Monday, March 31 2014
By Mark Vernon on Monday, March 31 2014, 20:50 - Journalism
The new edition of Third Way is out now, including a piece I've penned on dreams…
Here's an infrequently heard, possibly risky-sounding proposition. Dreams are integral to our experience of God. They are not just pleasant, confusing, disturbing, and/or arresting nocturnal interruptions, of little meaning beyond weirdly echoing the fantasies and fears of our own unsettled psyches. Rather, they can convey insights and intimations, communications and knowledge of our relationship to the divine.
If that does sound spiritually off-piste, and I suspect it does outside of some charismatic circles, then our Christian forebears clearly thought differently. There are hundreds of references to dreams and dreaming in the Bible, from famous ones such as Jacob's ladder and the Magi's warning, to promises that life in the Spirit includes the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams. Abraham, Joseph, Samuel, Saul, Pilate's wife and Paul are amongst those stirred by significant dreams.
But a clear warning note is heard amongst these Biblical references. Joseph tells Pharaoh's officials that dream interpretation is "God's business". Jeremiah is particularly vexed by dreamers. "The prophets say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?... Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain? declares the Lord."
The caution is reflected amongst the early church fathers too. They felt dreams could be predictive and prophetic, though human beings are as readily deceived by them. Tertullian drew up an influential distinction between dreams emanating from God and those emanating from the Devil. Discernment of dreams was therefore crucial. A wrong interpretation could imperil your soul. Sexual dreams, for example, fell squarely into the latter category. When John Cassian came to write about the transformations of monastic life, one of his tests of a true conversion of heart was no longer having lustful dreams. They are involuntary, he reasoned, and so the monk who ceases to have them must truly now be living in God. But sexual content is only one indicator of whether a dream is to be trusted or not, and erotic fantasies are also distinguished by, of course, being easy to spot - unlike the many other seductive wiles of demons.
The worries of desert fathers and conservative bishops can appear anachronistic. But at heart, their insights are sound. Discernment is of the essence because whilst dreams are valuable, they are also routinely caught up in the conflicts and tensions of the dreamer's mind - one way in which today we might understand references to dreams originating with demons and the Devil. If you have a dream in which you appear as a divine figure, say, someone who is spiritually powerful or capable of transcending the laws of nature, this is probably about your own grandiose or omnipotent fantasies, not signs of a calling from God.
But the art of discernment has had a new lease of life in our times, which is one reason the place of dreams in spiritual life is due a revival. In short, twenty-first century dreamers can gain from two twentieth century innovations: developmental psychology and depth psychology. The first tells us more than has ever before been known about the difficulties of early life, and how they can play on into adult life. Dreams are one route to gaining enlightenment about how the years we don't remember remain active in our minds. The second, depth psychology, tells us about that part of ourselves of which we're not very conscious and yet which still constrains and limits, even determines, our habits and personalities, our experiences and hopes. Understand that better, and all sorts of untapped potentials might be released.
The twentieth century innovations were kicked off with the new "science" of dreams proposed by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He famously remarked that dreams are the "royal road to the unconscious" and in his best-selling book, The Interpretation of Dreams, announces that whilst dreams have confused and deluded countless generations, he now can reveal their secrets. Freud actually got the specifics wrong, most psychotherapists now agree. But his achievement was to put dreams firmly back on the maps that might guide us in life so that we can face our demons and, believers might add, be assisted in finding a path back to God.
Though now contested, it is helpful to begin with Freud because his ideas have seeped into the zeitgeist. He argues that dreams serve a purpose, that of helping us sleep: if a dream wakes you up, your dreaming has failed. He thought that we need dreams to sleep for much the same reason that we develop neurotic habits to help us through our waking hours. I worry about the whereabouts of my cats, or whether I locked the front door, or I play with my hands when sitting still, because those distractions are preferable to the deeper distress that they veil. If the true anguish of my struggles, which I've been engaged with from birth or perhaps before, were to impinge upon my day to day existence then life would become intolerable. To put it the other way round, when life does become unbearable because of anxiety or depression or other forms of mental ill-health, that is, in a sense, because my little ticks and worries have failed to hold things together.
Dreams attempt the same during the night. They try to keep buried the profoundly disturbing thoughts and feelings that tend to have more power during the dark hours, when we are less defended, more vulnerable. For the most part, they succeed. But when your sleep is routinely disturbed, or nightmares wake you with a start, it may be a sign that your hard won mechanisms of self-protection are becoming fragile or brittle. Such experiences might precipitate seeking help.
Freud thought that dreams then offer clues. The individual stories of disturbance they tell might be of use, because within the details of your dreams will be concealed patterns that reflect your unconscious trouble. One of Freud's famous dreams demonstrates how. It concerns a young widow, Irma. She was a patient of Freud and friend of the family. In Freud's dream, Irma attends a reception. Freud there reproaches her for not accepting his "solution", and she complains of pains in her throat, chest and stomach. Freud looks into her mouth and diagnoses an infection. He concludes that a colleague of his, Dr Otto, had given Irma an injection with a dirty syringe. Then Freud awoke.
