This is a slightly longer version of a piece that is up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...
Are our centuries of technological innovation remolding us culturally? Are we becoming a new species, spiritually speaking, so that the inner lives of future generations will seem as strange and elusive as Paleolithic man's is to us? Are we living in a new axial age?
The question is posed in a collection of essays, edited by the American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah. With his colleague, Hans Joas, The Axial Age and Its Consequences probes the implications of this thesis in the history of ideas, first named by the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers.
The first Axial Age, it is said, ran across the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE. It marked a transformative time in human experience, broadly accepted now by sociologists of religion, which can be summarized as an inward turn and a discovery of transcendence. So, in this period the Hebrew prophets declared that God was more concerned with attitudes of heart than with bloody rituals in the Temple. Not long after, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - that extraordinary procession of master and pupil - "brought philosophy down from the heavens": they were gripped by the nature of the human condition. The Buddha probably lived at the same time as Socrates, attempting reform of the religions of India by his attention to human suffering and desire. Confucianism and Daoism were born too, creating between them a rich dialectic of humanist rationalism and spiritual non-rationalism in China.
"To generalize is to be an idiot," observed William Blake in a presumably self-conscious generalization. So duly warned, are ours axial times too?
Jaspers noted that in the period around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth blossomed "superstition in manifold guises, doctrines of salvation of the most extraordinary kinds, circles gathered round peripatetic preachers, therapists, poets and prophets, in an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion..." Sound familiar? Further, continued Jaspers, this riotous marketplace of ideas eroded the moral substructure of society: enjoyment was pursued for its own sake, and slaves, the poor and the vanquished were left to rot. It took Christianity to replace the chaos with vision and purpose - Christianity being one way of consolidating and operationalizing the Hebrew and Greek insights of the first Axial Age.
But if "an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion" marks our times too, then there seems to be no new Christianity to guide our way, observes Richard Madsen in his essay in the new book. Is there a contemporary faith that might refresh "the deep matrix from which we sprang", as Jaspers put it?
We need to be careful with the word "faith" here. It is not what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, calls "expressive spirituality", of which there is plenty today, based on the conviction that each one of us must create an authentic and individual source of consolation, dreams and self-realization. Expressive spirituality actually breeds dislocation and feeds the chaos. Even less is faith about being cognitively persuaded to adopt a creed: the head cannot reach "the deep matrix" and so its convictions, when they lack heart, feel empty.
Rather, the faith that can energize and organize people is what Jaspers defines as "the fulfilling and moving element in the depths of man, in which man is linked, above and beyond himself." It is for such a connection that Barack Obama reaches in his most soaring rhetoric, though he can't also help raise the question of whether it's enough to save the Union? Hence the suspicion that we need a new axial age.
Madsen notes that the original axial movements emerged on the margins of powerful empires. Only at the edges of societies and institutions might you find the kind of balance between playfulness with inherited traditions, and respect for them too, that can re-tap the axial energy and transmit it in ways that are once again meaningful.
Examples do, in fact, abound Madsen avers. He highlights the emergence of forms of socially engaged Buddhism in Taiwan. The founder of one, Buddha's Light Mountain, has written: "I do not unconditionally follow tradition. I do not toy with the idea of emptiness and talk in vain about abstruse things. I do not consciously accept the opinion of the majority. Instead, I constantly review our tradition, observe, and think about the future of Buddhism. I keep on reappraising values as I grow."
In the Christian tradition, Madsen finds inspiration in South Korea and its "vigorous minjung (people's) Christian theology, which mixes some of the expansionist passion of evangelical Christianity with the concern for social justice of ecumenical Christianity." In the West, Madsen points to Taizé, the Sant'Egidio community and the Sojourners.
Practical wisdom and spiritual vitality is sought in these movements. They are flexible, unlike fundamentalist religious movements, because their way of life is orientated not around protecting doctrines but around the struggle to be faithful to the deepest principles of their tradition. They also strive imaginatively to communicate their "findings". And they engage in critical dialogue with other traditions, a dialogue energized more by the exchange of ideas than the claim to power.
Crucially too for plural times, axial movements recognise that truth ultimately lies beyond any one group. That is the insight of the transcendent turn from the first Axial Age. An axial faith holds things sacred and makes a genuine commitment to one tradition because of, not in spite of, the recognition that human beings are linked to that which is "above and beyond " all.
