Sunday, January 15 2017

Choosing my religion

A piece published in the Guardian, reflecting on the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival.

Past civilisations are much celebrated for their religious and philosophical diversity. Ancient Athens gave rise to the varied experiments in good living known as Platonism, stoicism, Epicureanism, scepticism and cynicism. And Ashoka’s rule in third century BC India – characterised by his respect for all religions – is now cited by scholars as an embodiment of the spirit of democracy. Then there’s Baghdad, which, in the ninth century AD, founded the House of Wisdom, a place where Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars could study Greek, Indian and Persian texts.

It could be argued that we live in comparable times. Cities like London provide copious opportunities not only to study the claims of different faiths, but also to sit at the feet of their best exponents and experience their rituals and meetings. From the beauty of choral evensong in Westminster Abbey to an affirmation of life with the Sunday Assembly (also known as the atheist church); from a lesson in the Sanskrit texts of the Upanishads to a lunchtime meditation; from an evening of yoga to hearing a talk about the sci-fi community of Damanhur, whose underground temple complex contains secrets obtained via visitors from another planet. A smörgåsbord of soulful practices, fantastic myths and metaphysical convictions is widely available.

“The belief in something greater than ourselves has preoccupied humanity for centuries,” says Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra which, in partnership with Southbank Centre, is presenting the festival Belief and Beyond Belief throughout 2017. “In this festival, we attempt to lay open the grandeur, enigma and conflict in our search for, and understanding of, the divine.”

People taste this rich variety of religious experience even when they are doctrinally supposed to not be mixed. There are folk who attend the Sunday Assembly but also go to regular church. You can learn about Buddhist meditation without having to commit to reincarnation, karma and the doctrine of non-self. Faith cocktails also blend the ceremonies of one creed with the ethics of another.

In fact, religions thrive on diversity, particularly during their inception. The ancient Greeks had extensive contact with ancient India. Islam made much of the insights of the ancient Greeks. The first Christians adapted writings from Judaism and the Stoics, turning them into the central texts of what became the New Testament. Generally speaking, it’s only when seeking power or resisting threat that traditions claim monopolies on truth and ban alternatives as heresies.

In other words, the pick-and-mix approach to religion is one that can propagate, fertilise and revive. And who knows what new faith might be being born today – or indeed, whether religion itself is slowly coming to an end, usurped by hope and confidence in science and technology.

There is a downside, too. Variety can be dazzling and dismaying in equal measure. Which one is right? Have I enough time? The best offer might be missed altogether. Anxiety haunts the religious marketplace, as much as it can be felt in the shopping mall. But there are some timeless tips by which to form judgments.

The great psychologist of religion, William James, suggested that you first examine what’s on offer by its “fruits” as well as its “roots”. That is, ask what the followers of this or that creed are like. Are they compassionate and flourishing, or crabby and humanly diminished? You know which not to choose.

Second, he noticed that wisdom traditions tend to come in one of two forms. The first teach that human beings can perfect themselves, given enough effort. They offer “mind cures” – practices that cultivate wellbeing and excellence – and appeal to those who feel similarly about humankind. The second are different. They teach that human beings remain flawed no matter how hard they try. So instead, these traditions tell of death and rebirth, teaching that what’s mended is first broken. Leonard Cohen caught it well when he wrote: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

There’s a third, final, bit of discerning to do as you browse. The risk with spiritual shopping is that the shopping itself takes over. Pick-and-mix subtly shifts from being a search to just another purchase of the latest guru, argument or fad. Spiritual experiences stack up like self-help books, changing nothing. You can be sure that the “God-shaped hole” won’t be filled by mere consumption. Which highlights perhaps the most difficult message from the wisdom of past ages to the freedom of the present. Search, test, listen, discern, enjoy. Do! But at some point, to know life in all its fullness, you have to commit.

Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival, in partnership with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, runs from 16 January-17 December 2017. For more information and to book tickets, visit Southbank Centre’s website

 

Saturday, January 7 2017

The new New Atheism

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the Sunday Assembly, also known as the atheist church.

It's widely recognised that popular atheism is changing fast. It's moving into a more constructive phase after the attacks on religion, inspired by scientism, that characterised the first decade of the new millennium. One of the most interesting new movements is the Sunday Assembly, sometimes called the "atheist church" - though the founders are not keen on that title as it suggests they are against rather than for something.

It began about 3 years ago and, in that short time, has spawned over 70 congregations around the world, particularly in the UK and US.

In this Science Set Free podcast, we discuss this new development, after I made a radio programme for the BBC on the Sunday Assembly. We ask how atheism is changing; how it is embracing dimensions of life such as the ecstatic that have been quite taboo in atheist circles; and what this means for our times.

 

Wednesday, December 21 2016

Was there really a star of Bethlehem? Yes

A Christmas piece, originally published by The Idler.

It’s the time of year when newspapers ask whether there really was a star of Bethlehem. “We have seen his star in the East”, the wise men report in the Bible. So is the event historically accurate? The wise men were astrologers, which makes the incident a double target for the debunkers of today.

Indeed, some quickly consign the story to the rubbish bin of legend. Astronomy tells us that stars do not suddenly appear in the cosmos, they say, but are fixed and unchanging compared to shifts human individuals can detect. Case closed.

Others go the opposite way. They muster fideistic convictions and insist the star was a miracle. What happened to the wise men is comparable to the incident in the book of Joshua, when the sun stood still in the middle of the sky and did not go down for a whole day. God did it because God can.

Then, there are those who search for recorded celestial events that might explain away the story. Perhaps the sight refers to Venus rising as the morning star just before sunrise, which might have had significance for astrologers. Or maybe it was a supernova or comet or atmospheric apparition.

This year, I’m opting for a different possibility. I’ve been reading poets and philosophers, such as William Blake and Plato, who have proposed that there are kinds of realities that are neither purely subjective nor wholly objective. They occur. They are real. But they sit somewhere in between the felt actuality of inner life and the manifest corporeality that can be examined and measured via the methods of science. They are not sheer fantasy but are what is sometimes called the imaginal, objects in a third realm that mediate the immaterial to the material. Further, this realm matters because the imaginal is also truth-bearing, as the poet Malcolm Guite puts it in his work on another advocate of this tertium quid, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Plenty of candidates can be drawn from the arts. “Don’t be such a Scrooge!” someone will yell at Christmas – referencing the fictional character of Charles Dickens who now has an existence of his own. Or there’s Shakespeare. He provides dozens of examples of brilliant imaginal insights. One of the best is from The Tempest, a plot wholly created by the Bard. It includes Prospero famously musing that, “We are such stuff, As dreams are made on”. Notice that “we”. It wonderfully includes Prospero, the character, and ourselves, the readers. It invites us to hover in a virtual space. If Prospero is a dream, then can his observation be true? If we are a dream, then what is our stuff? The truth content springs from the implicit domain conjured between the players and the audience. It’s all the more real for that.

