The Pilgrim's Progress

In my twenties, I used to fret that I could never seem to feel at home in any spiritual tradition. It stirred me deeply to take part in Sufi movements in London, but it didn't mean I was a Muslim. I appreciated sitting in silence with the Zen people, but was equally reluctant to call myself a Buddhist. Yet I always felt I must be missing something, that I was a spiritual window-shopper who was reluctant to get more than his toes wet. As I have grown older and come to trust more the promptings of my own inner world, those concerns have fallen away. What is free of concept and image, as Hafez would say, is sheer alive presence - the love that ultimately burns us away. My faith is in that and in the aspirations of secular humanism; together they make for a secular spirituality. The equality of men and women, human rights, education and the democratic progress, environmental research - achievements like these surely embody some of the best of what it means to be human. They are exercises in practical compassion, a greater leap forward for the daily welfare of humanity than anything achieved by the medieval hierarchies and rituals of religion. Secular spirituality works for the betterment of this world while acknowledging the immanent mystery inherent in everything.
That compelling argument for secular spirituality is taken from Roger Housden's Iranian travelogue Saved By Beauty. The 1971 EMI recording of The Pilgrim's Progress*, which radiates immanent mystery, was the product of two great secular humanists, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Adrian Boult. RVW - whose achievements included co-editing the English Hymnall - was a declared agnostic, while Sir Adrian Boult did not adhere to any established religion. Hours before his death in 1983 Sir Adrian to listened to his own recording of Vaughan William's Sea Symphony, a setting of poetry by the humanist Walt Whitman. At Sir Adrian's request there was no funeral or memorial service, and he bequeathed his body for the purposes of medical science. In his will Sir Adrian left a bequest to Manchester College, Oxford, which had a history of religious nonconformity and was then linked to the Unitarian Church. Today Manchester College Oxford Chapel Society welcomes worshipers of all faiths or none. The Chapel does not require adherence to a fixed creed, believing that religion is wider than any one sect and deeper than any one set of opinions. It is a fundamental belief of the Chapel congregation that unity lies in a shared search for truth, reverence for life, and a mutual respect for sincerely held beliefs.

* When On An Overgrown Path struggled into life eleven years ago potential conflict of interest with my professional work dictated that I adopt a nom de plume. The handle Pliable, which lingers on today, was taken from the character in Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. In Bunyan's allegory Pliable travels with Christian; he hopes to take advantage of the Paradise that Christian claims lies at the end of his journey, but Pliable falls into the Slough of Despond en route where Christian abandons him.

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Pliable said…
I note that Roger Housden has also written a book titled Keeping the Faith Without a Religion, but I have not, as yet, read it.
billoo said…
Wonderful post, pli! Reminded me of Dewey's 'Common Faith'. And thank you for pointing me to this music.
Pliable said…
'And thank you for pointing me to this music.'

That's all that matters. Forget 'likes', 'retweets' audience figures, and all those other ego trips. That one reader has discovered RVW's The Pilgrim's Progress makes it all worthwhile.

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