Friday, October 17 2014

Learning To Be God

This piece is published in Third Way Magazine this month.

In a fascinating conversation with the philosopher Jules Evans , Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, remarks: "The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women. It’s that it’s spiritually incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us." Western religion is "feeble", he continues, because it has been reduced from a journey of many dimensions and parts to a set of ideas that might be "encapsulated in a neat formula".

To put it another way, it's not gay marriage that is the main problem for contemporary Christianity. It's not congregational decline. It's not maintaining a religious voice on the public stage. Such issues, says Chartres, are really proxies for something more substantial, the loss of "fluency in spiritual matters". If Christians had that, the problems that preoccupy us would possibly dissolve, and certainly take second place.

A PROJECTION WITHDRAWN

We suffer from spiritual "impoverishment", and it happens when prayer becomes little more than a form of talking with God, or worse, the means of posting a divine wish list: I want someone to be converted, to be healed, to be renewed. A more alive and therefore credible spiritual life starts with a move through such activities and into the process - the struggle - by which our projections onto God begin to come undone.

Hence, Meister Eckhart went so far as to preach, "If I say that God is good that is not true. God is not good; I am good." He meant that God is beyond what we might think of as good - or wise or lovable - and when we see that we catch a glimpse of God. Cyprian Smith, in his penetrating book on Eckhart, The Way of Paradox , draws an analogy with falling in love: it's when we can let our beloved love us as themselves, as opposed to being the supplier of what we design or need or want, that we enter into a rich relationship with them. It's a frightening process, one that often feels as if we are falling out of love. So too with God. But what can emerge on the other side of this purgation is a life that is good, wise and desirable because it is truly rooted in God.

Saint Paul puts it succinctly when it talks of no longer living, but Christ living in him . What he discovered, when he admitted he didn't know how to pray, was the Spirit already praying within "with sighs too deep for words" . It's the kind of meditation or contemplation taught by fluent spiritual traditions: "Once you... had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life," as Chartres puts it in the conversation .

AN EASTERN JESUS

You might say that the Christian journey is one of the transformation of consciousness; it offers a revolution of our awareness of reality. It's painful and difficult because the trip is Copernican in shape: time and time again we must wrestle with the displacement of our egos as the sun at the centre of things. But, under one reading at least, it is a journey that Jesus himself seems to have undergone. This offers a vision of Christian life that, I suspect, can address some of the spiritual shallowness that the bishop of London identifies. Alongside medieval adepts like Meister Eckhart, it is presented in the writings of modern Christians like Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths. In fact, the current head of the Shantivanam ashram that was lead by Griffiths, John Martin Sahajananda, was in London recently. He described how the life of Jesus as presented in the gospels suggests that his relationship with God evolved, in the sense of being a lifelong discovery of what was true all along. And astonishingly, Jesus' story is presented as if it might also become ours.

WAKING CONSCIOUSNESS

Brother Martin explained that a first type of consciousness experienced by Jesus was simply as a human being, the child of Mary. In this "waking consciousness", Jesus knew himself as a creature and experienced God as transcendent and other. A second type was his "collective consciousness" as a Jew, symbolized in his circumcision on the eighth day. In this position, Judaism seemed like his way, truth, and life - though he also sensed its limitations, perhaps in conversations such as he had with the Samaritan woman at the well or with the Canaanite women whose daughter was demon-possessed . It is as if such encounters were remembered because they conveyed part of the process through which Jesus undid his religiously-shaped projections onto God and let in wider possibilities. The baptism of Jesus symbolizes a third type of consciousness that transcends the second. "It was the moment he came out of the womb of Judaism and entered into the universal presence of God. It was his spiritual rebirth," Brother Martin writes in his book, Fully Human Fully Divine . He calls it "universal consciousness". The question now is not whether you are Jew or Gentile but whether you know yourself as a child of God. Further, God comes to be perceived not only as a transcendent other but as an indwelling presence: Emmanuel.

