Tuesday, September 17 2013

Ideas of power at the BBC

I'm enjoying The Ideas That Make Us programmes on BBC Radio 4, though struck again (like the series on Noise) by how they are shaped by a materialism and power agenda.

So, concludes Bettany Hughes in prog 1, ideas are born in our synapses. Is that so obvious - how an idea might spring from an electro-chemical exchange? Why isn't that questioned?

Or in prog 2, she thinks about fame as desirable because it allows for the successful exercise of power. Maybe fame is a misdirected longing for the eternal - which is what I think Plato thought.

Maybe the agenda will shift as the series progresses...


Tuesday, July 23 2013

The Brains Behind Spirituality

The new RSA Journal features an essay outlining the intellectual context for a new project. I think it's a significant one, examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspective, practice and experience. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large. I'd recommend a read.


A way to understand the power of myth

Dialogue is a great magazine that helps resource schools in the teaching of A-level religious studies. I write for it, and this is an excerpt from a piece in the current issue, on the power of myth. I try to draw an analogy with the power of words...

How do words work? Well, there is one theory of language that understands words operating on five different levels. (I've read about it in association with the ideas of the psychotherapist Ignacio Matte Blanco.)

First, unsurprisingly, is the literal level. Here, words or phrases have a straightforward meaning. If, for example, I utter, "I am a tiger", that can be treated as an empirical statement. It is either true or false, accurate or inaccurate. That is the way the literal level of language operates.

A second level is the analogical. Here, the literal meaning is eclipsed in favour of something more subtle that seeks expression. For example, consider this proverb: "Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep." To understand this phrase you have to sit with it for a while and contemplate what it might be suggesting. Presumably, the proverb is implying that there is something about the way tigers live that is good for humans too. Perhaps it is their courage, their independence, their stealth. What is quite clear is that the proverb is not advising you to go and dwell in the Bengali jungle and attempt to kill monkeys with your nails and teeth. To read the proverb in that literal way would destroy the meaning, as well as being ridiculous.

The third level is the metaphorical. It takes us down another rung of the ladder into a deeper meaning again. William Blake's famous poem, The Tyger, provides us with a tiger example that works at this level. He writes that the tiger burns bright, displays a "fearful symmetry", has fire in its eyes. So, asks Blake, what "immortal hand or eye" made such a creature? What work is displayed in such beautiful menace? Who is mirrored in the fire behind the tiger's eyes? The answer is God. The tiger becomes a metaphor for God and by contemplating the tiger the reader of the poem might gain a fresh sense of what the psalmist calls, "the fear of the Lord". That is the genius of Blake's verse.

The interesting thing about the metaphorical level is that it can't be described in a literal way at all. God is not the fire in the tiger's eye. Empirically speaking, there is no fire in the tiger's eyes, let alone divinity. God is not even like the fire in the tiger's eye, as if the meaning might be analogical: God does not flicker, is not coloured orange, does not generate thermal heat. And yet, somehow the image opens up something of the divine to us. To try to translate the metaphor into more straightforward language loses that possibility. The metaphor has to work on its own terms.

We come to the fourth level, and here things go mad. At this level, all meaning breaks down, even the metaphorical. It is a use of language that is hard to make any sense of. Instead, words deployed in this way provoke a sense of loss or terror, disturbance or dislocation. Take the word "tiger" again. It might be used in this fourth way by someone who was suffering from a psychotic episode. "I am a tiger!" they might yell or scream in a panic of craziness. The phrase would serve to inject into you something of their terror and dread. The communication is emotional not rational. In that sense, there is no meaning to be made of it. Instead, it conveys a side of life that is perhaps just beneath the surface for most of us some of the time. It is an experience that has to be survived as much as understood.

Then finally, beneath the troubled waters of this fourth level, lies a fifth. Its meanings are calm and unifying, though equally resistant to easy interpretation. This is the deepest sense in which language can be used. It is the one associated with mystery. To keep to our example one more time, the story of the Buddha and the tiger comes to mind. It tells of the day the Buddha, in a previous life, took pity on a hungry tigress. She was unable to feed her cubs and so the Buddha lay down in front of her, wounded himself, and sacrificed his life for hers.

The striking quality of the story is its peacefulness. It is an account of a man being killed by a wild animal, and yet it conveys a sense of equanimity. It can be read in many ways, of course. But perhaps part of what it is suggesting is the oneness of existence. It is saying that, in a sense, the Buddha's life was worth no more than the life of the tiger and her cubs. He simply passed life on. Maybe it is not too fanciful to imagine that the Buddha murmured, "I am the tiger", as he lay down before her. He did not mean it in a literal or mad way, but as a mystic. The story attempts to capture something of the unity of things, the lively being that flows through all sentient creatures.

Again, this meaning cannot be translated into back up the higher levels. Read as a literal story it would provoke moral outrage. Of course the life of the man is worth more than that of the tiger! If the story is to carry any insight at all, and if that insight is to be experienced, the story must be allowed to tell itself, in its own terms. It must be allowed to speak from the fifth level of meaning.

This is an article about myth, which comes from muthos, the Greek word for story. I've offered a long introduction, but I hope you get the point. In everyday speech, the word myth has come to mean a fabrication, a false belief, an idealized but ridiculous conception. I think that this must be because the literal has gained the upper hand in the modern world, presumably because the scientific and empirical way of engaging with life has become so powerful. My argument is not against the value of the literal: being able to speak factually and accurately is often crucial, useful and illuminating. But it does seem to me to be a profound loss when we place so much faith on the literal that we lose sight of the other ways that words can be used - the analogical, the metaphorical, the mad and the mystical. Only then do myths come to be regarded as colourful but silly fabrications, as the conveyors not of deeper meaning but false beliefs.


Myths use words and phrases in all of the five senses that we have discussed. Part of their joy is the way they can slip and slide across levels of meaning. Take the story of the Buddha and the tigress. There is, in fact, a literal sense in which the life of the tiger and the man are one and the same. Evolution suggests that all mammalian life on Earth originates from a common source. But whilst that is scientifically accurate, it is a rather concrete way to read the story, humanly speaking. The theme of sacrifice feels as if it carries more weight. That would be to treat the story analogically: we too might sacrifice something of ourselves for the next generation like the Buddha. Or there is the metaphorical that draws attention to the kind of man the Buddha was. He loved life, else he would not have cared to save the cubs, but he was not attached to life and so could offer his own life up without panic or struggle. We might sit with life and death in the same way, the story suggests.

The mad side of the story is evident too. Imagine being an onlooker. To watch this event would have been shocking. It would have stuck in your mind like a barbed thorn. What a mix of folly, horror and excitement!

Then, there is the mystery, which we've discussed.

To put it another way, myths use language in order that we might explore multiple aspects of life. The great advantage that myths have is that they, generally, tell stories that are gripping and archetypal. This helps to keep the analysis alive: the myth lives within you in a way that the factual cannot. As it points to what is not yet understood, or what will never be fully comprehended, the story's vitality is not lessened in the telling and retelling. Indeed, it deepens with repeating as the levels reveal themselves.


Tuesday, July 16 2013

Sheldrake on the evolution of consciousness

Rupert Sheldrake and I discuss the evolution of consciousness in this latest of our exchanges, available as a podcast or iTunes.

(Image: Oliver Spalt)


Friday, July 12 2013

Philosophy and true freedom of speech

This short thought has gone up on The Day website, the online newspaper for schools...

Philosophy struggles to find time in schools. This is probably partly the fault of contemporary Anglo-American philosophers. On their watch, the subject has come to feel dry, abstract and impenetrable to many on the outside. But it is also because, as a culture, we have lost touch with some of the key educational benefits of philosophy, not least of which is that young people love it.