He wrote many pages in his dream book analyzing the meaning of this fantasized encounter. He concluded that the dream represented a wish he had that Irma's complaints were not his responsibility, but could be passed to his colleague, Otto. This notion of dreams fulfilling wishes is the touchstone of Freud's theory. He felt that understanding a dream revealed secret desires or wishes that our conscious selves would prefer us not to have. One aim of psychoanalysis is to reverse engineer dreams and discover what they are attempting, but failing, to conceal.
His book is a fascinating read, hence entering the zeitgeist. The only trouble is that not many followers of Freud today go along with the wish-fulfillment idea. The big problem is that most dreams that wake us are clearly not of this kind. A traumatic dream, in which we repeat perhaps many times an experience of being attacked or of crashing, achieves the opposite: the wish is to forget the trauma and yet the dream persistently, painfully reminds us of it. An anxious dream, in which we find ourselves exposed in public or unable to run for the train, performs similarly. It prompts more apprehension, not less. So today, psychoanalysts are more likely to assume that dreams offer symbolic or narrative representations of whatever is troubling the patient. They capture a psychic disturbance or developmental deficit in a vivid, felt way.
Further, it is usually thought that different figures in the dream do not represent different people in real life but instead represent different aspects of the person having the dream. The dream uses individuals encountered during the day to stand in for qualities that belong to, or are sought by, the dreamer. You might dream of the man who was rude and abrupt as you left the supermarket yesterday because his behaviour chimed with a part of you that can be short and angry, but about which you'd prefer to forget. Your beautiful colleague with the comforting curves may feature in your dreams because you long, unawares, to be more in touch with a softer side of your rather independent and aloof public persona. The message is that next time you dream of an enemy taking a blow or worse, don't wake happy; examine yourself. Your projective powers are highly likely to eclipse any predictive capabilities.
The art of dream interpretation did not stop with Freud and his followers. Complementing them is another interpretative model, one that is increasingly influential today, and even more conducive to those with a theistic sensibility. It was first developed by Freud's erstwhile colleague, Carl Jung.
If, for Freud, dreams attempt at concealing, for Jung dreams are communications. Jung thought we dream, not in order to stay asleep, but because our conscious life lacks something. The dream conveys that lack, and we dream because the psyche has a potent capacity to try to heal itself. It is always struggling to do so. It wills to make us whole. For the spiritually-minded, Jung provides a dream model that allows us to understand both how our troubled past distorts our view of things now, and how the resources of our inner life might transform us by gradually expanding our personalities and developing our capacities in ways that currently elude, frighten, and/or seem impossible to us.
A first step is to recognise that the language of dreams is the language of symbols. The point about symbols is that they move us beyond the understanding of life that we might gain from empirical evidence or rational investigation. A biologist may look at an oak tree and see a member of the genus Quercus. But the mighty oak becomes a symbol when it conveys strength, rootedness and longevity too. Or I may catch sight of the sun. The astronomer sees an average star that is different only because it is close to us. But our star is also a symbol representing spiritual light, new life or radiant beauty - which must have been why the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun as Ra. Similarly, water, books, doors, running, mothers, lovers, crosses, spires - in fact, pretty much anything can become a symbol. To be human is, in a way, to be the creature who can look at the world and not fail to see all sorts of meanings and purposes imprinted upon that world.
Alongside sacred texts and thin places, rituals and poems, symbolization finds a natural home in our dreams. Their significance for us psychologically and spiritually rests on the fact that we have little consciously to do with their issue. They erupt from a place beyond our control. There's a kind of freedom in dreams that releases us from the strictures of self- and social monitoring, and may awaken us. They are like icons, windows into depth. So when the symbols of a dream are correctly discerned, and incorporated into conscious living, the result is not unlike the processes of prayer, conversion or healing.
Only, it is a complicated, often painstaking process, because the language of symbols is ultimately not reducible to the language of rational understanding. In fact, we need symbols and dreams precisely because our empirical capacities and reasoning are limited. Alone, they could not lead us to a living sense of God.
So how did Jung suggest we work with dream symbols so as not to be led astray? The key word is amplification. When he worked with his patient's dreams, he would elaborate on the symbols that they reported. But he did not interpret too quickly. The aim is to keep the dream alive in the individual's psyche, gradually unfolding its meaning to conscious awareness - a process that must be felt as well as understood. So he would encourage his patients to re-enter the dream, as it were, and allow all its feelings and images to come back to life. The dream could then be explored in a hynagogic state, an exercise he called active imagination. The therapists role is not only to help create the right mood or frame for this to take place, but also to contribute in a more objective way, by making timely suggestions, particularly on the basis of what the therapists knows about the meaning of symbols. Here's an example Jung offers in his chapter in the book, Man And His Symbols.
