One set of virtual footprints: a collective cyber-pilgrimage

How is modern technology transforming our engagement with the sacred? Does life lived in symbiosis with cyber-simulacra divorce us from contact with Real? Or have new ways of being arisen from the ashes of the Victorian edifice of formal religion, facilitating the mass sacralisation of life.

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

As academics, classically trained in the anthropological analysis of pilgrimage and mythology, we have become increasingly interested in the way that certain online platforms provide opportunities for the flourishing of what we are terming exoreligious encounters with the numinous in the modern world.  That is to say, powerfully felt experiences of communion with something beyond the limits of ordinary existence in a context that is not easily attributed to either common sense or traditional understandings of religion. Cyberspace (and the realm of adult play that lies within it) suggests itself as one (although not the only) arena for the fruitful exploration of these phenomena.   It is both obvious and well documented (Campbell, Hutchings, McWilliams) however that many sites of cyber-pilgrimage have a direct relation with preexisting offline religious communities and places. Nevertheless, it also seems probable that the cyber world does not simply augment the offline; rather, just as physical action is transmuted, so too sacred space is transformed.

At one end of this transformative continuum stands that gamecompany’s 2012 game Journey, which is a sort of cyber pilgrimage to a sacred mountain, that has deeply affected globally dispersed (and culturally divergent) people of all faiths and none.  This is captured wonderfully in an online discussion forum, where one player wrote “I’m pretty much atheist myself, but that game gave me a sense of spirituality that other forms of media have failed to ever do.”

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

To explore this further, in early 2016, we stated a cyber pilgrimage project and (in June 2016) we ran a laboratory at the annual meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, which happened to be held that year in Durham. The laboratory aimed to communally explore and collectively debate the game Journey by directly experiencing it. The game-play and discussion were then recorded and offered to the global community through you tube – the journey therefore continues through this secondary, perhaps more passive engagement, which forms the next step of our experiment.

The full online video captures (in real-time) the blended collective movements of the workshop participants through the onscreen movement of a single avatar. At the same time the pilgrims’ individual voices can be heard weaving a collaborative understanding of the experience through reactive discourse. The shorter, highlights videos, explore the responses and transposed movements more thematically and represent a further movement of knitting both time (the individual moments of the pilgrimage) and personhood (the individuals present) into a single, cohesive, narrative.

If you would like to find out what the workshop participants did and how vocalisation entwined with digital movement on the pilgrimage trail then you are invited to  view the videos here;  if you wish to help form the experience then please feel free to inscribe the movements of  your own fingers onto the cyberspace of the comments box  and (in so doing) join this, ongoing, journey.

Jonathan Miles-Watson is Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University.

Vivian Asimos is a PhD Student, Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

Europe: The Road to Justice and Peace?

Flag_of_EuropeThe failure of the European Union as a whole to address the refugee crisis with any coherent vision of human dignity is a matter of deep shame, which Pope Francis has recently highlighted in one of his powerful gestures. Some very ugly political forces are crawling out from under stones. The Euro has become a nightmare, in which democracy has been subjugated to the interests of French and German banks, the taxpayer made liable for their reckless lending, and no account at all taken of the interests of the poor. UK politicans take turns in giving thanks that we have opted out of both Schengen and the Euro. Yet are not a common currency and a common border the hallmarks of a unified Europe? Is that project, that ever-closer union, now dead?

Some will say Britain was never part of it, though the treaties state otherwise and even David Cameron’s recent opt-out from further integration can be reversed, with UK consent. The EU cannot be understood except as a political project; it was never just about free trade and economics, even if, for the most part, that is how it has been sold to the British electorate. Trade is merely the path to peace and justice, or such is the hope. Pope Francis said to the EU Parliament:

“I encourage you to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent.  At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.”

Since Pope John XXIII, the Catholic Church has held that the future lies with a global political authority, the cession of a degree of sovereignty to the global level. As our world becomes economically, militarily and environmentally ever more interconnected, political authority needs to keep pace. Yet it is essential that such an authority arise from mutual agreement and not be imposed, nor be understood as a global super-State. After all, Napoleon Bonaparte also had a vision of a united Europe – united under him.

The European Union of 500 million people in 28 states is the largest political grouping ever formed, and so far maintained, entirely by consent. Even the United States is not only smaller but had to endure a terrible Civil War to keep it together; Europe’s ‘civil wars’ preceded the formation of the Union. The wonder of the EU is not that it sometimes works rather badly but that it works at all. The challenge is to make it work better and make it something the peoples of Europe feel proud of once again. The real decision – and it is a real choice – is whether the British people want to be a continuing part of that project.

An abridged version of a talk given at Sunderland Minster on 13 May 2016.

Dr Mark Hayes holds the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice.