Sometimes Vernon’s arguments can feel a bit brisk, and it is natural that in such concise but also wide-ranging treatments the author cannot do everything. These two books are, however, very accessible and readable (the tone is conversational), and Vernon has an admirable flair for illustrating his points through references to contemporary popular culture: he can see a popular British TV series as evidence of the God-shaped hole, trace an implicit spirituality in Philip Pullman’s New Statesman articles, and make astute philosophical points about, for instance, the use of the word “spiritual” in the Body Shop’s Body Care Manual. Vernon’s books do as they say – they take religious traditions and practice seriously, confront the central issues that matter most to humans, and nurture searchers, enquirers and the curious in their questioning and contemplation.
In part of my sermon I make something of this Sufi story:
Unjustly imprisoned, a tinsmith was allowed to receive a rug woven by his wife. He prostrated himself upon the rug day after day to say his prayers, and after some time he said to his jailers:
“I am poor and without hope, and you are wretchedly paid. But I am a tinsmith. Bring me tin and tools and I shall make small artifacts which you can sell in the market, and we shall both benefit.”
The guards agreed to this, and presently the tinsmith and they were both making a profit, from which they bough food and comforts for themselves.
Then, one day, when the guards went to the cell, the door was open, and he was gone.
Many years later, when this man’s innocence had been established, the man who had imprisoned him asked him how he had escaped, what magic he had used. He said:
“It’s a matter of design, and design within design. My wife is a weaver. She found the man who had made the locks of the cell door, and got the design from him. This she wove into the carpet, at the spot where my head touched in prayer five times a day. I am a metal-worker, and this design looked to me like the inside of a lock. I designed the plan of the artifacts to obtain the materials to make the key - and I escaped.”
‘That,’ said the Sufi, ‘is one of the ways in which man may make his escape from the tyranny of his captivity.’
There was a tremendous seminar on Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary, yesterday at the RSA. (There are plans to publish a summary of the discussion pretty soon.) The two key aims were to test the thesis and to ask what difference it makes.
The thesis might be broken down into two parts. First, that work on the two hemispheres of the brain suggests we have broadly two ways of attending to the world, and so rooting our values too, and that things go best when we have access to the two ways, which is to say that there is a synthesis of both, rather than the denigration of one by the other.
Second, McGilchrist contends that we live in a world enamoured with a way of looking at the world that over-values the attention associated with the left hemisphere - roughly, attention that is focused and manipulating; and under-valuing open and connecting attention.
I'd say that most people in the seminar could go along with the first part, particularly when it is remembered that McGilchrist stresses that (a) his thesis is not that the brain causes anything but that it constrains attention - much as land does not cause water to flow but constraints its flow; and (b) that all the ramifications of his thesis can be arrived at by other ways, it is just that neuroscience provides a particularly powerful discourse for discussing them.
When it comes to the difference it makes, for myself the book brings three thoughts sharply to my mind. The first is about how we do ethics.
Two approaches have dominated in the modern world - utilitarian ethics, which focuses on the attempt to measure and maximise things like happiness; and deontological ethics, which focuses on the attempt to reason out what we should and shouldn't do. These might be the preferred approaches one would expect in world that trusts the human capacities McGilchrist associates with the left hemisphere. But there are all sorts of reasons for believing that they are now not serving us well - and they also sideline and misunderstand a third tradition that it seems possible to associate more with the capacities associated with right hemisphere functioning. This is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics takes the ups and downs of life as the basic stuff of ethics and cultivates the ability to reflect upon experience so as to learn from mistakes, tolerate the uncertainties of living, nurture the habits that enable one to flourish, and over time gain a feel for how to live well - that lived sense of understanding we might call practical wisdom.
The second thought is not unrelated and has to do with McGilchrist's central thesis that the way the hemispheres function constrains how we perceive the world. If it is right that we have broadly two ways of attending to life, one focused and directive, the other open and connecting - and this seems right to me as it is something that has been repeatedly observed by adepts in spiritual traditions - then it will presumably also be the case that we can nurture our attention so as to develop different perceptions of and approaches to life. It will no doubt be a difficult even painful task to cultivate a way of attending that does not come naturally in the modern world, that is to cultivate the open and connecting in a milieu that prefers the focused and directive. But it seems pretty clear that having access to both kinds of attention is crucial.
The third thought is related again, and concerns having a capacity for uncertainty - an ability to stay with the anxieties of doubt and not reach out after faux-certainities; as well as an ability to resist the temptation to need to be doing something, anything, and/or unconsciously seeking escape in distractions. The psychotherapist Donald Winnicott called it 'going on being', arguing that trusting life itself rather than the nervy isolated self, is fundamental if creative and unexpected insights are to unfold. Again, this would seem to be a far more difficult state to sustain when the capacities associated with the right hemisphere are lost or denigrated.
