Hand in Hand: Blending secular and sacred to enlarge the human spirit by Ian Harris
Cuba Press, 2021
Review by John Meredith with comments by John Thornley
After the earthquake of 2011, the spire on the Anglican cathedral in Christchurch tumbled and lay sideways on the ground. Someone remarked that the spire was no longer pointing to God in some sacred realm above but to God in the world of every day.
“Secular” refers to the world of every day, of the here and now. The underlying premise of Hand in Hand is that the secular world is where religion must be practised, and faith lived out. This is a profoundly biblical concept: life cannot be divided into holy or sacred and ordinary or secular spheres.
The world we live in is, however, vastly different from the world of the Bible. We live in a world of rapidly expanding knowledge that raises many challenges to the veracity of what was once widely accepted. Quite frankly, the world has moved on. In this new world Harris recognises that for many people the existence of God as an independent being who maintains life on earth (a concept known as theism) no longer seems tenable. This does not mean a necessary rejection of religion but people are seeking ways of thinking about God that are consistent with their experience of life and that do not require a sacrifice of their intellectual integrity.
If we can set aside the idea of God as a being with independent existence, Harris states it may be possible to give the word God new meaning as a symbol that expresses the core of religious understanding. He suggests that “in this symbolic view God is a word summing up what is central to a person’s understanding of life and its purposes and what they sense as ultimate in the values they choose to live by. It points to what is best, highest and deepest in human experience.”
Harris emphasises the partnership between religion and science in seeking to understand life. He quotes Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who said, “Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning.” Understood thus, there is no conflict provided religious and scientific views are not held and promoted dogmatically. Mutual listening aids understanding. It may even open up a new appreciation of the sacred as we revere the wonder revealed by scientific discovery.
Content is grouped under helpful headings relating to what is secular: spirituality, theism, science and the environment. The last section is a challenge to the churches: adapt or die. Harris states: “It will be a grand day for Christianity when it ditches its obsession with belief and rediscovers the centrality of faith.” arris
There is a need to move from ancient creeds and to find that when lived with reverence, respect and responsibility, life yields the fulfilment of faith, hope and love.
The author dedicates Hand in Hand “to all who embark on an exploratory journey of faith that continually changes shape and never quite ends.” Written in an incisive and highly readable style, this book should be essential reading for anyone who is willing to think seriously about faith today and realistic possibilities for the future.
John Thornley’s Comments
I first read John Meredith’s review in the July issue of Touchstone, published monthly by the Methodist Church of New Zealand. It’s a very positive review. I expand some information, and then discuss how this book can be a useful learning tool in churches today.
As with Ian Harris’s earlier book New World New God: Rethinking Christianity for a secular age, Makaro Press, 2018, the format consists of edited reprints of articles that have appeared in secular and religious newspapers, including The Dominion, The Otago Daily Times, and now continuing in Touchstone. Each article occupies 3 to 4 pages, brief enough to provide ideal discussion group starters.
The headings in Hand in Hand:
‘Like it or not, we’re secular – seven articles.
‘Spirituality? In our secular world – thirteen articles
‘No.no.no God! – three articles
‘And then there’s science – eleven articles
‘Don’t forget the planet!’ – six articles
‘In the churches: Adapt or die’ – nineteen articles
Buy a copy for your church
Tell folk to read it, buy their copy, and buy a copy as a present – for your grandson, granddaughter, niece or nephew, whoever.
Use an article as basis for a service of worship
Three illustrations: ‘Religion in Schools’, ‘The Great Partnership’ (Religion and Science), Abandoning Religion’ (Are teens abandoning churches, or Are adults failing teens?)
Take a pick of three articles for a home-based discussion group – three sessions.
Illustrations: Three topics arise out of the six themes: What is Spirituality? Or Spirituality/Religion; Climate Change; Future Church.
Organise a panel leadership of the service, with panel members chosen representing their profession or trade or beneficiary
Illustrations: A GP and Neurotheology `It’s in the brain’. Nurses/hospital chaplains – there are several Article options under ‘And then there’s science’. New forms of church life – there are several Article options under ‘To the churches: adapt or die’ (for some topics, you might welcome an outsider with the necessary knowledge/experience to join the panel).
Use questions to open up discussion
Questions give both focus and direction to highlighting key ideas. One illustration for the article ‘From cosmic gas and debris’, opening article under Climate Change’: Discuss these words: ‘new story’, ‘salvation/destruction questions’ and ‘noosphere’.
Hand the Reflection over to a lay person outside your church membership
The planning of the remainder of the service will be done by church members, who might like to share their input with the invited speaker.
Promote, promote, promote
Share words from the book, acknowledge it as the source for reflection/prayers,
Show it to others, loan it to others, photocopy one article to pass around, and so on.
Can articles be photocopied?
Ian Harris and his publisher, The Cuba Press, are happy with limited photocopying of individual articles to share. But if more is required, books are available for sale at all good bookshops and The Cuba Press website thecubapress.nz. Libraries are also happy to order books that are recommended.
Email Ian Harris, so that he knows the photocopying of one article is taking place. He will also be interested in the chosen article for discussion. Email: email@example.com
Finally: The earlier book by Ian, New World New God, can be warmly recommended. It can be ordered by bookshops from Makaro Press: website: makaropress.co.nz