Acknowledging this third sphere has practical outcomes too, particularly for parents at Christmas. They will face the question of a growing child: is Santa real? The reality of the imaginal allows you to answer with a definitive, unashamed, truthful, yes. As the psychotherapist, Donald Winnicott, put it, Santa Claus has become a part of western children’s imaginative play, which is in turn part of their development, creativity and a rich engagement with the world. “Some of the child’s belief and generosity can be handed out to Father Christmas,” he suggested, when advising parents not to debunk Santa. The feelings of goodness associated with the great gift giver are real. Moreover, they belong to the child and you risk destroying them with a brusque denial. All these qualities are made more real by the story of the man who is so generous that he delivers toys on one night right across the globe.

A different domain of the real imaginal includes phenomena such as rainbows and mirror images; holograms and laws of nature. Take the rainbow. You see it. I see it. The camera records it. But move to the end of the rainbow and not only will there be no crock of gold, there won’t be an end either. The rainbow is definitely real but it’s also, in one sense, not there.

Or consider laws of nature. Scientists find them. Students are taught them. They can be deployed to fabricate technologies. And yet, if you set out in a spaceship to find the scroll upon which the laws of nature are written, or the star field in which they are etched into cosmic dust, you’d set out on a hiding to nothing. They’re found through that amazing investigative tool: contemplation.

The anthropologist of religions, Jeffrey Kripal, has made the case for understanding supernatural experiences similarly. Accounts of events from near death experiences to UFO abductions appear to arise from the imaginations of the experiencers but in such a way that they become more than private dreams. They are often shared by more than one person. They can be so powerful that they permanently transform a life. They can make a tangible impact upon the physical world too, to the extent that evidence can be gathered to demonstrate that something is going on. (Ignore the professional skeptics, Kripal adds: usually, they’ve disregarded the evidence on ideological grounds.)

Such incidents happen, he suggests, for a reason. They invite us to move away from a materialist worldview, where what counts is what can be probed and kicked, and to engage again with a depth of reality that was obvious and natural to our ancestors. It’s as if we are being called back.

So what of the star of Bethlehem and other details that accrued around the birth of Jesus: the shepherds, the dreams, the virgin, the angels? They are realities, yes. But they are realities whose weight in the world does not depend upon them having mass, but on having meaning. And meaning is quite as powerful a causative force as the phenomenon described by Newton’s second law of motion.

Perhaps wise men did see a star in a collective experience that guided them. That seems plausible to me. Perhaps some shepherds did see the angelic host praising God. If William Blake could detect seraphim in the blackened trees of Peckham Rye, then why not?

At this time of year, spirits and spooks, shadows and stories hang in the air like the fantastic electric angels currently soaring over Regent Street. So maybe it’s a good time to reconsider the extended possibilities of imaginal reality. Indulge in the playful tale. Ponder the nature of an ice rainbow. Enjoy the fearfulness of a Christmas ghost. Reach out to the intangible truths found in between us.

Perhaps even the baby of Bethlehem will speak afresh in an unexpected way. After all, when he grew up, he promised his followers sight of something astonishing. “Very truly,” the honest man declared: “You will see the heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man.”

(Image: Harper's Magazine, Christmas 1898.)

 

Sunday, December 18 2016

This is not a Christmas sermon

A piece from the Idler...

Do you think you might venture to church this Christmas, for a midnight mass or Christingle? Many will, the otherwise secular folk who traverse the lychgate to sing a carol. It’s the vicar’s “busy period”, though in my experience vicars are busy most of the time.

I advise the trip. At worse, it’s a pause; at best, it’s transcendent. But I also offer a note of caution. The sermon. The preacher will stand, six foot above contradiction, and deliver a festive word. Only, it might not feel so cheerful.

This year, given Trump and Brexit, the chances are the sermon will go social (as opposed to sentimental – the option that majors on the angels, the candlelight, the baby, the love). British vicars tend to be Guardian readers, so they will know the statistics for rough sleepers, and take the opportunity of a captive audience to say that they’ve doubled this year. He or she will also have Syria on their mind, and perhaps link that to Mary and Joseph who were supposedly refugees as well. And/or they’ll remind you that strangers from the east came to visit the Christ child, guided by a star, which is why we must be liberal, inclusive and tolerant of strangers.

The details may be true. The message earnest. But there’s a sting in the tail. The vicar will be conveying a gospel of moral burden. If you listen and don’t drift off in the candlelight, it’ll leave you feeling uncomfortable about having a comfy bed for tonight. It’ll make you feel helpless about the hideous meltdown in the Middle East. It’ll make you feel you ought to be doing something, and yet leave you with little idea what that might be, beyond putting a tenner not a fiver in the collection.

George Osborne, who is showing remarkable thoughtfulness now that he’s out of Number 11, recently reminded parliament: you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t intervene in world events. And the trouble with the social sermon is that it becomes a similar exercise in hand-wringing guilt.

Further, dear vicar, people don’t need to be told that religion induces remorse. They don’t attend for the rest of the year. They’ve internalised that message already. No. The social gospel won’t do. It may be well meant, but it will achieve nothing beyond leaving Christmas punters with a sour taste in their mouth, and the vicar with the false sense he’s done something about it.

So, if I were preaching this Christmas, I’d go metaphysical. A spiritual, speculative, even supernatural word has the distinct advantage of not trying to be political or practical or relevant. But it may manage to offer something of religion’s USP: a glimpse of realities beyond the horizon of chaotic current events. To put it differently: hope.

After the confusing trials of what became this baby’s life, the earliest Christians decided that the way to understand his teaching and death was that Jesus had been the Logos incarnate. The Logos is the ground of beings. It’s a creative principle, a cosmic wisdom, a benign force. This is what they’d seen. In the beginning was the Word, or Logos, as the Christmas gospel of John puts it.

A good thing about Logos theology is that it is not the exclusive property of Christian theology. The philosopher Heraclitus thought of it as a world soul, which if awakened to, inspires a desire to “share the common”. The Stoics knew it too, as that “in which we live and move and have our being.” It’s also recognised with distinctive inflections in Asian and Indian religions, as the Tao and dharma respectively. And it’s reappeared in a scientific age: Einstein spoke of “the mysterious force that sways the constellations” – an expression echoing Dante’s vision of that which moves the sun and other stars.

Stirring such a cosmic truth is no practical use, but for that reason may be very useful. It might matter because, as an Egyptian friend said to me recently, politics needs a vision of possibilities above politics if it is to succeed. And that’s arguably what we’ve lost right now. My friend was involved in the Arab Spring and attended Obama’s “A new beginning” speech at Cairo University in 2009. But even as he listened, he suspected the speech would struggle to become more than fine words, as the revolution has struggled too.

What he saw was missing is vision, and vision anchored in the deepest roots and perennial insights of the culture. For us, that means tapping Christianity. It provides what the non-Christian Iris Murdoch called “wider horizons”, a sense of what’s bigger than even the biggest human mess. Christmas sermons, this year, will do well to channel some of that, I’d say; to evoke and so invoke a higher power. We’ll need it après la déluge that 2017 threatens to be.

Mark Vernon’s new online course with the Idler Academy is A History of Christianity in Eleven Short Chapters.

 

Thursday, December 15 2016

The Essence of Christianity

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the essence of Christianity.

