This review is published in the new issue, and the last, of Third Way…
Desire has always been a problem in the church, perhaps the main problem. And yet, implies Sarah Coakley, this should come as no surprise. Christianity is, at heart, about the human desire for God. Her new book, which weaves together a series of talks and so provides a readable introduction to her theology, finds its focus in the flourishing of desire expressed in the Trinitarian understanding of God. It's a basic theological dynamic that Coakley argues individual Christians and church leaders alike repeatedly lose sight of when the desire for God is unleashed.
As it must be, because becoming a Christian begins with the yearning to know God called Father - the verb "know" meant in the Biblical sense: the most basic sense of knowing has always implied a union with what is known. As Paul intimated in the crucial eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, this yearning is discovered to actually be God's because, as Paul puts it, the Spirit groans within us with a desire too profound for words. It is God's longing for cosmic rebirth and renewal. But there's a crucial step that must now be taken. Desire must be purged if it is truly to know God. In particular, its inclination towards possessiveness must be converted into the kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. In short, in coming to know the Father by the energy of the Spirit, we become like Christ. At least, that is, when the transformation is going well.
A key figure for Coakley is Gregory of Nyssa. This fourth century Greek bishop offers an approach to desire that is radically different from those typically adopted in the western church. The latter has tended to faintheartedness in the face of the desires that the Spirit stirs. It has wanted to control and contain, within ecclesiastically enforced limits; it has been nervous of the sexual imagery that the exploration of desire inevitably requires because the desire for God is an erotic desire for more from life. But in Gregory, Coakley finds a fascinating figure who never recoils with distaste. And moreover, offers an approach to the transformation of desire that offers crucial leads for us today.
Take his first treatise, On Virginity. It is an arresting choice of subject because Gregory was married at the time he wrote it. The question arises as to how or why he so celebrated this virtue? The answer is that literal virginity is, for Gregory, the least interesting form of virginity. At its most developed, it is a state of mind in which all desires intentionally channel towards God. This means, for example, that simply being celibate is not nearly enough. In fact, the celibate who keeps his vow but turns to the bottle or becomes overbearingly churchy may be being less true to the Christian vocation than the married person who, through an exploration of desire in a faithful relationship with another, comes to a rich often painful understanding of the ups and downs of love.
Gregory had the advantage of being Greek and, therefore, of reading Plato. Plato realised that the palace of wisdom is found via the road of excess, as William Blake was subsequently to put it. In fact, the experience of falling in love may be a crucial first intimation of the path towards God. Think of what falling in love is like, Plato advises. It's wanting what is beautiful and good. At first, that's mistakenly over-identified with the newfound beloved, as becomes apparent in any relationship that matures. But that's not the important thing early on. Rather, it's that the individual has fallen for the alluring power of what's beautiful and good - the desires that can carry them to God.
It's a journey through the narrow gate, for sure. The shadow of love's dream is a nightmare, because it continually runs the risk of not getting what it wants, and so forcefully taking what it wants. That's why, in Christian terms, the possessiveness of love must be transformed into the pattern of Christ's love. But again, married life offers helpful models here. After all, what is the desire to have children if not the moreness of the love that originally wanted only the beloved, evolving into a kind of over-spilling of love that wants to share its love with the offspring of that love? If that has a Trinitarian feel to it - love over-spilling in love to share with the offspring of love - then that's because Trinitarian desire energies reality.
Discipline is crucial in all this, hence the new asceticism of Coakley's title. Without the purging, there is no fulfillment. But perhaps we need new resources to inspire the discipline, as the old ones so easily feel as if they are closing life down, not opening life up. Take the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when the goal of love is so quickly aligned with sexual consummation. But courtly love sought the more patient goals that asceticism at its best aims for too. The knight fell in love with an unavailable lady so that the love would be indefinitely delayed. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, he was transformed, becoming gentle, aware, kind - more Christlike. Love nurtures experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unaware.
Coakley's work is important because it goes to the heart of what we need to address in Christianity today - not just the problems faced by the church, but what might make Christianity attractive in a culture that yearns for the spiritual dimension and yet doesn't consider that the church has anything substantial to offer it. That's because, in many of the church's current manifestations, it doesn't. But the deep wisdom about desire that's in the tradition, and is always longing to be reawakened, can stir us all anew.
A debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard, on the virtues of Greece and Rome, recently drew an audience of thousands. Greek philosophy and classical history routinely secure primetime slots on TV and radio. Books on similar themes abound. The Classics hold a surprising fascination for we twenty-first century moderns.
And yet, contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless or aimless.
Maybe the likes of Johnson and Beard get nervous when it comes to gods or metaphysics. Reputations are at stake. But the loss of this crucial dynamic matters because it goes to the heart of much with which we today are struggling, from mental health to climate change. If the Greeks have anything for us, it might well be the element that has gone missing. And it's one that should concern Christians too.
Most of the media treats the Classics in much the same way as it treats matters from the history of science to issues in ethics: cut from the discussion is anything that fails to fit into a secular narrative. Take the presentation of the ancient philosophers. Broadly speaking, it's said that they developed human reason, overcame religious superstition, and thereby liberated the human mind. You could say: logic plus democracy equals progressive godlessness. Science and reason are treated as diamond-sharp tools that surgically unpick the myths and metaphysics of the past. Public discourse has developed an unthinking habit that pitches enlightenment against divinity.
But the ancient philosophers had an entirely different vision of things, one that might refresh our vision now. They saw reason as a gift that reveals an extraordinary truth: the human mind can share in a cosmic reality that far exceeds its own understanding. Reason's greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open onto transcendent vistas upon which the soul can gaze and feed. Consider how Lucretius celebrates Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, who is today often praised as a poster boy for modern atheism: "The keen force of his mind conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his soul." Ancient Epicureans kept their founder's birthday like a saint's day, and granted his request to honour his "holy body".
It's why Aristotle said that philosophy begins and ends in wonder not empirical evidence, or knock-out proofs, or self-consistent conclusions. It's why figures like Thales and Pythagoras rushed to the temple when they gained insights into magnets or music: they were not indulging superstitious customs that die hard, but were reframing religious practices as thanksgivings for sharing in the cosmic mind. Similarly, nature is not primarily for us to exploit, but rather for us to connect with and know - an attitude that it's clear we've lost, if you think about our failures to meet challenges such as climate change.