ONE WITH GOD

The journey does not end there. A fourth type of consciousness in Jesus' life came with the realisation that he was one with God: "The Father and I are one." Hence he could now say that he is the way, the truth, and the life by virtue of his identification with God who is the way, truth, and life. This is his "awakened consciousness" and he shows this way, truth, and life to us, his followers.

In an arresting aside, Brother Martin remarked that had Jesus proclaimed himself as one with God in India then he would have been sent to an ashram not the cross. Though, the Christian revelation is challenging to Indian religions in other ways. In recognising his identity with God as Abba, Father, Jesus shows that intimacy with the divine is a mark of the evolution of human consciousness. So too is the realisation that loving one's neighbour is the same as loving God. It's a step change from the old covenantal command to love God and neighbour.

ANCIENT & MODERN

It might be called a Vedantic understanding of Christianity , which appeals to me for a number of reasons. First, it is rooted in a spiritually rich and fluent tradition, one in which the difficult practices of withdrawing our projections are alive and being handed on. Moreover, in forms such as mindfulness meditation, it is becoming increasingly accessible in the west, perhaps because our spiritual neediness has led many to look to the east.

That said, it also chimes with western developmental psychology, which can be thought of as a twentieth century science of human consciousness. Although this discipline is typically ambivalent about the spiritual dimension, it does describe human development as a series of step changes in awareness and awakening. Drawing links might, therefore, help to re-establish the fluency and vitality of older spiritual traditions.

UNFOLDING PSYCHOLOGY

For example, the Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan explores the process by which human beings discover meaning in life as a successive evolution of mindsets, from self-possession, to self-authoring, to self-transforming. With the last "we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organisation is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and oppositeness; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other."

Might a vision of Christianity as a transformation of consciousness grab people's attention today? Could it reinvigorate an enfeebled religious imagination obsessed with issues? After all, if ours is a culture that lacks spiritual fluency, it is one in which many are anxious about depth in life and whether consumerism offers all that there is to being human. Christianity says, there is much more. It is found in the person of Jesus, and the call to follow him along the evolutionary trail.

 

Friday, October 10 2014

Evolution is evolving in interesting ways

I've this piece in the Church Times, and was glad to see too that Nature this week is asking the same question...

Evolution is the headline challenge to Christianity in the so-called culture wars. Various apologists make the case that there needn't be a clash, but the fact remains that humans are apes, life is a bloody struggle, nature produces great variety but even greater waste, and where believers foolishly sense design, there are really only random processes.

Biologists seem to know as much. Research from YouGov published last month concluded that almost half of British biologists are atheists, compared with less than one in five of the general population. A smaller proportion of atheists is found among physicists, even.

And yet what this story of stand-off often fails to note is that the theory of evolution is far from settled. Moreover, unease about neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, the version of Darwin's theory championed by Professor Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, has been growing in recent years. There are a number of figures in the field who, although they wholeheartedly accept that life evolves, are now questioning it.

Take the problem of "missing hereditability", the suggestion that genes can account for only a fraction of what we inherit from our forebears. It has become impossible to ignore this since the sequencing of the human genome in 2003. This impressive achievement has, none the less, dramatically failed to deliver on its promise to account for human diseases and behaviours through genetic mechanisms.

Click to enlarge A handful of breakthroughs have been made, and modern science's efficient PR machine ensures that newspapers still carry headlines about genes for this and that. Massive funding is at stake. But, in truth, the stated goals of the project have not materialised.

BUT something far more interesting, particularly for theists, has emerged. The failure has led to the mainstreaming of the new science of epigenetics. This acknowledges that the environment and nurture - even a parent's experiences - directly influence what is passed on to offspring. It undermines the idea that inheritance happens only via DNA, and that evolution is built solely on random mutations. To put it simply, life is far more complicated and responsive than "selfish-geneism" allows.

