Friday, August 28 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, August 28 2015, 08:58
This article is published in the new issue of Third Way Magazine…
In the 750th anniversary year of Dante's birth, does the medieval world-view of The Divine Comedy still have anything to teach us? Mark Vernon's planetary tour of the Italian poet's universe gives new signposts for modern readers.
Midway upon the journey of his life, Dante Alighieri, the poet of The Divine Comedy, watched his luck collapse. A politician in Florence with the ear of the Pope, his fortunes suddenly reversed and he was cast into exile and penury. His mind fell on his first love, the beautiful Beatrice. The yearning and loss inspired his great poem, a visionary journey powered by love that carries him through the three realms of the dead towards a beatific vision of God.
Many modern readers of his masterpiece feel quite at home in the Inferno and Purgatory. The fates and tortures, sorrows and hopes that fill these realms still feel related to our struggles today. That familiarity departs with the Paradise. The vast differences between the medieval and modern experience of life then become an apparently insuperable barrier.
C.S. Lewis described the gap in his study of the medieval imagination, The Discarded Image. He recognized that it represented a major problem for Christianity because so much Christian imagery and theology is grounded in the abandoned worldview. When Dante looked up to the stars, he perceived himself to be on the lower rungs of a ladder of being that rises to God. When modern eyes gaze into the heavens, it is as if we look out from an island of awareness into vast voids of emptiness. Science tells us it is populated by dead matter not living souls; blind mechanisms not celestial virtues.
Or is that right? Do we actually have more imaginative and metaphysical options than we might first presume? Can we look up with modern eyes and still detect Dante's brilliant vision?
Dante the pilgrim enters paradise and the first sphere of the Moon. According to the poem, he asks why the lunar surface has lighter and darker parts. Beatrice, who accompanies him, tells him that he must let go of the physical explanations he proposes. His task now is different: it is to learn to perceive by a spiritual light. So for we moderns, might entering the lunar domain be thought of metaphorically as coming to an awareness of how richly we project human perceptions onto the stars, so as to begin to let them go?
Take the interest in discovering extraterrestrial life. This enterprise has been energetically engaged for well over half a century without a single positive discovery. The last report I saw said that over 100,000 galaxies have now been scanned for the basic signatures of civilizations like ours without the faintest signal. So why does this long search lose none of its fascination and appeal?
Projection is one answer. I wonder whether the search for ET has much to do with the human need to feel we are not alone. You might say that the quest is indulged with sublunary assumptions, as if the only option for intelligent life is carbon-based consciousness like our own. But that preoccupation excludes spiritual possibilities. What might they be? Dante asks that too, as he journeys into the next sphere, Venus.
Here, he begins to be able to discern, and bear, intensely beautiful images of spiritual reality. For a modern mind, reflecting on the role that beauty plays in scientific discovery might help us to journey this next step with him. Put it like this: mathematicians seek elegant solutions; physicists symmetries; biologists patterns. Scientists do so because such beautiful formulations are scientifically productive. But are they metaphysically revealing too?
In fact, the mathematician and former President of the Royal Society, Michael Atiyah, has noticed that modern scientists are perhaps unwittingly rejecting beauty as a handmaid of discovery by their adoption of algebra as a mathematical tool, in conjunction with computers. The upshot is that geometry, with its intuitive methods based upon principles of beauty - pattern, symmetry, balance - is falling into disuse. In a lecture, "Mathematics in the Twentieth Century", delivered in 2000, he argued that this move is something of a Faustian pact. "The devil says: 'I will give you this powerful machine, and it will answer any question you like. All you need to do is give me your soul.'" But without soul - without beauty - science is limited to what the machine can manipulate. It leaves scientists blind to what calculations cannot conceive.
You could say that Atiyah senses that science needs Venus and the stimulus of beauty, and that her inspiration is at risk of being eclipsed.
Dante's next step in paradise is into the sphere of the Sun. He is now fully awake to the limitations of human understanding; he has embraced the wonder of being confronted by irresolvable mystery. For the modern mind, a similar point of realization can be reached: the knowledge gained through the powerful methods of modern science comes to be recognized as indicative of a richness that lies beyond description, and which is even more extraordinary.
Dante meets Thomas Aquinas in the Sun. There is a well known story about Aquinas, which Dante presumably knew. On the morning of St Nicolas's Day, 1273, Aquinas had a vision. He concluded that all he had written was as much straw - meaning not meaningless but basic compared with the "wisdom so profound none of His creatures can ever hope to see into Its depths," as Dante has Aquinas say in Paradise. The human efforts of the Angelic Doctor could now stop. He would rest in the fecundity of spiritual silence, which paradoxically he could appreciate all the more because of his hard-won knowledge. He had adopted a solar mind.