If we could regain the ancients' transcendent imagination, we might regain an immanent experience of our connection with nature. Caring for the environment might cease to feel like a moral burden and come to be felt as a joyful good. I suspect such a sensibility would make Christianity more attractive too: less a question of judging creedal probabilities about the resurrection or miracles; more a welcome to engage deeply in a felt sense of God.
To put it another way, what ancient philosophy offers is a pathway towards the transformation of your soul. Indeed, it nurtures the sense of having a soul, another perception that the secular narrative undermines. The soul can be likened to the liveliness of a poem — the very poetry, you might say. It is conveyed, but exceeds the material “body” of the poem, namely the words.
An undeveloped soul is like an unfinished poem. It's flat. It feels empty because its full potential is not realized. People are similar, the ancient philosophers realized. Only worse, they suffer from the emptiness too. The loss may manifest itself in addictions, or persistent and crippling anxieties, or a diminished and depressed sense of vitality. So they developed a range of practices - including meditations and visualizations, rituals and rites, community-living and reason - to awaken the soul. Many of these are becoming popular again, though sadly, often outside of Christian circles.
In fact, it's more accurate to think of ancient philosophers as monks and nuns. They lived a way of life that was dedicated to manifesting a vision of reality in their lives. Their therapy was not primarily designed to get you through the day. It was designed to release you from a restricted view of things in order to become aware of the deeper pulse upon which life rest, in which we live and move and have our being, as the Stoics used to say before St Paul borrowed the expression.
Again, this has direct implications for today. Take Stoicism. It's core advice was to learn to notice how you respond to what happens to you. It was the inspiration behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now widely available on the NHS. And yet, longitudinal studies of CBT's efficacy are increasingly showing that it does not deliver what it promised. The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why. If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.
Socrates became wise when he appreciated how little he understood. He realised that although the scientists of his day could theorize about the cosmos, and although the engineers of Athens could construct the Parthenon in nine impressive years, this ability to manipulate was being mistaken for wisdom about what the soul requires. He learnt that a civilisation's moment of greatest peril is when it is at its material peak. Human hubris then feels it can master all things, and exceed the ways of the gods. It's another lesson the Classics, in their fullness, might prompt us to consider.
I'm no luddite but there's something to understand in the anxiety immersive technologies provoke.
It's been a good couple of weeks for virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg put on a clean t-shirt and welcomed us to the future he knows we're all waiting for. It's going to change the way we work and communicate, he preached, making it sound exhausting: imagine your stuffed inbox impatient for attention not only in your pocket but winking in your field of view. VR headsets are set to revolutionize everything from horror movies to health care - except that at the same time, they may isolate us from one another, lost in solipsistic fantasies, with 3D porn addicts quelling panic attacks and nascent psychoses, the critics sigh.
Now, who can tell what the new technology will do. When the railways arrived in Camberwell, in 1872, resident John Ruskin called for his horse-drawn carriage and never returned. It was probably an overreaction. Then again, commuters from Denmark Hill may now half know what he feared. But it's worth trying to gain a sense of why the prospect of ubiquitous virtual reality feels unsettling; a risk. Forewarned is forearmed.
Martin Heidegger can help us. The German philosopher wrote an essay in 1954 entitled, The Question Concerning Technology. It pinpoints the crucial issue. The difficulty with technology, he said, is not that it enhances our lives. It does. Rather, it's that it radically prescribes the life it enhances in the process.
He realised as much on holiday, cruising on the Mediterranean. Pocket cameras were then the latest thing. And he noticed how the technology reframed the holiday experience. When the ship pulled into a new port, his fellow tourists were no longer excited about the sites they might see or the food they might eat. They pushed their way to the dockward side and gangplank in order to secure the best composition for a photograph. The trip was judged by the quality of snaps secured. Technology simultaneously enhanced the experience whilst also dramatically narrowing what the experience would be.
When he reflected further, Heidegger wondered whether the situation was worse. The ports of Cannes and Venice, Athens and Alexandria had ceased to be romantic places with a history and presence of their own, at which strangers might gaze and wonder. The technology transformed them into stage sets, with a value determined by their usefulness as a means of impressing envious family back home. The camera turned tourists in on themselves. It collapsed their worlds, strangling any openness to the numinosity of new destinations. The selfie stick, which shrinks the cosmos to a backdrop for me, is just the logical endpoint of the technology's quiet control.
The philosopher Jeremy Naydler applies Heidegger's warning to virtual reality, in an essay entitled, Living in the Shadow of the Machine. Technology increasingly hardens our forgetfulness of unmediated experiences, he argues. It makes us more dependent upon it by insisting that we orientate our lives towards it, rather than towards life itself. I suppose that's why people yearn not just for a smart phone but the latest smart phone. It's as if we're missing something without it. "A certain weakness insinuates itself into the soul," he continues, because our sense of equanimity is no longer secured in nature, God, or the soul but is toyed with by the relatively trifling and endlessly flickering dance on the screen.
Naydler notes that one of the most spooky VR developments comes courtesy of an experience called a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or CAVE for short. It's an immersive reality named after the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic. Only, whereas Plato argued we need to escape from the cave because its "reality" is merely shadows, CAVE invites us to remain perpetually as prisoners. Which most prisoners prefer, as in Plato's story.
Conversely, it's no surprise, then, that gardening and walking, house design and cooking boom in the silicon age. We gaze at growing grass and a setting sun in a daze of half-remembering that life can be embodied. Except that another technology already prescribed the experience for us. The TV. We watch others planting, creating. It's possible that the populous is actually gardening and cooking less, even as interest in the activities increases, because the technology has already narrowed the invitation: don't dig potatoes be couch potatoes.
That's the fear, then. That's the sense of trouble. Psychic fragmentation will be a constant threat as VR users resign their life and perhaps fatally neglect their ground.