The Soul and the City: An observer’s account of the London Mayoral Assembly


The Copper Box sits at the far end of Stratford’s Olympic Park. It was used during the 2012 Olympics to host lively games of handball and fencing. The venue was much praised for its fantastic acoustic as supporters’ cheered for their preferred team. Last week the Copper Box was transformed for one night into the setting for a rather different kind of sport: the London mayoral assembly organised by London Citizens/Citizens UK. 6,000 Londoners from every corner of the city gathered for a rather unconventional event. Unlike your average election hustings there were no questions from the audience or hands in the air, no lengthy speeches by politicians or opportunity for the candidates to get stuck into each other. Part carnival, part theatre, part liturgy, part town hall meeting; a community organising assembly is a difficult beast to describe to those who have not experienced its unique drama.

Attendees at last Thursday’s assembly represented ‘chapters’ of the biggest broad-based community alliance of civil society organisations and institutions in London: 2,000 from East London, 2,000 from West London and the remainder from chapters in North and South London. The membership of London Citizens consists of mosques, synagogues, churches, trade unions, schools, universities, and traders associations. Faith organisations make up the core of London Citizens (and the national grouping Citizens UK, which takes in groups in Leeds, Birmingham, Wales and most recent in gestation Tyne and Wear here in the North East), but this is not – in formal terms – a faith-based initiative. It is a deliberately mixed group of faith groups and other civil society organisations, bringing together people who are committed to working together in local areas on an agenda agreed through a democratic and relational process of negotiation.

What do I mean by a relational process? The core of organising works on the basis of one-to-one meetings carried out across member organisations. These meetings help identify the passions and interests of members and the things they most want to change about their common life. These one-to-ones also provide the basis for discovering hidden leadership talent – people who want to take a lead in speaking up and acting with and for themselves others in public life. From these meetings come a mosaic of concerns and interests that feed into the development of a democratic (voted on) agenda for action.

To make this concrete: the now famous Living Wage campaign built on the stories heard by faith communities amongst their members about the impact of low pay. The campaign for community land trusts as a response to a lack of social and affordable housing, protected for the next generation as well as this, came from stories about the impact of the rise in the cost of housing in London. The multiple campaigns to provide a path to regularise the status of undocumented migrants already living here, to end the detention of children for immigration purposes and to improve the processes for those claiming asylum came largely from stories told first often to pastors, priests, head teachers and faith leaders. Organising provided a vehicle to turn those concerns into forms of political action.

On Thursday evening last week the organisers of the assembly were working with the organising conviction that citizens have intensified forms of power in the lead up to elections, and that the critical move is to use that power – by organising people to act for their interests and the common good – in order to establish a relationship with whoever wins: an agreement to work together on the issues raised. Organising works on the basis of securing a relationship through negotiation. But securing a way to negotiate with political power is never as simple as just turning up and asking. Hence the drama, the liturgy and the town hall style engagement. The rules are: no heckling, no booing. Polite but firm engagement on a democratic agenda.

The assembly began with a carnival atmosphere as representatives from the strong and diverse Latin American community working in London paraded onto the stage with flags representing their communities and dancers who entertained the gathering with extraordinary performances. The crowd warmed up and the tone set – this is OUR assembly, and this is a form of public, political space in which traditions ground what we do and say – Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan took their places on stage.

The evening revolved around negotiations on an agenda agreed by the 6,000 present through lengthy months of planning: job and apprenticeship opportunities for young Londoners. A Living Wage commitment: would each candidate commit to paying a Living Wage not just to staff but insist that all procurement with city government in London was done with a guarantee of a Living Wage? A commitment on 50% new build affordable housing, and the introduction of the idea of a London Living Rent to be set according to the Tawney / Beveridge standards that no more than 1/3 of wages should be necessary to access decent housing. On immigration, a commitment to taking more than the paltry 40 Syrian families to have been settled in London so far under the government’s most recent scheme.

But a list like this gives little sense of the drama – and even at times tongue in cheek humour – of the proceedings. Each of these items for negotiation was presented by a civil society leader whose aim was to present an ‘ask’ and demand a no wriggle room public commitment. Each ‘ask’ involved the powerful delivery of testimony – truth to power – by a Londoner affected by each of the issues. Two of the most moving moments of the evening were when a young Nigerian woman addressed Khan and Goldsmith: she jepson2explained that she had lived in London since the age of 2, but she had recently been taken in a dawn raid by immigration officials and detained for six weeks before being released again. She spoke of fear, of exclusion, of her inability to get a student loan or a proper bank account, of her ten year wait to become a citizen in the only country she has ever known: ‘I am a Londoner’. The stadium came to its feet to recognise her contribution. She was followed by a young Syrian photographer, 28 years old, who fighting back emotion told of his journey through Europe to London. He too was met with an emotional ovation. Each made their ask to Khan and Goldsmith.