Now is a good moment to assess the essence of Christianity, to consider what lies at its heart. as we live in a period during which Christianity isn't disappearing but is routinely rubbing shoulders with other religions and none.

In this episode of the Science Set Free podcast, we ask what values and consciousness Christianity has helped develop - partly in response to a series of films I have made with The Idler Academy, entitled A History of Christianity in 11 Short Chapters.

We ask about Christianity as an inner spiritual and outer social phenomenon; the role it played at the end of the axial age in valuing the individual person; what happened so that it became a world religion; and what Christianity is becoming today.

 

Monday, December 12 2016

New! A History of Christianity in Eleven Short Chapters

For good and ill, Christianity has profoundly shaped western civilisation, our lives, and even the workings of our minds. You don’t have to believe for that to be so. Even in post-Christian times, the preaching of Jesus and Paul, the struggles of Augustine and Luther, the convictions of Lydia and Newton are in the air we breath.

So what exactly is Christianity? Who were its key architects? How did it achieve its massive impact? Post-Christian times are very good times to assess this great tradition, and the enigmatic figure of Jesus at its heart, as you are invited to do in A History of Christianity in Eleven Short Chapters.

The course includes eleven video lessons, lasting around 15 minutes each, handy pdf notes with further reading material.

Buy online here!

Chapter 1: A New Awakening – Paul and the birth of a Jewish sect

Chapter 2: The God-Fearer – Lydia, the first Christian in Europe

Chapter 3: A City In the Desert – Evagrius and a map of inner life

Chapter 4: An Age of Tumult – Augustine and the art of confession

Chapter 5: Enemy At the Gates – Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle and Islam

Chapter 6: A Golden Age – Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance recovery

Chapter 7: Protesting Corruption – Martin Luther and runaway reform

Chapter 8: The Last of the Magicians – Isaac Newton and Christianity’s science-child

Chapter 9: The Power of Humiliation – The Christian origins of fundamentalism

Chapter 10: Charity and Positive Thinking – Oprah and mass Christianity today

Chapter 11: The Man at the Centre – Who was Jesus?

 

Wednesday, November 30 2016

Time for death

It feels as if death is being discussed all over the place right now, what with Oliver Burkeman, Joan Bakewell and Advent. Made me want to think about how death is realised as a gateway to life, in religious and philosophical traditions...

It can come as something of a surprise to learn that western religions were originally in favour of the idea that death is the end. Take ancient Judaism, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible. Immortality is hardly mentioned. Humans are said to go to ‘sheol’, a shadowy subterranean abode, or to Gehenna, a place outside Jerusalem of sulphurous discomfort. Upon arrival, individuals were then thought to drift into a shady half-life and fade away. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, recommending life here and now, amongst the people of Israel; and continuity via family.

This much, at least, the Hebrews had in common with other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. The afterlife perhaps lasts a little longer for heroes, the ancient Greeks mused, but only because their life force can resist mortal extinction somewhat more. Achilles is devastated in Homer's Iliad when he visits Hades and finds Patroclus, his warrior friend, slipping away as a 'gibbering spirit'.

In the East, amongst the religions of Indian, things are different. There is here a widespread sense of life after death, manifest in various forms of reincarnation. It's not personal continuity. But the most real and fullest aspect of life, Brahman, is acknowledged as timeless and so unchanged by death. Instead, like the thread that makes up a piece of cloth, death sees life unravel and then rewoven into new fabric upon rebirth, the Upanishads suggest.

Western thinkers began to toy with this possibility in the mid-part of the first millennium BC. In his dialogue the Phaedo, Plato explores what it might mean to know that one's soul or spirit is immortal. The dialogue reads as a series of graduated attempts to awaken the participants to the possibility that bodies are expressions of this inner animation; that bodies are not the most fundamental part of us but are rather only the aspect that can be seen, measured, located. More vital and, in fact, more real is a subtler dimension. Like character that is manifest in the lines of a face, or the aura that inhabits a painting, so too an insubstantial but ultimately more powerful side of life exists and can be known. Socrates famously concluded that philosophy is a kind of learning to die - learning to dissolve the ties we tend to make with bodily life, and thereby appreciating the fullness of the immaterial, which is timeless and eternal.

This kind of thinking develops as BC turns to AD, when a hope of life after death becomes prominent in western religious discourse too. In Judeo-Christian circles, the issue of personal continuity becomes key. Death is still regarded as death because the bodies that are required to be a person clearly rot and, for all that they are not the sum total of us, having a body matters. This is symbolically represented by the practice of burying corpses in contact with the ground. 'Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return,' an ancient Christian liturgy says. But there grows an expectation that this physical aspect of death will be overturned: what was first a natural body will be raised a spiritual body, as St Paul puts it.

Difference between this life and the next is emphasized because it is also clear that this life needs redeeming. If the afterlife were just more and more of the same, then everlasting life would become by default an everlasting punishment. At the very least, exhaustion and boredom would set it. It would make immortality a tragedy.

That also points to a difference between immortality and eternity - the latter being a state outside of time. And I think the notion of eternity is important because it's not hard to feel that eternity can be glimpsed in the here and now, too, if we learn to die and cease clinging to what's transient and passing.

One way to sense that is to ask whether 2 plus 2 equalled 4 before the universe and time existed? If it feels to you that it did, then perhaps mathematics touches something eternal. Alternatively, there are the aesthetic evocations of eternity that arise from mystical experience. ‘To see the world in a grain of sand… And eternity in an hour,’ contemplated William Blake.

In fact, I wonder whether eternity might be nearer to us than we are typically inclined to imagine in a world of busy distractions. I once spoke with the physicist Roger Penrose about the nature of light. He described how it seems that light does not ‘experience’ time, because time slows to zero when travelling at the speed of light. That would make turning the lights on in the morning, or watching the winter night dissolve in the rays of the morning sun, akin to a mystical experience. It fits with Blake's sense of 'eternity's sunrise'. 'There is another world,' divined poet Paul Éluard, 'but it is in this one.'

 

Wednesday, November 23 2016

So what if we're all self-obsessed?

I've written a new BBC iWonder guide, online here.

 

Sunday, October 23 2016

The soul of classical civilisation, or what the old gods can teach us.

The abandonment of the A-level in classical civilisation is tragic in a strict and precise sense, not least as the axing comes in the week after the disposal of archeology and art history too. It's a tragedy that speaks clearly of the spirit of our age, the gods to which we submit, the fate to which western civilisation seems bound.

The tragic happens when no-one wants it, and yet it happens anyway. It can't be resisted. Those who had benefited from studying classical civilisation, archeology and art history didn't want the A-levels gone. The exam board that set them didn't either. Celebrity champions of the past, like Tony Robinson, dutifully complained. And it seems that most ordinary folk sensed the loss too. They might have noticed that few students took the courses, but still sensed that the economic logic which drove their demise is a curse on us too. Another thing of intangible value, trashed.

That's tragedy. It's not up to us. It's up to the gods we worship. They are the powers that turn our stars, that confuse and wreck us. Further, now, the gods in control don't have the grandeur of Zeus or the beauty of Diana or the charm of Apollo or the fun of Dionysus. Ours gods are estimates and balances, budgets and spreadsheets. They are cool, impersonal, merciless. If there's no financial case, they destroy - not in a fury about which a dramatic tale can be told, but in a quiet act of confiscation.

