In 2021, as part of a social experiment, I spent the year as a secular priest. This was not a formal role – I made it up. In real life I have an academic position in community psychology, and it was how I spent my most recent sabbatical. For decades, I have worked with groups who are attempting to regenerate ecosystems and enhance our relationships with each other. And, as a witness to much angst, I had often wondered if we needed people whose role it is to help others find their contribution, treasure the other, and know they are in community. I saw this role as priest-like – similar in some ways to a therapist, counsellor, or coach, but with more emphasis on the common good and collective exploration.
As I have no religious beliefs, it was also without God. As well as offering ‘services’ and ‘personal conversations’, I attended a Christian church for a year and did a lot of reading. I wanted to figure out how religion (or at least the one I was most familiar with) turned people towards the big picture while nurturing them as individuals. I came across many wonderful Christian writers, such as Richard Rohr and his book The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality can Change Everything we See, Hope For, and Believe – one of my favourites. I also read several books by Barbara Brown Taylor, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Merton and Eugene Peterson, all authors I recommend.
Although I learnt a lot from Christianity, the central story (of Jesus) is not my own. I had always simply accepted that I had no faith and felt no great loss in that. Then, towards the end of the year, I re-read Andreas Weber’s book Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology. Weber is a German biologist and philosopher. He writes of how exchange is the essence of life and joy is a product of enlivenment – being in life as an embodied, emotional, desiring creature, with other such creatures. As I re-read Weber in the context of my priestly year, I thought that that was my faith: a hope, wonder and commitment to life itself in all its diversity, glory and even suffering. A former student of mine then introduced me to John Paul Lederach’s book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace and I had a second experience of coming home. Lederach understands and expresses the process of building community in conditions of complexity and conflict in a way that is intensely human, inclusive, and full of beauty.
I didn’t start the secular priest project to find a faith. I saw it as the investigation of a potentially useful social role. But I ended up realising that I had faith in the living world within which we, as people, do our very best. When I look over the estuary near my home and see flocks of birds spinning through the air, I sense I am being held in a way that makes me feel calm, devoid of fear, and ready to care for others. That’s faith, I think. And books helped me discover it.
Niki Harré is a professor in the School of Psychology at Waipapa Taumata Rau | The University of Auckland. Her research addresses issues of sustainability, citizenship, values, and political activism. In 2007 she co-edited the book Carbon Neutral by 2020: How New Zealanders Can Tackle Climate Change. In 2018 she published Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability (2nd edition) and The Infinite Game: How to Live Well Together.
You can read more about the secular priest project here: https://www.secularpriest.org/
Niki’s university homepage is here: https://profiles.auckland.ac.nz/n-harre
Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace. Oxford University Press. ISB 9780195174540.
Rohr, R. (2019). The universal Christ: How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for, and believe. Convergent Books. ISBN 978-1524762094.
Weber, A. (2017). Matter and desire: An erotic ecology. Chelsea Green Publishing. ISBN 9781603586979.