Professor Linda Woodhead MBE DD teaches sociology of religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Her work delves in to the relationship between religion and society. Co-founded the Westminster Faith Debates which fosters debate and discussion aided by the latest research.
Sincere thanks to Linda Woodhead for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH LINDA WOODHEAD
Musa Askari: “It was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, whom I first met in 1965 and then again in 1968 at a seminar in Bangalore, who gave me the insight and direction I was seeking. When I attended that seminar….I had no idea that it would open a new path for me and bring me into the very heart of the interfaith dialogue across continents. Smith’s distinction between faith and belief provided me with a foundation to relate positively to “the other”. While belief is a part of the cumulative tradition, faith is the personal immediate possession of each individual by which one relates to one’s life, to all those whom one encounters, faith being a vast world in which all can participate. Faith is thus an inner ability to relate and communicate without fear. I now had the spiritual basis to respect and listen to others.” (Prof. Syed Hasan Askari – Solomon’s Ring)
In your opinion what do people mean by the words “faith” and “belief”? From surveys commissioned of public opinion is a distinction between “faith” and “belief” recognised and how is this distinction expressed within the field of sociology of religion?
Linda Woodhead: I think the general perception would be that ‘faith’ means something personal, existential and ‘inner’, whilst ‘belief’ has more to do with external religious formulations. To that extent, there is an overlap between the faith/belief distinction and the spirituality/religion one. Moreover, where ‘beliefs’ seem to define particular religions and distinguish them from one another ‘faith’ is a more inclusive term (despite Christian associations). I was speaking to a university chaplain the other day who told me that when they renamed the ‘Chaplaincy’ ‘Centre for Faith and Spirituality’ the number of people coming through the doors almost tripled!
Another way of looking at it is that there are two dimensions of religious identity – the collective identity which I inhabit, and the inner dimension of that identity which, to some extent, is private to me alone. People may be able to pigeonhole me in terms of the collective identity, but my personal identity is part of my inner life, and – a religious person might say – ‘known to God alone’.
Musa Askari: Professor Askari in his 2004 article, “From InterReligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“ discusses the threefold need to revive the classical discourse on soul: theological, philosophical and psychological.
As well as understanding the number and various sub-set distribution of those who identify themselves as “religious” or “spiritual but not religious” does reference to “soul” feature in the studies and opinion polls you have conducted? What is meant by the word “soul” and are the various definitions people offer contextualized depending on which faith or spiritual attitude the person belongs or ascribes to?
Linda Woodhead: There are plenty of surveys which show that belief in the soul has been growing in the UK – despite the fact that other elements of religious belief, including belief in God, have been declining. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by ‘soul’, and my interviews and talks with people suggest that different people mean different things. But the word seems to help people express their intuition that there is ‘more’ to me – and other humans, and possibly animals as well – than mere flesh and blood. This ‘something’ may be hard to pin down, but it can include the belief that people have a unique, irreplaceable value, and that that value is never completely destroyed – even by death. So the ‘soul’ names something of great value, something which transcends the mundane and utilitarian aspects of existence.
But people don’t always mean something eternal when they say soul – and often they make no reference to God at all (atheists can believe in a soul). Here soul may simply mean the essence of a person, their deep identity. It’s also interesting to note that souls are not necessarily good! We may say ‘poor soul’ of someone we pity. And ‘she has a beautiful soul’ of someone we admire. But we also say ‘he has no poetry in his soul’, or ‘his soul is in danger’ and ‘he is an unhappy soul’.
Musa Askari: If religion is a particular “faith body” then “spirituality” is its temperature reading varying in intensity from the individual to the collective. It is an impossible task perhaps to capture a spiritual reading through social attitude survey-opinion polls. We are perhaps using the wrong tools to grapple with that question. Would you agree to ask about spirituality, before we arrive at any expression of say religious faith, is to ask also more fundamental questions? Namely, “who are we” or “who am I”.
Can these be considered the cornerstones not of doubt but a deeply felt sense of spirituality? This couplet of questions, over and above all cultural-social-ethnic-national and religious identities is, would you agree, “The Identity Question”? It is from here we start our journey, consciously or otherwise. Some may even refer to it as the beginning of a spiritual quest. (for reference please see interview with Dr. Rowan Williams.
