I am so very glad I let myself be talked into going to the ECAPS conference at Hengrave this year. It's always wonderful. It's been wonderful since 1988 (and I've only missed two since then, 1992 because I was in Australia at the time and 2003 because I was flapping about not being able to afford the time off), but this year was even more wonderful than usual. Partly because the topic, Judaism and science, was particularly interesting, and partly because there was an exceptionally good mix of people. Lots of the people who come every year and who are part of the reason I love Hengrave so much, and lots of new people doing the new people thing of discovering how amazing the experience is.
Driving through the middle of nowhere in the dark, it's so isolated that you can hardly believe there's actually a place there. And then you brave the sentry rows of spooky pollarded limes and step through a normal-sized door cut into one that is hardly on a human scale, by modern standards, and it smells of love and welcome and peace. I think most of the smell comes from being in a house where the interior is decorated with large quantities of antique wood, but it means that from the first breath I move from being in the ordinary world to a Hengrave state of being.
Then being welcomed by a couple of the people from the community. Usually it's lay volunteers who probably haven't been around for all that long, but sometimes it's sisters or long-term lay members who remember me from previous years. They're Hengrave people, and they're ready to love anyone who walks through their door; if they know you already that just gives them even more reason to be delighted to see you. It's true that the community don't get as involved in the ECAPS event as they used to in Sr Julian's day, but they're still a presence and they still bring into existence the Hengrave atmosphere, even if the way they do it is so unobtrusive it's almost disappointing. There was a lovely girl called Christine there; I didn't get to talk to her much beyond learning that she'd had her dress tailormade from a design based on Arwen's costume in the LotR film, adapted in such a way that it was suitable for someone living in a Christian community.
Unpacking and settling into our ridiculously grand room, which in the morning will have views over formal gardens and parks beyond that, and which is the size of three or four normal bedrooms, and the bathroom is in a little turret that might once have been a garderobe, and the huge stone fireplace is surrounded with Delft tiles (genuine, of course). It's quite a weird thing to be rooming with my parents; I haven't really done that since I was quite little, and back then, it would never have been on my own without the sibs. That's the time when you just breathe, breathe the smell and the atmosphere and breathe metaphorically before plunging into the human part of Hengrave.
Hengrave properly starts with showing up in the little pantry where there's stuff for making tea but not really enough space for all the people crowded in there. Yay people. People who've known me from childhood, people I know through Hengrave (of long or recent acquaintance), new people who want to be friends. Some of the new people may still be shy at this stage, but almost everybody is open and welcoming to everyone else, because that's just the way Hengrave is. Kids get treated like people; that was one of the things I loved about Hengrave when I first started going as a kid myself. And as well as abolishing the generation barriers, there's uninhibited mingling between people from different places, different social strata, and to some extent different flavours of Judaism, though ECAPS isn't per se an ecumenical group.
Once everybody has arrived, the children fight over who gets to bang the supper gong (which is taller than the littlest of them) and the sound brings everybody into the dining room. The Hengrave community are as ever charmingly confused by the fact that we want to do Kiddush (the ceremony for the start of the Sabbath) before we eat, and politely trying to cover their alarm at our lighting hundreds of candles in their beautiful wood-lined home. Loud communal singing (I learnt most of my base tunes at Hengrave, as neither my family nor the community where I grew up are particularly musical), followed by so much intense conversation there's barely time to eat.
After that comes perhaps my favourite part of the weekend, the Friday night service, extended late into the evening with singing and storytelling in the tradition which is called oneg, delight. It's healing, it's transformative, it's in so many ways everything which worship should be. It's very hard to describe how much I love that service, but it feels as if my soul is caught up in prayer and joy, if it were possible to know what such an experience might be like. It occurred to me at some point that had I been anywhere else but Hengrave, I might have been a little upset that the newly married couple leading the oneg were picking all the songs and texts where romantic love is used as a metaphor for religion, but I felt so surrounded by community love and friendship love that I was far from grieving.
As for the rest of the weekend, well, it continued being wonderful. From a purely practical point of view, it was a tad over-programmed; we were going from one talk straight into the next a lot of the time, and also, the speakers were being allowed to take up the full scheduled time-slot instead of being stopped ten minutes early to allow for discussion. But basically, I go to Hengrave for the people and the place, not particularly for the talks and planned events.
