Thursday, April 18 2013

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

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

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

Right, right.

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

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

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

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

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

It's Paul's cosmic Christ.

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

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

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

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


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

More tomorrow, on Christianity today...


Wednesday, April 17 2013

Rob Bell on crack Christianity, Pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. The sacramental everywhere.

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

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


Tuesday, April 16 2013

Rob Bell on quantum physics

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

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

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

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

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

OK, fair enough.

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

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

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

A reductionism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, April 12 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book online here!


Wednesday, April 10 2013

Where's the good news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, March 29 2013

Do we need a different Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, March 15 2013

Not immortality, but eternity

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

It can come as something of a surprise to learn that western religions are not much interested in immortality. Take ancient Judaism, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible. Immortality is hardly mentioned. Humans are said to go to ‘sheol’, a shadowy subterranean abode, or to 'Gehenna', an actual place outside Jerusalem of fiery discomfort. Upon arrival, individuals then drift into a half-life and fade away. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, recommending life here and now, amongst the people of Israel. It is not suggesting that this life is but a foretaste of a life to come.

This much at least, the Hebrews had in common with other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. The afterlife perhaps lasts a little longer for heroes, the ancient Greeks mused, but only because their life force resists inevitable death more strongly.

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

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

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

Difference between this life and the next is emphasized because it became clear to the Jews, and then the Christians, that this life needs redeeming. If the afterlife is just more and more of the same, then everlasting life would become by default an everlasting punishment. At the very least, exhaustion and boredom would set it. Immortality is a form of tragedy.

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

Would 2 plus 2 equal 4 even if the universe and time had never existed, you might ask? If it feels to you that it would, and it is contentious proposition, then perhaps to do mathematics is to touch something eternal. Or there are the aesthetic invocations of eternity that arise from mystical experience. ‘To see the world in a grain of sand… And eternity in an hour,’ contemplated William Blake.

In fact, I wonder whether eternity might be nearer to us than we think. I once spoke with the physicist Roger Penrose about the nature of light. He described how it seems that light does not ‘experience’ time, because that is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light – and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. That would make turning the lights on in the morning something akin to a mystical experience; to being bathed in eternity.

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

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


Thursday, March 14 2013

The heart: the 'most spiritual member' of the body, after all?

Excerpts from a feature in last week's Church Times. I think it's about a really quite striking development in understanding of the heart. Modern science, following Descartes mechanistic philosophy, regards the heart as a pump - a very fancy pump, but a pump. But new research suggests that all those old metaphors - heavy-hearted, lifting hearts, the heart as the seat of emotion, courage, insight - might have a physiological basis.

... We talk about being "heavy-hearted" or "downhearted", and, in fact, depression has long been correlated with an increased risk of heart disease. This is a result of many complex factors, including the effects of stress hormones and the suppression of the immune system by depression. But a new link is being made between heart-rate variability and low moods.

New research, pioneered by Professor Stephen Porges at the University of Illinois, in Chicago, suggests that heartbeat responsiveness is a good predictor of emotional health. The child who has a heart that can react dynamically to, say, a father's mocking, or a mother's criticism, is likely to be more emotionally resilient as an adult. In other words, a heavy heart - if by "heavy" is meant the felt sense of being emotionally unresponsive - has literally to do with depression.

This much is perhaps not so surprising. We all know that our heart races when we are shocked or excited. Taking a deep breath calms us down because it calms the heart. But consider the work of Professor Hugo Critchley and Dr Sarah Garfinkel at the University of Sussex. They have shown that individuals are better at recognising scary-looking faces flashing before them when their hearts are in the systole or contracting phase of beating.

Other research suggests that the heart helps to mediate the fine-tuning of various emotional capacities, such as empathy. Such findings resonate with the notion of "embodied cognition" - the evidence that our bodies as well as our brains are engaged in the generation and processing of thoughts and feelings (Comment, 1 February).

There is also an area of research being conducted by Professor David Paterson of Oxford University, among others. He studies what is coming to be known as the "heart's brain" - the network of neurons that surround parts of the heart. It seems that these neurons have autonomous processing power. They do not merely pass on signals from the brain. The implication is that the brain and the heart work in tandem, not as master and slave...

These new insights are emerging because the technology now exists to study more than just the musculature of the heart. It seems, at the very least, that the heart can recall and compute responses to its immediate surroundings, as well as cater for the needs of other parts of the body, such as the limbs.