Genetic determinism was, in fact, challenged from its inception by a now forgotten biologist, Walter Weldon. He argued that the environment and nurture were required to account for the inherited variations within species observed in nature. Further, Weldon's view might have won the day, and saved us from a century of biological reductionism; but he died young. What is known as Mendelian genetics had better PR and, then as now, that often matters more than pure science.

Epigenetics might interest believers because it is one step away from the mechanistic interpretation of evolution which appears to land such blows on theism. It is a new piece in the puzzle of life which raises the possibility that evolutionary processes many not be blind and random, but might have direction, even purpose.

To that extent, it chimes with another critic of the status quo, the NYU philosopher, Thomas Nagel. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, he asks whether life may tend towards the emergence of consciousness. When you immerse yourself in all the extraordinary intricacies and syntheses at play in biological systems, it can certainly seem as if the universe wills itself to become aware of itself in the organism Homo sapiens.

AT A recent conference, "The Uses and Abuses of Biology", organised by the Faraday Institute of Cambridge University, Dr Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Palaeobiology at Cambridge, speculated that we might do well to return to the insights of the co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Right from the start, Wallace argued that human consciousness was far more sophisticated than would be needed merely to afford human beings survival advantages. We don't use language just to warn our fellows of danger but to compose sublime, searching poems. We don't use sound just to attract a mate but to nurture the ecstasy and insights of music.

Neo-Darwinism puts language and music down as an evolutionary by-product or excess. But that is scientifically unsatisfactory, because it is, in effect, saying that there is no direct explanation. It also feels humanly inadequate, leading to comments such as those of the Harvard professor Stephen Pinker, who describes music as "auditory cheesecake". Don't sit next to him during a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

Theists can be intrigued by this sort of debate, since it might change the narrative of a "clash" with science. But they also shouldn't get too excited. As Professor Conway Morris continued, biology would have to become an unimaginably different science were it to embrace any teleological dynamics. The taboo against directionality is strong.

Then again, paradigm shifts occur regularly in the history of science. Perhaps biologists are about to make an evolutionary breakthrough.

 

Tuesday, October 7 2014

Freud the sceptic, Idler Academy talk

Few people take Freud at face value anymore. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But he did us a great service. After Freud, it's much harder to ignore the fact that we are not the commanders of our consciousness. We do things that we wished we hadn't done, and don't do things we wish we had. Even more so when it comes to feelings when, on occasion, we are swept away by rage, envy, hate.

To put it another way, we don't really know ourselves; can rapidly become strangers to ourselves. If you pay enough attention you quickly come to realise that the bit you feel you do know, which Freud called the ego, is only one part of the complex system called the human psyche. Waking thoughts are just the tip of the unconscious iceberg.

In fact, Freud was not the first to realise that there is more to our inner lives than we might or can be aware of. The ancient Hellenistic philosophers known as Epicureans and Stoics realised that there are many situations when we cannot control ourselves. We might will it, but another part of us won't it. They reasoned that we must have feelings we don't feel; desires we don't realise we're slaves to.

But arguably, the ancient philosophy school that Freud followed most closely were the sceptics. In the Greek, sceptic means searcher or enquirer, and they were entirely unlike modern day 'sceptics'. They did not go around debunking other people's beliefs, a strategy that Freud would have instantly realised is defensive since the upshot is that it protects your own beliefs. Rather, the ancient and true sceptics tried to go let go of their consciousness understandings and see what novelties and fears might emerge.

Put it this way. Although you may think you are walking through life with your eyes open, they realised that in truth we may as well have our eyes closed. So they metaphorically shut their eyes and embraced the bumps and blows. They found it was not only therapeutic, leading in time to an unexpected inner tranquility. They found that actually they discovered far more about life in the process because they could tolerate, even welcome, what life threw at them. To use Freudian language, they became far less defensive.

Freud developed another technique called free association. He encouraged his patients to speak out whatever comes into their mind. It sounds easy, but it's hard. In fact, free association - speaking whatever the life of the mind throws at you - is more likely to be the end point and achievement of psychoanalysis rather than it's starting point. It opens up the unconscious and that is often frightening. But also, the search is intriguing and unexpectedly revealing. It can, in time, lead to an entirely new experience of life, one that embraces the darkness of the psyche, and ends at least some of our inner fights, anxieties and struggles.

