Faith Biography

On Tuesday 23rd May we welcome Professors Heather Walton and Peter Ackers to Wolfson College to give a lunchtime seminar on faith biography. Spiritual autobiographies, such as those famously composed by Augustine, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, constitute the earliest forms of life writing. The genre has changed and developed to the modern era. Contemporary spiritual life writers must engage with pressing challenges such as the feminist critique of male-centred religious practice, emerging reconceptions of materiality and the relation between spirituality and embodiment. Heather discusses her response to these issues in constructing her own spiritual life writing.

Christianity and Communism have been two themes of British Labour History. Peter brings them together by focusing on the common experience of ‘religious’ conversion & loss of faith and often the shift from one faith to the other. He explores the faith and raw emotion that lies beneath the rational surface of orthodox Labour History, discussing: WT Miller, a moderate religious nonconformist; Arthur Horner, Communist leader of the National Union of Mineworkers; and Professor Hugh Clegg, an Industrial Relations academic and Cold War social democrat. OCLW’s Katherine Collins explores their work:

Katherine Collins: You are both what we might call ‘applied life-writers’ in the sense that the life-writing itself is not the end of the story for you: you’re seeking to go beyond it to gain theoretical and historical insights. So I wonder if you might think of life-writing as a research method, or a personal, spiritual or creative practice, or something else… What is life-writing to you?

Peter Ackers: I began doing Biographical research with my PhD, completed in 1993. I was a Sociologist interested in History and the big inspiration was Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, with its individual exemplars. I hadn’t thought it through then, but I think a central reason for my Biographical & Historical ‘turn’ was a sense that ‘people matter’ and a reaction against institutional and structural accounts that downplay human agency. So to begin with there was a cold social science rationale for life writing. However, I’ve also been a Diary writer and I’ve always seen myself at the soft end of the social sciences close to English and History and interested in literary style. So I’ve come to see life writing as something more than a just social science method – though I’ve begun to include personal experience in more general articles – and as a more internal personal, intellectual and spiritual form of communication; hence our seminar.

Heather Walton: My first go at life writing was an attempt to understand what had contributed to my mother’s depression which deeply affected my childhood. I found that it was a way of engaging academically, politically and personally all at the same time and it was also something very active and empowering in a context where I could do little to change circumstances. I became more deeply engaged with life writing during a ten year period of infertility. Again it was a way of becoming creative in a very ‘barren’ place. The writing  did not resolve things but allowed me to think politically and spirituality about embodiment, generatively and loss. It was challenging but also comforting. It took me a while to realise that life writing could also engage theologically with big questions by rooting these in the particularity of my own story. Then there was no going back!

KC: Christian religious practice and Communist and left-wing movements have both been identified as male-dominated, perhaps even misogynistic in philosophy and praxis. Does the writing you work with bear out this assumption? And if so, how do you deal with it in your own writing?

PA: In my Labour History writing, I’ve reacted against a ‘committed’ Socialist approach that uses the past to build support for current political positions. Though I’m still interested in History & Policy in a broader, more critical sense. And our new edited book, Ackers and Reid, Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain: Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century (Palgrave, December 2016) concludes by exploring the relevance of a tradition of associational life and civil society for us today. However, I’m also aware of anachronism and of not judging the past by the standards of the present. I think too that, in their time, many Christians and Socialists were pioneers of equal rights. I’m highly critical of Communism, but there’s no doubt that British Communists often championed the cause of women and ethnic minorities by the standards of their time. Some Protestant Christian groups, such as Congregationalists, Quakers and Methodists, also pioneered women’s church leadership, again by the standards of their time. Finally, we shouldn’t lose class in this discussion and the working class men (mainly) I’ve written about remain important historical subjects, warts and all. I think today’s heightened awareness of gender and ethnicity is valuable in making Historians ask new questions and avoiding the old tendency to see men as the generic working classes.

HW: I think the traditions, ideologies and worldviews that shape Western culture are all male-centred and misogynistic to some extent. Working in theology and spirituality you are never really in a position to forget this or get too comfortable – which is a good thing I suppose. The way I respond is by deliberately assuming a ‘feminine’ voice in my life writing. This can appear fragmented, childlike and partial but I think it does challenge the dominant registers simply by not being logocentric or authoritative. I also think a lot of the authority of received male centred perspectives is often dissolved by humour. So if my authorial voice is ‘flimsy’ and ‘funny’ and I am talking about God then that is already doing something a bit different that shifts the old world on its axis just a little.

KC: You both seem to operate at an intersection of spiritual and political concerns. Can you elaborate on the differences you perceive between these two contexts? For example, there might be different senses of historical time, or perhaps temporal progression, in spiritual and political life-writing?

PA: I’m not so sure the difference between spiritual and political concerns is so great, particularly when you reach the most committed end of the political spectrum, like Communism – as our seminar explores. Both reach into an individual’s core identity and it’s no accident that Crossman’s 1950 edited collection on former Communist believers is title, The God that Failed. I’m a former Euro-Communist, former member of the Labour Party, former Methodist and now current agnostic Anglican Christian. At 60 I’m disillusioned with strong, all-encompassing belief systems, and an advocate of pragmatic politics, but I’m still fascinated by the search for meaning. This has been a central theme of my own life, which draws me to Biography – to access other individual’s journeys; to memoir – to reflect on my own; and to life writing in general.

HW: Never really been able to distinguish between the political and the spiritual myself. These spheres together are what fascinate me the most and actually they both call forth the passion, wonder and disciplined commitment that make living worthwhile and writing matter. We have some great examples in literature of the uniting of these perspectives (Blake obviously but also Emily Dickenson, Alice Walker – too many to mention really). In life writing I have been particularly influenced by the work of Etty Hillesum and Elizabeth Smart who seem to write from a world infused by both glory and suffering and the amazing everyday. I tend to prefer the radical and the unorthodox in politics and faith but still find ordinary religious practice deeply meaningful. I go to Church!

Photo by Austin Ban (CC0 1.0)

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