Despite being in an era of multi-faiths and spirituality, it is argued that we have lost touch with the innate knowledge and sense of religion that previous generations could draw on. Whether or not you choose to engage with spirituality or religion, today's world at a personal, cultural, social and geopolitical level is profoundly shaped by religious differences as well as commonalities. Mark Vernon and Ziauddin Sardar examine how people and traditions are engaging with the divine today, in particular with God and Muhammed.
Spirituality has always been associated with the quest for health. Camberwell in south London, I recently learned, derives its name from a healing well frequented by those who were "cambered", or physically disabled. But it is only a scientific age that would seek to distil causal links between a spiritual practice and its physical effects, and perhaps also be concerned to exorcise any metaphysical excess.
The discussion of the benefits of practices traditionally associated with religions is firmly on the secular agenda. The new edition of the Handbook of Religion and Health lists more than 3,000 published studies. Research on forgiveness and gratitude alone has increased by an order of magnitude since the turn of the millennium.
Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, has gathered evidence to show that gratitude has psychological benefits, sustains physical wellbeing and feeds human relationships. He also believes there is an important spiritual side to the virtue, as gratitude cultivates a sense of fulfilment in life by nurturing the sense of dependency on others and God.
Or consider forgiveness. A significant cultural reassessment of this virtue seems under way: it is now taken less as a sign of weakness and more of inner strength. "Genuine forgiveness is important in transforming relations, just as confession, apology and repentance are. Forgiveness is connected to other virtues, like empathy and justice," adds Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, professor of psychology at Hope College, Michigan. She is also keen to stress that forgiveness is not about forgetting the damage of the offence, but is interested in the wellbeing of the offender.
Researchers emphasise that the links between spirituality and wellbeing need much further study. "Do we really know what it is about what sort of religion, spirituality or belief that enhances health?" asks Stephen Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping and moderator of a recent conference that addressed these issues, Spiritual Progress and Human Flourishing. His answer is no, but "progress is being made".
Teaching spirituality and health is also being promoted. In August, Oxford University Press published a textbook for public health professionals, The Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare. Christina Puchalski of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, and one of the book's editors, argues that healthcare improvements have been driven by technology. "What is unfortunately missing is a relationship-centred compassionate approach," she argues, "and that's the foundation of spirituality in healthcare."
And the burgeoning interest raises theological questions too. Another book, published in September by the Templeton Press, asks whether healthcare risks turning faith into a medical commodity. Healing To All Their Flesh: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Spirituality, Theology, and Health, worries that, while research on religion and health is now acceptable, it may be distorting. As Jeff Levin, one of the book's editors, writes in the prologue: "Religion is just more grist for the mill of structural-equation models, survival analyses, logistic regressions and the like."
In other words, there is a lack of theoretical and theological reflection in the field and that matters for two reasons. One is scientific. Levin continues: "A medical researcher would never conduct a study of the health impact of, say, environmental toxins or nutritional status or social support without first consulting an environmental toxicologist or a nutritionist or a sociologist who could expertly identify what questions to ask, what hypotheses to frame, and, once data were collected, how to analyse the data and then how to interpret findings. Yet, in studies of religion and health, this is done all the time; it is probably the norm. This is foolish, irresponsible and self-defeating."
Second, it matters at a human level. Could there be something cruel in "prescribing" a spiritual practice as if it were a pill because of the implications for the patient when the supposed "remedy" fails to work? What is not being asked is what religious traditions actually teach about the link between faith and health – a question that might then lead to others, like how the status of the spirit matters for the functioning of the body?
After all, it seems likely that the wellbeing gained from religious practices would be indirect. The believer who says grace at the start of a meal does not do so to be happy but to thank God. Alternatively, and reflecting on Julian Baggini's interesting article on atheists fasting, celebrating a newfound control of the appetites could confuse the means with the end: spiritually speaking, fasting is about expanding an individual's range of interests so that they can move beyond material concerns.
Spirituality and health are both great goods. But confusing the two brings risks. It might load individuals already anxious about their lifestyles with yet more burdens. And it could stymie the spiritual transformation of the person.
Rowan Williams seems on fire in the last few months of his Canterbury tenure.
His recent Theos speech was a little dense but brilliant on the different between being an individual and being a person - roughly, the notion of being an individual abstracting us from life (individuals have rights, for example); whereas the notion of being a person takes us into our lived, embodied uniqueness, vulnerability and mystery - in the sense that to be a person is to 'overflow' natural categories of being in possession of this or that human capacity.
And I was just reading his speech to the Roman bishops. He is surely right that the attractive side of Christianity these days is coming out of the religious communities that live a profounder vision of what it is to be human than the one available in consumer culture. (He's thinking about Taizé, Sant’ Egidio, the Focolare.)