For instance, a patient of mine dreamed of a drunken and disheveled vulgar woman. In the dream, it seemed that this woman was his wife, though in real life his wife was totally different. On the surface, therefore, the dream was shockingly untrue, and the patient immediately rejected it as dream nonsense…
What then, was his unconscious trying to convey by such an obviously untrue statement? Clearly it somehow expressed the idea of a degenerate female who was closely connected with the dreamer’s life; but since the projection of this image on to his wife was unjustified and factually untrue, I had to look elsewhere before I found out what this repulsive image represented.
In the Middle Ages... it was said that “every man carries a woman within himself.” It is this female element in every male that I have called the “anima.” This “feminine” aspect is essentially a certain inferior kind of relatedness to the surroundings, and particularly to women, which (in men) is kept carefully concealed from others as well as from oneself…
That was the case with this particular patient: His female side was not nice. His dream was actually saying to him: “You are in some respects behaving like degenerate female,” and thus gave him an appropriate shock.
I like this example because it is so grounded. The man needed a shock from the unconscious if he was to integrate a part of himself that he was trying to expel, and in so doing caused him to behave like a lout. But Jung also introduces us to his notion of archetypes, the propensity that we collectively inherit to have shared kinds of fantasies and experiences in our inner lives - in this case, a man dreaming of his anima. Often when you read about archetypes they are enthusiastically presented as semi-divine figures within us, but as here, Jung himself tends to keep his feet on the ground. He shows quite clearly that most of the time such figures play a far more humdrum role: to highlight uneasy issues in our personalities - perhaps residues from specific difficulties in our lives; or tendencies that have become out of balance.
You might say that dreams can help free us from the entanglements of the past. But you might then also ask, if they help free us from that, then what do they free us for? This is where we come back to the role dreams might play in our intimations and knowledge of God. Through the miasma of our own confusions, amidst the detritus of inner lives, the divine may shine. A dream of Jung himself provides an example. It was one of the experiences he had that, later in his life, helped him return to a dynamic Christian faith, having become thoroughly disillusioned with the church in his youth. He describes this vivid, "waking dream" in his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
One night I awoke and saw, bathed in bright light at the foot of the bed, the figure of Christ on the Cross. It was not quite life-size, but extremely distinct; and I saw that his body was made of greenish gold. The vision was marvelously beautiful, and yet I was profoundly shaken by it.
The vividness and observation of being profoundly shaken is one indicator that this dream was about more than Jung's own psychic conflicts. When he had this dream, he had already spent much of his life working through them, and so whilst as a rule, waking visions might be treated with caution, he realised that this dream was not psychotic but carried a sense of the numinous. It was tapping collective archetypes to speak of the divine.
As he contemplated and amplified the dream, one important detail stood out: the greenish gold of the corpus. He knew that green gold had long symbolised the living quality of the cosmos, a life-spirit that animates all things. He interpreted this detail to mean that the dream showed that the symbol of Christ on the cross had come back to life for him. "If I had not been so struck by the greenish-gold, I would have been tempted to assume that something essential was missing from my 'Christian' view - in other words, that my traditional Christ-image was somehow inadequate." But from then on, the cross could speak to him not merely as a functional sign of Christianity but as an active intimation that points to "a darker meaning which eludes conceptual formulation and can only be vaguely apprehended," but which is felt to be spiritually crucial and alive.
It is this aid that dreams can perform for us. Pay attention to them, and they may breath a fresh vitality into our imaginations and traditions by reawakening the power of symbols. That power is subjective, and all the more valuable for that. Dreams can help us intimately to know that God is and is alive.
Sunday, March 23 2014
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, March 23 2014, 08:07 - In the news
This series starts on BBC Radio 4 this week, and don't forget the additional material online, including this below from the introduction to my book The Meaning of Friendship...
What exactly is friendship? What is its nature, its rules, its promise? How can one differentiate between its many forms? How does it compare to, and mix with, the connections shared between lovers and within families? If at least a kind of friendship is elastic enough to survive the relational stresses and strains of our flexible ways of life, is that friendship also strong enough to bear the burden of the human need to belong, to be connected, to be loved?
These questions are trickier to answer than it might first seem because friendship is hugely diverse. Although it is relatively easy to come up with definitions that account for part of it, it is much harder to find one that does not exclude any of its facets. Aristotle, whose writing on friendship still sets the philosophical agenda to this day, found as much 2,500 years ago. Friendship, he proposed, is at the very least a relationship of goodwill between individuals who reciprocate that goodwill. A reasonable starter for ten. However, as soon as he tried to expand it, the definition seemed to unravel.
He looked around him and saw three broad groupings of relationships people called friendship. The first group are friends primarily because they are useful to each other – like the friendship between an employee and a boss, or a doctor and a patient, or a politician and an ally; they share goodwill because they get something out of the relationship. The second group are friends primarily because some pleasure is enjoyed by being together; it may be the football, the shopping, the gossip or sexual intimacy, but the friendship thrives insofar, and possibly only insofar, as the thing that gives the pleasure continues to exist between them. Aristotle noted that these first two groups are therefore like each other because if you take the utility or the pleasure away, then the chances are the friendship will fade.