In this new series of podcasts, Abigail Peters and I have a second discussion, this time about what a constellations workshop looks like. We discuss concepts like representation and the field, and explore how what unfolds in a workshop can be understood as therapy. The podcast is on iTunes or can be listened to here.
Love is understood as a flow of life in systemic therapy, which can be blocked when individuals become unconsciously confused by the ways in which the flow was hindered in their families. They can consciously experience that as difficulties in relationships, repeated patterns, and so on. The paradox is that seeing and acknowledging the system's difficulties with love frees the individual to receive the love that is there to resource them in their own life on-going. Download the conversation from iTunes here...
With thanks for the inspirational teaching on courtly love and Dante from Jeremy Naydler of the Temenos Academy.
The BBC is airing a documentary on the relationship between the former pope, now saint, John Paul II and the "sexually attractive" married academic Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. No-one's saying he asked her to be his Valentine. But the innuendo is clear. And speaks of a huge loss, I'd say, about how we now understand and imagine love.
These days, love gets sucked into the singularity of sexual action as relentlessly as light is sucked into a black hole. Since Freud, it's said, there's only one question to ask about eros: will it fall into bed? In truth, the founder of psychoanalysis realised exactly the opposite is true: human sexuality is so loaded with complications and meanings that coitus is usually the least interesting thing about it. He should be remembered for attempting to recover a far richer understanding of love which most of humanity, for most of history, had access to too.
Think of the experience of falling in love. You brush hands. A touch that yesterday would hardly have registered, now thrills you. You spot your beloved across the crowd: the face that previously would have blurred into the masses beams out like a star. You tell your friend about the discovery, an event that has turned your life inside out. They sit silently, indulgently whilst musing: hmm, sounds alright.
It's as if you're given a second sight, double vision. The beloved is no longer only a member of the species homo sapiens, a sample from the population sociologists call humans. They are an individual, uniquely offering happiness, pleasure, excitement, promise. When you venture to say, I love you, the words that billions have borrowed before carry a message that's yours, way in excess of the familiar formula. You no longer see a face, you know a soul. You aren't alongside, you are in a presence. You no longer feel flesh, you are embraced by the universe.
We need to take notice of these implicit, hidden senses when they ignite. Love prompts their ecstasy, even in the age that officially trusts only the empirical, instrumental, measureable. Lovers idle away the hours and, economically, they uselessly waste time. But to those whose eyes have been opened, idling the days in the company of love cannot be better spent. It is to embark on a transformative journey of depth.
It was celebrated in the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when we want mostly to know what the pope and the academic did next. But courtly love sought more patient goals. The knight fell in love with an unavailable, married lady so that the love couldn't be consummated. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, the knight became gentle, aware, kind. The beloved nurtured experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unconscious. It was as if she became the lost half of his own soul. When he saw her, he might realise that he did not want her but rather what she graciously channeled and conveyed. That's why Beatrice berates Dante when he finally catches up with her on the doorstep of heaven. Did you not see, she sighs? When you glimpsed me and I glanced at you, that glimpse and glance were like a knife slicing open the subtle path to paradise?
But now is the time of "single vision and Newton's sleep", to quote William Blake. Eros struggles to open the double vision Blake testifies his eyes "do see". Only, perhaps Valentine's Day gives us pause. Maybe it holds out the hope that love's power remains. Implicit in the expensive roses, the red cards, the potent sentiments lies love's alternative potential. Eyes meet and the inner beloved may be awoken. Yearnings might be detected that do not collapse onto the sexual. The hope could be not for a lover but a soulmate.
Nurture that moment. Suffer the suspense. A mystical eroticism can fulfill not just physical desires but spiritual aspirations. "Love is unto itself a higher law," wrote Boethius after Lady Philosophy appeared to him in prison. "How happy is mankind, if the love that orders the stars above rules, too, in their hearts."
We look at how we are not individuals but rather are more like nodes in networks: we are connected across living systems of families, organisations, cultures and spiritual traditions. The discussion focuses particularly on family constellations therapy, a way of examining how blocks and difficulties in life can be related to elements that we have taken on board from others. Rupert examines how this idea of inherited unconscious memory reveals what he has investigated as morphic fields. Mark asks how what is revealed in constellations workshops can be related to insights that can be traced back through psychotherapy to Plato and before.
The new Idler magazine is launched today. I've a piece on Socrates and his unexpected relationship with the priestess Diotima. Plato says she was key to his life. You'll hardly hear her discussed by philosophers today.
Constellations is a type of therapy that provides a way of looking at the issues we experience in life as a puzzle, or block, or struggle, or anxiety. They might be personal or work-related, to do with relationships or past events.
Participants in constellations workshops frequently find what emerges to be unexpected, illuminating and liberating. To attend a workshop, you do not need to have a particular issue in mind. In fact, during a workshop only 5 or so participants will have a chance directly to look at their question. But other members of the group can be involved during the course of the day and, in fact, often find that they indirectly gain great benefit from being so. It explores how each of us belongs to networks of other people, times and places, with whom our lives are intimately bound.
To put it a little more technically, constellations is a systemic therapy: it looks at our experience of life as the product of wider family and cultural systems. Things can become difficult or go wrong when our place in these systems becomes problematic for one reason or another - perhaps because of family secrets, traumatic events, injustices, or relationship breakdowns. It's an aspect of our existence that is crucial and yet infrequently considered in our otherwise rather individual-focused times.
I can honestly say that it will be fascinating and moving. These events always are. If you have an interest in the inner life and unconscious processes, you will be engaged. You can participate as an observer, as a representation, or as an issue-holder - the level at which you bring something personally that you would like to explore.
Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing dreams - discerning dreams, precognitive dreams, telepathic dreams, dreams as accessing the unconscious. We explore how to develop practices of paying attention to dreams, and what they might show - personally and spiritually. And we ask whether taking dreams seriously inspired metaphysics and philosophy, via the tradition of incubation, practiced by figures including Parmenides.
You'll know the joke about the lost traveler who asks a local for directions. The local replies: Well, I wouldn't start from here.
The joke works because it reflects a profound human trait. We nurture hopes and dreams, set goals and make resolutions, fixed on where we want to be. It's a tendency that becomes manic at the turn of the year. If only we didn't have to be here, now. We humans will go a long way to deny or avoid it.