On housing a single mother of three, a key worker, spoke of her shame at not being able to afford enough bedroom space for her children, of her sense of failure the day that her teenage daughter needed to be given a mattress on the floor of the lounge as her permanent bedroom, of the son who still shares her room. A 15 year old schoolboy spoke powerfully of the displacement of his own working class family from their roots in one area of London as prices rose and the five house moves that have marked his school years. And then there was the clever idea to stage a ‘march of the keyworkers’. To the singing of Madness’ ‘Our House’ representative teachers, uniformed nurses, fire fighters, and police marched around the stage area in front of Khan and Goldsmith to make the point that those who keep London moving often cannot afford to live in the city they serve. It was clever and powerful with more than a hint of humour.

It is probably clear from what I have written that this style of politics attempts to recognise personhood – it doesn’t celebrate narrow issues or ossified identities, but it seeks to humanise political processes and recognise the deep motivations people bring to politics. By default it also happens to humanise the politicians too. Both Goldsmith and Khan were able to talk about their own roots and motivations, to be honest about what they could not promise – where consensus could and, equally importantly, could not be built.

Opened by the Bishop of London, closed with simultaneous Jewish and Muslim prayers – poignant in a week marked by brittle debate about racism, anti-semitism and politics – this was a remarkable gathering which defies the usual categories we use to think about religious and political action. The candidates were pushed hard – although there were times they could have been pushed harder – and made public commitments to which the winner will be held to account. But more significantly Khan and Goldsmith experienced the energy and vitality of a group of 6,000 Londoners who understand the power they have to bring change and to insist that politics matters.

Two concluding observations.

The coverage of the event in the media was a fairly disappointing affair. The reporting that did take place was skewed to reporting the ways in which an already favoured candidate had done better than the other obviously hopeless candidate. The Guardian reported how at home Sadiq Khan was amongst a throng of faith groups. It did not say that both candidates in fact where appealing to their base faith constituencies: Jewish and Muslim. It did not say that whilst the crowd did seem to favour Khan, at times Goldsmith was willing to make stronger public commitments. He grasped the procurement issue on the Living Wage more convincingly, although he gave less on housing and migration. Khan looked less comfortable as things wore on until delivering his powerful speech on housing at the end, Goldsmith often looked more relaxed. Nor did the media coverage show much interest in the profoundly unusual form of politics on display. A tough crowd to please, a higher energy event seemed to be the line. But no greater curiosity was shown – for good or bad – about what was on display.

My final observation is that of a non-Londoner watching a profoundly London form of politics unfold. Two things struck me (and my politician companion sitting by my side): there is still great energy for politics in London – a Northern crowd would have been harder to please, less easy to placate. This isn’t romanticism for the tough, gritty North, but awareness that I think Londoners still feel power pulse through their veins in a way that the North often does not. Finally, there was a palpable sense on Thursday that London has made peace with itself as a city marked by migration. The unequivocal support that brought the roof down for the young Nigerian woman without status and the Syrian photographer was deeply moving to see, but I wonder whether a cross section of any other city would show such an overwhelming sense of embrace and recognition? Whether the ease of interaction amongst the immensely diverse range of school pupils as they presented their common concerns on housing and jobs would be quite the same elsewhere? There was a glimpse of the soul of a city on Thursday, and it was something to behold.

Anna Rowlands is Lecturer in Catholic Studies whose research focuses on political theology. Photos by Chris Jepson.

The Idea of Freedom

boy-1226964_1280“Amartya Sen is the person I most admire in post-war social science”, said Professor Stuart Corbridge, Durham’s new Vice-Chancellor. Evidently relishing the opportunity to escape the burdens of office and speak freely as a scholar, the VC was delivering part of a tag-team lecture together with myself and Dr Augusto Zampini-Davies, a theological advisor to CAFOD, and Dr Séverine Deneulin, a specialist on international development at the University of Bath. Our theme was “The Idea of Freedom: reading Amartya Sen from a Catholic perspective” and the four contributions fitted together rather well.

Professor Corbridge and I set the scene in terms of the general context of Sen’s work within welfare economics and his seminal contribution to the so-called “capability approach”, in which personal freedom is both the means and the end of development. We then heard a really lucid exposition by our two colleagues of the similarities and differences between Catholic Social Thought (CST) and the Capability Approach.

For Augusto Zampini-Davies, while there are some areas of tension, there is much common ground. I was struck by his comment that in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si, we find that the main principles of CST – the common good, the universal destination of goods, subsidiarity, participation and solidarity – are to be understood as tools, what matters more is seeing ‘the signs of the times’ as they are, just as for Sen the Capability Approach provides a language for addressing social reality. There are three particular areas where CST can draw upon Sen’s approach: the need to hear the cry of the women, on whom global poverty weighs most heavily; a concrete perspective on the economic meaning of development beyond money income; and the understanding of a process of participation and dialogue.