They enjoy philosophy because it gives them a chance to explore, develop and air their own views. To put it another way, philosophy is not about what to think, but how to think. And thinking well – which ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato believed is the product of an educated heart as well as head – is exhilarating because it makes for our flourishing. Life is bigger as a result.

I think this is because really good philosophy, the kind that will appeal to students, is not just about reason and logic. They are important qualities, but thinking rationally is not the main aim of philosophy, in my view. Rather, the ability to sort through what you think serves a greater purpose.

If you can learn how to think freely through the practice of philosophy then true freedom of speech can be yours.

The ability to speak freely is harder than it might first seem. The ability to communicate with clarity is one component, the element with which rational thinking can help. To be able to offer three or four reasons for your point of view is far more persuasive, and personally satisfying, then huffing and insisting that such and such is just what you think.

But also, to speak freely, you have got to have discovered what you think about something to start with. That means having the inner freedom to explore possibilities. I have found that a number of components go into that process.

First, students need to be able to take risks with what they think. They may not be quite sure at first, and so need to feel encouraged and safe enough to venture a half-formed idea or possibility. Their inner accuser – the debilitating voice that whispers ‘Don't look stupid!’ – can be tamed in the process so that students find a greater liberty to step into the unknown.

Being able to tolerate not knowing is another attribute that philosophy can foster. This is what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, the capacity to be 'in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' The problem with irritable reaching after reason is that it blocks the kind of honesty, openness and patience that discernment properly requires.

A third, related quality that you detect in those who can speak freely is an ability to play with ideas. It is the delight you find in, say, the novels of Lewis Carroll. ‘Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.’ Such sending up of tight, defensive reasoning makes space for the crucial elements of imagination and novelty, creativity and surprise that are the hallmark of free speakers – and of philosophers worth reading.

In short, philosophy is not just about reason. I suspect it might find more time in schools if that became more widely known. The good philosopher is the individual who can take risks, can tolerate uncertainty, can play with ideas. The heart is developed alongside the mind. And of course, such qualities should be central to education.


Tuesday, June 25 2013

Philosophy in 12 Key Steps with Mark Vernon

New at The Idler Academy!

Monday 23rd September – Monday 9th December 2013

‘I never spent Sunday afternoons looking forward to Monday until I joined this course!’

A twelve week crash course in philosophy, ancient and modern, western and eastern, examining key thinkers and key texts.

‘Mark is a great teacher who helps to bring clarity to some potentially very intimidating subjects.’

New to this course: - Read three key texts! - Explore Eastern philosophy! - Shine a light on the so-called dark ages!

1. Monday 23rd September 2013

Before Socrates: the birth of Western thought

We will consider the thought of individuals from Thales, sometimes called the father of philosophy, to the big hitters Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides, who argued over whether everything is in a state of flux or is, ultimately, one. The surviving texts of these philosophers are fragmentary but we can build up a fascinating picture of their extraordinary take on the world, ideas that have echoed across the centuries to our own day.

2. Monday 30th September 2013

Plato and Aristotle: the disciples of Socrates

Socrates is arguably the most influential figure in western philosophy. The richest picture of him comes to us via Plato, from the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living, to that knowing that he knows little or nothing. What are his great insights? Why is he so important? Plato taught Aristotle with whom we ask further questions. How to be happy? What does it mean to have a friend? How should we organise society so as to flourish?

3. Monday 7th October 2013

Stoicism and Epicureanism: ancient philosophy’s success stories

The Stoics offered probably the most successful practical philosophy of life right up to the Christian period. Notions about ‘going with the flow’ and challenging one’s emotions can be traced back to Stoic ideas. Second most successful was Epicureanism, a kind of hedonism though one that severely critiques our consumer way of life. The trick, they thought, is to enjoy small pleasures rather than become addicted to ever bigger, unsustainable highs and kicks.

4. Monday 14th October 2013

Immanuel Kant, politics and the Enlightenment

After Descartes two different attitudes towards the world took root. Empiricism claimed that only the senses could be trusted as a source of knowledge. Idealism argued that our mental construction of the world must come first. Kant is the towering figure of the Enlightenment, attempting to outline the limits of human knowledge. His essays, What Is Enlightenment?, answers with the clarion call to dare to know for yourself. Though he was also a conservative figure, arguing that society must decide on truth, as well as seeking to synthesis empirical and idealist assumptions.

5. Monday 21st October 2013

Karl Popper and the philosophy of science

Modern science is indisputably one of humankind’s most powerful inventions, but just what it discovers and how it works is widely contested. Popper is a crucial figure in this debate, with his measure of falsifiability. He also wrote very well about history and Darwinism. We will also consider Thomas Kuhn, and the notion of paradigm shifts, and other contemporary interpretations. This evening will help you to get a grip on what science can and can’t address, equipping you for living in a scientific age.

6. Monday 28th October 2013

Friedrich Nietzsche and philosophies of the self

In this session, we cast an eye towards what is known as continental philosophy, which is generally as interested in questions of how to live alongside those of analytic philosophy’s how can we know. Some regard Nietzsche as the most important philosopher of the last century or so. A psychologist and poet too, he never fails to provoke. Foucault provides another stimulating way into this different world. A disciple of Nietzsche, theorist of the self and sexuality, his ideas have also percolated very widely.

7. Monday 4th November 2013

Eastern philosophy today: Indian idealism and Buddhism

Recent philosophy in the West has been dominated by various forms of scientific materialism, which is perhaps why the ancient systems of India are of growing interesting. They offer an idealist conceptions of things, the notion that mind is the fundamental way in which we relate to the cosmos. Buddhist thought represents another development of this approach, a practical philosophy that seeks to address the problem of suffering and discontent, simultaneously raising key questions about the nature of the self and how to live.

8. Monday 11th November 2013

Eastern philosophy today: Confucianism and Taoism

The great philosophical systems of China used to be curiosities for a few students of the Far East. Today, their impact can be felt on lives in the West, partly as a result of globalisation, partly as a result of growing interest in non-Christian spirituality. We will examine the basics of Confucianism and Taoism, have a brief look at some of the key texts, and origins. There will be time to discuss their relevance today.

9. Monday 18th November 2013

Medieval philosophy today: Plotinus and Thomas Aquinas

Although, the medieval period is known as the dark ages, it produced some of the greatest philosophers of all time. Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy was a best-selling for centuries, teaching that a right mind and heart can withstand all the pains of fate. And then came Thomas Aquinas, a monk in the new hippy order of Dominicans, whose interpretation of Aristotle is marked by genuine genius. His insights on the good life, on human psychology and on God, are still important today.

10. Monday 25th November 2013

Going deeper with a key text: Plato’s Symposium

It is said that sometime in 416BC, a group of notable Athenians, not least Socrates, sat down to discuss love. That’s Plato’s conceit, in his Symposium – one of those texts that you will recognise has influenced the way you think about love and beauty, truth and the highest vision to which mortals can aspire. It is a text to which you can return time and time again and always discover sometime new. We will do so in this reading-group style symposium.

'11. Monday 2nd December 2013''

Going deeper with a key text: Descartes’ Meditations

Descartes personal and highly readable reflection on what it is to be human stands on the threshold of a new way of being in the world, now called being modern. It turns doubt on itself to see what can be known for certain, and controversially concludes, ‘I think therefore I am’. Descartes is widely held responsible for mind/body dualism. In this symposium we will look his book, which he regarded as a spiritual reflection, and at what it means to live in his shadow.