Some of this year's speakers were rather more famous than the usual run of people who do Hengrave, and I had the impression they were used to being on TV or doing big, highly managed Events rather than speaking to a small group of people who weren't primarily there out of interest in their subject. There was a lot of showmanship, carefully crafted jokes, deftly used visual aids and generally dramatic style. But the downside was, they didn't do a brilliant job of setting out the parameters of their talks or structuring things; they were a bit rambling and anecdotal, in a highly entertaining but not tremendously informative way. You had the impression they were used to having their material arranged by a producer so that it would come across to the audience as a seamless final product. A lot of the talks focused on debunking various kinds of creationism and anti-scientific religious positions, which was all well and good but nobody got as far as actually stating what creationist positions they were arguing against. The assumption that the audience would automatically be familiar with the creationism debate was I think not justified.
I think the main message that came out of the intellectual section of the weekend was that it is an extremely serious strategic mistake to present science as a series of incontrovertible facts. This not only puts people off because it gives the impression that science is dull, but perhaps more seriously, gives ammunition to unscrupulous creationists. If science is seen as just one more completely unjustified doctrine that you believe because someone important tells you to, there's no reason to prefer science to anti-rational strands of religion. Indeed, religion is perhaps better, because it's more inspiring. In fact, just this week I came across a very good example of this: Gerv is by no means unscrupulous himself, and neither can he remotely be described as stupid, but this discussion on evolution indicates that he's rather bought into the view of science as a doctrine which conflicts with and is inferior to his religious doctrine.
Science is a method for interpreting evidence, not a set of facts, and should be portrayed as such in the clearest terms possible. In fact, blindly accepting the status quo because it is promulgated by Important People is absolutely the antithesis of science! Science should be based heavily on skepticism and should provide the tools to allow everyone engaged in science (and that very much includes lay people taking an interest) to confidently criticize unreasonable claims. This stuff is not exactly revelatory, but it was very interesting to have it spelled out so clearly.
One rather vivid example that was brought up (not in a specifically religious context) was that development of IVF treatment was delayed because its pioneers had in their heads the typical textbook diagram of the female reproductive system, which is very much Not To Scale. They were treating the uterus as if it were capacious, whereas in reality the uterus of a woman who has never given birth may contain as little as 20 µl (one 50th of a cubic centimetre) of space. They knew intellectually that uteruses are small, but they did not think of that when they were trying to inject fertilized ova back into the body using volumes of fluid orders of magnitude bigger than the total volume of the uterus. So simply accepting models and theories as fact can have practical consequences as well as causing people to be susceptible to bad theologies.
Prof Lipton (whose subject is History and Philosophy of science) gave another angle on the issue. He was talking about various philosophical options for what to do when scientific understanding contradicts or apparently contradicts some aspect of religious faith. Unlike some of the 'celebrities' (though Prof Lipton is a pretty big noise in his own field), he gave a talk that was extremely well-structured and rigourous, while pitched exactly right for an extremely mixed audience. But he mentioned the point that, despite all these ideas about skepticism and proceeding by falsifying hypotheses and so on, it is impossible in practical terms to test for yourself every scientific experiment that anyone has ever claimed to perform, or even to examine for yourself whether the stated conclusions fit the data in all cases. Thus you have to trust others' testimony. There was further discussion about how you decide whether testimony is trustworthy and how authority works. I really pricked up my ears at this; Prof Lipton didn't say so in so many words, but testimony sounds to me a lot like religious terminology. And further, the issue of how authority works is one of the critical fault-lines dividing different sections of community (I'm talking about Judaism here, but I think an analogy can be drawn with Christian internecine problems too).
To me, the most interesting talk was R Rigal's talk on the Darwin controversy. This was very narrowly focused; it was about a particular incident in history, not broad themes of the relationship between religion and science. I actually went to the talk because R Rigal promised us there would be fossils; indeed several specimens were laid out on the table in preparation for the talk, meaning that our Saturday morning service was conducted in their presence, which I thought was rather lovely especially given the theme of the conference.