Another past President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, has written of a parallel experience. He confesses an agnosticism of the type that is profoundly aware of the limitations of the human mind. He argues that scientific endeavours have barely understood the workings of the hydrogen atom, one of the simplest structures in the cosmos. It seems presumptuous to propose that we will one day arrive at a theory of everything, and so know the mind of God, to recall the phrase of Stephen Hawking. You might say that Rees is a scientist who enjoys the radiance of the Sun - the wonderment that dazzles at the fine edges of rational and empirical discovery. We can join him and Aquinas too.
Love presses on, and Dante next moves towards Mars. Here, he meets one of his ancestors and, in that meeting, his relationship to the great flow of life. It's the next gift offered by paradise.
I sense we might be welcomed here by Paul Davies, a cosmologist who countenances a possibility that is generally taboo in modern science, namely that the cosmos might have a telos, a directionality, an end. Davies is the author of several bestselling science books, including The Goldilocks Enigma, in which he examines the seeming rightness of the universe for the emergence of self-conscious life. He speculates that the cosmos may contain a drive for life, for self-consciousness, and even for qualities such as love. Though it's taboo to raise such possibilities, this "life principle" is a plausible hypothesis, he writes. It's a breathtaking thought when set alongside the vastness of the universe's unfolding: at least 13.8 billion years in time and 90 billion light years in space that is permeated by this gentle, unfailing pull.
To put it another way, a cosmic life principle presents us with our own relationship to the great flow of life. Further, it lifts us out of any humdrum experience of life and affords us a glimpse of the mystery of life and death. And more: is not to see one's own life as a reflection of an instinct for awareness that pulses through the cosmos, to die a little to self? Is it not to feel one's existence within a wider whole, flaming forth from an animating principle, the divine Word? It's what Dante realizes too as he is blessed by Mars.
Can we make the next move towards Jupiter, the realm of order, justice and serenity? Each of the souls Dante sees here has a place, rejoices in her place, and works harmoniously alongside all others. Interestingly, it is also the domain in which no one speaks to the pilgrim.
In relation to modern cosmology, a parallel experience might be to receive an intuition of the ineffable lawfulness of the universe. Under the white light of Jupiter, the laws of nature that science can articulate come to be known as echoes of a higher, harmonious order.
Albert Einstein smiles at us in this realm. On Earth, he had professed the type of pantheism advocated by Spinoza. It identifies God with nature but, unlike reductive forms of pantheism, does not forget the dependency of nature upon God: God is not another being but the Being of nature itself.
This theological carefulness sprang from his intellectual humility, his "veneration for a force beyond anything that we can comprehend." My conceit is that his terrestrial humility secures him a place in Jupiter's celestial domain because it ensures that his genius served a greater worship of the cosmic mystery. He spoke of "a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds." He knew nature as a wonderful phenomenon shaped according to lawful patterns and coordinated movements. You could say he loved "Jove's justice", to echo the words that appear to Dante in this sphere.
There is a contemplation that is another step on, in Saturn. Dante now sees a ladder that can lift the soul out of the heavenly spheres altogether, and so closer still to God. Even music and Beatrice's loving smile, Dante realizes, are imprints of a lower beauty from which he must become detached if he is to continue. He must prepare himself to rise on a metaphysics that acknowledges a world of pure spirit that is radically independent of the material world. It's a form of Platonism, and one shared by the Oxford physicist who taught Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose.
For Penrose, Platonism provides the best description of why the human mind can do science at all. There must be a link between a metaphysical reality and physical reality, and it is made through the intelligence we know as mind. Though Penrose publicly remains neutral about the existence of God, I think he can be thought of as a fellow traveller with Peter Damian, the medieval contemplative whom Dante meets in Saturn. Damian's words to the poet capture the tremendous dynamic inherent in Platonic insight: "A ray of God's light focuses on me and penetrates the light enwombing me, whose force once joined to that of my own sight, lifts me above myself until I see the Primal Source..."
The metaphor of a ray of light carries a striking additional resonance too. I once spoke with Penrose about the nature of light. He told me that, according to the theories of relativity, light does not exist in time. 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. Time would have to slow to a halt, requiring an infinite amount of energy - a lift to eternity, you might say, given that eternity is the world of timelessness. And then Penrose added a personal thought.