12. Monday 9th December 2013

Going deeper with a key text: William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience

Delivered as lectures, this set of reflections on religious experience have not really been beaten in the one hundred years since their publication. James – the brother of the novelist Henry – is a brilliant writer: witty, insightful, arresting and scholarly in equal measure. He writes in the period before philosophy became separate from theology and psychology, even more so from spirituality, a change that would have astonished the ancient philosophers. His book offers a way back to integrating these key domains of human interest and concern.

‘It is much better to be talk philosophy than to read it.’

Sign up for all 12 weeks – £300 (2 weeks free), 6 weeks £150 (1 week free) or individual evenings – £30 an evening.


Tuesday, June 18 2013


Feed your mind and body on the Idler Academy’s Foraging and Philosophy weekend.

Your hosts will be Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull, and the weekend takes place at their Exmoor farmhouse.

Over the course of the weekend, you will learn how to forage on beach, moor, hedgerow and woodland with expert Lucia Stuart. You will learn how to identify and also how to prepare and cook wild plants, seaweeds, shellfish and flowers.

During the weekend we will also discuss philosophy and learn about the Epicureans with author Dr Mark Vernon.

We will feast, sing and reflect on the big question: how to live. We will teach you how to bake bread. You will eat well and think well. There will also be the opportunity to sleep a lot.

As well as foraged ingredients, you will sample local Devon cheeses, meats and preserves. And beer.

The house is situated on the spectacular cliffs on the north coast of Devon, close to Woody Bay (pictured).

£325 includes VAT and all talks, cookery lessons, foraging trips, information sheets, exercise book, pencil, two dinners, two lunches, coffee, tea, cakes, signed copy of Tom Hodgkinson’s Brave Old World and a welcoming cocktail.


Sunday, June 9 2013

Quantum mysticism?

A couple of things to consider, if you have noticed how quantum phenomena - like particle entanglement and the role of observers - are often checked, these days, in discussions about spirituality (as if we are entangled, as if consciousness is fundamental...)

First, a discussion between me and Rupert Sheldrake, available as podcast and iTunes, as the latest in our Science Set Free musings: the spiritual uses of science.

Second, a piece published in the Church Times on the validity of the supposed resonances between what bosons get up to and what spiritual beings detect. An excerpt:

A recent poll of physicists and philosophers, conducted by Professor Anton Zeilinger, a physicist who is known for his work on quantum entanglement, reports that the favourite way of understanding what quantum physics means is known as the Copenhagen interpretation. Devised by such luminaries as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, it says that, in spite of the success of the science, it tells us nothing about the way the world is in itself. Objective truth lies permanently behind a veil of ignorance. The paradox of Schrödinger's cat simply highlights what we cannot know, not what we might infer.

The upshot is that all the spiritual speculations are just that: speculations. The science confirms nothing for sure. Appealing to the physics as a source of authority is a mistake. As the Revd Dr John Polkinghorne, the former physics professor who was later ordained priest, has remarked: "Physics is showing the world to be both more supple and subtle, but you need to be careful."

Whether or not the Copenhagen interpretation is itself right, or whether other possibilities might be better, is not likely to be decided any time soon. In the mean time, it seems sensible to be wary of quantum spirituality, when the science is being asked to do more than provide vivid analogies for spiritual realities.

Spirituality should trust its own sources of authority. It is a mistake to reach out to a science that is undecided, and likely to change remarkably fast.


Monday, May 27 2013

Carl Jung by Mark Vernon

Just published, from the Guardian Short's How to believe series

Carl Jung was one of the 20th century’s most significant psychological theorists. He developed concepts we use everyday – introverts and extroverts chief among them. Mark Vernon’s eight-part ebook explores some of Jung’s key ideas and also looks at his relationship with the other giant of the mind – Sigmund Freud.

The How to Believe series of ebooks explores the teachings, philosophies and beliefs of major thinkers and religious texts. In a short, easy-to-access format, leading writers present new understandings of these perennially important ideas.


Thursday, May 16 2013

When did people stop thinking God lives on a cloud?

This piece, on the significance of Honest to God fifty years on, has just gone up at the BBC Magazine website.

People rarely queue around the block to buy a book. And when was the last time a prime minister had to pull rank and ask the publisher to send over a copy as none were otherwise available? It happened in the spring of 1963, fifty years ago. A book called Honest to God appeared on the shelves and caused a storm. Before long, a million copies were sold in 17 languages. The author was a Church of England clergyman, John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich in south London.

A couple of year previously, he had described sex as 'an act of holy communion' in the trial that tried to ban Lady Chatterley's Lover. That caused stir and his book was read partly because it called for a revolution in ethics, particularly on divorce.

But there were deeper shifts in the collective consciousness that found voice in its pages. The Observer newspaper's memorable headline caught it well: "Our Image of God Must Go".

People found that thought a liberation. Sarah Coakley, now a professor at Cambridge University, ended up making theology her career. "(Robinson) was a brilliant educator," she says. "He kept asking us students: 'Why is this important?' 'What matters now?'"

Rob Bell, the American evangelical leader whose congregation is counted in the thousands, feels similarly. "I can't even tell you how much that book affected me," he remarks. He too believes that we need new images of God - ones that enable us to speak of the mystery of everyday experience.

For Robinson, the problem was the belief that we are "down here" and God is "up there", as if sat on a cloud. Science destroys that worldview. Instead, he sought God in life. Similarly, Jesus is an alluring figure not because he saves you from your sins and a wrathful deity, or offers immortality, but because he displays the transforming potential of love.

The bishop was part of a movement known as demythologization, an attempt to re-describe Christianity in terms that make sense to the secular mind. Robinson drew on the philosophy of existentialism and especially the writings of the German-American, Paul Tillich. Tillich described God as the "ground of being", the power that sustains the cosmos in the face of the alternative, nothing. He argued that to be human is to have "ultimate concerns", namely something for which you would not only live, but die.

Robinson and his generation were in thrall to science and felt that religion must change. The same imperative is felt to this day when atheists compare religion to fairytales and believers pen apologetics in response. But I wonder whether this knock-about has actually been a distraction because, on the whole, it seems that people do not live in a demythologized world. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Regular church attendance has declined, yes. But since the 1960s, belief in a "spirit or life force" has doubled, according to British Religion in Numbers. Forty-one percent of us now believe in angels, 53% in an afterlife, and 70% in a soul.

For more evidence, wander into your local bookshop and find the Mind, Body, Spirit section. First, there will be one. Second, it is likely to be larger than history, psychology or biography. Or, note the interest in spiritual practices such as mindfulness meditation, which you can now get on the NHS, or think of the recent BBC TV programme, Pagans and Pilgrims. It visited Britain's holiest places and found that they are thriving.

To the convinced secularist this is likely to be bemusing, even offensive. There should not be "holy places" because a piece of land is just a piece of land. If individuals believe in angels or an afterlife then they must be stupid, sad or deluded.

And yet, look more closely and you will see that science itself promotes the re-enchantment of things. In books and on TV, physicists tell of vast cycles of cosmic death and rebirth. It is wonderful to be part of this majestic universe, they declare. They are right - although according to science alone, the cosmos does not die because it has never lived. Scientifically, the story is neither wonderful nor majestic; it just is. What science is doing is creating a new myth of things - in the proper sense of a story that attempts to convey something amazing we are part of that is really beyond our telling.

In short, there has been a spontaneous rediscovery of the spiritual dimension, if actually it ever died. The tragedy for the church, fifty years after Honest to God, is that many people no longer feel that Sunday worship and the images of God on offer there has much to do with it. This is a problem because religious practices and theological traditions hold a wealth of insights that are needed if the questing is to deepen and grow. They help ground the speculations of New Age thought and offer means of discernment.

