Living the Questions at TEDxExeter 2013

On 11 April, the day before TEDxExeter 2013, it was announced that Desmond Tutu was the latest winner of the Templeton Prize. The prize honours a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. The citation includes the words:

His deep faith and commitment to prayer and worship provides the foundation for his message of love and forgiveness. He has created that message through extensive contemplation of such profound “Big Questions” as “Do we live in a moral universe?” and “What is humanity’s duty to reflect and live God’s purposes?”

There is a misconception that TED avoids or even forbids mention of religion, faith or God. That’s not the case. For example, Tom Honey spoke in 2005 on God and the Tsunami, and Billy Graham and Rick Warren have both spoken. (On the other side of the coin, so have Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton.)

The TEDx guidelines say that “Speakers must tell a story or argue for an idea. They may not use the TED stage to sell products, promote themselves or businesses. … TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing ‘us vs them’ language.” So that doesn’t appear to exclude sharing the Gospel, so long as it is done sensitively of course. In the context of “ideas worth spreading”, to rule that, say, a technological idea is worth spreading, whereas a faith-based idea is not, would be an erroneous value judgement. It is better to say that TED does not want to close down the questions.

There are several possible origins for the word ‘religion’.

One possibility, according to Cicero, is relegere ‘go through again, read again’. Another popular etymology connects it with religare ‘to bind fast’ (compare ‘rely’) or ‘bind together again’. Or there is religiens ‘careful’, the opposite of negligens. Its meaning has evolved over time. The sense of ‘a particular system of faith’ dates from about 1300, and the modern sense of ‘recognition of, obedience to, and worship of a higher, unseen power’ is from the 1530s.

Neither of these modern senses need imply certainty and rule out doubt. This is baggage that has been heaped up high by theists and atheists of a certain persuasion alike. In the spirit of Desmond Tutu, I want to go back to the etymological origins of ‘religion’, and ask a few questions. In the spirit of Living the Questions, I’m not expecting to answer them.

First, what is true freedom? It is not unfettered licence to indulge our every whim. Ask any good parent. Nor is it boundless choice, which only creates paralysis. Freedom to roam safely on Dartmoor requires proper equipment and clothing, and knowledge of the risks from weather and mire. Freedom requires some constraint. In terms of religion, it is not so much that we are ‘bound fast’ to God, but that God is ‘bound fast’ to us. That safety-net frees us to doubt, question and ‘read again’ and again and again.

‘Religion’ and ‘faith’ shouldn’t be used inter-changeably, but I’m going to quote Giles Fraser anyway: “what she [Margaret Thatcher] never appreciated was that faith is fundamentally bound up with doubt. Faith strains to imagine a world so much more expansive than the measure of our own minds and convictions. This is why faith is always a certain sort of loss, the failure to comprehend things in their totality.”

My second etymology-related question is: how can we be ‘bound together again’? My third, by way of answering my second, is: how best can we be ‘careful’ of the other?

A number of the talks at TEDxExeter 2013 were living these questions. Carrie Clarke’s talk about valuing people with dementia was a particular gem. It is difficult to face up to dementia because it means facing our own vulnerability. There is no cure, but we can still bring healing for people with dementia through strengthening their sense of belonging; shifting the focus from what they can’t do on to what they can do; and most importantly listening to them with an open heart – and hoping that when our time comes, someone will listen to us.

The talks from Jo Berry, Martha Wilkinson and Hazel Stuteley had complementary message. Hazel spoke of the power of listening to struggling communities, for what they say will bring them healing, as a way of connecting them with local agencies. Jo shared her dream that we can learn to see the humanity of everyone, and give dignity to all. Martha asked us to ponder: “What suffering are you walking past? And what are the gifts you would like to give to the world?”

Pulling the lens back to a wider angle, Kester Brewin spoke about turning the agenda away from purely private gain back towards public benefit; we need a new community of pirates committed to defending the commons. Alongside this, Stewart Wallis argued that we need to change and manage markets. Markets make a good servant, a poor master and a disastrous religion. Unfortunately, markets are currently our religions, but they are human creations, and humans can control them. So finally, Peter Owen-Jones believes passionately that the militarised industrialised complexes that we call countries, and religions that do not uphold the dignity of all life on this planet are not fit for purpose. What type of planet and society are we leaving our children?

When I blogged on questions before the event, I mostly avoided explicit mention of religion or faith. But now, on my own blog, I can append two quotations from Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, which say what I really wanted to say.

Appended to Who am I?, an excerpt from New Seeds of Contemplation:

There is an irreducible opposition between the deep, transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self. It is our ‘individuality’ and our ’empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we die.

Appended to What do you want to be when you grow up?, which is really about our attitude to time, an excerpt from Thomas Merton, Monk: A Monastic Tribute:

One of the best things for me when I went to the hermitage was being attentive to the times of the day: when the birds began to sing, and the deer came out of the morning fog, and the sun came up … The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness. Today time is a commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged … We are threatened by a chain reaction: overwork – overstimulation – overcompensation – overkill. And yet … Christ has freed us. We must approach the whole idea of time in a new way. We are free to love. And you must get free from all imaginary claims. We live in the fullness of time. Every moment is God’s own good time, his kairos. The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves in prayer a chance to realize that we have what we seek. We don’t have to rush after it.”

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