What St Augustine would say to Clifford Longley about his Thought for the Day

Feeling spiritual: students meditate at the Midtown Yoga centre in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo: Commercial Appeal/Landov)

I was still in bed this morning, half-listening to snatches of the Today programme and contemplating getting up with my usual joie de vivre, when Clifford Longley’s voice on Thought for the Day interrupted my reverie.

Sometimes I agree with Mr Longley’s opinions; more often I don’t. This morning he surprised me by an uncharacteristic blandness; indeed, I find him guilty of platitudes. Starting with photos of David Cameron and his new baby, Longley asked if “joy” was a spiritual or simply human emotion. He then proceeded to challenge the idea that Britain, poised for the forthcoming visit from the Pope, is really a secular society.

Taking issue with Matthew Arnold’s celebrated image in his poem Dover Beach of the “sea of faith” and its “long withdrawing roar”, he concluded that although our country may no longer be “religious” it is still definitely “spiritual”. “God hasn’t gone away; he just isn’t where we thought he was.”

I have to say I am tired of this fashionable and widespread modern notion that being “religious” (ie going to church regularly and actually believing something definite that has implications for our behaviour) is bad and that being “spiritual” (ie having vague feelings of goodwill and uplift when you listen to Mozart or practise yoga, for instance) is good. Indeed, I am tired of the wedge that is implicitly put between them and which Clifford Longley clearly subscribes to on the grounds – presumably – that being spiritual makes him feel a little loftier than other mere specimens of the animal kingdom. (There are some, like Professor Peter Singer, who think that animals are on an equal footing to us, but that is another debate.)

To be “religious” is to be “spiritual” and vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. Religion without spirituality is mere rule-keeping and runs the risk of turning its adherents into George Eliot’s Mr Bulstrode; spirituality without religion to give it boundaries and keep it in check turns into aromatherapy. We are spiritual beings to our core, as St Augustine noted in his Confessions; but this same St Augustine was also a pillar and Father of the Western Church when he wrote his Confessions. He would have found the attempt to separate the two concepts incomprehensible at best and misleading or mischievous at worst.

Matthew Arnold was also more accurate than Mr Longley gives him credit for. According to Edmund Adamus, Catholic affairs director of the Archdiocese of Westminster, in a recent interview on Zenit, the country the Holy Father will visit is now a moral “wasteland”. Is it possible to have a healthy society when the sea of faith has retreated to the far horizon? It appears not.

It is true that God hasn’t gone away; he is exactly where he has been for many centuries: in the tabernacles of our Catholic churches. That is where we will find him; and that, at heart, is what makes us “spiritual”.