They leave us feeling disconnected, small, frightened. They are beings without soul, without imagination. They can calculate but not contemplate. They are the ones who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Think hard Brexit, Trump's billions, the bank's credit, oil's corruption. These are the powers now reigning on Olympus. We are apparently incapable of withstanding their suffocating embrace.

If there is a way out, or at least a method of resistance, then classical civilisation might teach it. Yes, our forebears knew of the excesses of chrimataphilia too. There were ancient Greeks and Romans who also skimmed off the cream of wealth to leave their fellows with watery milk of emptier lives. But I think it is the case that money never became exclusively omnipotent, or only temporarily. The powerful would stamp their heads on one side of silver coins. But they'd ensure a true god was remembered on the other.

A similarly active imaginative life ran alongside their study of the world. One of my favourite examples is provided by Anaximenes of Miletus. He was a philosopher though he never lost his soul to dry rationalism or the Research Assessment Exercise. His science remained enchanted - an enchantment with nature that might remind us faintly of gods, of other values.

Consider an experiment he performed. He blew on his hand in two ways. First, with his lips pursed. Then, with his mouth open. He noticed a difference. When his lips were pursed the air felt cool. When his mouth was open, it felt warm. And then he thought to ask, why? What's the difference? How's that?

Now, this was remarkable. Presumably countless individuals had felt the same difference before. But no-one thought to ponder why air could feel first cold and then warm. He'd discovered what we now call Boyle's law. When gases under pressure expand, they cool. It's the principle behind fridges and air conditioners. (I was reminded of Anaximenes because the week in which A-levels were falling was also a week in which the fragility of the planet was in the headlines too, threatened by our use of hydrocarbon refrigerants.)

But Anaximenes didn't stop there. He didn't call the patent office thinking, a discovery ripe for economic exploitation: where's the market! He sought to muse on his experience.

Hot and cold, he thought. They are odd qualities, strange spirits, because they are not actually opposites. Put it like this. Cold is a lack of heat. But heat is not a lack of cold. If you want to warm up, you put more heat in, as when sitting by a fire. But if you want to cool down, you can't put more cold in - which is why it is so surprising to find a phenomenon that pulls off the trick of reducing temperature.

Anaximenes contemplated further. Is not heat like life, and cold life death? So maybe life and death have an asymmetric relationship too. Again, you can hear it. You can say, in the midst of life we find death. But you can't say, in the midst of death we find life. Life seems to have a prior claim, like heat. It feels truer, fuller, a more real quality - and the poorer relations, death and cold, are more like absences, spaces, removals.

The classical mindset was alert to the inner meaning of things. It could accept that what was implicit and animating was more important than what was explicit and verifiable. The ancient world knew that life rested in the hands of forces beyond control. They knew that to thrive meant developing a relationship with the gods. They could be wrestled with for a blessing. Our loss is that we've ditched them. Though maybe classical civilisation is not yet so distant that we can't begin to relearn its wisdom. We might notice still the subtle influence of gods that are good to worship. We might open up to soul once more.

 

Saturday, October 8 2016

Why Socrates believed that sexual desire is the first step towards enlightenment

This piece first appeared in The Idler Magazine.

The wisest person he ever met - during a long life encircling luminaries such as Pericles and Sophocles, Aspasia and Protagoras - was a humble temple prostitute. Diotima of Mantinea showed Socrates of Athens more about the tricky dynamics of desire and love, insight and revelation than the greatest politicians, poets or sophists. The experience took him quite by surprise. He was already known as impeccable when it came to deploying logic; as an irritating genius at winning arguments. And yet, rational dexterity was a poor substitute for the erotic arts demonstrated to him by this adept, the courtesan priestess.

According to Plato, in his dialogue the Symposium, it is her we must thank for disclosing the height, depth and breadth of things to the prophet of western philosophy. Without her careful instruction along the paths of longing, the tradition that subsequently fired Augustine and Ficino, Hypatia and Iris Murdoch might never have been born. Another follower, William Blake, was to describe it as the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom. This almost forgotten woman stands behind her now axial protégé. Who was she? What, by Zeus, did she teach?

Scholars today doubt whether she existed: doubting is their dismal science. And it seems simply unlikely that she should be the one individual in Plato's dialogues who was not based upon an historical character, especially when she was so key. I suspect the doubt speaks of more than just professional skepticism. It tells of an inability, now, to imagine what a courtesan could have offered a philosopher, or more generally what philosophy has to do with Eros. You can sense that lack when many modern philosophers speak. They positively value dispassion as they coolly unpick ethical issues. Their "love" is telling you that it's all about reason and intuition can't be true. Hence the widespread assumption that philosophy is "harsh and crabbed", to quote Milton.

Diotima means one who honours God, or one who is in the service of the gods. That's another reason modern philosophy forgets her, as if philosophy is the opposite of theology, and reason undoes spirituality. The implication is that it would be a retrograde step to ask after the sacred hetaira who stands at philosophy's origin - quite as odd as resurrecting Thomas Aquinas' fascination with angels or Giordano Bruno's interest in magic. Oh that we could bring back the angels and the magic too.

Now, there was a bawdy side to temple prostitution. When Socrates tells his fellow symposiasts, with whom he has gathered to talk about love, that he must defer to "the one who taught me the rites of eros", they have a chuckle. But through the sniggers emerges a high calling.

Take the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. One of its main centres was in Corinth, at the midpoint between Mantinea and Athens. A fragment of Pindar celebrates the priestesses: "Guest-loving girls! Servants of Peitho in wealthy Korinthos! Ye that burn the golden tears of fresh frankincense, full often soaring upward in your souls unto Aphrodite." These women are guest-loving and soul-soaring. One led to the other. They would dedicate themselves for a period of time to serve in the temple, shaving their heads as a sign of their vocation. Incidentally, this detail explains why, four centuries later, Saint Paul told the women in the young Corinthian church to cover their heads. It was not to demean them. He wanted to ensure that any passerby wouldn't spot the women from the temple for whom the arrival of Christianity had sparked interest in a different set of secrets: the Christian mysteries. If all heads were covered, none of Aphrodite's shaved heads could be seen.



It might further have been the case that many of the women in this early church modeled themselves on the priestesses. That might explain why Paul's famous letter to the Corinthians contains his best words on love. "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." Such insights might have been the steady convictions of the women of Aphrodite. Paul learnt from them.

Socrates learnt from Diotima too. The first lesson was that conventional stuff on Eros, the sanctioned creeds, is at best misleading and at worst wrong. Take Hesiod, author of the revered texts Works and Days and Theogony. They were as close as ancient Greek religion got to scriptures. Hesiod's description of Eros is quoted by one of the earlier speakers in the Symposium. "Love is a great god," Phaedrus opines, "wonderful in many ways to gods and men, and most marvelous of all is the way he came into being." If that sounds like a formal encomium, and a bit hifalutin, that's precisely what it sounded like to Diotima too. Predictable. It's the kind of speech parroted by individuals who have read about love, but don't know of love. It's wrong because the rendition makes safe, and so neuters, the potential of the god's powerful embrace. It's a bit like the difference between describing moonlight as reflected sunlight, which is empirically correct, and describing it as an eternal pearl that can be bathed in, like a diamond-bright cloud. That's what Dante Alighieri wrote. It's clear which is more penetrating and so, by Diotima's measure, conveys more truth.