What is particularly brilliant about his analysis, I think, is recognising that Christians must navigate the shadow side of themselves to find 'freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them'. (There's something similar in the psychodynamic understanding of narcissism.) Though it is very hard to do, not least in the church, I feel, partly because it takes leaders who have themselves undergone that journey to lead others through it. Hence, he also admits, the church routinely fails to live this promise and so looks as 'anxious, busy, competitive and controlling' as any other human institution.
When Christians live that freedom, it is naturally attractive. Williams' continues:
'What people of all ages recognise in these practices is the possibility, quite simply, of living more humanly – living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment.'
He quotes Henri de Lubac a few times, whom I'm now off to read. ‘He who will best answer the needs of his time will be someone who will not have first sought to answer them.' ‘The man who seeks sincerity, instead of seeking truth in self-forgetfulness, is like the man who seeks to be detached instead of laying himself open in love.'
There's something in that on the difference between atheistic and theistic notions of meditation...
Perhaps our understanding of ourselves has become too individualistic, too mechanical. We worry about autonomy more than connection, about freedom over commitment, about individual rights more than the common good.
It's as if the default image that the Western mind has of itself is the billiard ball. We jostle and bounce off each other for fear of touching and holding one another. Could the wariness of the word narcissism be because our culture is secretly, unhealthily, narcissistic? That's why we retreat from the word.
The quest for the perfect body repeats Narcissus's fate in that it's absorbed with the image on the surface. It's caught at the level of the ephemeral and becomes stuck in the shallows. Such an individual cannot see the depths of another's soul because they have never gazed into the depths of their own soul.
The Rowntree report concludes that claims made for interventions that can solve problems of self-esteem should be viewed warily. Short-term interventions are particularly suspect. It takes time, like the time it takes to raise a human child. Also, the kind of self-love that enables human beings to flourish cannot be demanded or programmed. It must be given to us as a gift, like the mother who gives her child the capacity to love others by loving her child herself.
Such love is empty if it's not a personal exchange. Manualised attempts at therapy, the kind that teach exercises and procedures like telling yourself that you are lovable, lack the very quality that is most needed and desired. Relationship matters.
So there's no easy way out of this predicament, though perhaps a more careful analysis of self-love provides some insight and hope. The work of Freud and the psychotherapists who have developed and critiqued his insights and methods provides a key resource. The story of Narcissus does too.
In the Narcissus myth, the flower first grew where the young man fell
It appears to end badly. The beautiful young man realises that the image in the water is a reflection of himself. He then realises that he cannot break the habit. The only way out is to die.
But where the body of Narcissus had wasted away, a flower appears - a narcissus, a soft yellow bloom. What the myth suggests is that early narcissism must die and sink into the ground of our being where it can feed us like the soil does the flower. This happens when the young infant has a good enough parent. Our primary carers do at first comply with our illusion that we are His Majesty the Baby. But only so we can then take the risk to overcome the illusion.
Mark Vernon, writer and former priest, says we should rehabilitate the concept of narcissism as a valuable form of self-love. "Love others as if they were yourself, yes. But also, love yourself so you can love others. Proper self-regard resources other regard."
If 'God is dead', then why are so many of us still talking about Him? Join author of God: All That Matters and How to Be an Agnostic, Mark Vernon, as he looks at contemporary attitudes to God through the lenses of philosophy, science, theology and psychology.
They are billing it as an event for the staunch believer, the New Atheist, the undecided and everyone in between. Yikes!
We will miss Rowan Williams when he is gone. Not because public life will be the poorer without that beard, those eyebrows: Boris Johnson's blond mop can fill the gap. Not because conservatives and liberals alike will lose a ready scapegoat: there will be others upon whom to load our discontent. But because he is, to my mind, the leading public intellectual of his generation.
I know that reading him can be like watching a jellyfish disintegrate in a jacuzzi, as one notable commentator memorably put it. My own version of that experience came after attending his lectures at university. During the series, I bumped into a friend on the high street and exclaimed: "why weren't you there?" After an excuse, they asked me what had been said. I stumbled and tried to explain before realising that the great man's words can seem like bright soap bubbles, bursting as they rise in the air. But of this I was sure: I wanted my friend to be there because it was obvious that something important was being aired, something unexpected would be said. Those words came from a place of vitality. Here is someone whom Aristotle would have called megalopsyche or "great souled". You want to sit alongside such humans on the rare occasions they come your way, which is presumably why even his biggest ideological opponents have done so.
It is always worth reading the archbishop for yourself, not how he is redacted in the press. Hoping you might agree, here is what I hear him saying in the new introduction to his collected lectures, Faith in the Public Square, crucial elements lost in the reports of last weekend's media.