He described arriving at his office in the morning and turning on the lights. The room floods with photons, cascading sparks of timeless brightness. "It's like being bathed in eternity," he murmured, almost to himself. It seemed to me that this everyday act, transformed by a deep cosmological mystery, was simultaneously akin to a mystical experience, momentarily lifting him out of time altogether. Surely it is to glimpse high into the divine heavens.
Moon, Venus, Sun. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. In the poem, Dante continues, journeying on. But perhaps that's enough to suggest there are ways of reclaiming, and inhabiting, Dante's "discarded image".
Sunday, August 16 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, August 16 2015, 08:38
A Sunday Sermon as posted at The Idler Academy.
We love to go on holiday to the sea. The turquoise lure of a sunny ocean has determined eight out of ten holiday destinations this year, I read. So why do millions cram on coasts and islands during these warm weeks? Fun, for sure. But I suspect the sea delivers something the soul loves too.
First, it makes us feel at home, more comfortable with ourselves. Individuals do things beside the seaside that they'd never do elsewhere. They strip off, build sandcastles, idle for hours during the middle of the day. Perhaps it has to do with the remarkable fact that we share the same percentage of salt in our blood as exists in the sea. 'We are tied to the ocean,' was how John F Kennedy put it: 'And when we go back to the sea, we are going back from whence we came.' The sea rocks us in its cradle as we float buoyant on salty waves. And it is also our evolutionary cradle. Perhaps our cells remember that deep history when we catch sight of the surf and surge, and our souls feel they have returned home.
But if the sea brings comfort, it also - secondly - sparks fear. It's 'dragon-green' and 'serpent-haunted', according to poet James Elroy Flecker. We pray for those in peril on the sea. There's the threatening power of the wind and waves, of course. And too, the sea is a powerful metaphor for the unconscious parts of ourselves, that domain of impulses, dreads and dark forms of which we're mostly unaware. The undulating, choppy surface becomes an interface between what is seen and what's unknown inside us. The sea is a reminder of what lies hidden beneath the turbulence of everyday distractions and concerns.
Playing with that fear is a standard device in movies. Think of Jaws, 40 years old this year. Part of the director's genius was to present us with a shark's-eye view by filming much of the action from under the surface. Sitting in a dark cinema watching the white foam and red churn was to come close to the monsters that can spring from the unconscious, the menace of the indefinite.
Better then to contemplate the sea from dry sand and firm land. From this vantage, the sea becomes restorative by nurturing a safer meditation. In stiller parts of the beach, or strolling alongside the water in the evening light, you will catch sight of holiday-makers gazing across the waves. They fall silent. They stand for a moment. It's as if they become aware and accepting of the darker forces in life.
And there's perhaps a third dynamic the sea evokes too. Alongside feeling it's akin, and knowing it's strange, the sea speaks of promise. Think of the metaphors inspired by sparkling waters. It prompts longings for 'near horizons' and 'distant shores'. It leaves us feeling 'wide open' or in touch with a 'vast emptiness'. The cobalt blue, or grey-green, or wild indigo convey a timeless eternity. 'The sea is as close as we come to another world,' remarked poet, Anne Stevenson.
It's to experience the sea's transcendence. It's to be reminded that our own world is often too small for us. If we can risk being all at sea - if we find a taste for its adventure and escape - we might discover the more that it offers. 'Time in the sea eats its tail,' wrote Ted Hughes. When the philosopher Plotinus saw the sea, he advised his followers to 'close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all.' The sea can shape the imagination as surely as it smooths the pebbles on the beach. See what you can see by the sea!
Image: Mainland Greece and Albania seen from Corfu, Bogdan Giuşcă
Wednesday, August 5 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, August 5 2015, 09:48
This review of The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray is published in Third Way Magazine.
The philosopher and historian of ideas, John Gray, is the type of atheist Christians can read with profit. Unlike many contemporary atheists who write about the human condition, Gray is under no delusion that humanity can do well or better without God. His exposé of the human propensity to violence, illusion, narcissism and misplaced optimism is relentless. He conveys a sense of life that is as bleak as Good Friday. His most recent books, including The Soul of the Marionette, can be read as a kind of emptying spiritual meditation. Accounts of individual paranoia, cannibalistic civilisations, and human folly take the sensitive reader to the despair of Jesus crying from the cross of God's desertion. For Gray, this wretched, blind, vulnerable state of being is not the exception but the rule. He offers a reminder of why believers believe: they feel death's presence too.