It's not a modern issue. The ancient Greek philosophers identified it as a fundamental problem because it blocks human transformation. Take the Stoics. There's a clue in the name, which they got not because they celebrated the supposed virtues of the stiff-upper lip but because they taught in the stoa - the shady colonnades of the Athenian marketplace.
The stoa are found in the midst of life. Like the high street or workplace this is where people routinely, mundanely find themselves to be. And this place - right here, right now - is replete with opportunities to practice the Stoic philosophy of change. It's not what happens to you that matters, but how you respond to what happens. Attend to that and the future will be different, they promised.
Take Epictetus, the Roman Stoic whose books survive because early Christians thought they provided an essential primer to anyone who sought the future promised by Jesus Christ. Epictetus asks us to consider what happens when, say, we're in the queue at the cabbage stall. You've joined that queue because the cabbages are on sale at half price. But just as you get to the front, the half price cabbages run out. What happens next?
It's a potentially life-changing moment, Epictetus explains. How do you react? Are you angry? Are you downhearted? Are you indifferent? It doesn't really matter. The point is that if you notice how you feel, you've taken the first step into a different future because you haven't habitually reacted. And it comes about because you've been able to tolerate the moment.
You could say that the Stoics argued the future is not found tomorrow. It's found today. Don't keep asking to be somewhere else. That's the existential equivalent of the local whose advice is not to start from here.
It sounds obvious. But try it. It's remarkably hard to do. And I think even more so in the modern world which is orientated towards the future to an extent our forebears couldn't have possibly imagined. Much of our economic life serves a longed-for tomorrow - when we've paid off the mortgage, reduced the national debt, can cash-in on a pension. Much of our personal life is lived similarly. I read that many people spend the new year thumbing catalogues showing sunny beaches and turquoise skies - before booking a summer holiday. Imaginatively too, the world has gone future crazy. Gizmos are sold not simply because of what they can do, but because they offer a foretaste of the better technological tomorrow guaranteed by human progress. We tire of them so quickly and have to purchase the upgrade because they leave us bereft, stranded with the reality of today.
It's a serious spiritual issue. It sends people to hell, according to Dante. In his Divine Comedy, he realises that the condemned are trapped and tortured by their obsession with their past, and by their fears for the future. The present eludes them and so nothing can change.
Sigmund Freud re-described the state of affairs in what he called the repetition compulsion. Have a look. It's shocking to realise how much of your energy actually results in things staying precisely the same. We repeat ourselves, time and time again.
In a paradoxical way, the ancient philosophers concluded that you need to forget the future to have a future. Know thyself now, was Socrates' way of putting it. Many first Christians agreed. St Luke wrote that the kingdom of God is not coming: it's already within you.
You have to trust the present to go with that. And I suppose that's another problem for we moderns - particularly amidst the hype and hopes of a new year.
Angels are everywhere at Christmas. They are on the high street and in carols. They float atop trees with wings as drifted-snow, to recall Christina Rossetti's lovely description.
But, given they are swooping and swirling in the seasonal darkness, what might we make of them? Do they merely add sparkle, like tinsel? Should they be demythologized, like the Druid's "new dawn" of the winter solstice? Well, intelligent people over many centuries have encountered something real in the angels. So hold off the scepticism for a paragraph or two...
A way into experiencing the angels is offered by looking at their prehistory. Angels can be linked to the ancient Greek entities called daemons. These weren't bad guys, as the modern word "demon" implies. Rather, they were simply go-betweens. They mediated forces and intuitions between different realms, particularly the realms of mortals and gods.
Socrates had a daemon, according to several different sources, a bit like a guardian angel. It was partly this access to seemingly otherworldly wisdom that caused him so much trouble at his trial, when he was condemned to death for 'introducing new gods to the city', a treasonous offence during times of civic unrest and war.
What's fascinating now is how his daemon communicated with him. Socrates said that it always spoke in the negative. It would tell him not to do this, or not to do that. Sometimes the messages were apparently trivial like don't leave, though not doing so led to a fruitful encounter. At other times the messages were life-changing or life-threatening. The daemon told him not to escape from prison whilst he was awaiting execution, as he easily could have done.
Socrates did not think to disobey his daemon. By the time of his death, in relative old age, he was too used to it being right. And then he realised why he should follow it, drink the hemlock and die. The manner of his death would be the greatest testament to what he had come to know. The tangible life we can see and touch, and which passes away, is only the most immediate dimension of a depth in life - the depth from which his daemon spoke in its enigmatic voice.
Contact with daemon-angels led some to regard Socrates as a magician. In the Symposium, Plato portrays Socrates as a person who had become so familiar with the work of the daemons that he too had gained the power to mediate between the visible and the invisible. But what's striking about Socrates' magical powers, his angel-like convictions, is that they arise not because he can mysteriously influence and change the world around him. Rather, he himself had been changed. He had undergone the transformation promised by philosophy. He could read the world at depth and so engage with life at a level that to others seemed uncanny. I thought the stage magician, Derren Brown, recently caught this spirit when he described how philosophy for him was about being porous to life.
How might we experience the angels today? Music is one way, which is perhaps why it is so closely associated with angels, not least at Christmas. Plato regarded music as a daemonic "science of the erotics", a notion that immediately makes sense when you recall Noel Coward's remark: "strange how potent cheap music is." Music moves us, obviously and bluntly when Robbie Williams power-ballads through Angels, or a gentle choir croons Away In A Manger. Plato called such music "the love of the streets", noting that whilst its potency is strong, it also dissipates fast.
To preserve the effects of music's more subtle messages - to be open to the angel-like muses winging on the harmony - you need to learn to absorb the nuances of melodies. Can you distinguish between the drifting Hypodorian mode (an example is REM's, Losing My Religion) and the heavenly Lydian (opening cord of The Simpson's theme)? Does the excitement of the Mixolydian (the Star Trek theme) offer a different energy to the fiery Phrygian (think Rimsky Korsakov's, Sheherazade)? To sink into these tunes, allowing them to lift and saturate you, is to experience the shifts of the divine in nature, also known as the daemons or angels, Plato suggests. It's to let go of the distractions of the visible realm, and feel the tugs and pulls of the invisible.