Linda Woodhead: The question of identity can certainly be the starting point for a spiritual or moral question. ‘Who am I?’, ‘what am I really like’ are questions which we all have to answer at some point in our lives, and which crises can precipitate. We can get stuck in a particular identity, including one which others want us to inhabit, but the construction of identity can also be an ongoing process. This is not to make it all sound like an individual or individualistic matter: we construct identity in relation to given social identities (‘a good daughter’, ‘a good Muslim’, ‘a respected professional’, ‘a tough man’) which are often conveyed by images and stories and real people we know. And we constantly negotiate our identities in relation to one another: how you feel and speak about me may shape who I am. For religious people, god, goddess, goods and holy places are important elements in this whole process.
Musa Askari: The question on knowing our place in the world, some would argue, is more than to ask about our physical existence as a planetary form of life. Is it not also, together with the physical, a spiritual non-material question which goes beyond our empirical existence? If “spirituality” is also that which expresses our longing for “transcendence” then humanity’s quest to know its place in the world, in the cosmos, the whole endeavour of human thought, has been and remains perhaps a super-trans-historical spiritual pursuit.
I would be grateful for your thoughts on if the hidden debate between all of us as communities, as one “Human Self” (sacred – secular, religion-humanists, spiritual-atheist, physical-metaphysical) is a spiritual one also and that such a term of reference requires admission into the continuing debate/dialogue between religion and humanism, towards a spiritual humanism? (for reference please see section on Human Nature by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari )
Linda Woodhead: To ‘Know my place in the world’ is a very good starting point – and perhaps ending point – for a humanist or a spiritual quest. How many of us really know our place? We can take up too much space, or too little space. To know one’s place is a very difficult and demanding task, and it means making proper allowance for the space that other people, creatures, plants, and other elements of the natural world occupy. We have to give space as well as take it, and in doing so we find out who we really are. I think this may be a point on which humanists, atheists, environmentalists and many religious people would agree. There are also powerful traditions within many theistic religions which speak of God having to withdraw Godself to make space for the created order.
Musa Askari: From his reflection, “There are only Four Communities“ (Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision), Hasan Askari writes, “There are those who do not look beyond this world and its appearances, who are attached to its fortunes, however fleeting, and who insist, either on account of their personal conviction or under the influence of some dominant ideology, on a materialistic outlook. They are to be found in every age, country and culture….There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices….There are those who look beyond the outer forms of this world and of their religion and culture. They look at their inner meanings and correspondences. They are the individuals….And there are those who have gone beyond both the outward and the inward. They have gone beyond themselves. Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent. ”
I am interested to understand if it is possible not only to enquire if a person identifies themselves as religious or otherwise, but if there is any work undertaken to capture an understanding of the outer and inner aspects of one’s religious, spiritual life and mystical life? Is the question asked on a recognition of inner and outer? For example take Islam where we have the outer enactments of faith, “salat”- canonical prayer, “Haj”-pilgrimage and so on all pointing to something beyond the outer act itself, a way to transcend as it were. On the other hand we notice a calling in the Quran to remember God, to contemplate and reflect in silence even outside of the prescribed rites of faith.
Linda Woodhead: I think we live in an age which is very focused on the external life – on how I act into the world, what material success I have, my relations with people and things. The price of this emphasis is often a neglect of the inner life. Mystical traditions saw nothing odd in a person dedicating the whole of life to exploring ‘inner space’ – a world which is invisible. Today many people would regard that as a wasted life, and think that such a person was being escapist, and retreating into an illusory world. At the same time, however, we all know that we have an ‘inside’ which we often find it hard to understand and articulate. We may need help – a friend or a therapist – to explore it. It is wonderful when we meet someone who can understand us, who can ‘see inside’. When this happens, the fundamental loneliness we al live with can be lifted in a miraculous way. Some people may experience this in prayer, some in nature, some with people they love, some watching movies or reading poems. You can call this ‘transcendence’, but it is a transcendence which at the same time roots us more deeply in who we really are.