Lesson two can follow once conventional pieties have been set aside. The ground is tilled for fresh perceptions to sprout in the soul. That said, Socrates tells his friends that Diotima was not sure he was ready. She was onto a second preparatory step that an initiating priestess would have spotted.

It's one thing to question what you have taken to be the case. It's another thing entirely to be ready to adopt what's different. Our known knowns are sticky. The paradigm shift of experience that was Diotima's potential gift requires not only a capacity to tolerate uncertainty and to trust an unknown other. It needs the individual themself to be ready to change. The insight is in Dante too. He had to travel through hell, to know his pride; and then purgatory, to know its effects, before his "Diotima", the beloved Beatrice, could show him what lay across the threshold of heaven. The soul must undergo a journey, a making ready.

The author Jennifer Nash writes about this shift following a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Compelled to set out by an inner force she at first did not understand, the trip was initially disorientating. In her memoir, On Pilgrimage, she describes feeling like a demented dog being dragged along a path. But her inner world cleared. "Then gradually it dawned on me, that some sort of intellectual pride held me back from the only possible conclusion. It is not enough to seek and care; to pay lip service to all manner of ideals. Real witness is what counts. Recognising that truth is hidden."

Anselm of Canterbury appreciated the same dynamic: "For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand." A receptive quality of mind is key. That's doubly hard to cultivate today when, post-enlightenment, we treat knowledge as an accomplishment and possession that exists only inside academic heads.

Diotima looked again at Socrates with her penetrating eyes. She decided he was educable. She presented her mysteries to him in two groups - mysteries meaning that which is known by direct experience, Nash's "real witness". The first, lower mysteries she felt he would grasp. After all, they arise from a direct experience everyone has: falling in love.

What's that like, she asked? Wanting what's beautiful and good, replied Socrates. To fall in love is to believe you have discovered who or what you need to be happy. It's "love's young dream", as the phrase goes. But what does that tell you about Eros, Diotima continued? Socrates was not sure. Eros does not have what he seeks. He desires what he lacks with the unquenchable energy of a great spirit, she said.

To put it differently, love is dangerous. The shadow of love's dream is a nightmare because if someone does not get what they want, they will try to take what they want. And if they cannot take what they want? Think of Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Better to be dead than to live with the heartache. When you fall in love - when you are seized by Eros - all your energies are re-orientated towards gaining your beloved. Unsatisfied, the longing will not let you go.

Sexual passion is, in a way, the main issue for Diotima. Her central priestly concern is to direct it aright in others, so they become capable of soul-soaring too. As Iris Murdoch explained, we are born with it pulsing through us. We've no more choice in the matter than the need to breath. The question is what next?

Diotima knew that many become stuck at love's first stirrings. They fall in love with falling in love, or bodies become a preoccupation. Others manage to redirect the dissatisfaction a little onto alternative promises of beauty. Celebrity has the allure of beauty, though its often skin deep. Money can make a life beautiful, on the outside.

More hopeful is the most common sublimation that is also quite remarkable when you think about it. Lovers, who at first wanted only to have each other, find their love spilling over. They develop a desire for children. This is the "moreness" of love, Diotima explains, the realisation that your own life is too small. Sacrificing something of yourself to that more is the reason bearing children can be such a profound delight and, more generally, generates the joy of creativity inspired by the presence of beauty. Walt Whitman called it "the procreant urge of the world," noting in his poem 'The Base of All Metaphysics' that "underneath Socrates" was "the attraction of friend to friend, Of the well-married husband and wife - of children and parents, Of city for city, and land for land." It's an attractively expansive vision of love and its possibilities.

These are the lower mysteries. If they seem obvious, remember how much can go wrong. And it's reflecting on that which leads to the higher mysteries. Again, Diotima pauses. You could probably come to be initiated into these rites of love, she says to Socrates. I won't stint any effort, and you must try to follow if you can.

The higher mysteries require another step-change. The difficulty with that was identified by Ficino, the Renaissance philosopher who brought Plato back into the west. The lower mysteries, of children and parents and city and land, are powerfully fecund because they are attached to "propagating one's own perfection," he noted - the best thing in us. There's nothing wrong with that. But the philosopher who wants to continue on love's path must now be prepared to loosen those ties. It's a shift of perceptive from the human to include the divine, not to leave this world behind, but rather to become a lover of the transcendent that rests in it, Blake's "heaven in a wild flower" and "eternity in an hour".

Diotima tries to convey the subtlety of this vision to her student: "You see, the person who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature." There's a moment of conversion. The moonlight is no longer just sunlight but a pearl. The wild flower shares in heaven; eternity is felt through the passage of time.

It's a perennial theme in wisdom traditions. Jesus called it the kingdom of God. The Buddha, the uncreated that emerges when the transient world clears. The Bhagavad Gita simply, That.

From then on, the individual will not much think of measuring beauty in the old ways - by gold, or clothing, or sexual vitality. They're not against such things. They're indifferent. Now, they know something immortal, and become immortal insofar as any human being can be. That's Diotima's promise.

 

Tuesday, October 4 2016

Is the Sun Conscious?

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the significance of the Sun.

When you look into the blue sky on a sunny day do you glimpse a ball of nuclear fire or, as the London poet and mystic, William Blake, reported, the heavenly host singing God's praises?

It's an old question, revived today by the notion of panpsychism which suggests that the Sun might in some way be considered conscious. In this Science Set Free podcast, Rupert Sheldrake and I ask whether the Sun is a psychical as well as physical entity in the solar system, and consider what that might mean for our participation in and connection to the cosmic dimensions of ecological life.

I draws on Plato's notion that matter is a manifestation of mind, as well as how the sun was honoured in ancient Egypt; and Rupert explores how the sun is regarded in eastern religious practices, to suggest how it might be meaningful to relate to the sun today, as well as enjoy its light and warmth.

 

Monday, September 26 2016

Why's the church so sniffy about personal development?

This piece was originally published in the Church Times.

Researching a radio programme on the Sunday Assembly, the remarkably successful "atheist church" that in 3 years has grown to more than 70 congregations, highlighted a trick that the Church of England is missing, and can actually be averse to. Personal development. Alongside Sunday Assembly's gatherings and a serious commitment to social concern, it offers self-help support and mentoring groups. The founders heard a request for personal development, and responded.

The demand is entirely unsurprising. Personal development is commonplace in the modern world. Self-help books, various types of therapy, mindfulness trainings, professional coaching, projects like The Idler Academy and The School of Life (that run various adult courses and with which I'm involved). Even the BBC website has a substantial personal development section.