This, though, is not true of the third group. These are people who love each other because of who they are in themselves. It may be their depth of character, their innate goodness, their intensity of passion or their simple joie de vivre, but once established on such a basis these friendships are ones that tend to last. Undoubtedly much will be given and much taken too but the friendship itself is independent of external factors and immensely more valuable than the friendships that fall into the first two groups.
The meaning of friendshipThat there are better or higher friendships – different people may call them soul friends, close or old friends, or best friends – as opposed to instrumental and casual friendships, or mere friendliness, is surely right. But to say that great friendship is defined solely by its goodwill seems to miss its essence. Goodwill exists in these best kinds of friendship, but, unlike the lesser types, best friendship – arguably the quintessential sort – is based on something far more profound. In other words, a definitional approach to friendship has its limits.
This ambiguity as to what friendship is reflects, then, the ambiguity that appears to be part and parcel of friendship in life. Try listing some of the friends you have – your partner, oldest friend, mates or girlfriends, one or two family members, work colleagues, neighbours, friends from online chat rooms, family friends, a boss perhaps, therapist, teacher, personal trainer – whoever you might at some time think of as a friend. A look at such a list puts your friends in front of you, as it were, and highlights the vast differences. For example, the friendship with your partner will in certain key respects be unlike that of your oldest friend, though you may be very close to both. Conversely, although friendship is for the most part a far less strong tie than say the connection to family, you may feel less close to members of your family in terms of friendship than others with whom you have no genetic or legal bond. Then again, lovers might make you blush and families can make you scream, but friendship – even soul friendship – is usually cool in comparison.
As you continue further down the list to the friends who are in many ways little more than acquaintances, associates or individuals for whom you have merely a sense of friendliness, it is obvious that friendship stretches from a love you could scarcely do without to an affection that you’d barely miss if it ended. Some people would say there is some minimal quality which means that it makes sense to call all of them friends perhaps Aristotle’s goodwill. Others would disagree: they are the sort who say they have a handful of friends and that others are people they only know. In other words, the ambiguity of friendship extends to the very possibility of prolific and profound friendship-making.
Personally, I think that Aristotle is on to something in his belief that the closest kind of friendship is only possible with a handful of individuals, such is the investment of time and self that it takes. ‘Host not many but host not none’, was his formula. He would argue that less is more and it is easy to substitute mere networking for the friendships it is supposed to yield. He actually went so far as to express a fear of having too many friends, ‘polyphilia’ as it might be called. There is an expression attributed to Aristotle that captures the concern: ‘Oh my friends, there is no friend.’
One of the things I think the philosophy of friendship tells us is that life produces personal relationships of many types, but out of these connections good friendship may or may not grow. Certain associations or institutions like work or marriage can foster friendship but those same associations or institutions need not necessarily be characterised by deep friendship themselves; friendship emerges, as it were, from below up. It is a fluid concept.
Another dimension to the ambiguity of friendship is its apparent open-endedness. Unlike institutions of belonging such as marriage which is supported and shaped by social norms, or work where individuals have contractually defined roles, friendship has no predetermined instructions for assembly or project for growth. People have to create their friendships mostly out of who they are, their interests and needs, without any universally applicable framework. On the one hand, this is a potential weakness, because a friendship may ‘go nowhere’ or ‘run out of steam’. On the other, it is a potential strength because there is also a freedom in this that is crucial to friendship’s appeal: it is part of the reason for the diversity within the family of relationships called friendship.
In summary, then, it seems that it is not possible to say unequivocally what friendship is. Sometimes it is intense, sometimes it is thin. Sometimes it appears to embrace many, sometimes only a few. This might seem to be a bit of a blow if the question is what is friendship. However, far from ambiguity automatically leading to philosophical impasse, an exploration of the very ambiguities of friendship is actually a very good way forward. After all, is not mistaking relationships for what they are not – that is being blind to their ambiguity – arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure? A married couple may assume they are friends in some deep sense when really they only have goodwill for each other because of the kids; unless they realise that, when the kids leave home, the marriage may falter too. An employee and a boss may think they are good friends after all the late nights, trips abroad and hours spent together: but when the day arrives for the appraisal or pay rise, and both turn out to be modest, the friendship stumbles and falls.
Honesty about any relationship is likely to improve it, even if the honest thing to do is not put too much hope in it! The mistakes that people can make in friendship are also exemplified in some of the things people commonly say about it. For example, many would say that the test of good friendship is being able to pick up immediately where you left off even if you haven’t seen the friend for some time. Aristotle, though, thought that good friendship depends on shared living and spending substantial, regular, quality time together. ‘Cut off the talk, and many a time you cut off the friendship,’ he said. The question is how much time, how much talk is needed?
And yet, if it is really quite easy to make mistakes by thinking the relationship is something other that what it is, the best kinds of friendship (however that is judged) are essential for a happy life: human beings need people they can call friends and not just people who are relatives, partners, acquaintances, colleagues or associates. In other words, the corollary of friendship’s ambiguity is that it is packed with promise and strewn with perils.
