called the Kathleen Syme Centre. It is a state of the art facility, including a space for the senior citizen centre, an art room, demonstration kitchen, free wifi, and even books. Opened only a few years ago, it is a lovely space. It includes, amazingly, a prayer and meditation room – so it isn’t entirely closed off to spiritual things, interpreted broadly. In the meditation room  there are a number of books tagged with invitations to borrow them. When I was there, they included On HinduismThe Little Book of Everyday Miracles, Buddhism for Busy People, Mindfulness, Tao Te Ching, Eastern Philosophy: The Basics, and Destructive Emotions and How to Overcome Them. And there was also a leaflet about Mahayana Buddhism, which looked a little more unofficial than the books.

Altogether, it’s a nice touch, in a well designed facility.

But the absence of anything touching on Christianity in something described as  a “prayer and meditation room” struck me as interesting. So I went upstairs, where the non-fiction books are kept, all glossily plastic wrapped and inviting looking, to investigate further. I found the religious books section (under “society”.) There were a lot of books by notable atheists (including A C Grayling’s The Good Book), and, to be fair, a number of books about Christianity – but no Bible. Thinking that I might have overlooked it, I looked it up on the well designed catalogue system. No, they did not have a copy in the building. Various other libraries in the city apparently do have a copy, which was encouraging. I also checked to see if they had a Quran (yes), and the Bhagavad Gita (no.) Why is this?

img_4562.jpgHere’s a second thing. At my (fairly basic, not at all fashionable,) gym, there is a wellness practitioner upstairs. As well as being an Osteopath and Chiropractor, she offers “Clinical Hypnotherapy, Hypnoenergetics, and Past Life Regression.” I don’t know exactly what those last two are, but presumably it is seen as somehow going with the weights room and the cycling studio, in spite of the (to me at least) rather esoteric nature of the last one. Whatever “wellness” is, it’s a holistic idea that incorporates both physical and psychological aspects. Weights and Past Life Regression. In a way, it’s a very traditional idea –  mens sana in copore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body) as our Victorian ancestors would have said. They also weren’t averse to a bit of esoterica either of course.

And a third thing. A few years back, a Christian group I was friends with came up with the following slogan: “Refresh through Christian Spirituality.” I wondered about it at the time – about what it meant about how they saw the Christian message, what they thought Church meant, or was for. I like the idea of grounding faith in practices – it moves it away from the Enlightenment failing of identifying faith purely with intellectual assent to propositions.

I could imagine a book with a title like that happily sitting on the table at the Kathleen Syme Centre. I could even imagine it being offered as a service in my gym. That was the point of the idea – that, given that there is a yoga studio or new age crystal shop in every shopping strip in the country, then Christianity should be in that marketplace. That Christianity should see itself as being in the Wellness Industry.

There is some sense to this. Wellness is widely regarded as a Good Thing. In fact, insofar as our culture has any contenders for transcendent norms, then wellbeing must be a strong candidate. To see this in operation, imagine yourself commending Christianity to someone. Perhaps you have come across evidence about how helpful faith is to your health (perhaps you have read George Vaillant’s Spiritual Evolution, or read this very interesting article from the New York Times.) Far from “religion poisons everything”, it is actually good for you! Hurrah!

What is interesting about this (apart from the science, which is certainly encouraging – if faith is somehow real then it should surely have an impact on how your life is actually lived?) is the nature of the argumentative move you have made. In order to find common ground with your friend, you have chosen the one thing that they will probably agree with you about – that wellbeing is something to be pursued.

While this isn’t the place to trace the development of the idea in detail, a useful point to think of is what it means to be part of a secular state. This isn’t (necessarily) a state in which all public signs of religion have been eliminated, but rather one in which the state is neutral towards all competing visions of the good life. Faith becomes the domain of something called “values”, which should not be taught at school, as distinct from “facts”, which should be. Faith is privatised.

The idea of wellness (in the sense we’re using it here) is quite recent.  For the sake of the argument, I’m going to equate wellness with a more Enlightenment friendly idea – that of happiness.