The angels are, therefore, experienced when we respond. This is the most obvious way that angels are encountered in the Christian tradition. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and she utters her momentous, Be it unto me according to thy word. The angels put on a celestial show for the shepherds, and they hurry to Bethlehem. Angels offer numerous warnings in the Christmas story too, notably to Joseph and the Magi. A bit like Socrates' daemon, the angels tell them what not to do: do not stay put; do not drop in again at Herod's court.
Call it intuition, call it an inner voice. I don't think it really matters because response is the key for the angels. They won't be proven. But their presence can be known when the flow of life shifts so that it's not just me making my mark on the world, but the world being allowed to make its mark in me. Examine yourself, Socrates advises, not to find yourself but to understand how you get in the way of this bigger sense of life.
Even when they provoke fearfulness, as forces and perceptions beyond oneself do, it's possible to discern and trust them. It's an intriguing possibility to test in the season of the angels.
My short review of Terry Eagleton's latest book in the Church Times.
On every page of this study of hope, which arose from a series of four lectures, there are a dozen reflections that would each merit contemplation. It makes for a dazzling read, though one regularly punctuated by Eagleton's trademark down-to-earth witticisms. Take this line, almost at random, from the first chapter, which demolishes the optimism and faith in inevitable human progress often associated with contemporary atheistic humanism. "Progress would seem as irresistible as arthritis. We are as helpless before its unrolling as a badger before a bulldozer."
Much of the book explores the nature of hope and, for Eagleton, that is closely associated with a tragic view of human life, one in which destruction runs alongside advance; horrors alongside joys. In this frame, hope is what remains when everything else of humanity has been hacked away. It is for this reason that hope is a virtue, and lies at the heart of Christianity. "What need is there for hope when one can be author of oneself?" he asks. Rather, hope is like faith in that it calls for self-abandonment, a commitment to that which is beyond one's control. "The Abraham who takes a knife to his son's throat has hope."
In other words, you cannot hope for what you are sure will happen. But, conversely, you can rest sure in your hope. Such fundamental hope is a commitment to a view of the good that transcends any ability to grasp that good. And again, this is not to turn a blind eye to despair or terror. There is no resurrection that is not embedded in crucifixion. Eagleton: "...though death is an outrage, it is only by bowing to its necessity, in an act of self-dispossession which is at the same time the inner structure of love, that its sting can be drawn." "Hope in this sense is not a question of wishful thinking but of joyful expectation," he continues.
In what does Eagleton himself hope: the divine grace of Christian faith that builds on human nature and transfigures it, or the open contingencies of history that can always change for the better as well as the worse? He leaves readers guessing perhaps because, like Marx, he has a constitutional dislike of speculative metaphysics. And maybe it's a helpful stance. It enables him to articulate the Christian vision more precisely than many Christian writers.
Drear nighted. That’s how Keats described December. Grey light. Brief days. Wind whistling through empty trees. Water frozen and forgetful of “Apollo’s summer look”. It’s the month in which time slows to the still point of the solstice as if it dies.
Philosophy was about learning how to die, according to the ancient Greeks. The cycle of the seasons at this time of year offers support in the task. Crunch a stiff leaf underfoot. Watch the sun sink at teatime. Dying is all around. But can this be more than a depressing pause and the key to a flourishing life?
The philosophers’ point, in part, is that, obviously, death is a fixture that awaits us all, like the end of the year. Instead of avoiding it, in the hopeless attempt to possess and grip onto life, they promise that a fruitful embrace of death is possible. The trick is to see that “life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements, if it were all well invested,” explains the Stoic, Seneca, in his marvellous essay, “On The Shortness Of Life”.
His fellow Stoic and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, put it pithily: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” That’s the hope behind New Year’s resolutions: the desire to begin again follows on closely from a foretaste of the end and a recollection of what’s been wasted.
But the philosophers are not just interested in advice and therapy. They go further, much further. They argue that death is a pathway. Yes, learning how to die can show you how to live more fully. But it also opens the eye of the soul to an experience of life that exceeds all mundane goals and hopes.
Stoics and Platonists, Epicureans and Sceptics, sensed themselves to be composed of three parts. The first – the body – is one’s manifest presence in the world. It’s the part that rises and falls like the seasons. It’s unfailingly obedient to the determined course of natural life. It’s born, it lives, it dies.
The second part – the soul – is the dynamic that affords living creatures a life that is not solely determined by the rule-bound body. Human beings have a particularly rich soul-life. We experience it when we imagine, when we long, when we act, when we love. The soul means we not only depend upon but can work with nature. The soul loves to hear lines from Keats’ poem and it expands when it understands December is not only grey and cold but, more evocatively, drear nighted.
And that soulful sense can awaken a perception of the third part – the nous or mind. That’s known when we become aware that we are aware of the depth of experience. And then, with that self-awareness, can come a sense that is radically unexpected: we realise we are not simply enfolded in the drear nighted month but can step back inside, and know the cycles of life from a place that is beyond their passing. To put it another way, nous detects eternity. It can contemplate as well as be immersed in life. It’s what Aristotle called our immortal part; the Stoics our divine seed; the Platonists our kinship with the good, beautiful, and true.
Many feel they occasionally glimpse this dimension of existence. It’s called a peak experience, an oceanic feeling, a moment of egolessness. But philosophers taught that, with practice, it’s possible to know it permanently. Life can be lived with a steady consciousness of the ground of being that sustains life. The Roman poet, Lucretius, described how his philosopher-guru, Epicurus, had reached this state: “The keen force of his nous conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his mind and soul, whence, a conqueror, he brought back to us the account of what can arise and what cannot.”
What it involves is a kind of dying – dying to a life obsessed with the anxieties of the fragile body; dying to the dreams and hopes of the aspiring soul. With that death a shift of perspective arises and we can know ourselves as we truly are: “You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? You are bearing God about with you, and know it not!” as Epictetus the Stoic put it.
It’s why Socrates, on the last day of his bodily life, told his followers that he did not fear death. Death is presumably a passing fully into the life that he spent his bodily life seeking. “It would be absurd if a man who had been all his life fitting himself to live as nearly in a state of death as he could, should then be disturbed when death came to him,” he wittily explains.
