Faith in the future

March 21, 1997

While Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, others find spiritual fulfilment in Celtic and Shinto beliefs, Julia Hinde and Tony Tysome report. Below, THES looks at Lake District community values and Brazilian cults

WE MAY live in an age in which moral and spiritual values are seen as being in decline, but researchers have found that modern society has not given up the search for God.

New religions, or new ways of looking at old religions, are fulfilling the spiritual needs of people for whom traditional faiths seem to have lost their relevance.

According to Marion Bowman, lecturer in the study of religions at Bath College of Higher Education, the British are turning to Celtic religion in a bid to recapture lost spirituality.

She has spent the past seven years studying the rise of New Age and contemporary Pagan religions in the United Kingdom. She now speaks of a present day "idealisation of the Celts".

Her work is concentrated on the "classic and respectable" Bath, which she calls a "repository of contrasts and contradictions". For below the Georgian facade of the city, Ms Bowman claims Bath is the focal point of the Celtic revival.

"Across the board, people in Britain - from Christians to Pagans to New Age followers - are looking to the Celts for various reasons," she says.

"They are seen as more intuitive and spiritual and in touch with nature. People are creating their own image of Celtic spirituality. Celts have become like the Noble Savage of Britain with the Celtic period seen as the golden age of spirituality."

The rise in such traditions among Christians may be related to contemporary Euro-scepticism, she claims. Another line of thought suggests the increase in spiritual activity may have more to do with PMT - pre millennium tension.

"As far as many people are concerned, this may be a terribly significant time. There's this whole big business being made of the millennium. People are looking for a time in their history when they think people were more in touch with nature and the sacred."

Bath is a particular focus for the revival, she says, because of its hot springs and their links with the Pagan past.

"There seems to be a growth in awareness of Bath as a special place. For some people the whole significance of Bath is because this is where the waters emerged. It's seen as a significant meeting place between this world and the other world.

"Although Glastonbury has been hailed as the epicentre of New Age in England, many see Bath as equally significant, pointing out that the triangle of Glastonbury, Bath and Avebury forms an area of complementary powers."

Researchers at the college are also tracing the development of the popular Japanese religion of Shinto, which was recently discovered to be not nearly as ancient as most followers believed.

Brian Bocking, who heads the college's study of religions department, has been hunting through Japanese homes, libraries, museums and flea markets, for examples of a scroll which persists throughout the history of Shinto but changes over time.

He believes the 25 different versions of the scroll he has so far collected can be seen as a "window" on the development of Shinto and its ambivalent associations with Buddhism. The scroll depicted deities which in the past were seen as Buddhist but now are regarded as Shinto.

The significance of this changing face of Shinto was first realised by the Japanese researcher Toshio Kuroda in the 1980s, when he gathered evidence to show Shinto was not an ancient religion, but was in fact invented in the 19th century.

Professor Bocking first realised the importance of the scrolls after finding a picture of one while researching his Popular Dictionary of Shinto.

"When I looked at the picture, I realised I already had one which I had bought in an antique shop in Kobe while I was working at the university there. At the time, I had no idea of its significance. But I noticed there were marked differences between the two versions, and I realised this was a way of tracing the religion's development," he said.

Professor Bocking has so far concluded there was a key change in the scroll from around 1868, when Japan's new "modernising" regime was put in place.

"Unpicking what happened is very complex because the question of what Shinto is can be answered in so many ways. The only answer given in the past has been that it is ancient. But we now know that is not the case," he said.

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