We'll talk more about Freud at the Idler Academy on Monday 20th October.

And also about Jung at the Idler Academy on Monday 27th October. 

Book here!

 

Friday, October 3 2014

New Science and Religion talks, Institute of Art and Ideas

How did consciousness arise? Is the universe rational? Is there a meaning to life? Once these questions were the domain of the sacred, but in the modern world, science offers very different answers to religion.

In this course, Dr Mark Vernon explores the common ground between these allegedly incompatible world views. But which can provide us with the best description of reality?

Part One: The Battleground. Vernon reveals the history of the science-religion conflict and its place in our culture.

Part Two: Alternatives to the Conflict. Can we think about science and religion differently and avoid the conflict altogether?

Part Three: Science and Consciousness. Vernon proposes a new model for solving the problem: does consciousness hold the key?

 

Tuesday, September 16 2014

BBC Beyond Belief - agnosticism

Agnosticism was the subject for this week's Beyond Belief, on BBC Radio 4.

I was trying to make the case for an agnostic spirit that is not just an option for some but actually part and parcel of the human condition and crucial for theists who want to undo their inevitable idols.

You can pursue the issue at book length too!

 

Friday, September 5 2014

LPC Wisdom event - Rupert Sheldrake on science and spiritual practices

Thursday 25th September, St George's Church, Bloomsbury

Book here!

Rupert Sheldrake writes: "Science has done much to alienate us from our direct, intuitive experience of nature. But now the sciences themselves are transcending the materialist world-view, and recent experimental research points to the reality of our intuitive and mental connections to the world around us."

Rupert Sheldrake will show how the sciences can now illuminate aspects of spiritual practices including pilgrimage, the power of sacred places, rituals, rites of passage, meditation and prayer.

Entry will be five pounds. There will be the opportunity to get a glass of wine before the event, and doors will be open at around 7.00. We will finish at roughly 9.00.

Book here!

This event is part of a series organized by Jules Evans and Mark Vernon, called 'LPC : Wisdom' , exploring the ancient idea of philosophy as the love of wisdom.

 

Monday, August 11 2014

Southbank summer of love festival

I enjoyed this definition of philia in the festival posters, and was struck by how much agape was around - a rather Christian kind of love… And so am glad to be contributing with a talk on philautia this Saturday too.

 

Monday, August 4 2014

God-shaped hole, discussion at Things Unseen

Is there a God-shaped hole at the heart of our post-Christian world?

Does it matter? Is it all potential gain, with freedom of expression and liberation from oppression at last possible? Or are there unforeseen losses, too? Has the decline in religious practice and ritual opened up a void now all too easily filled with consumerism, the social media, and a preoccupation with therapy and self-help? Indeed, with ‘oneself’?

Mark Dowd chairs a discussion on this controversial issue with Peter Stanford, Mark Vernon and Julian Baggini.

 

Thursday, July 31 2014

Civilisation in peril - three online recommendations

1. Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, talked to Jules Evans, producing a really very remarkable interview.

Our spiritual culture at the moment is so impoverished and primitive. People find it extraordinarily difficult to be serious about angels or discarnate energies.

It’s a very modern tragedy that religion has become ideas in the mind. That’s why western religion is so feeble.

But alas we do not have many places where one can go today to learn and practice contemplation – we are very needy.

We don’t seek illumination from the whole but from bits and pieces. This is one of the reasons why this civilization is in grave peril.

The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us.

2. If you feel C.S. Lewis is a little too vanilla, try Malcolm Guite's exposition. Never again. He also understands Tolkein, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams like no other.

3. Roger Scruton talked at Theos last month, as usual making a number of penetrating remarks and comments. I particularly liked his distinction between sound and tone: science understands sound, but it has no purchase on tone - though the rise and fall, mood and intensity of a musical phrase is the very stuff of life for us.