For there is something crucial going on in this welter of spiritual experimentation and exploration. We humans are the creatures for whom our own existence is too small for us. We yearn for more, for connection, for meaning. And moreover, we find it. All the scepticism in the world cannot put it down.


Friday, April 26 2013

Honest to God, fifty years on

I've a longish piece in the Church Times, asking what now after 50 years of Honest to God. Linda Woodhead captures the predicament for the C of E, I think:

Honest to God was right in so far as it told its readers that they could explore theologically, too. You need not be a don or a cleric. "It caught the wave of a popular kind of spirituality that empowers the individual, and has grown massively over the last 50 years," Professor Woodhead says. "The movement is fragmented, but can be characterised as ritually experimental and personal, in the sense of wondering how to live life more fully. More people do now believe in God as a spirit or life force than in what Robinson called a personal God 'out there'." But what the Church of England, in particular, has found it hard to do is to integrate new symbols and ritual practices that ground this understanding. "As a consequence, many who follow this new spiritual pathway have left the church in order to do so," Professor Woodhead says.

John Milbank suggests one striking way forward:

The tragedy is that people today clearly sense that the material world has been drained of the spiritual. You see it in the popularity of pilgrimages, New Age festivals, and the appreciation of nature. "It is striking that a kind of remythologisation has been going on while church attendance has been declining," Professor Milbank says. "Instead of Christian minimalism, which doubts everything from angels to the creeds, I'd argue for a Christian maximalism that proposes nothing less than cosmic transformation." This might connect with people's sense of the miraculousness of existence, he says. "Rather than offering a thinned-down moralism, it suggests a way back to the full richness of what the Christian tradition offers."


Thursday, April 25 2013

The Case for Doubt - Mark Vernon on Political Doubt

"Forget that life is enveloped not just by known unknowns but unknown unknowns, and you will fall like Icarus from the sky".

BBC Radio 3, Monday April 29 - 22.45 and online

In the Essay this week, five contributors - journalists Mark Vernon, Madeleine Bunting, Alastair Campbell; scientist Susan Greenfield, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht - make The Case for Doubt - the idea that political, religious, and scientific doubt, even self-doubt, though sometimes troubling, is much more useful and valuable than fixed opinions and beliefs.

In this first Essay on doubt in politics, author and broadcaster Mark Vernon argues that a dislike of doubt in politics implies a loss of faith in politics, and that politicians - for their sake as well as ours - should stop cultivating delusions of omnipotent power.


Friday, April 19 2013

Rob Bell on images of God for today and American evangelicalism, Pt 4

I spoke with Rob Bell Monday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London (pictured above). I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Here's part four of the interview, talking about things from John Robinson to American evangelicalism.

So when you're talking about that it reminds of another one of my questions which is around how... I wonder whether another problem that Christianity has today is that it's become too much an answer and not enough a way. Early Christians sometimes said we are followers of the way, and that's got lost. There's not enough process. It's far too much: here's the answer.

That is, yes, that is huge. The power of Eucharist to me is it moves the centre of gravity from having your intellectual furniture arranged properly, which I think for a lot of people... the thing is you've got to get this stuff right and cognitive assent to the proper things.

Yes, that's another way.

What's interesting about Eucharist is that it moves it to you and I, at a table, in our frailty and humanity being reminded of love and grace and partaking together and in that discovering our connection with each other and the world. That's a living, breathing experience. So I wonder what you're going to see... a baptism. When someone gets up and says, I was a heroin addict and my life was a wreck and I had this rebirth, and they are going to lower me into this water and they are going to raise me back up as a symbol of my new life. Who's going to argue with that? You know what I mean? I wonder if what you're going to see more and more is a reclaiming of these powerful acts because they rescue us from the brain vortex - not that what you think isn't extremely important and doctrines have their vital role - but it is the flesh and blood lived experience that endures.

There is the moment of revelation or the moment of change which is one thing that I'm sure happens...

One of many along the way.

Exactly, because maybe baptism is more like the day you go and see your therapist for the first time, and it's not until four or five years later - and then ten years after that - that you realise what was really going on.

You realise what they were saying to you.

That's one of the problems, we need the process emphasis, I feel. That's why Buddhism is so strong in this country, because it is saying, here's a whole series of exercises and tools and discernments that can take you on a journey.

Yup, I always begin with at least... of all the images that could be used, what the Christian tradition begins with is Jesus calling disciples who are students. So a student fundamentally begins from a posture of humility, with a sense of expectation and lots of capacity for surprise because you never know what might be just around the corner. And you're expectations are that you're going to be learning. So that is the fundamental posture of the whole thing, is if you knew everything then you would be the master. You are not the master. I'm shocked by how many people, when I say, wait, wait, wait. I don't know what you're thinking but I begin with this image of a disciple or a student.

So I am learning this way, and for Jesus this way was not esoteric or ambiguous. It was, I want to teach you how to worry less, how to be less judgmental, how to be more generous, how to be more loving of your enemies, how to stand in solidarity with people in their suffering. I'm learning how to live a way that is to me the best way, it's compelling, it's worth whatever cost or sacrifice comes with it. It's just a much more healthy framing of what this thing is. And of course, to be a student you trust the master. Sure. And that will have a personal dimension to it. I think you're completely right. Then process becomes natural. And of course, I'll always be growing, and learning, and expanding, and changing, and evolving. That shouldn't be a surprise.

I'm pushing on because I'm conscious of the time.

By the way, I have lots of interviews where the interviewer says, you know: you've grown. As I read your books, you know you've really grown. And I'm kinda of, is that - how is that a story that someone who is apparently a spiritual leader, which is kind of the point of spiritual institutions is that they would help you grows, is that a leader grows - how messed up is it that, that's a story!.

Well, it's probably the media's fault in large part.

Hey, you know what: you've grown! (He laughs.)

A bit more of a journalistic question. What images of God really work today? And I ask this because I notice that in the book you make a lot of spirit, ruach, breath - this are the kind of images. Not father, I don't think father mentioned once.

Yes, there is. There's a thing on language, I talk about father.

OK. I beg your pardon. The question I was going to ask was, this month is the 50th anniversary of the book Honest to God, which was a huge seller in this country.

I can't even tell you how much that book affected me.

Oh right, well how interesting because the front cover of the Observer newspaper which really got the book selling was, Our Images of God Have Got To Go. And it was particularly God the Father, and this felt like a liberation to people to be able to talk about other images of God. So what images of God work and maybe also how did that particular book speak to you?

There's like three questions there and they are all awesome. This man knows John Robinson which is just... OK.

Oh, oh! If it is free to think of other images that is wonderful but I don't think you have to toss father and here's why. A friend of mine just wrote a book and I just read the manuscript and he's a good friend of mine but I'd never actually heard his full story. His father abandoned him when he was young and his mother married a man who raised him. And later in life, maybe in his twenties, he went looking for his biological father. And found his biological father who wrote him a letter and said, I want nothing to do with you - after they'd met and interacted. I disavow being your father. Like one of those just bone crunching, I will not be your father from this time forward, I do not want to be known as your father. And this guy's like a great - my friend - but he literally says the image of God the father: I cannot tell you how helpful it is to my growth and psyche to imagine the love that I sort of long for from a biological father. How much of my healing has come from this image.

Flipside is there's a writer named Renée Altson who begins her book by talking about how she grew up in a family which wasn't healthy. And she says, by that I mean my father used to sing the Lord's prayer while he raped me.