Of course, the quality of what's on offer varies enormously. At one end, there are best-sellers like The Secret by Rhonda Byrne that, frankly, I find creepy: the "secret" is that you can attract to yourself anything you want, from more happiness to a new Porsche. At the other, are guides like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, which could have been titled, A Practical Introduction to Aristotelian Ethics - only, of course, that wouldn't have sold.

The Church of England might be a leader in personal development too. There are numerous sayings of Jesus that promise followers a transformation so profound that they will become nothing less than friends of God. How else might that happen without putting in the legwork to be changed? It's a path monastics have long understood. From its earliest days, monasticism utilized a self-help book of the ancient world: Epictetus the Stoic's Enchiridion, or Handbook. It laid out a kind of basic training for novices. Or there are central doctrines of Christianity that invite personal development, such as coming to know, not just be told, that you are made in the image of God.

And yet, mention personal development in the church, and you often receive a sniffy response. There's a culture about that would dismiss a retreat of forty days and nights as self-indulgent and excessive. I was once told to stop narcissistically fixating on myself and turn to the light of Christ. (In therapy, that'd be called splitting.) Someone else decried all the naval-gazing, before scurrying off to the next church meeting. (In therapy, that'd be called a manic defense.)

The irony of that last response is that the phrase, navel-gazing, was first coined to mock meditating desert fathers and mothers. How is that going to save souls? they were asked. How is that going to help others? It might do so because the most compelling presentation of the gospel is when you sense its transformative potential in someone else; when you detect someone is living out of Christ rather than the shallow waters of themselves.

I'm sure this is what Paul meant when he spoke of having died. But there's only one way to that new life: through the heart of your own darkness. That's not narcissistic, it's the truth of Good Friday.

Coupled to the concern about narcissism, there's a related source of aversion to personal development. It has to do with a particular interpretation of the gospel. Taking up your cross has become a burdensome moral command rather than a liberating transformative invitation.

I feel I've heard countless sermons when the gospel message, you can change, is subtly shifted to, you should do this, that or the other. The upshot is that Christianity is often, in this country, viewed as a guilt-inducing and probably suspect ethical framework. I felt this again when visiting the Sunday Assembly. One of things it gets right is projecting a powerful sense that you are welcome as you are; indeed you are wanted as you are. That's very different from how church can feel, particularly if your only exposure to it is via news and headlines, as is the case for most now. It feels a bit like a workplace that, when you arrive at the office door, implicitly requires you to leave your personal life outside.

It's not that moral behaviour is not important. Rather, though, what we do should arise from how we've changed, at root. The Good Samaritan was not dutiful. He was free: he helped because he was without fear. As William James put it, good works are fruits not roots, and if you try to force the fruits with no deep roots you burnout and die.

There's another issue that, to my mind, opens up the most important area of modern personal development, namely psychotherapy. It's the sense that psychotherapy is an intervention needed when something has gone wrong, not a source of know-how that can routinely aid spiritual development. But twentieth century psychotherapists like Melanie Klein and Wilfrid Bion were not only interested in clinical cases. They explored the dynamics of everyday human envy and hate; of the struggle to be grateful and to love.

They were, in a way, rediscovering what Christians know as sin - though in a way that treats sin as personal qualities that anyone will discover within themselves, if they paid enough attention. Psychotherapy in effect says, your sins are forgiven, there's no judgment here. But now: let's try to think about and understand them.

Evagrius Ponticus was one of the first contemplatives systematically to explore and describe gluttony, anger, despair, pride in a way that is comparable to modern psychotherapy. He believed they were worth getting to know in yourself because the kingdom of God is the tranquility of soul that is found on the other side of them. Through practice and grace, we can thereby come to have first hand, felt knowledge of true things; of God. That's the goal of Christian personal development. He describes this inner journey in his Praktikos, from which we get the word practice: it outlines the life of the ascetic, from the Greek askesis, originally meaning stepping out of your limited self, or personal development. That ascetic has become an anxiety-laden word, again, speaks volumes.

An individual, or organisation, can only truly assist the spiritual development of others by being engaged in a process of askesis too. Like sunshine on plants, spiritual growth is fostered by direct exposure to the practical intelligence that shines out when it is embodied in the life of teachers or guides. Philosophers like Plato called it wisdom. Buddhists talk of skillful means. It's why psychotherapists must have their own therapy.

For me, this is the most profound meaning of Jesus' call to follow. He's walked the path already, and so knows. As a clergyperson recently put it to me, what the church needs is not more managers but some gurus. I think that's right.

 

Wednesday, September 21 2016

Brangelina: the risks of living the lives of others

This piece was published by Newsweek.

In his great letter from Reading Gaol, De Profundis, Oscar Wilde bitterly chastises Lord Alfred Douglas, his former lover, with a terrible accusation. Douglas has not lived his own life, Wilde writes. Douglas has leached his life from the lives of others, not least from Wilde's. Douglas's life is therefore a borrowed life, a half life, a distorted reflection of others' lives.

This matters tremendously to Wilde. His humiliation in prison has convinced him that the greatest task which faces human individuals is to live their own lives, to own them, including the suffering. Then, they find dignity, individuality, truth. The flaw with living through the lives of others is that it destroys these supreme qualities. "To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul," he explains.

The massive interest in the failing marriage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reminded me of Wilde's warning. Wilde pinpoints why celebrity culture is so corrosive, of celebrities and their admirers. OK. A little gazing at the glamour of others may be harmless enough. Who can't resist the temptation sometimes? But it does feel as if it's become endemic today, to the point of being a kind of sickness.

Wilde tells us why. "Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live." Living by love and admiration takes us into life. It enables us to discover the fullness of life. Living for love and admiration is a desperate twisting of life's promise; a narcissistic insistence that life shores up an emptiness inside.

Psychotherapists call it projection - unconsciously detecting in others what we fail to make contact with in ourselves. Getting to know the way you project onto others is a major part of psychotherapy.

And we all do it. There's the moment of road rage when a split second delay at the lights precipitates a deluge of projected anger. There's the moment of envy when we long to look as good as the model in the magazine, and vow to start running or shed a few pounds. Or there's the moment allegedly described by Gore Vidal, when he remarked, "Every time a friend succeeds something inside me dies." That something is part of himself. He's projected his own desire for success into the friend and watched his desire being taken from him in the process.

Or there's the projections involved in watching the split of celebrities. It's to borrow from their suffering. Just what's being borrowed or projected only you yourself can say. Perhaps it's a substitute for your own loses in love: it's easier to feel sadness for them than to experience your own sadness. Perhaps it's a kind of schadenfreude that the golden couple have fallen, implying perhaps that you have a hidden longing for wealth, beauty or fame. Who knows?

But Wilde's warning, and the mechanism of projection, might also turn the news story into an opportunity. If the Pitt-Jolie saga grabs you, even for a moment, ask yourself why? What's going on when you observe them? What are you borrowing? What are you losing? And can you take your own life, including its suffering, back again?

 

Sunday, August 21 2016

Ayahuasca, Plato, and this summer of drugs

A Sunday Sermon for The Idler

I feel as if this is a summer of drugs - though not of legal highs or familiar recreationals. It's more interesting than that. The drugs many seem drawn to are substances of a particular kind. They are psychedelics: chemicals with meaning. And even entheogens, generators of the divine within. It feels like the doors of perception are opening once more.