Or his distinction between causes and reasons. Again, science understands causes but it has no purchase on reasons as a prompt to action, and yet most of the meaning we find in life is linked to this aspect of our agency. We lose touch with this dimension at our peril. And perhaps we are in peril...

 

Friday, July 18 2014

What kind of love do we need?

In this RSA series on reconceiving spirituality, we have explored what it might mean to 'take spirituality seriously', the role of the body in spiritual experience, what sense we can make of the soul in a scientific age, and the importance of reflecting on our mortality. Join us for the penultimate event in this series, when we examine an experience and ideal that many believe has to be at the heart of any reappraisal of the spiritual: Love.

 

Thursday, June 26 2014

London Philosophy Club event - Tom McLeish: 'Faith and Wisdom in Science'

Thursday 17th July, St George's Church, Bloomsbury

Book here!

"Do you have wisdom to count the clouds?" asks the voice of God from the whirlwind in the stunningly beautiful catalogue of nature-questions from the Old Testament Book of Job. Tom McLeish takes a scientist's reading of this ancient text as a centrepiece to make the case for science as a deeply human and ancient activity, embedded in some of the oldest stories told about human desire to understand the natural world.

Drawing on stories from the modern science of chaos and uncertainty alongside medieval, patristic, classical and Biblical sources, he challenges much of the current science and religion debate as operating with the wrong assumptions and in the wrong space. There are surprising consequences for our political troubles around technology and science.

Tom McLeish is a leading physicist and pro-vice-chancellor of research at Durham University. At Durham, he has organized fascinating cross-disciplinary projects including putting the cosmological models of medieval thinker Robert Grosseteste through the Durham 'cosmology machine' supercomputer.

Entry will be five pounds. There will be the opportunity to get a glass of wine before the event, and doors will be open at 6.30. There will also be an opportunity to buy Tom's book at a discount (not sure of exact cost but probably around £20). We will finish at roughly 9.30.

Book here!

 

Tuesday, June 24 2014

Let's talk about death

The RSA had the latest in its public discussions of issues related to spirituality last night, on death. Worth a watch, especially for the disturbance Will Self brings which is entirely appropriate to the subject.

It also struck me how woefully misunderstood traditional religious approaches to death are these days, as if Buddhism is mostly about being happy or Christianity just promises jam tomorrow.

Some of my take-home thoughts are below…

If we saw people dying and dead then perhaps mass entertainment of people dying and dead would seem less enticing. Will Self.

Christianity teaches dissolution and actualization as part of the same process, not unlike Buddhism. Will Self.

There is no such thing as life and death but rather deathlife like spacetime. Will Self.

Deathlife brings the dead back into play, not disappearing them beneath the waves, as secular culture tends too. Will Self.

The present moment is having its moment at the moment. Joanna Cook, thinking about mindfulness.

Thinking about my death moves death from a problem to be solved to a how to live life. You are already naked. Joanna Cook

 

Saturday, June 21 2014

The Spiritual Senses

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

We discuss the idea that alongside five empirical senses, we have a range of spiritual senses that respond to pattern, wholeness, the implicit, the good. They tend now to be collapsed into a vague 'intuition', though medieval and ancient thinkers explored how they could be used to investigate the world much as the empirical senses are relied on today.

 

Thursday, May 29 2014

God and Mindfulness - some more thoughts

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

We discuss the mindfulness phenomenon, which although partly a therapeutic movement seems akin to a spiritual revival as well. So what does the interest in mindfulness say about our times, how does it relate to past movements such as transcendental meditation, what can Christians and other theists make of mindfulness, and might it be a sign of a renewal in the quest for God - or even, God's quest for us?