He does criticise the way the economy is run when focused on growth for growth's sake. He does have a pop at his predecessor, Lord Carey, who has complained that Christians are being persecuted in this country. But what is missed in the headlines are the deeper, penetrating points. "We have been hearing a lot about the dangers of 'aggressive secularism'," he writes, but that noise obscures the fact that the notion of secularism does not describe where our society is at. (Keeping up the noise presumably suits the "aggressors".)
Most people do not live in a disenchanted world. Public rituals persist. I write as the Red Arrows fly overhead, celebrating the Olympics. Why do acrobatic jets suit the moment? Is it the roar? The colour? It is hard to say, which is partly why the ritual works. So if we are to progress crucial questions about how society can be organised around a diversity of beliefs, Williams continues, hadn't we better be clearer about where we are actually at?
The way he frames his interventions is striking too. To attempt to be a public commentator of any weight, he stresses, is to be doomed to failure. Some will accuse you of straying into their territory. Others will accuse you of platitudinous dumbing down. Others again will make the case for inscrutability. Williams knows he will fail. He signed up to that when he signed up to Christianity because Christianity recognises that failure is what human beings do. And yet, the recognition is not humiliating but liberating "because it delivers us from aspiring to mythic goals of absolute human control over human destiny".
He practises the risk he preaches. In the interview he gave at the weekend, he floated the idea of a president of the Anglican communion to relieve the next archbishop of his global duties. He is undoubtedly right that the job is impossible and will become more undoable. That solution, though, would surely sink the church into further division and squabbles. Can you imagine the power struggle that would ensue in the selection of such a figurehead?
In the book, Williams continues: "The best thing to hope for is that at least some of the inevitable mistakes may be interesting enough (or simply big enough) for someone else to work out better responses." Which professional politician would and could express such mitigated optimism? Actually, I suspect Boris conveys a not dissimilar stance and that is part of his appeal. Maybe the hair does matter.
What is it like to be a Christian? Not what do Christians believe or how many superstitions do they quietly excuse before breakfast? But what is faith as experienced?
It is an important question because, as Rowan Williams notes in his new book, The Lion's World, people might think they know what faith is about when, today, they perhaps don't, never having been there. Subtitled "A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia", the book is partly about CS Lewis. But it is also a chance for the archbishop of Canterbury to convey what Christianity means to him. This is difficult to do, not only because contemporary Britons lack Christian experience but because, as titular head of the established Church of England, Williams recognises a need to "rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything".
The elusory character of Christianity is also on the mind of Francis Spufford, the historian and science writer. The subtitle for his new book, Unapologetic, is "Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense". A central worry for him is not that the rational justification for belief has been undone. Faith is not about that anyway: as Coleridge noted, the best argument for Christianity is that "it fits the human heart". Rather, it is that so many of the secular alternatives to Christianity only work because they "depend on some tacky fantasy about ourselves". They are in flight from what is truly difficult about life; what is hardest to stomach about ourselves. Take John Lennon's anthem Imagine, which had such a prominent place in the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Spufford labels the lyrics the "My Little Pony of philosophical statements", with its monstrously deluded assumption that the default state of human beings – psychological, cultural and social – is one of peace.
Instead, Spufford likens the experience of being a Christian to listening to the adagio of Mozart's clarinet concerto. This "very patient piece of music" has been described as conveying the sound of mercy because its quiet beauty does not deny the horrors of life but admits they exist and yet insists there is more too. It is as if, running through the mess, there is an infinite kindness, or gentle forbearance, or what Dante called a love that moves the sun and stars. Reason cannot decide whether that is true. The feelings that deliver closer, insider knowledge of human experience can.
Williams reflects extensively on the nature of mercy as well. He portrays it as an unsentimental though humane experience, again because it means facing up to the truth about what you have done and who you are. The theistic insight is that this truth can only be seen when you are confronted by the divine. To meet God – or Aslan, as Lewis has it in the Narnia stories – is "to meet someone who, because he has freely created you and wants for you nothing but your good, your flourishing, is free to see you as you are and to reflect that seeing back to you".
In other words, to see yourself as others see you might be discomforting but it will also always be skewed by the distorting lens of their self-interest. To be unmasked as God sees you is painful because purgative, but is also a path to true liberation. It is merciful because without it we are left in a citadel of self-deception, life's energies being sapped and wasted on bolstering self-regard.