Articles in newspapers are charting a new growth industry: ayahuasca tourism. A mesmerizing, award-winning movie, Embrace Of The Serpent, was released in June: it followed two white men and a shaman as they travelled along the Amazon in search of caapi. Then, there was the friend who told me of a new craze: ecstasy evensong - folk who have a smoke and then head for a gothic cathedral to hear the angels sing alongside the choir chanting the service. Even the BBC is running documentaries on psychedelics, one called Getting High for God. It's almost mainstream.

What makes psychedelics different, the research suggests, is that the effects of the experience last - not the trip or high, but the meaning of it. People report meeting love head on, or fear, and it is such a vision, with such an impact, that it subsequently reconfigures their life. Relationships are healed; addictions dropped; God comes alongside.

The trend is a rediscovery. As any advocate of entheogens will tell you, they are tools in an ancient spiritual science, and the antique status is part of the appeal. The modern world is too constrained by its horizontal imagination. It has forgotten that experience goes deeper than logic; transcendence is immanent and all around. Wisdom is something discoverable and knowable, and it's prior to evidence-based facts that can be googled.

I've a lot of sympathy with the view. A man who survived the siege of Sarajevo speaks of his neighbours risking their lives to walk miles to a theatre or church. He imagines the same for those currently trapped in Aleppo. In extremis, we humans don't just seek water or safety. Meaning is a basic need.

But I also wonder whether the summer of drugs is missing something. Put it like this. It's as if the concrete desert of the shopping mall and office leaves many yearning not for a drink but for a flood of mystical experience. They want to be submerged, drowned. They want to be frightened by angelic beings; shocked by the massiveness of reality, break through to the other side.

Plato was a shaman as well as a philosopher (in fact, there was then little difference). He learnt the art of ascending to the heavens, and of dying the little death to know of life. Scholars debate whether he received the knowledge from the Arians of Asia, or the priests in pharaonic Egypt. But it's also clear he developed and transformed the tradition.

He lived during a period in which human consciousness was shifting. In particular, it had become more awake. His contemporaries had a sense of "I" that was absent for Homer's first listeners. The gods were still present in fifth century BC Athens, but human beings were no longer merely their playthings. As Socrates realised, he could chose to follow Apollo's daemon or not.

This meant that communing with the gods became more conscious too. The Pharaohs are often depicted lying asleep as their spirits ascend in the form of Horus, presumably after ingesting a narcotic. Socrates had discovered he could maintain contact with other realms whilst standing upright, during the middle of the day. The evolving powers of the human psyche meant that spiritual insight needn't require comatose or dramatically altered states of mind. There was a more subtle path to follow, which could be traversed by embarking upon a training that was simultaneously therapeutic, moral and enlightening. I suspect the Buddha discovered something similar at about the same time.

There were distinctive advantages to what Plato called the Apollonian way, when contrasted with the wilder ecstasies of the Dionysian. The spiritual was no longer so blinding, but more intelligible; it could be conveyed not only in myths but discussed via images and even reason. Socrates emerged from the cave, he ascended the ladder of love, he spoke not of belief but transmitted gnosis.

In other words, he could discern the meaning of the experience, which in turn nurtured the virtuous spiral of return and deification. In the Symposium, Plato sees Socrates as Eros, the go-between who at first seems only to disrupt and disturb, like Dionysus; but shows himself more fully as Apollonian - meaning unified - as good, beautiful and true.

This path is not about being out-of-it, or even touchingly dazed. Its entheogenic power is gentle, and legal. It's felt in the delicate shifts of consciousness that accompany poetry, music, movement, an "Aha!" moment. These can be known all day, every day. The Stoics made a virtue out of discerning the divine pulse even whilst buying cabbages in the marketplace.

But it's a longer route. It asks for more discipline. It's a practice rather than a trip. The investment, though, pays back in a life experienced intensely not via fading peaks but a steady presence. It has moments of riotous flight, but values more the inner light, the still voice.

And it'll be available in September, as the days lengthen, as worldly demands stop the freedom of festivals; after this summer of drugs.

 

Tuesday, August 16 2016

The Meaning of Rituals

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the meaning of rituals.

Human life is full of rituals, from shaking hands to venerating relics. But how do rituals work, how do they convey meaning?

We discuss how rituals connect us with people who have done them before, using Rupert's concept of morphic resonance. Rituals build up the collective memory and, be they religious or secular, are one means by which we can access an aspect of life that lasts over time.

The conversation explores how rituals bring the sense of the past into the present, touch us in embodied as well as imaginative ways, and convert spaces into sacred places. They explore examples from the foundational rituals of social groups to the rituals of psychotherapy which can bring back memories of the past.

 

Friday, August 5 2016

Swapping psalms for popsongs

Available as a podcast!

 

Sunday, July 24 2016

The meaning of megalithic peckers and crevasses

Phalluses adorned the ancient world. Over-sized erections were everywhere.

Instead of street signs, the Greeks placed monumental penises at road corners. Instead of door buzzers, Romans hung tintinnabulum - phallic figures decked with bells. Instead of decorating temple walls with instructive pictures, the Egyptians carved strutting, ithyphallic gods into the stone.

Erotic symbols, inscriptions and paintings so filled the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, that when the towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius were first uncovered, hundreds of these items were squirrelled away to save embarrassed modern eyes. The British Museum had a room for obscene artifacts: the Secretum.

To penises you can add symbolic vulvas and wombs, in the form of wells and caves, passages and grottos - dark spaces to be dipped into or entered. And such representations are not only found in Europe. They're widespread in India, in the lingam and the imagery of Shiva, and elsewhere. They're primitive, earthy and universal.

And yet, it's very hard for us today to sense why our forebears put gods like Priapus in the hallway; why they painted lovers in flagrante on their drinking cups; why they prized fine sculptures depicting gods copulating with goats. They didn't even hide them from their children.

The seemingly pornographic tone of the ancient world struck me whilst holidaying in Ireland. We'd travelled to the Celtic isle to search out holy sites. What I'd not expected was the prevalence of thrusting columns and ritual crevasses in sacred places. They clearly conveyed the ancient fascination. The Hill of Tara is capped by a megalithic pecker. The so-called passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth invite you in, if you dare. It's not hard to see links between the pre-Christian imagery and the iconic symbol of Ireland's medieval period: the nation's numerous, magnificent high crosses that stand up in the sky.

It's as if we've lost the imaginative equipment to relate to these shapes in ways that must, once, have come spontaneously, naturally. Instead, biology reduces them to pudenda, functional organs evolved for sexual reproduction. Or we see them in the light of the sexual revolution, evoking the promise of light-hearted pleasure. But there must have been more to erotics back then.

Take the Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius. Written in the second century AD, it's the story of Lucius's metamorphosis into a donkey, through wizardry, and his return to human form by the power of Isis. Whilst an ass, he sees many things and undergoes numerous adventures, including a love-affair with a lady who seduces him. In fact, she is so impressed by the donkey's amatory capabilities that she puts him on display. Lucius feels degraded and escapes. The story was often told and illustrated in the ancient world, but are we to assume, simply, that Roman men found tales of women mounting male animals irresistibly exciting? The imagery was not for private titillation, sold in brown paper bags.