Philosophy is frequently overlooked as a resource for thinking through friendship in this way. This has much to do with the fact that only a relatively small number of philosophers have written on the subject at any length. What is more, those who have, although generally agreeing that friendship is essential for a happy life, also say that it provides no automatic satisfaction of human desires for deeper relationships or society’s need for connection. Friendship is ‘a problem worthy of a solution’, as Nietzsche gnomically put it. Or as Aristotle wrote: ‘The desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.’ The implication is that the best kinds of friendships are only possible between people who properly value it and who understand how many things from the personal to the political can compromise, undermine and destroy it. There is an art to friendship. Philosophy can teach us something about it.
This is an edited extract from the Introduction of The Meaning of Friendship by Mark Vernon (Palgrave Macmillan).
Friday, March 7 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, March 7 2014, 10:19 - Events
Investigating the three kinds of love in a talk given last summer at How The Light Gets In festival...
Sunday, March 2 2014
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, March 2 2014, 13:29 - General
I have been talking with Barry Daniel from The Middle Way Society. Do have a look at their website too - interviews with Ian McGilchrist, Stephen Batchelor, Paul Gilbert and others…
Podcast version here.
Friday, February 21 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, February 21 2014, 11:13 - Journalism
Next week's The Essay on BBC Radio 3 discusses forgiveness. My essay, on the impossibility of forgiveness, goes out on Tuesday 25th Feb. An extract is in today's Church Times. A taster:
HERE, then, is a clue. Put it like this: the things that most need forgiveness are the things that are most unforgivable. But being able to stay with that crux - and not short-circuit it in a bid to escape the pain - might bring us to a place where something higher or unexpected breaks through.
This different dispensation is illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance, and blows it all. He ends up eating pig food, just to stay alive. Then, he remembers his father's servants. He resolves to return to his father, beg forgiveness, and live like the hired men.
But the striking thing is that the father does not forgive his son. Instead, he throws a party. He who was lost is found; he who was dead is alive, the father says - much to the annoyance of the elder brother, who descends into a sulk.
This brother is right, in a sense. Forgiveness is impossible. The younger son has done an inexcusable thing. But the father sees things differently, from beyond the rights and wrongs of his son's actions.
He has not short-circuited the struggle with anger and agony. He thought his son lost and dead. But when the son actually returns, he can welcome him into a new life, grounded in the economy not of moral righteousness or rage, but of gratuitous love.
So it seems to me that the impossibility of forgiveness is actually an offer, although it is certainly difficult. At one level, it draws attention to the moral hazards of not really forgiving, but forgetting or excusing; to the important incompatibility of forgiveness with justice; to the mental ill-health that might originate when the moral imperative to forgive leads to repressing, not-feeling, not-mourning.
But, at another level, it points to the human experience that sometimes, with the most difficult aspects of life, the best course of action is not to try to fix things, but to stay with things.
In time, a radically different horizon might be glimpsed. It feels above morality and forgiveness - more like redemption or grace;gift, or love. That is what is promised by this apparently unpalatable truth: the impossibility of forgiveness.
Thursday, January 30 2014
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, January 30 2014, 18:29 - Podcasts
We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.
Atheism is often taken as the default position with theism requiring additional beliefs or proof. So we talk about whether science actually rests on theistic assumptions, if with God removed from the equation. I 'play' atheist - trying to put the perspectives of the three greatest atheists in the modern world, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche - and Rupert argues that science with its working hypotheses of intelligibility, law-like predictability, and so on actually, at least, draw on theism...
Friday, January 24 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, January 24 2014, 22:34 - Events
Philosophy in 12 Key Steps starts next week - a few places left!
Saturday, January 4 2014
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, January 4 2014, 14:14 - Podcasts
We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.
Our starting point this time is that militant atheism is falling out of favour, and a new atheism seems to be emerging, looking for forms of spirituality. But still, many find Christianity not a viable option. So we seek to ask where Christianity is compelling in its view of life and how to live, and where it is challenging, and perhaps in trouble.
Wednesday, December 18 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, December 18 2013, 15:34 - Events
Friday, December 6 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, December 6 2013, 11:48 - Journalism
I've a piece thinking about the significance of the RSA's spirituality project in the Church Times today…
The "spiritual but not religious" are the largest group of individuals in the UK, according to the think tank, Theos. Its recent poll, which shaped the inaugural discussion on the new Things Unseen podcast (http://www.thingsunseen.co.uk), found that only 13% of adults agree that human beings are purely material with no spiritual element. That much may be unsurprising to members of the Church of England who routinely work at the interface of regular and irregular church-goers.
What does seem to be a new phenomenon, though, is that avowedly secular groups are seeking to explore the spiritual dimension in life - and not just privately but through meetings and action. A case in point is The Sunday Assembly, also called the "atheist church", although its founders are keen to stress that Dawkins-like rallies are not its raison d'être. In only a few months, it has drawn hundreds of people and led to several "church plants".