So a lot of it is simply context. It's interesting to me in the Catholic church, that is male run, how popular mother Mary is. It's almost like if you don't give me a sacred feminine, we'll go find one. You know what I mean? Because of a divine image we can relate to.

Actually when people ask me what's your first thing that comes to mind (when I think about God): song - a song you're hearing that you want to hear louder. So if it's not an old man in the sky is it a whatever in the shy... it's actually more sonic. And a friend of mine who's a really good musician in Nashville, he thinks that the best metaphor for Trinity is three-part harmony, because it's tonal and the tones can stack on top of each other and you can hear them all the same, but they sound the best altogether. You know what I mean? It's funny to me that sound... for me personally that's the first thing that jumps to mind.

What did John Robinson's book, Honest To God, mean to you?

Oh my word! Well. I had been saying a few things, and a friend of mine who had been visiting from out of town said - he had read Honest to God and said... I think when he puts Tillich about the Ground of our Being that was the first time I'd seen clearly articulated my sense of needing people who did not believe in God but had a profound sense of justice or a profound appreciation for beauty - who did have these things that they were very dogmatic and convinced of. And I'm like wait, wait, wait - I know this category of things, you still believe it is best to be generous, and you still believe we should be kind, and you have a profound sense that we should care for the Earth. So you have all these things within you that are deeply held convictions: I think those things are actually connected with this word that you want nothing to do with. You are very doubtful about this, but you have not doubts about these things.

Secondly, his ordinary holiness in the Eucharist heightening our senses to the depth and the common. When a writer puts language to something that you have intuitively had the sense of... wait: this isn't about getting us somewhere else. This is about our growing awareness of this is a meal but it's more than a meal. I probably first read him when my oldest son was a couple of years old, and his birth, and my second son's birth, and my sense that my boys were just little sacks of blood and bones, and yet they were so much more. You know what I mean? It's like standing in the hospital holding my newborn sons was like somehow connecting me with the universe. Like there is depth to these little bundles that I can't even put language too. And each day with them somehow opens me up to the world in ways I never could explain.

So I think that's where his book, when he started talking about the depths and the commons. Oh, and then as a pastor, I kept realising, I think my job here isn't to fabricate an experience that will somehow give them this thing to get them to next Sunday. My job here is to help them see what's been right in front of them the whole time. So it's rooted to my own sense of I think I'm trying to do something else here.

Yes. Thank you. One last question, a bit journalistic as well. You know that American evangelicalism seems like a most peculiar thing in this country. Often rather frightening and terrifying.

It terrifies me too. Crazy.

How would you assess the state of American evangelicalism today, and to give that a bit more focus, I think you recently made some comments about same-sex marriage, in relation to that issue... um, what was the response from the 90% of evangelicals or whatever it is that would find that deeply offensive and problematic?

I've no idea. I don't Google my name. If evangelical originally was a term used by the first Christians to refer to the good news, this buoyant, joyous announcement that God's grace is real, that we can serve each other, and that sacrificial love trumps coercive military violence... I mean this was essentially a Roman propaganda term that these first Christians took and the military superpower that crushed everybody unless you confess that Caesar is Lord, and if you don't you get hung from these stakes. So the Roman empire goes around and we make you a province of Rome and we tax you to build bigger armies so we can crush more people. So the force of military violence is the way the world is made peaceful. Which always depends upon which end of the sword you are on. This little ragtag of people come along, and they're Jew and Gentile and slave, it's a crazy group of people from all walks of life. And they come along and say: oh, Jesus is Lord, and we've got good news. And our good news is about sacrificial love.

So, if I was your therapist now I'd wonder whether you are making an association between the Roman military and the very conservative, bad evangelicals. (Laughs)

Well, I would begin contextually with these first Christians who used this good news, this evangelical word, to say, there's a better way. And it's through serving, it's through humbly giving up yourself and sacrificing and joining the least of these, which to me is just a ... if that's what we're talking about when we use the word evangelical, then I'm in!

Let me just ask the same question in a different way. People like me look to people like you, hoping you're doing something to rescue American evangelicalism from what look like horrors so often. Do you have a sense of that at all? I take the point that you don't Google your name, but do you have a sense of what you stand for in the midst of American evangelicalism?

Um. People are very kind and encouraging and they say really, really nice things, so I'm overwhelmed with that.

Secondly, do you know how many evangelical leaders say things to me like, hey I love what you're doing, but I can't publically say it or I'll get fired? So when people who are known for being part of a movement start saying, I have real questions about this and I love what you're doing, elements of that movement are in trouble.

I think we have a large number of people in America who have evangelical roots who are more alive spiritually than ever, and more bouyant and hopeful about the future, like me. And we are grateful for our roots but we have rethought lots of things and we are more thrilled than every about where we are headed, and we are committed to telling the good news. And that sort of fearful, angry whatever rhetoric simply isn't compelling. And I actually think it is less... people... when people are scared they're louder. You generally yell fire in a theatre, you don't whisper it, if you're scared. I think it's a bit out of proportion.

I think that's a good place to end. Thank you.


Thursday, April 18 2013

Rob Bell on a Jesus for the 21st century: the 'New Age' sage, Pt3

I spoke with Rob Bell Monday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London (pictured above). I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Here's part three of the interview, which I think gets to the heart of the new book.

I'm going to move you on, watching the time. Coming to the person of Jesus. The book is about what images of God work, how can we speak about God today. And I am wondering whether part of what you're arguing in the book is that we need what is sometimes called the wisdom Jesus or the mystery Jesus, a tradition that's struggled in Christianity because of associations with gnosticism.

Right, right.

The Jesus who speaks in this book of yours does seem to be the one who is the kind of sage, who tells the stories or has the phrases that can unlock something, almost psychologically, so that it helps you to see depth. I felt there's a lot of psychology, depth psychology you might say in the book, in between the lines.

And you are totally correct. This is a stream that a lot of people aren't familiar with. And, the Matthew 25, and the sheep and the goats and they get separated, and when you were hungry, and when you were thirsty, and when you were naked. This story that Jesus tells somehow manages in a lot of circles to be about the end of the world, or judgment, or heaven and hell, but the story seems to me to be about Jesus saying, my people are the kind who are more and more able to see the divine presence in every interaction. Which is a... now that to me is a... now that's powerful, that's helpful. Do ya know what I mean? Maybe in some ways what he is trying to say is, I'm trying to teach you about the divine presence in all your encounters, because it will make your life much more interesting, trust me.

You're correct. Jesus the wisdom teacher, which there's a long tradition of in the Jewish tradition, Jesus the mystic who comes to join you in... these are streams. You're the first person who's picked up on that, and I love it.

Then, there's the question for me, and this is part of the worried Christian in me: does Jesus the person and the emphasis on a direct relationship with Jesus the person, actually limit that Jesus the logos, you might say, that Jesus who is the current that runs through all things, in John's gospel?

Paul says, at one point, he holds all things together, and John speaks of this divine logos through which all things have come to be. What's funny if you actually quote these verses is that there are a number of people from the Christian tradition who are like, wait, wait, wait. Hold on! But when Paul says he holds all things together, or he's reconciling all things. God is reconciling all things on heaven and on earth, these are extremely expansive. Jesus speaks in Matthew 19 of the renewal of all things. These are extremely expansive, broad... I don't know what language you'd use. I mean if you talk about a divine energy that flows through all things, bringing them to their rightful place, or integrating them, people sort of, uh? But I'm not making this up. These first Christians were clearly tapped into that. This Jesus somehow spoke to them about the nature of the universe.

It's Paul's cosmic Christ.