But it’s still a death. The fears of the body are tenacious, often unconscious. The longings of the soul are powerful. To complicate things further, they are not bad in themselves and are often pretty good. What leads us astray is when we identify with them and lock onto them and mistake them for the fullness of life. With that, we lose awareness of the best we can know. Philosophy is learning to die to that attachment. It’s realising, even in December, that we are already astonishingly alive.
This is a slightly amended version of the piece published at The Guardian.
The unconscious has had a bumpy century since Sigmund Freud first described the extent of his discoveries in a seminal paper published 100 years ago this month. Sceptics sneer at its mention, assuming it's as discreditable as penis envy. Others, who sense the father of psychoanalysis was onto something, prefer to hedge their bets and not be tarnished by Freud's mixed reputation: they refer limply to the subliminal or subconscious. But it could be that the 21st century sees his insights become mainstream and flourish.
The reasons are, broadly, twofold: science and necessity. First, neuroscience has demonstrated conclusively that there's way more going on in the mind than the owners of those minds are generally aware. Mark Solms, a professor of neuropsychology and psychoanalyst who has pioneered much of the effort to test Freud's findings against the neuroscientific, often points out that the conscious mind is capable of attending to six or seven things at once, whilst the rest of the nervous system is performing thousands. In that light, it seems perverse to deny that much of psychic life lies over the horizon of our awareness, doubly so when you consider experiences such as dreaming and slips of the tongue, or ordeals from infancy that can't be remembered and yet demonstrably shape adult life.
So the real debate, today, is whether the mechanisms Freud ascribed to the unconscious - the so-called dynamic unconscious - were right. Take repression, the purposeful forgetting of memories that subsequently return as neurotic or psychotic symptoms. Freud argued this happens because an experience or thought is unpalatable or overwhelming, whereas cognitive psychology tends to resist such a notion. It prefers a static conception of unconscious contents. Memories can be lost, for sure, and linked to unexplained symptoms. But those symptoms cannot be read in meaningful or symbolic ways as Freud and his followers have contrived in the talking cure.
The science, though, is building to challenge this view. One line of research examines certain amnesic conditions in which patients fabricate memories and deny they can't recall what actually happened. Such confabulations have been shown to follow the rules that Freud identified in a dynamic unconscious. They carry meaning. Alternatively, there are suffers with paraphasia, a syndrome in which forgotten words are substituted by others. The substitutions similarly show patterns that mirror those Freud detected in dreams and slips. The evidence is that repression is a key characteristic of the unconscious.
The second reason that the unconscious is worth exploring has to do with medical necessity. Take the phenomenon of medically unexplained symptoms. These are widespread and everyday. In her recent book, It's All in Your Head, neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan reports that up to a third of people who go to the doctor have them. Their distress is real; the patient is not making it up. And yet no biological cause can be found. When you consider how much this costs - one study for somatising disorders estimates £3 billion for the NHS - it's clear that any reasonable candidate for explanation should be investigated with urgency.
The unconscious is one candidate and conversion disorders provide a case in point. Formerly known as hysteria, these too are remarkably prevalent. All neurology clinics, for example, see many individuals with lives severely limited by seizures but for whom an EEG reveals no epileptic activity in the brain: some estimates put it at about half of these patients. Other individuals will be impaired by breathlessness, blindness, pain, paralysis. As O'Sullivan admits, even though there's now technology to see inside the brain, the science is barely providing leads, let alone explanations.
But Freud's central idea on conversion disorders - namely that a trauma, or perceived trauma, lies at the origin - is now routinely shown to have clinical efficacy. At a recent debate on this subject at the Freud Museum in London, Richard Kanaan, a neuropsychiatrist, and Stephanie Howlett, a psychotherapist, made the case. When you examine patient histories carefully, which of course takes time, training and money, the dissociations and meaning of the symptoms often emerge. They advise treating patients across disciplines: Howlett works in conjunction with psychologists, physiotherapists and neurologists. As Kanaan put it, if Freud had referred to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) rather than hysteria, he would now be remembered as a pioneering hero.
No-one is saying that the unconscious is a magic bullet. These are often complex conditions with complex aetiologies. Freud himself stressed that working with the unconscious is painstaking precisely because it is unconscious. Further, psychoanalysis has itself radically revised Freud's original conclusions. But it now holds a century of wisdom on engaging this hidden and sometimes devastatingly powerful part of ourselves. Freud believed his work was only a beginning. Scientific research and sheer human need suggest we should energetically continue what he started.
A few more thoughts, prompted by Byung-Chul Han's thesis that we live in an age of hyperachievement, positivity and therefore depression and anxiety, as he outlines in The Burnout Society. This is from a review in the new Third Way.
A fascinating theme in the book is how such social and cultural factors shape our psyches and spiritual lives. Han argues that Freud's assumptions about the unconscious are now out of date. The father of psychoanalysis lived in what the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, was subsequently to label the "disciplinary society". In such a culture, individuals self-correct in the attempt to remain on the right side of moral assumptions - to be normal not abnormal, sane not insane, law-abiding not rule-breaking. We routinely monitor ourselves, as if we were living under constant surveillance. The psychoanalytic product is the superego, that inner voice or regulator which escalates the anxiety as rules and regulations are approached or breached. But now, as an achievement society, the imperative to inhibit yourself has given way to an imperative to produce yourself. "Shouldn't" has been replaced by "can".
If the punishing superego of the disciplinary society has become less powerful, Han is not clear on the nature of the psychic structures of the achievement society. A first thought might be that ours is an addictive psyche shaped by the pleasure principle - and simultaneously overwhelmed by the narcissistic wounds that inevitable follow from being unable always to do, to thrive, to achieve, to flourish.
Another thought is that Freud's erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, has something constructive to offer here. He argued that individuals today need not to perfect themselves but to complete themselves. His vision of the psyche is shaped by a longing to integrate from within it's own resources, and conversely, of avoiding the mistakes and disasters that come from trying to replicate an ideal. "Before we strive after perfection, we ought to be able to live the ordinary man without self-mutilation," Jung wrote in a letter. "If anybody should find himself after his humble completion still left with a sufficient amount of energy, then he may begin his career as a saint."