Séverine Deneulin posed the reverse question: how can the Capability Approach draw on CST? She in turn identified three main areas: a more relational anthropology, beyond ethical individualism; a more realistic account of human weakness, including the manner in which individual freedom can produce structures of sin, which can only be redeemed through conversion at the level of community; and a stronger motivation, in the awareness of our common origin and mutual belonging, for exercising the personal responsibility to use our freedom to work towards greater justice.

I sensed that I was witnessing the formation of a new synthesis and that this collaborative lecture was outlining a truly fruitful way forward, both for academic research and the Church.

Audio of the full lecture together with the slides can be found here, and the slides are here: Sen final with all speakers.

Dr Mark Hayes holds the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice.MGH

Join us: AAR/SBL Drinks Reception

image001Many of us will be attending the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, which will be held in Atlanta GA this year November 20-24th.  Now, as a former resident of Atlanta, I can only say that while downtown Atlanta has very little to recommend it, anybody going should think about visiting the Martin Luther King Historic Site.

Anyone getting hungry should get a cab out to one of the following: The Flying Biscuit, Murphy’s or to my favorite mexican restuarant (whose whereabouts I am not betraying).

Any former Durham students or staff, and anybody interested in exploring the possibility of studying at Durham is very welcome at Durham’s own reception, which will be held on Sunday, November 22 from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM in the Chastain Room I at the Westin Peachtree Plaza.

Lewis Ayres is Head of Department and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology in the Department of Theology and Religion.

Smoke and Mirrors on Welfare and Work by Mark G. Hayes

Hayes, Durham, Theology, Catholic Social ThoughtThe announcement in the Queen’s Speech of a proposed Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill might suggest that the Conservative Workers’ Party had listened to the Archbishop of York’s call for a return to the values of Temple and Beveridge (see this blog , On Rock or Sand?, 17 February 2015). ‘Full employment and welfare’ suggests a concern for the dignity of work and a preferential option for the poor.

Beveridge defined full employment as a seller’s market in labour, meaning that every willing worker enjoys competition among employers for his or her services. Mr Osborne has redefined full employment to mean something completely different: the highest proportion of the working-age population in employment in the G7. Full employment in Mr Osborne’s sense is to be achieved partly by making unemployment as unpleasant as possible. So cuts in working-age benefits are to be justified as promoting full employment: hence the linking of ‘full employment’ and ‘welfare’ in the same sentence. The Bill is intended ‘to ensure that it pays to work rather than to rely on benefits’. Continue reading

Religious Literacy, Mike Higton, Durham University, Theology

Theology and Religious Literacy by Mike Higton

Higton, Durham, Christian, TheologyIt used to be possible to think that religion was playing less and less of a role in shaping our world, and that it might be destined to disappear into irrelevance within our life times. Yet the events of recent decades have made such a view itself disappear into irrelevance: we clearly live in a world in which religion makes a difference.

That means that, to understand our world well, you need to understand the strange, complex, diverse social phenomena that we call ‘religion’. To put it another way: intelligent citizenship requires religious literacy.

Adam Dinham, Professor of Faith and Public Policy at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Matthew Frances, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University, have put together a collection of essays exploring this idea of ‘religious literacy’. What is it? Why exactly do we need it? Where can we get it? what does it look like when you have it? Continue reading

Durham Cathedral, Durham University, Theology, Anglican

The Practice of Christian Theology by Mike Higton

Higon, Theology, DurhamChristian Theology is an activity. It is something that people do.

A lot of attention gets focused on the content of theology: the ideas and arguments that theologians produce. Rather less gets focused on the practice of theology: who does it, where, and how, and what it might mean for them to be doing it well. Of course, there is plenty of discussion of ‘method’ in theology, but it often focused at an abstract level, asking about the kinds of argument and evidence that can properly underpin theological conclusions, rather than on the practical activities of arguing, evidence gathering, and concluding, and on the people who engage in those practices.

Continue reading

Durham Debates Memorial Stones for the Forthcomming Election

On Thursday March 12th 2015 Prof. Douglas Davies was invited to speak at a debate hosted at the House of Commons on behalf of the Memorial Awareness Board and National Association of Memorial Masons. The motion was, ‘This House believes that Local Authorities should not compete commercially against their council tax and rate payers’. This topic relates to the Localism Act of 2011 which allows Local Authorities, if they so wished, to engage in the provision of, amongst other things, gravestone memorials. This new option is of obvious interest to  Memorial Masons and Funeral Directors who are the usual sources of memorial provision. A very lively debate ensued amongst the sixty or so funeral and  memorial professionals present, as well as a small representation of Local Authorities. Prof. Davies had been asked to oppose this motion and was thanked by many for taking on that position which allowed the debate to air many deeply held views. It is very likely that these issues will be taken up with new Members of Parliament after the 2015 General Election.