When you remember that the human body is constantly awash with sensorimotor patterns and pulses - the heart itself, breathing, digestion in the gut, physical gesticulations, and locomotion - it starts to look plausible to think of the heart as the centre of a dynamic, interactive system that helps to make sense of things. If this embraces our emotional lives, then it includes our intellectual and spiritual lives, too, since these elements of understanding cannot easily be separated from one another...


Friday, March 8 2013

Is love biological? Is sex about breeding?

Was on Night Waves last night, talking about Love: All That Matters, and it demonstrated how widespread are the presumed conclusions of pop-evolution. So, one of my learned co-panelists described love as pretty simple because, well, it's biology. He was referring, I guess, to the idea that love is the illusion that evolution deploys to keep us together whilst we raise those gene-carriers we all the kids.

In fact, the origins of sexual reproduction are 'hidden in darkness' according to Richard Dawkins. No explanations are 'knock-down convincing'. The fact is that most living creatures do not reproduce via some kind of sexual exchange, and a supposed sexual selection when it apparently occurs actually fits uneasily with observed behaviour: the peacock with the fanciest tail does not always get the peahen.

In the book, I toy with the possibility that sexual congress does not serve a primarily reproductive function but a social bonding one. Sexual reproduction hitches a ride on the back of that, not the other way round. It is the spandrel. In short, love is not simple - not biological - if that is code for breeding. It is what take it to be: love.


Wednesday, March 6 2013

An apology that is transformative and healing is a rare thing

A piece on the art of saying sorry went up at the Guardian's Cif yesterday. It had a slightly tortuous hook, but here's the main point.

You will be able to recall a parent leaning over you and commanding you to say sorry – perhaps to Auntie Maude on the day you spilt blackcurrant juice over her white tablecloth. The truth is that you did not feel sorry at all. You were bored sitting in her front room. Nonetheless, you forced the S-word through your lips because you had no choice – and it was fury, not regret, that accompanied your muttering. Presumably such an upbringing led PG Wodehouse to make a personal note: "It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them."

That's the trouble with demanding an apology. Intention is all, and when it is not given freely, the meaning becomes confused and probably lost.

Then again, if you were a smart child you probably learned to twist your apologies to your advantage. Most parents will have heard their loved ones treating the word sorry as a shortcut to getting what they want, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Sorry, Mummy. Can I go out now?" In this kind of scenario the power dynamics are reversed. Sorry becomes a too easy word to say because it gives apologisers the upper hand and enables them to redirect things to what they want. Oscar Wilde knew that trick: "I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose."

In fact, I wonder whether there is ever such a thing as a clear and genuine apology that is transformative and healing. A case that is discussed amongst therapists concerns a young girl who was hospitalised for various life-threatening psychological complaints. A nurse heard her murmuring, "Say you're sorry. Say you're sorry." In response, a doctor replied, "I am sorry. I am very, very sorry," and others in the room joined in with the refrain. The impact upon the child was remarkable and almost instantaneous. Within a week she had recovered.

It seemed to be a case capturing the magic of an apology. But a few years later, things again started going wrong for the girl, now a teenager. She was hospitalised and then spent several years as an outpatient until what was really troubling her was discovered. It turned out that the S-word served only to bury her problems more deeply.

Then again, a world in which no one ever said sorry is a bleak one to contemplate. Perhaps, then, a good apology is a temporary measure. It can relieve a tricky situation for a while by unfreezing things and allowing relationships some flow. The mistake is to believe that is the end of the story. What sorry might create is the time and space for considering more deeply what went wrong.


Friday, March 1 2013

Science and faith: a new dialogue

I think the relationship between science and religion is changing, as I tried to say in an article in the Church Times. A new dialogue seems possible not so much with the physical sciences, where the lines of engagement seem pretty fixed for good and ill, but with the human sciences.

'The most exciting work in the future looks likely to be interdisciplinary,' explains Michael Welker, professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg and one of the principle players in the field. Moreover, rather than considering general questions about how science and religion might relate to one another - whether they should be in conflict or alternatively operate as 'nonoverlapping magisteria', each looking at the world in different ways - it seems that focusing on specific problems is likely to bring experts in different fields into fruitful dialogue.

Take, for example, the issue of our continuity and discontinuity as persons - the difficulty of accounting for the fact that materially we are not the same biological creatures as we were even a few weeks ago, and yet life feels connected and everyone from your mother to a judge will treat you as the same person that you were even years ago.