Such cultural changes also have implications for how we conceive of God. In a disciplinary society, God tends to be viewed as an omnipotent moral being who punishes and condemns, or is pleased and blesses, when his disciples fulfill their duties and tasks. If those imperatives are carried out at cost to the individual, God smiles all the more broadly.
But now, in an achievement society, the dominant image of God will have shifted. The God-image is perhaps now an omnipresent loving being who bestows rewards and riches, happiness and ecstasy. Again, this is too much for mere mortals, and so contemporary theists suffer from guilt not because of what they are not doing but because of what they are not experiencing: the life of the joyful redeemed. This insight might help explain the spread of charismatic movements that tend to emphasize what God has achieved for humanity, and whose meetings are organized around replicating and sustaining the highs - making burnout, once more, almost inevitable.
An alternative view of God, Han argues, is the God of the Sabbath - the holy day on which we are invited not to achieve, not to produce, but to stop. It's a day not to. It's an interval in which uselessness and idleness is celebrated. We can be tired on the Sabbath, a tiredness that Han concludes is a blessing because yielding to it precipitates peace and calm.
Moreover, in a surprising discussion of Pentecost, Han argues that it was the disciples' exhaustion after the events of Good Friday and Easter that prepared them for the open-heartedness required to receive the Spirit. Tired, their defenses and barriers collapsed. Exhausted, they had no energy left. Breathless, they could be inspired - breathed into. Pentecost as shattered. It offers a radical vision for a church which, today, often seems identified with the secular demand to achieve, to unthinkingly intone, "yes we can".
THE unconscious is 100 years old this month — counting the publication of Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “The Unconscious” as its birthday. Of course, the unconscious is as old as the psyche, and Freud, too, had been working on it for some years before 1915. His investigations into dreams and hypnosis, hysteria and neurosis demanded it, and he felt that a systematic model was needed.
It is striking how much of Freud’s 1915 description has a religious feel to it. For example, he argues that the processes that take place in the human unconscious have a timeless quality. “They are not ordered temporarily, are not altered by the passage of time.”
They are eternal, in the strict sense — outside time. Freud had stumbled across an experience of life that matched the psalmist’s description of God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday” (Psalm 90.4).
Human beings do not live for millennia, but they do live for decades, and psychoanalysis was showing that, in the human mind, the experiences of decades ago have as much vitality as those of yesterday. We have an eternal dimension, too.
It is a finding subsequently substantiated in John Bowlby’s attachment theory: how we experience love and holding in our earliest years, which we cannot consciously remember, influences how we experience love and being held as adults.
This is one reason why, in spite of Freud’s antipathy to religion, psychoanalysis has always had a spiritual feel. Psychodynamic therapy puts the individual in touch with a side of himself or herself which is utterly mysterious to a materialist frame of reference. Yet there is no doubt that it is real.
ANOTHER remarkable observation that Freud makes is that one unconscious can communicate with another, without either individual necessarily realising it. Freud did not know what to make of this aspect in 1915. It subsequently became one of the keystones of psychotherapy, in “transference”: the unspoken felt exchanges that take place between client and therapist, which the therapist has learnt to notice and interpret.
For the spiritually minded, Freud’s observation offers one way of understanding how the immaterial and material worlds interact. It is as if we live in fields of psychic energy which affect us as much as the fields of electromagnetic energy which surround us, also known as darkness and light. We exist in webs of feeling and meaning, for good or ill. We become who we are in response to those who are physically and psychically close. Roughly speaking, communications from benign sources develop the soul; malignancy makes the soul contract.
IT IS clear from research in transgenerational trauma that our ancestors have an impact on us, too. The dead do not simply die. The unconscious can be a way of conceptualising how God and even the angels might shape us as well.
As the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, preached at Michaelmas this year: “Thoughts and notions may come from outside us: our lowest, our destructive ideas, from the source of evil; our highest, our saving notions, from the message of the angels, from our loving Father God.”
That is not language that Freud would use; but he did go on to posit death and life drives, welling up from the unconscious.
Another remark in his 1915 essay carries echoes of how mystics have conceptualised the divine. Opposites and paradoxes are present without contradiction in the unconscious, Freud observed. It is why in dreams we can fly, and why there is a part of us more amenable to poetry than reason.
Theology, too, is full of opposites and paradoxes. God is three in one. The divine can be conceived of simultaneously as creator, shepherd, fire, wisdom. “It might be fruitful to offer the model of the unconscious as one which does better justice to the notion of God within his creation, to the intimate closeness of the infinite which faith also values,” proposes Rodney Bomford, the author of The Symmetry of God (Free Association Books, 1999).
Yes, there are significant differences between God and the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious often feels a dark, oppressive place — although his erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, realised that the unconscious has an expansive and liberating energy, too. God is not the unconscious. Yet studying the unconscious helps the imagination to open to the divine mystery.
FINALLY, the unconscious can assist in understanding pastoral aspects of spirituality. In a footnote to his essay, Freud writes: “The unconscious act exerts on somatic processes an influence of intense plastic power which the conscious act can never do.” To use other terms, the unconscious may lie behind psychosomatic illnesses.
Whatever the causes, which are hotly contested, somatising disorders are widespread: one recent study estimated that the NHS spends £3 billion each year on unexplained symptoms. The unconscious will not account for it all, but there is an urgent need to acknowledge its reach.
Churches and other spiritual buildings are important here. They are known as “brick mothers” in psychotherapeutic circles — structures that transmit feelings of safety and healing. They can be thought of as places that precipitate, and even store, the curative powers of the unconscious, much as buried trauma can conversely cause such psychic and somatic distress.
It helps to explain how churches can assist in supporting improvements in mental health, such as the one promoted by the Recovery Friendly Church course, an initiative developed in a collaboration between St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham, and the Recovery College of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.
The founder of psychoanalysis is not often thought of as a friend of religion. But read him more closely: his curiosity concerning the dynamics of the human soul produces reasons for confidence in, as well as the development of, the insights of generations of people of faith.