 

Friday, May 23 2014

God and mindfulness

This piece is in the latest Church Times, out today…

We are in the midst of a spiritual revival. It has touched the lives possibly of millions. It keeps books in the Amazon top 20 for years. It's bigger than the Alpha Course. And yet, the church seems hardly to have noticed it, or at least responds with nervousness. It is the practice of mindfulness - a technique and a state of being that the Oxford psychologist and Anglican priest, Mark Williams, has defined as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity."

The latest sign was the launch this week, on 7th May, of an all party parliamentary group, supported by the Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of Oxford, Exeter and Bangor universities. Seventy or more MPs have undergone mindfulness training, and the aim is to help spread the practice into health, education, criminal justice and work. So might the established church now start to take more serious note and, if so, how?

There is the nervousness to overcome, the sense that Buddhism is spreading across the land under the guise of teaching useful skills (Features, Lent Series 2013). One way to address this issue is realise that the concept of mindfulness is, in a sense, biblical. When scholars first translated the Pali word "sati" they landed on the word "mindful" by borrowing from the psalms: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" The use there captures something of the power of attention - of God being intimately aware of us, and we of ourselves.

It is, therefore, truer to say that mindfulness is just one of a family of practices, now often forgotten, that have long been part of the Christian tradition too, practices that might include reciting the Jesus Prayer, sitting still, and contemplative communion with God. "The skill required is inner silence," Martin Laird explains in his excellent introduction, Into the Silent Land, because "It is the noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of our being."

It can also be helpful to draw a distinction between "problem-solving" and "spiritual" mindfulness, as Alex Gooch puts it in a new collection of essays, After Mindfulness edited by Manu Bazzano (Palgrave Macmillan). Problem-solving mindfulness is a technique that, for example, tackles addictions (Comment, 3 January). There is lots of evidence it helps. Spiritual mindfulness is different in that it addresses not only individual troubles, but questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine.

Why Christianity lost touch with its mindfulness traditions is a moot point. In his book, Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that western ecclesiastical authorities have long tended not to sanction silence as part of everyday Christian life because in Christendom, much of social and political importance rested on the beliefs of individuals being made public. Elizabeth I did not want to make windows into men's souls, but amongst leaders she is an exception. Western liturgies that to this day contain little or no silence is a byproduct. The worry about mindfulness as secret Buddhism might be another.

But like the many revivals of religious life across the centuries, of which Justin Welby is rightly making so much (News, 4 April), I suspect that the mindfulness movement can be seen as a spontaneous desire to recover this lost dimension of the spiritual life that contemporary Christianity is failing to provide.

That said, secular mindfulness teachers tend to steer clear of the s-word and it is theologically unlike, even opposed, to the Christian understanding of God, grace and salvation. Rather, it is presented as a method through which the individual might become skilled to save themselves from unnecessary suffering. But a closer look suggests that this might be only a surface difference and that mindfulness can be a route through which individuals rediscover the divine.

Consider this. A good mindfulness teacher will not try to sell the practice with promises of happiness or fixes for anxiety, though there is a lot of that around. (In this way, mindfulness is a step on from CBT that does offer techniques for directly managing troubling thoughts and feelings.) Rather, they will teach the profoundly counterintuitive insight that the effort in mindfulness training is, paradoxically, aimed at learning to do nothing. Do not strive to mend, but rather see more fundamentally what is going on inside; understand the machinations of the mind more clearly. Yearning to be happy or be free of psychic pain is, in fact, likely to compound the problem.

But why should someone trust this recommendation? What is the model of being human that lies behind it? It is that in spite of appearances, all is well. Creation is benign. Life can be trusted. Suffering certainly copiously exists but a stronger grace longs to be felt, if only we can ease up on our desperate self-holding and so know it in some silence. To put it another way, mindfulness is premised on the conviction that our worried egos and daily preoccupations veil the truth that our lives rest in a life that sustains and supports all things.

Again, mindfulness teachers will stick to secular language such as "training the observer" or "simply noticing". That's right, that's the practice. But why do that if letting go were letting go into a godless, heartless void? It seems to me that, in practice, mindfulness nurtures the experience of knowing the God "in whom we live and move and have our being".

