We shouldn't need reminding, after the last fortnight, that modern spirituality takes strange forms; but it's still a little shocking to find a sacred motorbike. This is the story: a young man is dying of cancer in an NHS hospital in Yorkshire. His pain is controlled, but there is nothing that can be done for him, as he has known for some time; yet still he grows agitated, without being able to explain why. Tom Keighley, one of the nurses, who later told the story, decided to approach the question indirectly. He talked to the boy about what really mattered in his life; and it turned out that what he loved most of all were big, fast bikes. His room was papered with pictures of them, and he had even bought one before falling ill. So the nurses collected the machine, brought it, somehow, into the boy's room and when he died, four days later, he did so with one arm across the saddle of his beloved bike.
As far as we can know, he was happy.
The story was told at a conference last week on spirituality within the NHS, chaired by Julia Neuberger, which was noteworthy for the mixture of confusion about spirituality with the certainty that spirits and souls exist. If caring for people's souls can lead nurses to drag dirty big motorbikes into a hospital ward, there is clearly something to be cared for; just as clearly it is not a soul to be understood in traditional Christian terms, or those of any other religion. Neither was it a new age thing. There was no particular suggestion that the motor-cycle riding part of the patient would survive his death, or be gifted with supernatural powers. There was simply a recognition that an essential part of the patient rode bikes. To treat him, you would have to take that into account.
There were a fair number of chaplains at the conference, but most of the attendees were medical professionals. None, so far as I could tell, were the fundamentalist, miracle-believing type of Christian surprisingly common among doctors. But all of these hard-headed people knew that souls, or spirits, are as difficult to be rid of as air, though also as hard to pin down. The prevailing spirit of confident confusion was nicely captured by Julia Neuberger when she said: "I don't know how you define what we're talking about but we sort of know that we can feel it."
"If you can eff the ineffable, it's not ineffable any more" said Stephen Pattison, an Open University lecturer in Social Welfare who also has an MBA and a dog collar as an Anglican priest. Spirituality he saw as something not necessarily benevolent: "For a lot of people in the NHS at the moment, the organisation is something like a concentration camp" — and this is quite clearly a question of collective morale, or spirit. The concepts permeate our language. But, he said, the original Christian understanding of spirits was that they were very tightly bound to particular places and people. They were not immortal, nor capable of life independently of the physical things which nourished them. The book of Revelation, for instance, is addressed to the "angels" of four churches, not to their members. At least one of the addresses, the angel of the church in Smyrna, no longer exists, he said, since the church there no longer does. If this seems exotic and barbarous, ask yourself who or what exactly is being addressed when a politician talks to the people. He is not simply talking to an aggregate of names in the phone book, which is why it possible to get a comic effect by pretending he is.
So the moral of the meeting might seem simple: all we have to do is find some of this ineffable spirituality, draw up a definition of it that is sufficiently broad, and then write that into the NHS, the BBC and all the other organisations which now seem to have lost their souls. Some such programme was proposed by Pamela Reed, an American academic who produced research to show that religious practice is good for your health. Those who pray live longer; those who wrestle with God recover better from depression. But what prayers? Which God? These are notoriously questions with answers that are not just incompatible, but mutually incomprehensible, too. This is true even with religions: it is difficult to imagine a belief system that would even be spacious enough to fit in all the varieties of Judaism, from the ultra-orthodox to Julia Neuberger.
The religious imagination seems to be like language: we are all born with the ability to learn language in general, but we grow up learning particular languages and these are mutually exclusive. A Martian might conclude from this that all languages are false or nonsensical, just as a rabid atheist can conclude from the incompatibility of religious beliefs that they are al false. But the Martian misunderstands the uses of language, and the atheist the uses of religion. None the less, there is no universally applicable spirituality, any more than there is a universal language. For a Muslim, spirituality involves the annihilation of the self in God; for an Orthodox Jew it is the use of ritual to sanctify every detail of ordinary life.
Spirituality resembles language in another respect: it shapes its users. There is no standard human nature onto which different languages or religions can be draped, like a mannequin. The ideas we use help shape the world we see; and it, in turn, shapes us. This implies that spiritualities die, as languages do. We cannot enter into the thought-world of the Vikings, who thought no boat successfully launched except over the body of a slave. Nor can we believe in the Roman gods, though Stephen Pattison suggested that strategic planing in a modern corporation served much the same purposes of anxiety reduction as the Roman habit of slaughtering birds in times of crisis to examine their entrails for hints about the future — and was about as reliable. We cannot even, most of us, get back to Christianity.
For Roger Scruton, who also spoke at the conference, the death of the old spiritualities is probably irreversible, at least among intellectuals. "Most people can't think, and shouldn't try to; for them it is still possible to re-enchant the world." But thoughtful people, he said, would have to try to live with a world from which science and Darwin had drained the possibility of lasting significance. They might pray and fast, and this would be good for them. It would help them face their own deaths; but it would not return to them the hope of eternity.
However bleak, this was not a vision of a world without soul. And if spiritualities can die, like languages, they can also emerge, as languages do. Something of the sort is clearly happening now, with those spontaneous shrines beneath the trees in Kensington Gardens. No one has yet written a grammar, or a vocabulary of this new thing which could be translated into existing concepts. But perhaps that is because we all speak in fragments of the new language without codifying it. If we can understand the human significance of a motorcycle in a cancer ward, then a new language really is beginning to coalesce.