What goes around…

Charles 18 Comments

Holy well

St.Brannoc’s Holy Well, Braunton, north Devon


Here’s most of an article in the Spectator, 5 January, by Peter Jones. It quotes a letter by Seneca the Younger (AD 1-65) describing the pagan idea of religious feeling. Given the disposition of most Britons towards matters of faith, you’ll possibly reckon this amazingly contemporary. 

After discussing the divine spirit which guards us and watches us in the evil and good we do, [Seneca] turns to nature: Imagine you come across a dense wood of exceptionally tall, ancient trees that shut out all sight of the sky with thick screens of overlaying branches. Its loftiness, its seclusion and your wonderment at finding so deep and unbroken a gloom out in the open, will prove the presence of a deity. Likewise, an impressive cave hollowed out deep into a mountain, produced not by the labours of men but the processes of nature, will strike into your soul some kind of inkling of the divine. We venerate the sources of important streams; places where a mighty river bursts suddenly from hiding are provided with altars; hot springs are objects of worship; the darkness or unfathomable depth of a pool has made their waters sacred.It is the singularities of nature that create and demonstrate the presence of the numinous. So if you meet a mannever terrified by dangers, never touched by desires, happy in adversity, calm in the midst of storm … will not a feeling of veneration for him come over you?

Jones concludes (my bold):

However that may be, we see here no creeds, no centrally controlled political structure; just manifestations of ‘the divine’ for all to appreciate. Ancient religions were very good at providing channels to the divine while also promoting the general social cohesion … without demanding any particular set of beliefs.



  1. Charles

    True, enough, Charles, but ‘Ancient Religions’ (a diverse term if ever there was one!) were not always so accomodating! Roman religion, excepting the Mystery Cults which were a truely revolutionary move at the time!) was about the State. It existed solely to bolster the traditions, power and purposes of the ‘Status Quo’ and many of the ‘forms’ of Christianity (robes, herarchies, pointy hats etc:-) evolved directly out of it.

    Conversely, you will find ‘mystical writing’ of this kind within the mainstream of most religions including Christianity.

    ‘Religious Experience’ appears to be a fairly consistent human experience which differs remarkably little from religion to religion or, indeed, among those of ‘no fixed belief system’!

    Still an excellent quotation, though!


  2. Charles

    The context of this Spectator blog was the schism within the CofE, and whether the new Archbishop of Canterbury should embrace Seneca’s words about pagan religion as a solution to the problems of divisions – ie head towards making just a general statement about the divine in order to achieve solidarity, and in so doing leave tricky doctrinal matters to individual choice, justified as the church ‘celebrating its own diversity’.

    This is about moral relativism rather than perceived superstition, whether among pagans or today’s organised religions.

    It reminds me of the BBC license-funded travels of trendy vicar, the Rev. Peter Owen Jones, for his Around the World in Eighty Faiths documentary. The Anglican priest, who I assume supports Christ’s message, became an unwitting stooge to the moral relativism agenda of the BBC with his deference to every crackpot sect he could find, including voodoo ritualists sacrificing puppies and kittens. ‘Whilst I do not like the rationale of animal sacrifice, it plays a large part in much of humanity’s religious past…Not to look at it, “Oh, they’re killing kittens and puppies”, but what I saw was ancient religion. It’s something that’s part of us.’

  3. Charles

    Bracing words Richard. I was waiting for you to ignite. But does the C of E not peculiarly lend itself to seeing the world through a glass in soft focus?

    I’ve met the Rev Peter and liked him very much. He never replied to my email, though, so he may well be a relativist.

    All religions look bonkers to bystanders.

  4. Charles

    Charles, I’m sure Peter is a very nice man, even if he does sound like a public school fifth form intellectual some of the time. I’m not sure if the C of E does see the world through a glass in soft focus. It hand rings over issues that divide it because it has no authoritative control over dry fundamentalists in one camp and wet trendies in the other. It seems spiritually rudderless at this moment in time. So rather than listen to Seneca, Justin Welby should perhaps look to established Anglo-Catholic traditions to inspire certainty of faith, based on the Gospels.

  5. Charles

    I thought you might say that.

    The Co of E, which used to be called the Tory party at prayer, acts like the Tory party in real life. People join it and then set about buggering it up.

    I’m with the vague-ies.

  6. Charles

    All our views become predictable when we get to know each other!

    Certainty of faith is unpopular only if it leads us away from love and tolerance and towards bigotry and prejudice. Take Dawkins, for example. But should a Christian or an atheist look at puppy killing as just an extension of ‘ancient religious ritual’ or as something vile? If the Rev. Peter Owen saw his parishioners hacking up puppies, he’d be morally outraged. So why not say to camera that the ritualistic sacrifice he witnessed was barbaric, that he wished he could respectfully persuade the practitioners of his God’s way. Surely, the word he didn’t quite grasp was ‘ancient’?

    A trendy dad on the dance floor is deemed decidedly untrendy. People respect leaders who gently impart some absolute truths to guide them on their way.

  7. Charles

    I’m with Richard on drawing a limit to moral relativity.Puppy killing won’t get many votes. Just as sutee was and is a bad idea, no matter whether or not it had been practised for centuries. (Although not all that often, it seems!)

    But I also wonder if the absolute vs relative dichotomy sometimes gets in the way of clear and compassionate thought and action. Perhaps many of us would find an over-reliance on rigid absolutism or a totally relativistic view of right action to be repellent, in particular circumstances. Keats wrote of “negative capability,” by which I think he meant the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time.

  8. Charles

    So to sum up (and I quote) ‘All religions look bonkers to bystanders.’ The rest is just long words trying to make something bonkers seem meaningful.

  9. Charles

    Kitty, you conflate two points. You jump on the view that ‘all religions are bonkers to bystanders’. You then try to add to it by stating ‘the rest is just long words trying to make something bonkers seem meaningful’. You leap to the assumption religions ARE bonkers rather than SEEM bonkers to outsiders by assuming they only ever SEEM meaningful. There are billions of people of diverse faiths who would disagree with you.

    As for rules and religious leaders in pointy hats and so forth, perhaps you also think there should be no head doctors or head teachers or generals or chief executives. Man-made institutions, including churches (whether one believes they have divine blessing or not), need hierarchies to function. What’s more, many find the robes that set clergy apart add to spirituality of ritual, along with uplifting architecture, music, processions etc.

    The world would be a drabber place without them. Atheists can find their beauty and peace of mind elsewhere, and theists can also dispense with all the trappings of ritual and communal institutions if they wish. But it’s banal to simply dismiss as a bystander. Far better to politely expound your own alternative so different options can be usefully compared.

      1. Charles

        The Rev Peter OJ doesn’t wear a pointy hat, but a battered leather cowboyhat. Particularly when leading services at the Life Cairn, alongside beautiful druid priestesses! – rock memorials for every species that we have to take responsibility for making extinct. For Peter is a very nice, and very honourable man….

  10. Charles

    Indeed he is, Sara. Interesting to read up on your Life Cairn (I’ve just liked your page on FB). Do you have fraternal relations with the Memo Project on my beloved, much-quarried Isle of Portland?

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