Some will feel sceptical about this new spiritual questing, much of that unease focusing on the word "spiritual" itself. In much the same way as "sin" now spontaneously throws up associations of chocolate and lingerie, so "spirituality" can mean little more than warm feelings and a fondness for scented candles. Where is the ethical engagement in this touchy-feely piety; where is the embrace of suffering; where the intellectual weight?
The issue is being tackled head-on by another self-consciously secular organisation, the RSA in London. Founded in 1754, at the height of the English Enlightenment, and usually associated with practical policy development, the society became interested in recent work on human wellbeing. The s-word kept coming up, particularly in the domain of positive psychology, the academic movement that lies behind many of the current political attempts to think about mental health as well as economic wealth. It identifies spirituality as a "signature strength".
So now, Jonathan Rowson, one of the directors at the RSA, is leading a year long project, that will include workshops and public events, to help make spirituality "more tangible and tractable". The evidence shows, he believes, that personal growth and social engagement are nurtured when people have a spiritual perspective, are informed by spiritual experience, and shape their lives with spiritual practices. He argues that the world's main policy challenges, from climate change to rising levels of obesity, may ultimately be spiritual in nature because they are about our struggle to align our behaviour with our values. Spirituality addresses such inner conflicts. That so many seem unable to resolve them may be, in part, a product of a culture that is starved of that which can motivate us at the deepest levels.
The first of the public events was held on 9th October - the discussion can be found as a podcast on the RSA's website - and it was striking how apologetic the contributors were for even talking about the subject. Rowson thanked the head of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, for the "reputational risk" involved in sponsoring the project. Other participants talked of feeling nervous and unsure, even whilst confessing that religion was central to their lives. Spirituality is a kind of taboo. Intellectuals, politicians, the media and even clergy can be as embarrassed by it as Victorians supposedly were by exposed piano legs.
It must be because we live in a world that has been profoundly shaped by a rejection of the spiritual dimension. David Bentley Hart makes the case in his new book, The Experience of God (Yale University Press: 2013), arguing that the philosophical and scientific paradigms that shape the contemporary imagination, to the extent of determining what can and cannot be perceived of life, have put off-limits subjects like faith, the soul, the implicit and so on. "The philosophical tendencies and presuppositions of any age are, to a very great degree, determined by the prevailing cultural mood or by the ideological premises generally approved of by the educated classes," he writes.
I think that is true. Listen to BBC Radio 2 or 4 any day of the week and you will be drawn into a worldview that finds evolutionary speculations about the origins of love or music engaging and acceptable, whereas wondering about truth or transcendence gets kid-glove treatment. That spiritual sensibilities, the sources of human purpose and meaning, are ring-fenced is surely part of the reason we find ourselves so frequently to be ethically and personally at sea.
But perhaps the nascent secular interest in spirituality marks a change. The task of redressing the imbalance is about nothing less than shifting mindsets, but when unexpected parties - like the RSA or self-conscious atheists - come out about spirituality, new connections become possible. Conversely, those who needed no persuading but find the s-word difficult must swallow their disdain and be prepared to treat the word as a placeholder for a society striving to revive these half-forgotten insights about what it is to be human.
I suspect that some steps will be easy to make. As the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith put it during the RSA discussion, many well-meaning people can agree on a notion of spirituality that is essentially a form of ethical humanism - the intuition that community, wonder and helping others adds value to life. But does that get to the heart of what is meant by spirituality? Isn't it rather engaging with the possibility that the source of human vitality and purpose ultimately lies beyond human capacities and understanding; that life is sustained by what theists call God? The difficult moment for the new spirituality will arrive when those who have put their faith in secular enlightenment are confronted with the possibility that it is not enough.
Wednesday, November 27 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, November 27 2013, 10:02 - Journalism
Was on Night Waves tonight, talking about Stoicism Week.
Tried to say that Christianity is the richest form of Stoicism today - feeling only that captures what ancient Stoicism thought fundamental: of trusting in a benign cosmos, praising God for the logos, and seeking to know the divine within and out. (NT Wright in his new book on Paul is thorough on such points.)
The therapeutic aspects of Stoicism are useful but not enough, as I think any ancient Stoic would have told you, and as interestingly I suspect the emerging limitations of CBT are proving too - CBT being another form of Stoicism for today.
There's a day of it on Saturday coming...
Wednesday, November 20 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, November 20 2013, 16:40 - Podcasts
I can recommend Rowan Williams' Gifford lectures of the last couple of weeks. Chewy but rewarding!
His main point seems quite straightforward, for all the subtle and complex ways he develops it. He is pointing out that if you reflect on language, you quickly see that it has to operate on many different levels or registers, not just the rational and empirical. In fact, the metaphorical seems far more basic to language than any supposed correspondence theory would grant. Apart from anything else, this is for the reason that language occupies that space in between the material and immaterial: it's an embodied activity - being sound and physical movement - that engages us symbolically.