I've been wondering whether psychodynamic insights have anything to offer in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris. And I've found the writings of John Lord Alderdice, a former speaker in the Northern Irish assembly, who is also a psychoanalyst. I think he has crucial and fascinating things to say about understanding terrorism that draw on his two areas of hard-won expertise (see, Alderdice, J.L. (2005). Understanding Terrorism: The Inner World and the Wider World. Brit. J. Psychother, 21:577-587).
Key insights from psychoanalysis need to be brought to bear on our responses to terrorism, he argues. First and foremost: it is not behaviour or thoughts that give potency to the experiences of life, but emotions and meanings. Further, these emotions and meanings are typically derived from the past, not least when that past is marked by hurt and abuse.
Relatedly, the emotional impact of the past is felt as powerfully today in the present, especially when it has not been acknowledged or understood. Further, there are few past experiences that have more purchase on the present than those of humiliation. The desire for vengeance and the righting of wrongs can shape an entire life. They also have a particular power to generate violence because of the need to see an aggressor experience the humiliation that the aggressor is perceived to have inflicted.
A further insight is the victim/perpetrator dynamic. Victimhood often - not always - develops a sadomasochistic quality. The victim grows up in an environment in which the currency of communication is the exchange of pain. It's possible that no other currency of communication can be imagined. Hence, the dynamic can be perpetuated down the generations.
How might these be applied to terrorism? Here are seven points.
First, responses that appeal to rationality, such as "why can't these people see reason?", simply and fatally misunderstand what's going on. As Alderdice puts it: "The outsider from a stable society regards the damage of communal violence as self-evidently not in the interests of either individuals or the society, and often they feel sure that people can be made to ‘see sense’. The insider understands that this view fails to appreciate the weakness of such rational argument in the face of profound violence. "The terrorist has a profound need to make the perceived aggressor feel the humiliation that they felt.
A different rationally-based response that is equally useless is the socio-economic one, in particular, the idea that terrorism has to do with poverty. As a matter of fact, terrorism tends to arise in states that are on their way out of poverty. Bin Laden was a wealthy man. It is at the point of improvement, Alderdice notes, that things become vulnerable to violent breakdown.
So, mechanisms other than socio-economic rationality are at play. What they might be can be illuminated by noticing that the tragic victims of terrorism are not the real targets. Rather, the victims are a way of getting at an authority, usually a government. You see this most clearly in suicide bombing where the victim is, in part, the terrorist's own body. But suicide bombing gets at the authority via the fear it generates. In other words, terrorism needs to be understood as motivated by meaning rather than by personal betterment.
Second, there is the need to understand the immense impact of the past, with all it's emotion and meaning. Such emotions and meanings cannot simply be set aside. Alderdice writes: "The set of thoughts and feelings that has impressed me as most significant in generating violence has to do with experiences of disrespect and humiliation." The desire to be treated with respect is "insatiable".
Moreover, those experiences of disrespect and humiliation may be in the apparently distant past. Psychoanalysis shows that, contrary to the popular view, time is often no healer. The point here is that terrorism can feed on identifications with past or historic victims, and/or inner conflicts that the individual carries from the past. These feed a justification of righteous violence. "The sense that the very existence of a community and all that it holds dear has been threatened provokes deep fears and creates a capacity for responses at least as violent as those which it has experienced." Or as Alderdice puts it in relation to Northern Irish terrorism in particular: "Joining a terrorist organization was consciously seen both as a way of protecting their community and satisfying the wish for revenge for the death or injury of their loved ones"
Third, terrorists may be following rules that pertain more to the unconscious than conscious world - the world of dreams, you might say. It's driven by basic feelings of hatred and rage, or pleasure and elation; by uncomplicated associations that lack nuance and deploy sweeping symbolisms; by wish fulfillments; by a false sense of freedom from the strictures of waking reality, space and time. Alderdice suggests that describing terrorists as fundamentalists can be misguiding here. He prefers the word "primitive" meant in the psychoanalytic sense, like that of a child who refuses to be comforted and screams out of sheer rage.
More complicated still, the child may grow to enjoy its rage because it delivers a secondary gain: being able to control the parent. So too, terrorism delivers secondary gains in terms of feelings of omnipotence: being able to command the world stage. Further again, like parents who must contain the screams of their child and resist being drawn into its primitive world, governments and societies faced with terrorism must resist cultivating primitive feelings and actions in response.
Fourth, Alderdice argues that whilst there may be the need at times to contain the terrorism with violence, violence that is presented as punishment or vengeance will not work. To put it another way, shoot-to-kill will not in itself deter. This is because of the need in terrorism to avenge perceived humiliations. So such actions by a strong government feeds the rage of the self-perceived weak, and further, makes the actions of the weak seem all the more honourable in the minds of those who share the humiliation.
Fifth, there are dire periods of communal violence that can be likened to the most difficult stages of psychotic illness, when the only response is one of containment and trying to minimize damage. "Communities (shaped by terrorism) are in thrall to enormously powerful feelings that can overwhelm their capacity to think clearly and act constructively."
Six, a stage will arrive when it's possible to think more clearly and act constructively, and then everything must be on the table; be capable of being talked about. There must be no no-go areas. This radical honesty and openness lay behind the successes of the truth and reconciliation activities in South Africa. Alderdice argues that it is lacking in the context of the Middle East.
Seven - and in a way to return to the first - appealing to long term solutions is usually of limited help, because emotion is the real issue. "People who propose peace plans in such circumstances seem to be living with the unstated assumption that if the ‘right plan’ could be invented everyone would suddenly grasp it with relief and implement it. Of course this is an illusion. It is not the content of a solution that is critical but the process of achieving it."
Like psychotherapy, the diagnosis of the problem is of limited use: it's the working through which is transformational. To put it another way, we must learn to tolerate the long game and be prepared to invest accordingly.
This month marks the centenary of Sigmund Freud's seminal 1915 paper on the unconscious. In this episode of Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake and myself discuss Freud's understanding of this dynamic, hidden part of the human psyche. We look at the different ideas of Carl Jung, and also ask how the unconscious links to perceptions of the soul and morphic fields.