None of this proves the existence of God in the way a science would demand because its evidence arises from the inner lives of individuals. It does, though, reflect a strand in the philosophical discussion of God, often forgotten today. Pascal drew attention to the problem God has in revealing himself to creatures he has made to be free, because if God were to offer irrefutable evidence then that would force a relationship of coercion, not love. God's solution, Pascal proposed, is to "appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and [to remain] hidden from those who shun him".
The philosopher Paul Moser calls the demand for such proof "spectator evidence" in his more academic recent book, The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Re-examined. And being a spectator of life will not take you into life or reveal the ground of life to you. It separates the individual from both. Rather – and as Williams and Spufford stress – what is required is a transformation of the individual, akin to the transformation that occurs when someone falls in love. It happens not because there is a hardening of the evidence but because there is an unhardening of the heart, softened in relationship. Only then might we see as we are seen.
This entry in a confidently subtitled new series of short introductions is a light-footed scoot through theologies both ancient and (post)modern. Vernon, a philosopher and former priest, likes to demonstrate Greek sources of Christian ideas (Plotinus and Plato figure heavily), and to confound the Dawkinsites with ideas of God that do not conflict with science.
Combining a gentle scepticism with sympathy for theological yearnings, the author touches on those modern-science-approved Stoics, Spinoza, William James, Don Cupitt, "process theology", game theory, the techno-eschatology of the "singularity", and "apophatic theology", which says you can't talk about God at all – in our day, Vernon comments wryly, "such theology has, arguably, become unfashionable and even a source of annoyance". Particularly interesting is his chapter on the resurgence of Taoism in China, and its potential as an "ecotheology". This is a pleasingly ecumenical exercise, with an appendix on "10 films to see" that recommends The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Exorcist.
A quiet revolution is underway in hundreds of women's religious communities across the United States and Ireland. Its followers have been called "Green Sisters" by Sarah McFarland Taylor, professor of religion at Northwestern University, in the title of her book length study. These nuns, she writes, are some of the best educated women in America. They are committed to an ecological spirituality, building new "earth ministries" and reinvigorating religious life.
It will find expression in the 2012 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), meeting next week in St. Louis, Missouri. The keynote speaker is Barbara Marx Hubbard, cofounder of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution. Her website highlights endorsements from new age figures including Deepak Chopra and Neale Donald Walsch.
An insight into the movement can be gained from one of its key texts, published in the early 1990s by the late theologian and Passionist priest, Thomas Berry, and the cosmologist Brian Swimme. It was entitled, "The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era – A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos." It tells a scientific story of the evolution of universe, from the big bang to the emergence of human self-consciousness, and does so as a new sacred myth.
We live in period during which human consciousness is rapidly evolving to a fuller realisation of its place in the universe, the book explains. It is a process described as the universe "attempting to be felt." Appreciating the insight leads to a new experience of the numinous defined as, "being shocked by the splendour of existence."
Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent, has called it "progressive spirituality". The progressive element refers to the ethics and politics that the cosmic spirituality inspires. Followers of the universe story are highly ecologically aware. They champion the rights of women. Such convictions spring directly from what the science appears to be telling human beings about their place in the universe. The key word is relationality. We are literally linked to the stars in that we are made of stardust. We are entangled with one another like quantum particles. This sense of things leads to a rejection of the hierarchical and patriarchal assumptions implicit in so-called dominion theology, the belief that God gave man dominion over the natural world. In its place comes a green sense of custodianship and care.
Relationality also implies that we are creatures with all sorts of possible tomorrows like the non-determined states of quantum physics. Unlike a subatomic particle, though, we can and must take responsibility for those tomorrows because we have emerged into self-consciousness. And the key test of the decisions we make is environmental. In another book, The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future, Berry writes: "The [ecological] devastation taking place cannot be critiqued effectively from within the traditional religions or humanist ethics... Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself."
Diarmuid O'Murchu, a member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Order who spends much of his time travelling and lecturing on themes related to the universe story, put it like this: "It seems to me that if we humans are to begin to live more sanely, and humanely, and creatively on the planet and within the cosmos, then we have a huge task of letting go. We need to let go of power and of our dominance."
Inspiring tales of self-consciousness emerging from the primordial fireball can sound esoteric though they have very practical outcomes. Green sisters run numerous training programmes. A pioneering centre is the Genesis Farm in Caldwell, New Jersey, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Dominic. Courses and lectures for the autumn of this year focus on "earth literacy" and the transition movement, the global network that sponsors a shift in western patterns of life away from heavy consumption.
Lynch believes that in much the same way as the charismatic movement of the 1980s started out on the margins of the church and is now mainstream, so the universe story, and related new scientific sacred myths, will head the same way. But does the universe story make sense and how does it relate to orthodox theology and, for that matter, generally accepted science?