As the American Declaration of Independence put it:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people]are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The assumption that underlies this sort of idea is that it is impossible to  say with any certainty what “happiness” is as such – that everyone has to search for it themselves.

I was going to write that there is no science of happiness, but of course there is – the Positive Psychology movement is exactly that. An attempt to create a science of human flourishing. Which is, so far as it goes, a good thing.

But my problem with this whole train of thought is around the idea of happiness as being somehow normative. That we in some sense have  a right to it (interestingly we don’t talk about the right to pursue happiness anymore.) We encourage each other with phrases like “whatever makes you happy.” But what actually is it? Does it mean a certain emotional state? In which case it seems at least vacuous, and at worst positively sinister.

Consider the following. A friend has just lost someone very close to her – her partner perhaps – under tragic circumstances. She then proceeds to declare that she is “very happy.” If that were my friend, I would not be pleased for her – instead I would worry about her mental health.

Another example. Imagine a drug (call it soma) which will make you permanently happy. It has no bad effects on your health. It doesn’t cause damage to your brain chemistry – if you stopped taking it, you would just not feel happy all the time. Would you take it?

If your response is “sure, why not?” then I’m not sure there is much point reading the rest of this blog! Go and do some yoga while tossing your long glossy hair and beaming with your glowing teeth into your Instagram selfie. Or, perhaps, read Aldous’s Brave New World for a thoughtful exploration of what a world like that would be like.

For the rest of us, who feel strangely uneasy about it, read on.

It’s good to be happy, and of course we would, all other things being equal, rather be happy than not be. But, of course, things aren’t equal. There are, for instance, circumstances in which your not feeling happy is an important sign that things in your life just aren’t right. And unhappiness is an appropriate reaction to lots of events in life – a death of someone you love for instance.

Another thread for this is that happiness isn’t a very good metric for making decisions. Consider having children. There are studies out there that suggest that having children is bad for “happiness.” But  even if that were true, is that really a reason not to do it? To love someone is to open your heart to them, which increases the opportunity for suffering.


Finally, imagine that you had achieved this internal state of positive affect. You wander around beaming, and when people ask you how you are you exclaim “excellent” like Chris Trager in Parks and Recreation. The question then remains: to what end? It’s great that you feel so good, but so what? What ultimate aims does it serve? If being happy is its own end, then we have moved out of the attempt to be value neutral with which we started this quest, and have discovered an ultimate value – and what a horrible, solipsistic ultimate value it is.

In Parks and Recreation, Chris is humanised by his fear of death, and by his love for Anne. That’s what makes his storyline work, what makes him non-loathsome. We know that there is something wrong, something inadequate with this as a worldview. To make happiness your sole value is to make it an idol, and to make you curved in on yourself (Luther’s homo incurvatus in se) against the reality of not only other people’s pain – pain you should share if you are to be fully human, but even against your own pain and suffering and grief.

In short, the pursuit of happiness only seems to make sense as a goal if it is in service of something else, something ultimate. If your happiness makes you able to love and serve others better, then it’s worthwhile. If not, then it’s a problem.

So, is “refresh with Christian spirituality” an adequate justification for Christianity? Its benefit is that it gets your book onto the table in the reflection room. Its problem is that Christian spirituality comes with a value system, an ordering principle built into it. Be transformed by Christian spirituality might be a better line. And if your spiritual practices aren’t transforming you – if they aren’t enabling you to better love and serve God and others – then you might want to ask yourself if they are Christian spiritual practices at all.

Finally, I find myself Kathlee Syme Centre Signback at the Reflection Room. I guess it’s inevitable that there will neither be Bible, nor Koran here.  They presumably feel that they have effectively met the mandate of a secular space – that they are neutral towards competing visions of the good life. But this is, as we have seen, a naïve view. Wellness is just as much a value system as Christianity is. But wellness is the system within which our culture “lives and moves and has its being.” Given that, the question then has to be: how does Christianity relate to it? How much of it is compatible, and how much is to be rejected? For the purposes of this post, the details of the answer aren’t as important as the realisation that our relationship to wellness is not neutral, that there has to be a system by which you organise your life. Christianity is one. And wellness is another.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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