Anyway, R Rigal didn't really discuss the fossils at all, but instead made some fascinating points: Bishop Wilberforce, despite the way he's generally remembered and despite being a bishop by profession, was actually raising scientific objections to Darwin's view. Posterity showed him to be wrong in fact, but he certainly wasn't saying Darwin's view was wrong because it contradicted the Bible, but rather that it couldn't be given credence because it was too speculative and the evidence of the fossil record (as it was then known) didn't justify Darwin's conclusions. Also R Rigal pointed out that Christian 'fundamentalism' was a 20th century phenomenon and based on very specific beliefs, including a kind of Biblical literalism which really hadn't been a major force in Christianity in Darwin's time. Instead, the important religious controversies of the day were about the age of the world (with geological evidence contradicting Bishop Ussher's system of dating creation), and Biblical criticism. Oh, and Darwin wasn't the first to postulate evolution, not by any means, he was just the first to propose a plausible mechanism by which it might occur.
That's fairly slim pickings in a way, but in another way, I've never been to a previous Hengrave conference where I would have had even this much to report in terms of the actual content of the talks. The other interesting thing that happened was that an Orthodox rabbi showed up (after the end of shabbat) and offered to do a session on 'Halachic issues of modern science'. Now this is a very cool thing to do, not only to show up at a conference of Progressives but to offer to provide an Orthodox perspective. Progressive in this sense means 'not Orthodox', but one of the two main groups who compose ECAPS also call themselves 'Progressive' in a specific sense (the others being Reform).
So anyway, I was quite intrigued to listen to this rabbi. To tell the truth, the event was quite disappointing, and partly because Rabbi N was too nice. He said he wasn't going to lecture, just give us a brief introduction which we could then discuss. That was very humble of him, but not particularly effective in a context where most of the audience had very little clue how Orthodox / Halachic thinking works. (I have a little clue, and even my fairly muddled ideas were more understanding than I think most people in the group had.)
So what actually ended up happening was that people vented their frustrations with Orthodox Judaism at him. I mean, they were nice about it, they genuinely wanted to dialogue with Rabbi N, but. Some of the questions were along the lines of 'why won't the Orthodox regard me and my children as Jewish?' which just puts the rabbi in an awful position; he did say that not all community politics is necessarily the true path of Halacha, mind you! And the other questions were to do with, 'Why do Orthodox people make up all these rules which allow them to get round all the other rules that they're supposed to obey? They should just be like Progressive people and be honest about the fact that some of the rules aren't any good any more!' Which is pretty much the fundamental difference in philosophy between Orthodox and Progressive approaches anyway; not something you can explain 'standing on one leg'. One thing he did very well was explaining why some Christians don't accept the medical use of embryonic stem cells, but Orthodox Jews do, so that was quite informative.
He also said, in so many words: "The Halachic position on this issue is changing", which is very interesting since many Orthodox people will claim that the point of being Orthodox is that Torah given to Moses is eternal and unchangeable and that's why they can't make the kind of compromises that Progressive people make. The issue in question was of whether cigarette smoking is prohibited or permitted in Orthodox Judaism; initially it was permitted since there was no known reason to forbid it (and obviously, it's a post Talmudic innovation!) Then it went through a period of being kind of frowned upon but not actually forbidden, on the grounds that self-harm is forbidden, but at the same time, Halacha can't be changed and since it was permitted in the past we can't contradict our elders by forbidding it now. And apparently the Orthodox view is now sliding towards forbidding smoking outright, in spite of the preceding argument. Which I didn't know and which is interesting.
Apart from that, I ate far too much, and talked to lots of fascinating and lovely people, and hung out with my parents in a relaxed environment, and went for walks in the Suffolk countryside, and for old times' sake curled up on a beanbag in the children's library reading when I had a spare ten minutes. Also, having missed a year means that a lot of the teenagers have turned into people while I wasn't looking, and I had some very fun conversations with some of them that wouldn't really have been on the cards two years ago. (Of course, some of the cute children who formerly thrived in the Hengrave atmosphere where everyone's opinion is taken equally seriously regardless of age have turned into stroppy teenagers who wouldn't be seen dead having meaningful conversations with an adult even at Hengrave, but hey.)
I always imagine, coming away from Hengrave, that I'm never going to be miserable or grouchy or snarky or skeptical about religion again, and of course that exalted mood never does last. But I have taken great strength and spiritual renewal from the weekend. Also, I think that my openness towards other people, which is a good quality both morally and because it has led to many wonderful interactions that I would have missed if I didn't have this quality, is something I learnt at Hengrave. I'm a better person because of this place and the unique atmosphere that the community create, and I'm also a happier person for spending time there. It's also pretty amazing that this is a gift of holiness that a Christian community have given to me, as a non-Christian.