Faith and Fairy Rings


  • Following on from the question posed by CF about creating a God-honouring society, JE from the United Kingdom engaged Jon the freelance theologian in the following dialogue.

    On creating a God-honouring society I agree with your wise remark that people trying to blend religions together only end up creating a new one. I was wondering what other approaches there might be – perhaps less intellectual ones. Many people nowadays think in terms of common experience, rather than orthopraxis/doxy. There are the 12 step programmes, which work by thinking of a higher power, which can save us from addiction (and we are all actual or potential addicts). Generally, there is the idea that if we call out, there is someone who listens and who cares.

    There is the approach of finding things we can all laugh about, cry about and dream about from the depths of our hearts. Living in pluralistic society one can look for the spark of life inside everyone and try and connect with others at the deepest levels one can. All this could sound rather new age-y, but what do you think about these ideas?

    A reply from Jon the freelance theologian

    Common experience can provide the grounding for a deep understanding of other human beings. However, the problem is that, sooner or later, people are called upon to make a judgment call regarding those experiences.

    I’d like to illustrate this using the analogy of a ‘fairy ring’. In the garden of the house where I grew up, there was a ‘fairy ring’ – an almost perfect circle of mushrooms growing in the grass lawn. It was an interesting phenomenon, called a ‘fairy ring’ because of an old superstition that it was created by the faeries as they danced during the night.

    To a believer in faeries, it was all the evidence needed to prove the existence of the little people. After all, it made a certain sort of sense and explained the phenomena quite neatly. Belief in the faeries meant that the ‘fairy ring’ was proof that they existed.

    Now we could both stand in the circle, with me explaining what created the ‘fairy ring’. You, on the other hand, might think the idea of fairies living at the bottom of my garden as being preposterous. You might posit other theories to do with spores, fungus beneath the ground, animal activity, even just that it was a fluke of nature. Our shared experience, namely both of us standing inside the ring, will not mean we come to the same inevitable conclusion. Our beliefs and prejudgments, including our societal upbringing, will mean that we interpret the experience differently. We may initially agree that the ‘fairy ring’ is interesting, but our different responses to it will probably drive us further apart, if anything.

    Incidentally, the ‘fairy ring’ analogy is one that explains why the classic arguments for the existence of God are so convincing to the believer, yet seem fallacious to the non-believer.

    Even without common experience, seeing the humanity in other people and respecting them as fellow human beings is important, if difficult sometimes. However, there is an element within all human beings that works against this, namely self-interest. Unfortunately, a cynic would probably be right in saying that the unerring ability of most humans to assume they are right about everything precludes the idea of ever finding common ground.

    This is the problem with looking for the ‘spark’ in people (which sounds more Gnostic than new age). In the Christian conception of the world there is the element of human sin, which would presumably cancel out that spark or lead humans off into blind alleys when it comes to honouring the divine. Human-authored religions (theosophy, scientology etc.) may have their adherents, but the history of religion shows that only those religions that claim transcendent authority through ‘revelations of the divine’ will survive.

    Posted on