Yes. His cosmic Christ that grace and this mystery permeates and is somehow hidden in all creation which in America, if you read those verses, people would be like, no wait. This is New Age. (He laughs.) I sometimes wonder if people don't engage with certain terms because they can't divorce those terms from some other vaguely similar realm that they heard about, and they say all that's about is that, and it's not.

So how does this sit alongside the person Jesus who, I may get this wrong, but in the evangelical tradition you almost have a one-on-one relationship with?

A phrase he never used, interestingly enough. I mean it's interesting that the phrase personal relationship is not in the Bible, that particular phrase. Right there, we've already added a layer of our own interpretation of, we take all of these different verses and what that means is you've got to have a personal relationship. He does say, people come follow me. And I do as a Christian have a profound sense that each day I'm invited to follow him, I'm invited to trust, I'm invited to surrender, I'm invited to confess. And that's a very deeply personal thing.

And something happens when... ah, well, I just met a guy last week who said, I went to church my whole life and I was actually a very bad man, I wasn't a good father. And about a year ago, all of a sudden it became real. I became aware of love. And I became aware of the sense that life matters and that I'm the recipient of a gift and I had a sense of God's love for me expressed in Jesus, and that I was to follow. And my relationship with my son has been restored, and I'm a totally different person. And he's a very tender, humble man as he's telling me this story. But whatever that is, that's personal.


He said, I went to church - he's Latin American - and the cultural landscape that I grew up in, and he went Saturday nights or whatever time he would go, that's what we did. He's probably 50, mid-50s. And he said, about a year ago, it suddenly meant something to me it had never meant. So whatever baggage is associated with these sorts of terms, I would say that's somebody for whom this all became very personal, real and present.

More tomorrow, on Christianity today...


Wednesday, April 17 2013

Rob Bell on crack Christianity, Pt 2

I spoke with Rob Bell Monday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London (pictured above). I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Here's part two of the interview.

Moving on. I'm very persuaded by the line you have in the book that we live in a world that finds it very hard to see things at depth. Whether it's distractions, we're defended against it, our loss of the ability to talk about what we don't understand - the apophatic in traditional theology. But I wonder about wonder. Wonder is all over the science world. Any popular article or programme about science majors on wonder. But I wonder where we go from there? Or whether it just leaves us with what someone called the rhetoric of intensity, that just goes for more and more peak experiences, playing on the wonder, but it doesn't really take us anywhere. This is a worry that I would have about Christianity. A lot of the growth in Christianity does seem to me to be playing on the peak experience and you have to just keep giving your life to Jesus, because it doesn't really go anywhere else. You go to a big meeting, with lots of high powered music, and you give your life to Jesus again.

You know what my friends and I call this? We call them crack Sundays.

There is an addictive quality to it, this rhetoric of wonder, this intensity.

I actually make a distinction. I haven't actually heard anybody articulate it like you did. In the book, I am trying to articulate a different kind of wonder from the just-give-me-the-next-religious-hit, where the angels come crashing through the ceiling and we all have an endorphin rush as we put money in the offering plate because we have met God this morning. Do you know what I mean?

[Instead] the deep abiding sense of gratitude and amazement for the gift of life in its thousands of manifestations. Do you know what I mean? The people who you and I know and respect, perhaps they're older, who when you are with them, they're moving a little slower. They see. They are tuned into the power of this moment and the thing that just happened, and let's have a meal and doesn't it taste great.

In the book, I'm trying to speak... there's a sort of magic, myth, if we just say the right things, do the right things, chant the right things, then we have this euphoric high and we all go [sings high note], and then actually have to go back to real life. In the book I'm trying to say, I actually think the radical message of the Christian faith is you're growing awareness of the sacred and holy nature of everyday, and the mundane moments that you would have trudged through on your way to the high.

I met a guy recently, a friend introduced me, and he says, what do you do, and he says, I clean houses. You're a house-cleaner. He says, yes. He's wearing like a crisp white polo and tennis shorts and he says, I get to go into people's homes and bring order and cleanliness to their lives. I said, oh my word. These people must be so fortunate to have you. And he's like, no. It's me who's fortunate that I have the kind of work where people will entrust me to make their home a clean orderly place where they can thrive. And it's beautiful, do you know what I mean?

And it's... I think of the story of the monk brother Lawrence, who is peeling potatoes and people are coming from miles and miles around because this man peels potatoes and there is such a sense of presence and love and peace and calm with him that you just can't get enough. To me that's the thing that's going on at the heart of the Christian faith that's kind of missed in a lot of things. In the book I talk about Eucharist, and is the church service when you come in from out of the big bad world to find God, or is [it] the place where your eyes are opened and your senses heightened to the presence of God everywhere else?

Yes. The sacramental everywhere.

And if there's anything we need in the modern world it's help along those lines.

More tomorrow: Rob Bell on Jesus the sage...


Tuesday, April 16 2013

Rob Bell on quantum physics

I spoke with Rob Bell yesterday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London. I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. About half the book riffs on modern science, and quantum physics in particular. So I started off, asking Rob about that. Here's the first part of my interview.

I first of all wanted to ask you about the science in the book, and I wonder what work the science is being asked to do, if that makes sense. The dominant view in science is that there just isn't a telos or end in science, and the Spirit of religion is very different from the energy of Einstein. I did a physics degree and I feel the pull of modern science, but there are these common slippages that do go on in the science/religion debate. Quantum entanglement is appealed to because it resonates with the sense we're interconnected, but it doesn't show interconnectedness at the human level. It is a powerful metaphor. And then a powerful metaphor slips into a semi-proof.

What I am not trying to do is: see, this is proof! Abraham Joshua Heschel said I don't ask for success, I ask for wonder. And in the book... to me there is great power in, wow! There's some weirdness here. Just the sense of reality: particles disappear in one place and appear in another without travelling the distance in between? This is a much more interesting universe than a lot of us were first taught.

So, one of the things that is a big debate in quantum physics is whether quantum physics has this incredible descriptive power that can make predictions, or whether it does that and tells us about the way world actually is in itself. It's a moot point. If you come from a certain persuasion that sees the interconnectedness anyway, then it's quite easy to run to quantum theory and rely too much on what's actually not clear in science at all.

I think you're phrase, 'if you come form a particular persuasion'... I have no illusions that you can lay out your case and people will go: oh my word, you're right! Do you know what I mean? Like, if you already think this, then you tend to have a lens through which you view things, especially when it comes to God. If you believe there's no God, then generally you're going to run all new external stimuli through that particular lens. Do you know what I mean? That is why I try in the book... to be honest with you, there's a degree of having fun with it.

OK, fair enough.

There's a degree of having fun, and also to me, a degree of... I-don't-know-if-you're-aware-of-it-but-there's-some-really-interesting-truths-about-the-universe. They took apart an atom and they discovered they could take it apart a little more, and then some more, and then when we got in there we found there are clouds of possibilities. That to me is about how the universe is far more interesting and complex, and perhaps you could use the word mysterious. While they even will say, from these clouds of possibilities and predictions, we actually can make microwave ovens and ipods and etc. So, while it's been harnessed for all sorts of good, it still creates to me a more accurate but a more interesting, lyrical, poetic, beautiful, mysterious view of the universe.

So that's the space for the poetry or the mystery of religion?

At some point - like Jeffrey Kluger, writing in Time magazine, about the Higgs boson just says, this is brushing up against the spiritual. Which is a mainstream American magazine saying, the search for the Higgs boson and the implications of this... Like I say in the book, I'm sure lots of quantum physicists would bristle at that, but you cannot talk about an energy that holds all things together or flows without: wow! I was taught, probably like you, that in the modern world there is this hard, cold materiality that we can study and we have repeatability, and there may be this other realm called God.