What this has to do with God is what it says about the nature of reality, our embedded experience that gives rise, probably first, to music and then languages. The excessive nature of language, the way that it does way more than merely communicate sounds, does not prove God, as modern natural theology has been inclined to feel is its main task, but rather suggests that in language, we are every day grappling with a reality that can be interpreted as intelligible, giving and even compassionate - multi-meaningful, in the way a piece of music is meaningful.
That is commensurate with belief in God. Or to put it another way, a cosmos sustained by a creator such as the Judeo-Christian tradition conceives it, would be one in which you might expect people to speak in the many ways we do.
Saturday, November 2 2013
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, November 2 2013, 08:36 - Events
A day course in ancient philosophy with Mark Vernon.
Spend your Sunday at The Idler Academy learning about Socrates, Plato and the ancient schools. Price includes tea & coffee, lunch, afternoon cake and warming winter gin punch.
This is a lively, day crash course in philosophy, exploring the essentials you need to know about the ancient figures from Pythagoras to Plato, examining the origins of the western tradition in ancient Greece. The day will comprise of talks from Mark and group discussions, and there will be time for you to discuss any of your burning philosophical questions.
The day is divided in two. During the morning we will learn about the birth of Western thought, focussing particularly on the big hitters: Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides. Then we come to Socrates, arguably the most influential philosopher in history, alongside his disciples who are giants in their own rights, Plato and Aristotle. A number of schools of philosophy flourished then too, and during the Roman and early Christian period, notably the Stoics and Epicureans, and in the second half of the day we will examine the ways of life they advocated in the quest for insight and tranquility.
Order of the day
11:00 – 11:15 Arrival, tea & coffee and Introductions
11:15 – 12:00 The Pre-Socratics and the birth of western thought
12:00 – 1:00 Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
1:00 – 1:45 Lunch and open symposium
1:45 – 3:00 Stoics and Epicureans
3:00 – 3:30 Tea and cake
3:30 – 4:30 Cynics, Sceptics and what happened next
4:30 – 5:00 Conclusions, winter punch.
Friday, November 1 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, November 1 2013, 12:28 - General
I have hugely enjoyed David Bentley Hart's latest, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It's philosophical theology with attitude and heart. A taster of his demolishing style (in this section, bashing computational models of mind):
"Software no more 'thinks' than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word 'pelican' knows what a pelican is. We might just as well liken the mind to an abacus, a typewriter, or a library. No computer has ever used a language, or responded to a question, or assigned a meaning to anything. No computer has ever so much as added two numbers together, let alone entertained a thought, and none ever will… A computer does not even really compute. We compute, using it as a tool."
Wednesday, October 16 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, October 16 2013, 09:07 - Journalism
I'm reviewing Sarah Coakley's new book - God, Sexuality, and the Self - a must read for anyone who gets 'why-three?' moments about the doctrine of the Trinity. In a nutshell, she argues Christianity loses touch with the experience that gives rise to the doctrine, with the result that attempting to hold onto the formula comes to feel disconnected or arbitrary.
The dynamic within which it makes sense begins with the yearning for the God known as Father, which comes to be seen as necessitating a purging of desire's possessiveness - a kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. At the same time, the yearning itself is realised as being primarily of God too - God longing to make all things anew. (Hence, in Romans 8, the Spirit groans with us.) So our desire is, at root, the work of the Spirit in us, for all that the entanglements of human desire are inevitably very messy.
The upshot is that the spiritual process whereby people become Christians, in the transformed not merely assent-giving sense, is Trinitarian-shaped. (That pattern is interestingly mirrored in some Buddhist traditions, where there is a threefold conception of the Buddha too, based upon the processes that precede enlightenment.)
A deep read - promoting lots of thought; not exactly light but not overly technical either.
Sunday, October 13 2013
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, October 13 2013, 17:24 - Events
Thursday, October 10 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, October 10 2013, 11:27 - Journalism
I've a piece on the links between psychotherapy and spirituality in the October issue of Third Way. Here's a clip or two:
... Jung noticed that, of his patients in the second half of life, there was not one whose problem was not at base in some sense religious . The spiritual systems that had offered individuals frames of reference which generated meaning and purpose were breaking down. Modern individuals had spontaneously embarked upon a new search for soul, because human beings can do no other, though it is a chaotic process that often precipitates psychological pain and problems. Much is at stake, nothing less than the breakdown of society, Jung feared. Therefore, he argued, clergy and therapists must join forces to meet the precipitous spiritual challenge of our times.
Why does each need the other? The church needs depth psychology because people do not generally experience life in theological terms anymore. On the whole, they no longer feel redeemed by the death of Christ as the medieval individual did when gazing up at the broken body on the rood screen. The notion of sin has ceased to describe a deathly state of being as the first readers of Luther and Calvin must have felt inside themselves. So when the modern church speaks in terms of its old formularies and creeds, deployed without psychological insight, it comes across as dogmatic: at best, anachronistic; at worst, irrelevant. It is an insight Pope Francis seems to have recognised when, during his recent trip to Brazil, he spoke of the church as cold, caught up in itself, and 'a prisoner of its own rigid formularies'.