I suspect that soon individuals will turn to the philosophical and theological questions mindfulness naturally raises, and about which the Christian tradition holds rich and compelling possibilities. Christians now might want to develop mindfulness groups, discuss it, above all practice it. Because if mindfulness is symptomatic of a spiritual revival then it is also a mission issue, in the sense of missio dei: God's work in the world with which the church is invited to join. To put it another way, in a secular age, mindfulness may prove to be a much needed experiential way back to belief in God.

 

Friday, May 2 2014

Transparent minds?

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

Are our minds transparent to others minds, as most cultures for most of human history seemed to have assumed, or is that a delusion and our minds exist solipsistically, receiving empirical data through an absolute barrier that prevents direct exchange or communication?

 

Wednesday, April 30 2014

Special offer! RETREAT: PHILOSOPHY WEEKEND IN DEVON, 2-4 MAY 2014

There are still a few places left!

Enjoy a weekend of philosophy and food down at the Idler farmhouse on the North Devon coast.



Your hosts will be Idler Academy founders Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull, and your teacher will be philosopher Mark Vernon.



The weekend will start on Friday evening with welcoming cocktails, introductions, bread-baking class and a short talk from Tom before dinner.



On Saturday morning we’ll take classes in Ancient philosophy, where we will learn about the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the schools that followed. We’ll be placing great relevance on how their ideas are relevant today and to your own situation. After lunch there will be time for walks and naps. There will be a further class at 4pm on Saturday, followed by cocktails and dinner.



On Sunday morning Tom will give a sermon, followed by a seminar from Mark. After lunch there will the opportunity for another walk, followed by tea.



This is a real treat for mind and body.

Book here and get a discount! (Purchase the retreat as usual, and when the green strip which reads 'Got a coupon?' appears at the top of the page, type in 'Zeno'.

 

Saturday, April 19 2014

Introducing the new online Idler philosophy course!

We're very excited this week to have launched the new online ancient Greek philosophy course at the Idler Academy.

Do take a look for yourself!

 

Thursday, April 10 2014

What is Spirituality?

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

Spirituality is a word that whilst many people feel uncomfortable with, is one that nonetheless seems hard to put down. So what is spirituality, how can we talk about it, and what does it mean for what it is to be human?

 

Thursday, April 3 2014

What happened to the soul?

Iain McGilchrist talked to this theme at the RSA on Monday. Very much worth listening too!

Some Twitter highlights I made, if you want a quick digest:

Soul has a meaning because of instances in language when mind or heart or brain won't do. It's something bigger or deeper.

We don't have words for certain spiritual or soulful music. We need a word that's hard to define or we miss it.

Soul is more process than thing. Hence imagery of fire or spark. A latent function that needs nurturing. And suffering too?

Soul is resonant area. A disposition towards life. A way of knowing knowledge itself.

To understand soul need to put ourselves in the disposition to understand it. It won't just show up.

Shouldn't try to enoble soul by splitting from body. Instincts make substance of the soul. See soul in the eyes. So soul is not dualistic notion. The body is the best image of the soul, Wittgenstein remarked

Spirituality is often about not knowing because if you know too much, you miss it. Like time or beauty in that.

Soul is not going way of god of the gaps. Will always need appropriate modes of thought for different objects of thought

Soul is not ghost in the machine. Body is not machine. Plus soul & body may be aspects of one. Duality not same as dualism

McGilchrist on afterlife: perhaps we are like waves in water, or a part that's part of a whole. Our cognition is too small.

How to approach soul? Through depth, sublime, love, experience, the oblique, awareness of the ground of being.

Finally, for those engaged in 'Iain McGilchrist' studies, the talk was of note to me too because Iain quoted Platonic sources positively and without qualification (unlike in The Master and His Emissary, where to put it too crudely Plato is one of the 'bad guys'.) Afterwards, Iain did say he's changed his mind on Plato...

 

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