A reductionism.

There are certain rational people who say we have this - physics and biology and we do all that in school, and there may or may not be all this other religious stuff. But this hard materiality in its essence is just weird.

You point to that very well in the book. But what's the weirdness doing for you as a believer?

My experience around the dinner table with very smart agnostics is: come on! We have science and it's all pretty straightforward. But the problem is it is kinda not very straightforward. So there is a sort of dismissive... I'm speaking in the book in very general terms to the person who says, come on, we have all that. But the problem is that the thing you are trusting is way more interesting than you are giving it credit for and it leaves open all sorts of interesting possibilities.

And they say that all the bones of our ancestors could fit in the back of a truck. So we have these grand, hopefully accurate theories about where are origins are, and Lucy and all the bones and that. But if you see all the bones together, we haven't dug up that much. So I just think there is a fundamental thing that you and I were marinated in which is a master's story. We're the master's and just give us enough time and we'll sort this thing out.

The risk is, and I'm playing the sceptic here, is whether you're appealing to a God of the gaps, which I'm sure you don't want to, or whether you're appealing to a God that runs through all things, that underpins all that science can see, there's another depth that the eyes of faith or religious traditions can see. The risk is that you slip into the gaps argument rather than the deeper ontology.

I'm well aware of that, and I'm well aware of lots of people with far more educational experience writing about this much more eloquently, but I go back to: you're at the dinner table with your friends, and your one friend does the dismissive gesture, and I go, wait, wait, wait. I think it's a little more interesting than that. I'm not a scholar, or a biologist, or a scientist, but I do think at the most basic dinner party level, you can hold the door open for a number of people who would tend to close it. Particles do straight things.

More of the interview on wonder, Jesus and Christianity today to follow...


Friday, April 12 2013

Night of Love with Mark Vernon: 23 April - The Idler Academy

Busting romance, reclaiming narcissism and the three things you need to know about love: a symposium.

Tuesday 23rd April, 7.00pm, at the Idler Academy, London

Falling in love is widely celebrated as the pinnacle of the experiences life can offer. This is one of the most pernicious and dangerous myths of our time. In fact, the best kind of love is… Well, is what? Join celebrated Mark Vernon for a symposium, with wine, on love.

In truth, contends Dr Vernon, there are different kinds of love that we learn about in different phases of our lives. Life tends to go well when we have good access to these different ways of loving. In this evening of talk and conversation, we will explore the different loves, what can go wrong with them, and how it can go well.

It turns out that there are three modes of loving. First, there is self-love, narcissism, which is required so that we can be comfortable in our own skin. Then there is the love of another that, when it is returned, nurtures us in trusting and loving others. And thirdly, there is love of life itself, which allows us to be open to all that life throws at us, firing our passions, creativity and courage.

Along the way, we’ll think about questions such as how many friends might one have, why love is not possible in a happy world, and whether love is really evolution’s way of blinding us to the difficulties of raising young.

Book online here!


Wednesday, April 10 2013

Where's the good news?

First thoughts on Men and Women in Marriage, a new document from the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England.

1. The moment of hope for gay couples seeking public blessing comes in the document's advocacy of 'pastoral wisdom'. This is perhaps as much as could be expected from the commission, given the pressures to hold the Anglican communion together. That's the realpolitik.

2. Personally, I agree that the disagreement over same-sex marriage is not just a disagreement 'over mere names'. Serious scholarly, psychologically-informed and humanly-compelling discussion is needed. The church has largely stymied its own contribution by its mostly hypocritical reactions to the discussion of human sexuality. Might this be about to change? Sadly, not, it seems.

3. What is dismaying, then, is not that there is no overt policy change. Rather, it is the poor quality of the theology, history and psychology on display in the document. This highlights the deeper impact of a prior policy constraining a genuine process of discernment and exploration. The document reads defensively and often rather literally-minded. There is little good news in it, not fundamentally because there is no policy change, but because it conveys such a narrow vision of human love and sexuality.

4. The non-negotiable, hard place is that marriage is a 'creation ordinance', defined as between a man and a woman, as apparently implied in Genesis. This is either making the norm the rule or reducing the rich myths of Genesis to a formula. If it's the former, it's simply a category error. If it's the latter, it's an appallingly reductive reading of scripture that strips it of life. (In fact, the Biblical treatment often amounts to little more than proof-texting. For example, St Paul in 1 Corinthians is cited to show that men and women are 'not independent' of each other, which is tantamount to a truism, the proof-texting charge evidenced as if that was St Paul's last word on the matter.)

5. The idea that Genesis sanctions the nuclear family is, actually, a modern idea: I believe it can be traced to John Locke's 1690 Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government. Then, a legal definition of marriage was required because before, committed relationships had gained their social sanction by being made before God. Also, before then, families rarely looked like Adam and Eve under the fig tree because people died too often: hodgepodge families seem far more likely to have been the norm. (The document inadvertently shows it's modern roots by quoting the slightly earlier Jeremy Taylor. Presumably one of the committee had a dictionary of quotations to hand, as there is no sign that Taylor's thoughts on love and friendship are reflected upon in any deep way. Further, Taylor is quoted as if in support of marriage as a paradigm of society, when the word 'society' did not mean a form of social organisation at the time, but merely human company.)

6. The point about modern prejudices is important because it makes the report blind to the diversity of relationships available to Christians in the medieval and ancient periods. We live in an exceptional age in which marriage has a monopoly. As writers from Alan Bray (The Friend) to Rowan Williams (Lost Icons) have argued, ours is actually the idiosyncratic period, one that has depleted our relational imaginations. (In a presumably unintentionally humorous moment, the document considers the 'exogamy' of the Old Testament, arguing that it was intended 'to be of limited scope'. Lucky Abraham.)

7. The document says that the lack of a clear understanding of marriage makes for 'disappointments and frustrations'. I doubt whether marriage guidance experts would agree. Rather, it's an inability to tolerate difference and diversity in marriages that makes it so rigid and unbearable that it falls apart in people's hands.

8. Discerning the goodness of God in the natural world is advocated. Now, of course, natural goodness is tricky to discern in a fallen world. The document nods to the arts and sciences in helping with that. But a paragraph or two after this moment of openness, it shrinks back to a narrow biologism that would embarrass even Richard Dawkins: our biological existence, apparently, means one man, one woman. The fact that homosexuality exists in nature is ignored. God can bless same-sex swans raising cygnets together, but not same-sex humans.

9. The issue of parenthood is discussed, in terms of the ideal. Well, actually, the evidence is pretty good now that a committed couple, with one parent who is especially devoted to attending to the child's needs, is 'good enough'. Further, ideal parenting is actually rejected in modern psychology, because it is recognised that the child needs parental 'failures', within safe limits, in order to gain a rich sense of itself. Hence, parenting being described as 'good enough'. Such an understanding of parental needs does indeed call into question some of the desire for children that can be expressed today. But it is clear that good enough does not automatically mean heterosexual.

10. I find the document's discussion of the balance between nature and freedom confusing. I think it would have been better to talk about commitment and freedom, that is against the default assumption of choice as freedom. It seems, in the document, that this is the work the word 'nature' is being asked to do, though also being asked to carry the extra, unsustainable load of an assumption of heterosexual commitment.

11. The commission does get onto talking about the spiritual needs of the individual, as supported in marriage, particularly in the sublimating (my word) of erotic instincts. This is basic, Platonic stuff. Yes: permanence, faithfulness and stability are most likely to nurture the higher loves that lead to God. Though again, this section is being made to work in a narrowly heterosexual direction that is imposed, not inherent in the argument.