Maybe an imaginative, enriching link back can be found in another work by Apuleius, entitled On the God of Socrates. It's here that a famous proverb first appears, "familiarity breeds contempt". And the treatise is, in a way, about how the familiar can be defamiliarized, and so reveal something unexpected, expansive and new. It's what Socrates' god did for him. Lucius' tale of becoming a donkey achieved that goal too. The vantage point of the ass releases him from being the ass that human beings so often are, or at least can be. It's an initiation into a higher conception of experience and possibilities, hence the inclusion of the mystery rites of Isis. Lucius is born again.

Erotics must have spoken to the ancient mind in such a way. It was not just about the sexual - or at least, the familiar forms by being embraced or entered would convey a dynamic that was not only reproductive and pleasurable, but transformative. The stone phallus, for example, expresses a vitality that links to the sky. The standing stone looks like a giant pin between the heavens and the earth. They reach for the gods.

No doubt the deployment of them was also superstitious. The ringing of the tintinnabulum in the wind, or when touched, must have felt reassuring. The Hermes that stood on street corners must have offered protection against the evil eye that monitors your every turn. But that was only the beginning of it. Surely, the sacred womb was not just a place to hide but an origin from which to be reborn? Surely, the phallus conveyed a pronounced, active energy? Next time you see one, hug it and see! The thrust might keep devils at bay, but only because it invokes stronger forces for good.

But there is a twist that the erotic images present. Their good could only be known by the risk of being engulfed, consumed, penetrated, invaded. The modern writer who understands this element is Georges Bataille, the French author of the Erotism: Death and Sensuality. For Bataille, the erotic is that which upsets us. It is not natural: sex is natural, but the meaning human beings load onto the sexual lifts the biological into the imaginative and spiritual.

Bataille is like Freud who, contrary to the popular characterization, did not reduce everything to sex, but precisely the opposite. He realised that for human beings, there is no such thing as pure sex. Such acts are always already saturated with desire - the desire to conquer, submit, connect, experience, live, die.

To put it another way, the erotic is sacramental. These artifacts make hidden meanings manifest. Familiarity breeds contempt, remarks Apuleius, as happens when we moderns snigger at our forebears' apparent obsessions. Do laugh, but do also sense the deeper energy they release.

For when we only see sex, and not symbol, we lose touch with an enchanted side of life. It's a dimension found not only on mountaintops and in temples. It can be felt in the portals of doorways, or in the direction we chose when we make a turn on the street.

 

Friday, July 22 2016

Philosophy Slam live!

Robert Rowland Smith and I took our philosophy slam to the Camden Comedy Club, where the audience, supercharged by the wonderful Pippa Evans, threw out words and ideas for us to riff on.

Click here to listen to what happened...

 

Monday, July 11 2016

Can there be a secular Buddhism?

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the emergence of secular Buddhism.

Until relatively recently, Buddhism was a specialist interest in the west. Now, secular forms of Buddhism, in the shape of mindfulness meditation, are even available on the NHS. One of the leading advocates of secular forms of Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor, is in search of the historical Buddha, arguing that many of the beliefs of traditional Buddhists, such as reincarnation, are unnecessary accretions.

So we ask what is lost when Buddhism is stripped of its devotional and metaphysical elements? Might the historical Buddha be found? And can there really be a materialist form of Buddhism, which is nothing if not a training in that most materially inexplicable feature of existence, consciousness?

 

Sunday, June 26 2016

The soul of Europe

A Sunday Sermon for The Idler.

I voted Remain. I believe Leave is a mistake. But the UK is now in a new place. The ground has shifted. Or has it?

There are steadier links that haven't changed. They are older than the EU. And they might assist us by reminding us of these islands' happier roots in Europe. In fact, I'm beginning half to hope that the removal of the promise of cheaper German washing-machines and Spanish holidays could release us to want deeper connections: the cultural and spiritual wellsprings of our union.

Move in your mind to the other side of Europe, to the sunny eastern end of the blue Mediterranean, and think of one of the continent's most successful creations: the Corinthian column. Discovered in the 5th century BC, in ancient Greece, no city or town is now complete without one. And they're worth contemplating for the spirit they convey, something of the soul of Europe.

The Corinthian capital's acanthus leaves spring up from a high votive basket. They stand for life pushing up from the soil. Hence, a Corinthian column does not support its load, like its Doric cousin, but elevates it. Think of the West End of St Paul's cathedral: its portico does not rest on stone leaves, it floats above them, apparently lighter than air. Or think of Nelson on his column: he becomes god-like, lifted into a heavenly realm.

The Corinthian capital invites us to look up, to reach out, to grow. It speaks of virtue in action, not mere utility: nobility is the Corinthian capital of civil order, wrote Edmund Burke. The Corinthian column remembers that the best architecture is "frozen music", not boxes in glass: its fluting holds an echo of the silent melody that the natural world conveys. Ancient Greece first invited us to strive for double vision, as possessed by William Blake, that "inward eye" which can feel the soul of life and politics, and help us contain edgy gut instincts.

Plato operationalized this aspiration for Europeans by being the first to champion education, and the skills required not to survive but flourish. He advocated it not only for freemen, as the Athenian democracy had assumed, but for women and slaves too. He initiated the long struggle that opened people's minds to the spiritual worth of individuals, and how that matters more than birth or status.

England's greatest son, Shakespeare, made Plato's vocation his own. His history plays are meditations on the meaning of turbulent times. Remember Falstaff and Hal. I reckon* Falstaff stands for the English soul when it loses its focus. Sack replaces spirit. "What is honour? a word... What is that honour? air," Falstaff sneers. He is lost to distractions; fears for himself; celebrates by jeering.

Little wonder that Hal has to banish him to establish a kingdom of friendship. It's a vision that moves England from the regimented feudalism of Richard II, with its gap between landed and poor, to the freedom of Henry V, in which "English may as French, French Englishmen, Receive each other."

Higher vision always runs the risks of hubris, and nationalism. It's no coincidence that Sisyphus was the first king of Corinth. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, depicts him as the political type who, desiring power for power's sake, is fated to meaningless victories and defeats - a lifetime rolling the boulder again to the top of the hill.

But another English Platonist, Thomas Traherne, understood that the European experiment in vision will not, finally, let us down - and he lived through the blood-letting of the English civil war. What he realised is that fulfillment doesn't originate in economics. Happiness doesn't necessarily follow institutional union. Rather, liberation comes when we act as if our souls see "The very brightness of Eternity; For Man to Act even in the Wilderness, As if he did those Sovereign Joys possess."

Only those joys offer us personal sovereignty, because they link us to the place that's truly our home. Such is the indigenous spirituality of Europe. It belongs to no-one, and is ours each to know. Like the acanthus leaves, it springs up from the ground of our being, and draws us towards a more subtle union.

*With thanks to a recent lecture by Valentine Gerlier

 

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