The theology has been called pantheistic by some, though the movement does not seem to have much occupied the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it recently censured the LCWR. Thomas Berry was heavily influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist who extended St. Paul's notion of the cosmic Christ to link spirit and matter, eternity and time. He was reprimanded by the Vatican for "serious errors", though in 2009, Pope Benedict, who has also been called the "green pope", appeared to revise official reception of Teilhard's ideas. Benedict praised him for his "great vision" of the cosmos as a "living host". In short, the theological jury on the universe story is still out.
When it comes to the science, it seems easier to offer critique. The universe story is heavily tied to twentieth century physics. The difficulty here is that the physics is changing. Take the big bang. Many cosmologists are now questioning it, proposing instead that the universe fluctuates in massive cosmic cycles. If that were the case then it would complicate claims such as the universe is "attempting to be felt". It would imply that the universe has made many such attempts, many times before, only to have to begin again and again. These eternal returns might erode the ethical urgency behind the green spirituality. Perhaps climate change on planet earth is cyclical too. If it weren't human beings causing it, some other natural process would.
In response, proponents of the universe story argue that we are only beginning to understand our connection with the cosmos, as scientists are only beginning to understand the nature of the universe, so we should positively expect the theology to change and develop in line with the science.
A deeper criticism is that proponents of ecological spirituality are somewhat picky about the science of which they make so much. So, whilst quantum physics is routinely cited to express the interconnectedness of all things, by way of analogy with the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, advocates of the universe story do not much consider the destructive energy embedded in, say, the so-called quantum vacuum. To put it bluntly, life for a subatomic particle is, on the whole, colossally violent. It seems that most of the universe, much of the time, is engaged in countless acts of creation followed by more or less immediate destruction.
There is also the tricky issue of how events at the subatomic level relate to phenomenon on everyday scales - the so-called "measurement problem". This means that it is far from clear how quantum entanglement could have anything to do with the experiences of human beings.
It is also possible to question the appeal to evolutionary science. The difficulty here is that spiritual conceptions of the evolution of consciousness require evolution to be progressive. It must lead, by a gradual unfolding and emergence, to the complexification of life. However, the implication of such directionality in natural selection is a highly contentious proposition in mainstream science.
When I approached the physicist Paul Davies, who is also the writer of best-selling books such as The Mind of God, for his thoughts on the universe story, he was resistant. He said: "There is a lot of flaky stuff in this area, where people present quantum physics in a mystical light and then draw all sorts of dubious ‘spiritual’ conclusions. I am reluctant to get involved because the field is so vague."
And yet, the new physics is radically changing our view of the natural world. Many will read about it in popular science books, or gaze in awe at the latest pictures from NASA on the television, only to continue with their lives as if everything were the same. It is easy to pick holes in the way green religious movements appropriate the science. The theology often seems questionable too. But at least these women are seriously trying to live by what they take the science to be saying. They are finding much needed sources of spiritual inspiration in the face of apparent climate disaster. If that powers a striving to be transformed and to respect the sacred in nature then the quest deserves to be respected.
Richard Dawkins is a master myth-maker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. His great book of that title, published over 35 years ago, described human beings as lumbering robots driven by immortal genes. It even had a brilliant, final twist. Sometimes, the myth promised, we can overcome the tyranny of the biological imperative inside us.
Inevitably - though perhaps more quickly than many anticipated - his myth is going the way of the world. It spoke powerfully of what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated.
A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature. They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn't stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists - and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next generation awaits a myth-maker of Dawkins' stature to tell us this new story about life.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Is it not overly provocative to refer to the selfish gene as a myth, though it seems quite precise: my dictionary includes definitions such as 'false belief' and 'fictitious thing'? It will be thought inflammatory because, unfortunately, naming something a myth carries these pejorative overtones in our times. It is as if myths are straightforwardly untrue, and those who believe them are ignorant and foolish.
Ironic, then, that following complaints made to the BBC because a conversation between Dawkins and Jeremy Paxman caused some people offence, that the BBC Trust excused Paxman's use of the word "hogwash" because he said it of myths rather than religion.
Much to his credit, Dawkins was strikingly fulsome about myths in the interview. He confessed to finding Aztec myths amusing and loving the myths that begin the book of Genesis. A tremendous writer, he understands their power. All successful popularizers of science do. His latest book, which prompted the Paxman interview, trades on the genre in its very title: The Magic of Reality. The book describes many myths, religious ones as well as scientific. Myths are so powerful because they fire the imagination, encourage play and make great poetic stories. They can only do so when there is something true in them.