12. My sense is that the thinness of the document means that it will satisfy no-one - not in the political sense of dealing with the issue of same-sex blessings and marriage, but in the deeper spiritual sense. Theologically, biblically, psychologically, spiritually, this is not life in all its fullness. Frankly, who would want it?


Friday, March 29 2013

Do we need a different Jesus?

I've been wondering how the figure of Jesus might recapture the contemporary imagination? Or which Jesus - because there are many - might strike individuals (a bit like me, I confess) as engaging; even worth orientating a life towards?

I don't think it can be many of the more common Jesuses you meet. I wouldn't want to knock the idea of the Jesus who died for my sin, for example: the prevalence of sin is one of Christianity's more obviously true doctrines and it is a wonderful thing to be able to live in spite of all your failings. But the cross as a sacrifice is now difficult to get a handle on.

If that's the evangelical Jesus, then the liberal one - Jesus the social justice champion - seems like a kind of category error. He was drawn to the poor, though I suspect not because he thought he could alleviate material suffering in any political sense, though he did what he could. But because he realised that the poor live explicitly what all people live implicitly: in a state of vulnerability and dependence. 'The poor will always be with you,' he said, because their condition will always be true of mortals. In this sense, 'Blessed are the poor.' They know a truth I typically don't.

But perhaps there is a Jesus tradition that might speak, and is ready to be revived. It has had an awkward relationship to mainstream western Christianity because early on it got on the wrong side of the gnostic and Chalcedonian controversies. I'm thinking of the Jesus who is variously described as the hidden, wisdom or mystery Jesus. He might speak to a world that seems increasingly conscious of a lost spiritual dimension.

This Jesus invites you on an inner journey in everyday life, thereby becoming more aware of what's going on at depth. Material life is important: denying it was the gnostic mistake. And the historical Jesus was not remembered for being an ascetic: he seems to have feasted and fasted, equally disinterested in both. That was presumably because he knew the humdrum is only part of our story, and not the determining part, a bit like choppy waves on the surface of the sea that lose touch with the slower, steadier pulse that traverses beneath, though contains much more of life's energy.

This Jesus naturally fits the language of psychology, a big plus today. Take his saying, 'First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye'. This can be translated as tackling the way we project what we dislike most about ourselves, and so find intolerable, into others. It's a neat, vivid version of the rule that if someone bugs you, you can be sure they reflect something you hate in yourself.

This tradition is also associated with the great psychotherapists of the early church, the desert fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus. He was the first to describe the deadly sins, though he himself did not deploy them to condemn people. Rather, he provides a guide to the inner life and warns his fellows that if they go on this journey they must be prepared to face their narcissism, gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory and pride. It is not easy to do. Self-justificatory denial is an ever present option.

In this schema, one way to see the cross is as a truth that all who seek enlightenment must face: transformed life can only be found through confusion and struggle because we understand only from within the constellation of our present suffering. Look at the stories of the ancient Greek heroes Odysseus, Heracles, Demeter. They undergo trials and deaths, which though they did not realise at the time, serve to break their assumptions about life and reveal the kind of insights that can only be transmitted by experience. Such myths are remembered because they capture the prototypical path of the individual soul. The Triduum of church liturgy around Easter can be experienced similarly.

Similarly, this Jesus is a wisdom teacher, a master of the kind of sayings and stories that dislodge, disorientate and make for movement and change. Some are pretty straightforward: 'It is more blessed to give than receive' (because it is in giving that you become more receptive). Others seem to be about how you tackle life: 'Sufficient for the day is its own trouble' (face the anxieties in front of you now and the anxieties of tomorrow may, in fact, lessen.)

Jesus does not have a monopoly in this domain. There are fascinating parallels between his teaching and that of the Greek cynics, say. I think these links should be explored. They help incarnate Jesus in history, you might say.

There are also other sayings that are more mystical: 'Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.' I take this to be pointing to Jesus the Logos, the word or pattern or wisdom which pervades creation - 'in whom we live and move and have our being,' as Paul put it, quoting the Stoics. To be washed in the Logos would be to have conscious and unconscious willfulness soaked away so that my life gradually reorientates around a bigger flow. For we humans, for whom our own existence is too small for us, this process is painful but liberating, I trust.

The crux of the figure of Jesus, for Christians, is his death and resurrection. Well, I sense this tradition can invigorate the meaning of that too. The mystery of Golgotha, I take it, is not some empirical demonstration of divine power. It does not prove, it shows and, I'm inclined to think, after the pattern of the ancient mystery cults, enacted in history. It offers a wisdom that had formerly been attainable at places like Eleusis, via theoria. This was spectacular journeying that strips away ignorance to afford glimpses of the spiritual truths of being - 'spiritual' simply meaning beyond the physical senses; another kind of knowing. Knowing what? Well, in Heraclitus' summary: 'Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living in their death and dying in their life.'

The death and resurrection of Jesus opened this mystery to all. The follower of the Christian way experiences it too, and might come to know eternal life.


Friday, March 15 2013

Not immortality, but eternity

This piece has just gone up at The School of Life's blog...

It can come as something of a surprise to learn that western religions are not much interested in immortality. 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', an actual place outside Jerusalem of fiery discomfort. Upon arrival, individuals then drift into a half-life and fade away. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, recommending life here and now, amongst the people of Israel. It is not suggesting that this life is but a foretaste of a life to come.

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 resists inevitable death more strongly.

Only in the East, amongst the religions of India, is there a widespread belief in life after death, manifest in various forms of soul transmigration. Western thinkers like Plato toy with this possibility. In the dialogue called the Phaedo, he has Socrates present arguments for the immortality of the soul. Then, in the Apology, he has Socrates declare he doesn’t know what happens and anyway, if death is annihilation, then there’s nothing to fear because death is, well, nothing.

Ideas shift as BC turns to AD, when a hope of life after death becomes more prominent. But importantly, it is not immortality that is anticipated. Death is still regarded as death. Bodies clearly rot, and having a body matters. This is symbolically represented by the practice of burying corpses in contact with the ground, not in a coffin. Instead, there grows an expectation that death will be conquered. ‘He maketh death to vanish in life eternal,’ says an Orthodox prayer.

This is not about immortality, because if there was a soul that drifted off after death, untouched by the change of state, there would be no need to hope that death might vanish. Instead, what is prayed for is resurrection. There must be a discontinuity between this life and any next life, a radical break known in death. But there is a hope that God will make a new body, as indeed God made the old body, and that through the discontinuity some measure of continuity may be known too – which is to say, we might be recognisably the same person, in some way.

Difference between this life and the next is emphasized because it became clear to the Jews, and then the Christians, that this life needs redeeming. If the afterlife is 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. Immortality is a form of tragedy.

So instead of immortality, what is pondered is eternity. This is a state outside of time – if the word ‘state’ can even be used, since it implies a time-bound existence. And perhaps the notion of eternity gains ground because it feels as if eternity can be glimpsed in the here and now, at least from time to time.

Would 2 plus 2 equal 4 even if the universe and time had never existed, you might ask? If it feels to you that it would, and it is contentious proposition, then perhaps to do mathematics is to touch something eternal. Or there are the aesthetic invocations 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 think. 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 that is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light – and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. That would make turning the lights on in the morning something akin to a mystical experience; to being bathed in eternity.

So although you can read and hear all manner of metaphors reaching for the afterlife in Judeo-Christian writings, and some appear to imply immortality, the official line is, no. Death is real. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas are so clear on this fact that he wrote, ‘My soul is not I’.

But perhaps, beyond a discontinuity, lies eternity. We could taste it now. We might know it ‘then’.


- page 2 of 16 -