THE ACCEPTED wisdom now is that we are mostly fed up with religion, but profoundly interested in spirituality. Only an embarrassed minority in Great Britain will admit to being religious; but being spiritual is fairly fashionable, as the bookshops will confirm in their curiously named "Mind, Body and Spirit" sections. Being spiritual is taking responsibility for your total health, learning how to use your deepest resources and to attune yourself to values beyond material success; while being religious is being bound to doctrinal formulae and - above all - patterns of external authority widely seen as abusive in various more or less dramatic ways.
This mantra, in one form or another, is repeated by commentators and religious reformers alike. The progressively religious argue for a drastic rethink of doctrine and practice to accommodate the questing spirituality of the population while social commentators read off from this the irreversible decline of religious institutions.
But a nagging scepticism persists about what the "spiritual" means here. Caring for the soul and mobilising inner treasures can slip into another form of our typical contemporary obsession with style. Yet the spiritual, understood in this way, can seem pretty remote. It may suffice for the media celebrity or the business executive, but what is it going to mean for all those whose resources have been stripped through war and poverty, disease, disability, age or whatever? Talk of "spirituality" may be all well and good when what's in view is primarily a deliberate policy of nurturing the self. But "religion" somehow, at some level, exposes us to something beyond our own self - and it may have less narcissistic views about what best nourishes us.
Christmas is a good time to give such thoughts an airing. The story Christians tell at this season makes one massive, unfashionable assumption: that the holy, sacred, mysterious reality which spirituality is meant to invoke is capable of independent action and communication. More simply put, it is a story of a God who does something and says something. But it draws attention to a profound puzzle in this very language. God is the source, the cause, of all that is. Which means God cannot simply "be" God as part of the world. Therefore God cannot speak God's own language (if we could give sense to such an expression) within the world, divine remarks mingling with human remarks in a general conversation. So for God to act and speak must be for God to act and speak through the world.
And this means that the Christian God is not going to be known except by way of material things and specific relationships. When God spoke decisively and …