There are, of course, differences between scientific and religious myths. For one thing, scientific myths are far less long-lived than religious ones. The great faiths of the world daily turn to myths that are thousands of years old and find truth leaping off the page as they read them. Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton?
Both kinds of myth seek evidence in their support. The difference here is that scientific stories seek empirical evidence - and when the empirical evidence fails, the myth fails too, which is what appears to be happening to the selfish gene.
Conversely, religious myths seek proof of a more personal kind. These myths work when they speak in their details about the truths of life.
Take a myth like that of Narcissus. It tells the tale of a beautiful man whose looks made him the centre of attention. Everyone fell for him and, as a result, his heart became swollen with pride, his demeanor hard and aloof. He became lost, then alone, and eventually died.
Such is the troubled life of the narcissist. But the proof of the myth is not established by trying to find a man called Narcissus and seeing whether his heart became empirically swollen and his visage literally hard.
Everyone knows that. So why is it that many religious people are as wary of myths as Paxman appears to be? Is it because they agree with Paxman that the scientific accuracy of millennia old myth can be readily knocked down? Don't they see that saying that is like saying Shakespeare should not be taught in schools because Romeo and Juliet never existed?
Religious people should be masters of myth, like Dawkins, for the greatest myths convey the truth of things to us, be that spiritual or scientific.
It began with a walk in the Cairngorms almost 50 years ago. The physicist Peter Higgs had an idea about the origins of mass in the universe. The Higgs boson was born in the human mind. And now, after spending billions of dollars – as well as all the creative energy that cash represents – scientists at Cern (otherwise known as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) have discovered the subatomic particle. Or at least, they have seen the signature for something close to what they expect the Higgs to be.
It has been called the “God particle” because the Higgs plugs a crucial gap in what physicists refer to as the Standard Model. That has been successful at describing the behaviour of matter, energy and forces. Yet the discovery of the Higgs does not mean that physics is now over. Far from it. In the 50 years since Peter Higgs’ brainwave, cosmologists have discovered that the majority of the universe is made of stuff most probably unknown to science, the so-called dark mass and dark energy. The Standard Model will not be standard science for future generations.
Given those qualifications, it is striking that the Higgs has generated so much hype. This is partly because Cern, the organisation responsible for the Large Hadron Collider tests which discovered the particle, needs to justify the spend. So teams of spin doctors ensured the experiment produced regular headlines. But that only raises a further question: why are we so gripped by the weirdness of the subatomic world? Physics powerfully resonates with the notion of cosmic design. Physicists look for theories that can be described using mathematics. When tested, these theories reveal the hidden nature of reality. The mathematical and hidden element readily fires the theological imagination. As the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz put it: “When God calculates and thinks things through, the world is made”.
It is as if science and religion are part of the same enterprise: revealing the ways of God. “Science appears as a collective effort of the Human Mind to reach the Mind of God,” writes the physicist and priest Michael Heller. “The Mind of Man and the Mind of God are strangely interwoven.”
It is a powerful intuition explored in a famous essay by the Nobel laureate for physics, Eugene Wigner. His title says it all: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. Wigner describes the descriptive and predictive power of mathematics as a “miracle”. He continues: “It is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.”
It is not so hard to believe if you believe that human beings are made in the image of God. The trumpeting of the discovery of the God particle flirts with the thrilling thought that we have taken one step closer to divinity. As the essayist Annie Dillard has written: “What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: ‘Hello’?”
But it is easy for the theological imagination to become overexcited by science. For one thing, it seems likely that life can only emerge in a universe in which matter and energy are patterned and constrained. It is this patterning that gives mathematics a grip on nature. A life-bearing cosmos would inevitably be a mathematics-friendly cosmos.
Alternatively, you can ask what kind of God is revealed by the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. William Blake reflected on the deistic divinity implied by such an understanding of the cosmos and found it “soul-shuddering”. His“dark satanic mills” are the impersonal, cold machines that “grind out material reality”, much as the indifferent Higgs boson is said to generate mass. A tyrannical God would fix life according to laws of nature, Blake continued. A world of such determined domains of space and time would be a prison. Further, the scientist or theologian who overplays humankind’s capacity to understand the cosmos risks idolatry. “He who sees the Ratio only,” Blake mocked, “sees himself only.”
More generally, you could say that contemporary physics so captures our imagination because it is the way many now do metaphysics. As the scholastic theologians of the medieval period gazed towards heaven seeking the divine, so we gaze into the heavens seeking replies to our great questions. Both activities promise to reveal the nature of reality and so something of our own nature.
Only perhaps we need to learn not to be so concrete, so literal. If it is a mechanism you seek, then the God particle will thrill you. If it is life, then clues must be sought somewhere else.