This book is based on two bad experiences and one good one. The first bad experience is of disillusionment with a Christian institution and, more widely, with the institutional church. The second bad experience is of much greater significance, and will resonate with many people today - that the traditional beliefs, rituals and language of the Christian church seem so thin when compared with the powerful feelings (at once spiritual, moral and emotional) aroused by human love, the breakdown of important relationships, death, whether of a loved one or oneself, and the mystery and grandeur of the universe of which we are such a tiny part. These aspects of existence can arouse such strong feelings that religious talk and, especially perhaps, religious consolation seem but a sounding gong and a clanging cymbal.
Of course not everyone allows themselves to experience such raw feelings.
Many are simply trying to survive, others (paraphrasing Wordsworth) "getting and spending, lay waste their powers". But those who feel as Alex Wright does often no longer find traditional Christian imagery an adequate vehicle for what they have discovered through their own experience.
The good experience in this book is the reflection that Wright offers relating to what he himself has gone through and his sense of being bound up with the universe as a whole, being part of it even after death. His method is to use quotations from novels and poetry and short biographical extracts from his own life story to construct a sense of his own life, as profoundly worthwhile despite loss, rejection and the inevitability of death. There is, however, a contradiction that also runs through this book.
He ends with the words he read at his grandfather's funeral, words that were left as a legacy by a soldier killed in Northern Ireland: "To all my loved ones". The words are:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there; I did not die.
The theological perspective expressed in that poem, one to which Wright is sympathetic, as he makes clear at a number of points in the book, could be described as pantheism, or the more fashionable panentheism. But is that theological view of the universe adequate to the facts? I am not arguing for the moment whether it is or it is not but that question opens us to rational discussion and that rational discussion will inevitably be couched in somewhat abstract terms far removed from the deep feeling expressed in that poem.
It would seem we are presented with a choice of either giving up theology altogether because of its thinness and potential banality or doing theology and recognising that a process of rational reflection is bound to have an abstract quality to it unrelated to the actual business of living, let alone living in the deep mystery of God. The greatest theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, and the greatest mystics of all kinds solved this dilemma by recognising that theology is no more than a sketch as compared to the reality. In this way we can acknowledge that theology does have a proper place. But it still leaves the question of church worship and Christian life generally. For that truly ought to reflect some of the rawness and pain and poignancy of life itself. Otherwise, many will continue to agree with Wright that what goes on in church simply fails to resonate with the heights and depths, the joy and sorrow of ordinary living and a sense of life as at once tragic and precious.
Richard Harries is Bishop of Oxford. His latest books are The Passion in Art and Praying the Eucharist .
Meanings of Life
Author - Alex Wright
Publisher - Darton Longman and Todd
Pages - 144
Price - £10.95
ISBN - 0 232 52489 0