BASS becomes the INSS
The Annual General Meeting of the British Association for the Study of Spirituality (BASS) took place online on 8 July 2020. (The face-to-face meeting which should have occurred during the 2020 BASS Conference had been cancelled as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic).
A near-unanimous decision was taken at this meeting to approve a proposal put forward by the Executive Committee to change the name of the Association to 'International Network for the Study of Spirituality' (INSS).
The reasons were as follows:
Inclusiveness and interconnectedness
Since its inception, BASS has been concerned with the kinds of inclusive practices that promote 'hospitable conversations' (Swinton 2011: 13). Such conversations help to develop the study of spirituality by crossing professional, disciplinary and cultural borders in order to deepen understanding, create new syntheses, and encourage best practice in research and professional and community settings. Not only does the term 'Network' encapsulate these kinds of multi-faceted and evolving processes but the imagery associated with it is significant.
As the Editorial of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality notes in reporting on the change of title from BASS to INSS, 'Network' is redolent with the imagery of 'Indra's Net'. This is a concept derived from Vedic cosmology which is also a central principle of Buddhism. The net represents an infinite cosmos, spreading in all directions with no beginning or end. At every node of the net there is a jewel, each one reflecting the constantly-changing patterns in all the others ad infinitum. The imagery suggests that each entity in the universe contains within itself the stuff of the entire universe. Thus, the whole is not created by the coming together of individual parts which each has an independent existence; rather, the whole and the parts are inseparable.
A similar image underpinned the old Anglo-Saxon concept of the 'Wyrd', a vision of the universe 'rather like a three-dimensional spider's web' such that 'Any event, anywhere, resulted in reverberations and repercussions throughout the web' (Bates 1983: 12). Modern scientific research, particularly in both quantum physics and ecology, indicates that the universe may indeed have such qualities. Drawing on influential work undertaken independently at the University of London, UK, by physicist David Bohm (a protégé of Einstein) and Karl Pribram, a neurophysiologist at Stanford University, USA, Michael Talbot (1991: 2) refers to a 'holographic universe'. He argues that this concept is not only compatible with quantum theory but it helps to account for 'a wide range of phenomena so elusive they generally have been categorized outside the province of traditional scientific understanding'. These include phenomena that are experienced in so-called altered states of consciousness – many of which may be described as 'spiritual'.
Such concepts and imagery are obviously radically different from those of the 'clockwork universe' which, as Edward Dolnick (2011) illustrates, have dominated Western philosophical, political and scientific thinking since the seventeenth century. Many thinkers and writers have challenged the continuing relevance of this view - and argued that its emphasis on 'separateness' is not only incompatible with what is now known about the operation of complex systems, but its influence on human society has highly undesirable and unjust consequences. Sally Goerner (1999), for example, points out that, while the science of the Enlightenment was helpful in its own time, it has created a mindset that values competition, control and dominance; it permeates approaches to everything from economics to urban planning. In arguing that the time has come to re-envision the future in ways that take account of complexity theory and human relationships, she refers to a 'web world'.
A sign of its time?
It is almost forty years since Peter Russell (1984/1991: 89) illustrated how ‘We are deeply entangled in the most complex web of social, political, economic, ecological and moral crises in human history’. Taking a similar view, Norman Myers (1990, 180) concluded that ‘we are at a hiatus in the course of human affairs. It is a unique time: a time of breakdown or breakthrough’. The coronavirus pandemic has now brought our interconnectedness, our wyrd nature, into sharper focus than ever before and poses a direct challenge to clockwork thinking. It illustrates painfully how singular events in one part of the world have reverberations and repercussions throughout the whole complex web of our human and planetary affairs. Whether or not it heralds an imminent breakdown of the clockwork universe or a breakthrough to a new way of understanding and being in the world remains to be seen - but it already seems to have proved the point that Russell went on to make: ‘crises may lead us to question some of our basic attitudes and values: Why are we here? What do we really want? Isn’t there more to life? This questioning opens up … the opportunity to change direction’ (ibid., 90, original italics). Observation suggests that the pandemic is currently providing fertile ground for such questioning.
The newly-titled International Network for the Study of Spirituality offers a forum for the critical examination of such questions and their implications in research, education and practice.
Bates, B. (1996) The Way of Wyrd. London: Arrow Books.
Dolnick, E. (2012) The Clockwork Universe. New York: HarperCollins.
Goerner, S. (1999) After the Clockwork Universe. Edinburgh: Floris Books.
Myers, N. (1990) The Gaia Atlas of Future Worlds. London: Robertson McCarta.
Russell, P. (1984/1991) The Awakening Earth. London: Ark
Swinton, J. (2011) 'What is missing from our practice? Spirituality as presence and absence', Journal for the Study of Spirituality 1(1), 13-16.
(Cheryl Hunt, University of Exeter, UK. November 2020)