Then, depth psychology needs the spiritual dimension too because whilst, since Freud, there have evolved rich ways of understanding the origins of psychological distress based upon traumas in the early years of life, there has been less development when it comes to understanding how suffering is linked to spiritual advance across the life course of an individual. Psychotherapy can look back, but struggles to peer forward. This is where spiritual traditions come into their own.
To use the language of the Christian tradition, it is through suffering that new life is found. Good Friday comes before Easter Sunday. Spiritual traditions hold out the hope that suffering can become a means to a transfigured end because the experience exposes the individual or group - painfully but powerfully - to sources of connection, possibility and fulfillment that were previously beyond conception. Call it salvation, enlightenment, release, returning to God...
... One way of describing psychotherapy is as a relationship that enables the individual to see more of themselves or of the groups to which they belong, not least church groups. It is a kind of awakening; becoming more conscious of hidden tendencies and compulsions that are typically barely felt on the everyday level and yet will, over time, shape and constrain character, choices and worldview. The psychologist and priest, Fraser Watts, talks of the abundance that this 'joining up' allows . 'Renewal involves being integrated, integrating what's on the surface with what's inside.' It is a theme that Jesus often referred to in his teaching, Watts continues. He seems to have been the kind of person who would meet a rich man, say, and spot that even though the chap kept every article of the law, it was an inner and personally defining attachment to riches that kept him from God.
Importantly, psychotherapy does not primarily aim to fix or heal such conflicts. Like Jesus with the rich man, it aims instead clearly to point them out. This is the issue of trying to solve problems from within the purview of what is problematic: such solutions inadvertently tend to exacerbate the issue. The relationship between a therapist and client is used to bring tensions to light, to explore and understand them in a felt way. Then, in time, they lessen their hold on the individual. He or she comes to see more of the impact of the forces at play in themselves and, thereby, is liberated from them. Something new becomes possible...
... In practice, this preparation for spiritual growth may happen in broadly two ways. There are those for whom life is constrained for reasons of profound damage or trauma. The slow, steady work of therapy - probably of different types, medical, behavioural and psychological - offers the hope of shifts and change. More commonly, the second way that therapy helps is with tackling the everyday defenses that everyone has to some degree. They don't stop the person functioning but they do limit who they might become. (You might say that the church as a whole falls into this camp.) Problems are often revealed in those emotional responses that are the opposite of the fruits of the spirit - moments of hatred, grumpiness, fear, impatience, unkindness, obfuscation, indecision, hardness of heart and excess. The question, then, is how to nurture the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
A clue is in the way Paul describes such virtues, as fruits. They are not capacities that can be willed. As Paul also noted, for all that he wanted it to be otherwise, he continued to do what he wouldn't do, and not do what he would - which in psychodynamic language is to say that he was influenced by his unconscious. Rather, the fruits are capacities that emerge as the individual or church is transformed. That is the source of renewal, and it is the practical details of this transformation process that western Christianity seems to lose sight of in the modern world, and with which psychotherapy can aid. In effect, the therapist says, you are forgiven for your hatred, greed and jealousy. Now we are free to explore the extent of such feelings in you, and why they have taken hold. As the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott put it, it is only when an individual knows about their 'vast reservoirs of unconscious hate' that they can also know they are loved, and so not be so ruled by their hate - or fear or anger. An older religious way of putting it would be to talk of being convicted of your sin, and then knowing the full extent of God's forgiveness. But this is the kind of language that does not quite work for most today. The psychodynamic notion of acceptance and exploration, though, might make more sense...
Saturday, October 5 2013
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, October 5 2013, 19:06 - Journalism
Have been doing a few short reviews at the TLS in recent weeks. The latest is Thich Nhat Hanh's The Art of Communicating, an intro to mindfulness. Here's a clip:
Books on mindfulness, including Nhat Hanh's, have begun to recognise that the psyches of Asian people, where mindfulness originates, tend to differ from those raised in the west. This has a major impact upon the effectiveness of its techniques.
To generalised: in the west, childhood is shaped by nuclear not extended families, which are also often broken. A particular kind of suffering arises should relatively isolated parents either not have enough time for their children, or project their unrealised hopes and fears onto them. Such children are trained in reacting to parental needs and so grow up out of touch with themselves. It causes what psychotherapists call narcissistic injuries, a profound inability to be content with oneself. A culture of distractions grows and reinforces the difficulty.
In Buddhist psychology, it is known as being in the realm of the hungry ghosts, who have extended bellies and tight throats, and are therefore unable to take in what would satisfy their longings. When it comes to mindfulness, particularly when practiced alone, the risk is that this basic predicament is left unaddressed. As a result, some teachers now recommend that mindfulness be coupled to psychotherapy.
Tuesday, September 17 2013
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, September 17 2013, 19:24 - General
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
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, July 23 2013, 10:33 - General
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.