The study day on Ancient and Modern Insights into Human Flourishing was organised as a part of a series of events following on from the publication of Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide in 2016.

The four speakers at the day were chosen because it was felt that they could take issues further which have already arisen in previous events and to deepen our understanding of aspects of the dialogue which have not been adequately dealt with so far.

Raymond Tallis spoke of ‘Flourishing without God’. His presentation explored the ways in which human beings find ways to flourish which do not rely upon a religious vision of the world. Central to Raymond’s contribution was the notion that humanists should reclaim the spiritual dimensions of life and so re-discover a ‘transcendence from within’ the world.

He spoke of this view as a ‘spiritual irredentism’ which seeks to learn from the insights of thinkers such as Feuerbach and Durkheim and so to view God as ‘the ultimate intentional object’ that needs to be re-appropriated by us for human flourishing.

Challenges which this position provides for the dialogue between the religious and non-religious include the fact that the bridge across the divide between the religious and the non-religious seems to have ‘asymmetrical piers’. That is to say, religious belief has inspired cultural creations which all acknowledge as great achievements (music, cathedrals, art and so on) and so humanism needs to be less oppositional in its stance towards religion and more positive in elucidating what it brings to the table in these dialogues.

Suzanne Stern-Gillet provided a fascinating insight into the significance of the Neoplatonic tradition, principally of Plotinus (204-270), for dialogue between the religious and the non-religious about matters concerned with ethics, spirituality and visions of God. She spoke very much in the spirit of Raymond Tallis in that she made it evident that it can be too easy in such dialogues to assume that one side of the divide has a monopoly on the spiritual or on dimensions of transcendence. As she made evident in her paper, even a cursory knowledge of the philosophical tradition reveals this to be false.

The Neoplatonic tradition has in many ways pride of place in this aspect of the dialogue because living ‘the good life’ is seen in this tradition as becoming ‘god-like’. Plotinus who for many is seen as the natural post-Aristotelian heir to the Platonic tradition of philosophy developed a whole language for talking about these issues in the Enneads. Importantly for the current dialogue, this language is not Christian, though it was later taken up by the Christian tradition to speak of the mystical journey of union with God. Plotinus is in fact describing the adventure of coming to know reality through seeking to live the good life. In this sense epistemology, ethics and mysticism are united in his account of philosophy in a way which is suggestive for both the religious and the non-religious.

Nicholas Adams shifted the register of the day to social and political matters of leadership and discipleship. Drawing on the work of both the Jewish German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and the Anglican theologian Daniel Hardy (1930-2007), he raised the question of how it is that Christian culture seems to have become obsessed with models of leadership when the true vocation of Christians is to discipleship.

Indeed, as Nicholas elaborated during his presentation, these issues go beyond the current crisis in the Christian community and affect how our present democratic political system is so obsessed with finding the new ‘strong man’ to lead nations out of their current malaises. Inspired by the philosophy of Arendt, Nicholas developed a critique of the current Christian and secular obsessions with these leadership models of rule by showing that leaders in the ‘command and control’ style of ruling tend to be lonely figures because this way of ruling is by nature not collaborative and tends towards the instrumentalisation of people through subordinating collaborators to the goals of the leader.

Such a model of ruling is by its very nature unstable and leads to crisis after crisis which we are experiencing both in the ecclesial and political worlds at present. Developing Arendt’s notion of ‘action’ and Hardy’s understanding of ‘sociopoiesis’, Nicholas illustrated how it could be different if we understood ‘rule’ in terms of collaborative action and the creation of communal life. Both depend upon a natural attraction towards the good rather than compulsion by commands. If, as Hardy suggests, there is a ‘grain to the world’ which provides a natural way to act and to be, then such models of ruling are by nature attractive because they correspond with the truth of reality.

Regardless of whether one is religious or non-religious, such ways of acting and of collaborating in societies and in churches provide a way out of a managerialism that has been identified as one of the great pathologies of models of leadership in modernity by thinkers such as Max Weber (1864-1920) and in recent times by Alasdair MacIntyre (1929-) in his 1981 After Virtue.

Fr George Guiver CR closed the day with a talk entitled, ‘Prayer and Human Flourishing’. Drawing on his experience of life as a monk in the Anglican religious Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, he spoke of how contemporary notions of prayer have often detached themselves from the essentially corporate nature of prayer in the Christian tradition. Explaining how a life devoted to prayer involves being embedded in communal practices and rituals, George made clear that community is at the heart of prayer, and in a similar manner to the presentation by Nicholas Adams, George developed the notion that a community is drawn together by the attraction towards God. Prayer understood in this way provides the resources for the more solitary dimension of prayer, but this draws on the power of being connected to a body of which one is an essential part.

Whilst George’s paper focussed on the experiential dimension of prayer, he also highlighted aspects of it which have implications for wider society. Again reminiscent of Nicholas Adams’ paper, he spoke of how the bonds which connect us together are generated through these common rituals and, without using Hardy’s term ‘sociopoiesis’, he demonstrated how a life given over to prayer is by its very nature one which generates community.

The day concluded with a round-table discussion chaired by Richard Norman which sought to bring the different strands of the day together and to raise issues that required further exploration. A central theme of the discussion was whether secular humanism can meet the challenge of ‘asymmetrical piers’ from which to bridge the divide and construct a shared vision of human flourishing.  Does Raymond Tallis’s focus on human distinctiveness make excessive claims about what separates human beings from the animal kingdom?  Can humanists share a version of the Plotinian idea that the civic virtues, by developing our human reason, can raise us to a state of oneness with the divine?  Are humanists in a position to endorse Nick Adams’ claim that collaborative models of communal activity, in contrast to the rule of the strong man, work because they ‘go with the grain of the world’?  And do secular practices such as mindfulness lack the important dimension of prayer which is embedded in communal practices and rituals?

We are grateful to the Mirfield Centre and to the support of the Community of the Resurrection for hosting the religion and atheism group for this study day and we hope to continue the dialogue at Mirfield in the future at another such event.

The Revd Dr Tony Carroll