Some of Aristotle's speculations about the nature of the human person, explored by Thomas Aquinas too, might be of use here. He argued that the soul is the 'form of the body'. It is a kind of dynamic pattern or animating basis to which the biological flesh conforms. Compare that with the understanding that is emerging in modern biology. 'What links us together is not matter itself but the continuously developing, almost infinitely complex, "information-bearing pattern" carried at any one time by the matter that then makes up my body', Polkinghorne writes Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. 'I believe that it is this information-bearing pattern that is the human soul.' The ancient notion looks not unlike the modern one. Hence the possibility of fruitful exchange...

In terms of the relationship between science and religion, this is a big change. No longer would theology be 'catching up' with scientific innovation. Instead, when faced with focused questions such as what it is to be human, the two would be on a level playing field. Both could contribute to the conversation, and both would have to recognize the inherent limitations of their insights. Such epistemological modesty neutralizes the fight over which discipline is the best arbiter of truth, and all in the interests of thorough and open-minded debate.


Friday, February 22 2013

Modern Philosophy at The Idler Academy

Do, please, consider signing up for the Modern Philosophy course at The Idler Academy, beginning next Monday, 25th February. There are still places. I'd be delighted to see you there.

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

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

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

We consider first Thomas Aquinas, who was probably the greatest interpreter of Aristotle ever and one of the most brilliant philosophers of the medieval period though often forgotten today.

The following Monday we turn to Descartes, who was a modern sceptic though in some ways quite unlike the ancient sceptics, a difference that some feel has led modern philosophy up a dangerous cul-de-sac.

We then come to the empiricist and idealist traditions, associated with towering figures like Hume and Kant, that in some ways bring the differences between the Epicureans and the Stoics into the modern world.

Then we spend a couple of weeks looking at the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science - twin themes that were major components of ancient thought, though of course have also changed dramatically in the modern world.


Wednesday, February 20 2013

Rupert Sheldrake on atheism

Here (iTunes) and here (jellycast) are the third of my conversations with Rupert Sheldrake, stemming from his book The Science Delusion, this one on whether being a materialist - meaning believing that there is matter and energy in the natural world and no occult or spiritual forces - necessitates being an atheist...


Thursday, February 14 2013

God of love?

This is a slightly longer version of the article that has gone up at the Guardian's Cif belief...

Religious and spiritual sorts tend to bang on about love. God is love, some say. Practice the art of loving-kindness, others commend. And I've found it hard to know what sense to make of these sentiments. They can so easily lose weight and meaning in a thousand repetitions. Or there is the claim that love reveals and is the fundamental truth of reality. What can be made of that in a scientific age?

Then, I started to read up on developmental psychology, whilst writing a book about love. It seems to me that the modern science illuminates the older, religious claims.

Psychologists and psychotherapists as diverse as Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott seem to say that we learn about love in roughly three stages. Our first love is narcissistic - not an entirely pleasant thought, though behaving as if we were the only creature of importance in the world is necessary for our early survival. Freud talked of His Majesty the Baby.

Neonates are lovable and tyrannical. Winnicott showed that the good-enough parent is not perfect but is capable of being devoted to their child, especially in the early weeks. The aim is to instill a feeling that life can be trusted because, on the whole, it delivers what the child needs, physically and emotionally. A sense of wellbeing grows in the young body. It provides the basis for the kind of self-love that enables you to get over yourself and feel comfortable in your own skin. The myth of Narcissus conveys a similar insight. The problem the beautiful youth had was not that he loved himself too much, but that he couldn't love himself.

Narcissism might be called the love of one, and love between two follows next. It is a step into the unknown. It's frightening to awaken to the realization that you are dependent upon another - a parent, in the child's case; a partner, in the adult equivalent: romantic love. But the upside is that life expands. To be one of two promises deeper delights and wider horizons than narcissism can embrace.

There is an assumption that dyadic love, also called falling in love, is the pinnacle of lovely experiences. But it is only the midpoint of the story according to developmental psychology. The next step comes with a secure enough attachment, as Bowlby put it. Equipped with such trust, the child is able to explore the world - to take tentative steps away from the cosy twosome.

It can enter what has usefully been called a triangular space. There's me, there's Mum or Dad, and now there's something else - a third dimension known in the reality of siblings, friends, interests, goals, a current of life that runs independently of me, though I'm somehow part of it. Again, taking that step is alarming, possibly traumatic. However, if negotiated OK, life becomes richer again, and more risky, and the individual's perception of reality grows.

So what does this have to do with God and love? Well, first, consider Plato. He argued that love has an epistemological dimension because of the way it draws our perceptions up a ladder of illumination. We find ourselves on one rung, lower down, and spend some time steadying ourselves with the view. Then, having gained our balance, we are inclined to look up. There's another rung, and an urge to step up. It is an unsettling, possibly frightening, experience. It is more comfortable to stay where you are. But with the right support, another view is gained.

The process can repeat itself, Plato proposed, until a moment is reached when the view that appears is nothing less than a beatific vision. It is as if we have momentarily taken in all that life and reality are. Plato called it the beautiful and the true. Believers call it God. The point is that love resources the ascent. It is a dynamic view of love that is remarkably commensurate with developmental psychology.

A second way of thinking about this dynamic is more simply put. At each transition - from one to two, from two to the triangular space - the individual realizes is that love was already there waiting for him or her. Narcissistic self-absorption relaxes with the realization that I am held in the love of another. Lovers move from falling in love to standing in love, to recalled Erich Fromm's phrase.

The life of faith detects that there is a fourth dimension to add to this third, a divine love that is there waiting. It holds all because it is the source of the love that flows through all. Fear and uncertainty do not cease. Human love always feels a bit like that. But faith is the felt sense that love can be trusted because love is, in truth, the ground of reality.


Wednesday, February 13 2013

Not in praise of hyper-romance

A small collection of articles just online, because tomorrow is 14th February...

BBC Magazine - Viewpoint: Down with romantic love

Aeon Magazine - What is love?

Third Way - In defence of Narcissus


Tuesday, February 12 2013

Divided Brain, Divided World

For those interested in Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, and the implications of the thesis, Jonathan Rowson at the RSA has produced a dialogue with Iain, plus discussion with others. I can vouch that the discussion was great!


Saturday, February 2 2013

A New Consciousness and the Vita Contemplativa, this weekend

A couple of things coming up that may be of interest:

Sunday 3rd February, 6.05am & online. BBC Radio 4, Something Understood - Towards a New Consciousness, with Mark Tully, also interviewing myself, the programme having been prompted by this piece.

Sunday 3rd February, 1pm. Idle Sundays at Selfridges - Aristotle, Epicurus and the Vita Contemplativa, with one Dr Mark Vernon.


Wednesday, January 30 2013

Love All That Matters - a QnA

Love: All That Matters is finding its way into the shops and amazon. The following QnA might be useful in saying a little more about it...

Does the book have a key idea? Yes. There are different kinds of love that we learn about in different phases of our lives. Life tends to go well when we have good access to these different ways of loving. So the book explores how we learn about the different loves, what can go wrong, and what can go well.

What are the different kinds of love? Recent developmental psychology suggests that there are three basic modes in which we love. There is self-love, which is required so that we can be comfortable in our own skin. There is the love of another that, when it is returned, nurtures us in trusting and loving others. And there is love of life itself, which allows us to be open to all that life throws at us, firing our passions, creativity and courage.

Why did you write this book now? In the 1950s, the psychologist Erich Fromm wrote a brilliant short book on love, The Art of Loving. Many of its insights still stand, but it does read as dated now, particularly about the relationships between men and women, and also about homosexuality. Also, Fromm wrote before modern developmental psychology. So I felt it was a good moment to update, in a way, Fromm's The Art of Loving.

Are these new ideas? They are, in the sense that developmental psychology has progressed in recent years. But it fascinates me how they link with ancient ideas too, remembered in myths and philosophy. So the book looks at a number of ancient myths, some well known like that of Narcissus; others almost forgotten, like the story of Eros and Anteros, which I think has many things to tell us about the struggles people find when they are in a couple

Is romance the highest form of love? No. I really think that the adulation of romantic love is a danger. The belief that there is one other person out there who will perfect your life is a powerful fantasy, hard to resist even by those who don't believe it. Romance is fine, but it must lead us to love life itself, with another, but not perpetually gazing into our beloved's eyes.

Is there a highest form of love? We need to be fluent in the various kinds of love. That said, I think that the love of life itself, manifest in creativity and friendship, is the richest flowering of human love. This is being able to stand in love. I talk about divine love too, the perception which may come that although we are thrown into life, life is underpinned by love. This sense is what religious people call God.


Friday, January 18 2013

Love All That Matters - an introduction

I've recorded a podcast introduction to my new book, Love All That Matters, which is out next week. Do have a listen! (Click on play button below or download via iTunes.)


Wednesday, January 16 2013

Rupert Sheldrake on free choice

Here (iTunes) and here (jellycast) are the second of my conversations with Rupert Sheldrake, stemming from his book The Science Delusion, this one on materialism and free choice...


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