He is interesting to read as well. His awareness of lesser known novelists and thinkers is impressive. For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume is often cited for his attack on theism. The human mind does not really know the causes of things even when seemingly proven, he argued, be those causes presumed mechanical or providential. There is an unbridgeable gap between what we perceive and what happens. But I, for one, had not heard of Hume's contemporary, the clergyman Joseph Glanvill. Glanvill took such radical scepticism seriously too but, instead of turning it against religion and science, deployed it in favour of religion. The ways of God in nature are not our ways, he felt Christianity affirms. Providence is unsearchable; we can never know. But that humility is precisely the wisdom born of faith.
In fact, Gray often shows more sympathy for theism than atheism. He argues that, at their best, religions such as Christianity recognise that humanity faces problems that, of itself, it cannot surmount. Conversely, modern secularism is built on myths of anthropocentric progress. Science and politics alike sell us faith in reason or technology as ways out of human ills and evil.
Actually, it seems to me that Christians today are at risk of buying into such myths too. Church authorities confuse God's mission in the world with a plan for their church designed to halt numerical decline. Or they feel that Christianity requires them to seek global solutions to intractable issues such as immigration or poverty. The Christian task is at once much simpler and more demanding: it is to show compassion to those who are cursed by political, social and religious systems. That's harder than nurturing fantasies such problems can be solved - the whole of history shows they can't - because it leads in one direction: to the cross.
Gray can critique Christianity too. He is clear about the damage and suffering followers of Jesus have inflicted on others when they mistakenly assume confessing their creed equals knowledge of truth, a truth that must then be forced on others. In particular, the universal claims of Christianity have been a licence for universal savagery, Gray writes, citing Giacomo Leopardi. This intolerance, which amongst Christian leaders today tends to be limited to homophobia or misogyny presumably because they no longer command armies, has transferred to secular leaders. They bomb from drones or practice secret torture in the name of spreading universal freedom. (If you think that's a bit hard on presidents and prime ministers, Gray helpfully reminds us that around a quarter of the world's prisoners are held in America and that the state of Louisiana imprisons more of its population per capita than any other country on the planet.)
And yet, Gray can at times adopt a dogmatic tone himself. One small example that I notice: he regularly misrepresents the figure of Socrates, arguing in this book that the ancient Greek philosopher never doubted that the world was rational. I find this bemusing: Socrates turned reason against itself to expose its stress points and limitations. How else can you explain why so many of Plato's dialogues end inconclusively? His message is not, try harder; but rather, no matter how hard you try, reason will not lead you to the good life. Socrates is, to my mind, a friend of Gray, not an enemy.
Christians otherwise sympathetic to him will also feel that, at times, Gray misunderstands faith. For example, I would argue that the theistic impulse is not for freedom from choice, as he proposes in one passage. Rather, phrases expressing "God's service as perfect freedom" refer to the liberation of choosing to discern God's spirit rather than following one's own. True freedom is a question of attention rather than will.
Similarly, I suspect he is not quite right when he presents mystical traditions as taking freedom to be an inner condition in which normal anxious consciousness has been transcended. Rather, it's a condition in which normal consciousness has become aware of another consciousness that is "closer to me than I am to myself", to paraphrase Saint Augustine. That awareness slowly transforms to the point at which the individual lives out of this other life, known as God. It's the unexpected new life on the other side of dying to oneself that presents itself on Easter Sunday.
But then that is the difference between nihilism and theism. Gray's view is strictly tragic: it's best hope is a negative capability, following Keats, that does not cling to false certainties. Christianity is ultimately a divine comedy, in the ancient sense used of Dante's epic poem: though we must travel through hell, that is the way to heaven. It is often hard to distinguish between that hope and Gray's dark vision.
Sunday, July 19 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, July 19 2015, 08:00
This short essay was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme this morning.
The ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights - figures like Socrates and Plato, Euripides and Sophocles - can be thought of as prophets. Like the Hebrew prophets of the Bible, they were passionate critics of what was going on in their day. So how might they comment upon the European Greek crisis today?
I think with a cry of anger, despair, and lament. Think of Euripides' play, Trojan Women. It portrays the fate of the women of Troy after their terrible defeat in the Trojan war. Euripides has Hecuba cry: "What else but tears is now my hapless lot. What woe must I suppress? I must chant a cheerless dirge of sorrow."
I can imagine a modern day Euripides traveling to the site of Plato's Academy, where I was last month. It's now a suburban park, a half hour bus ride from the main Athenian attractions of the acropolis and agora. I sought it out seeking a moment amongst the stones to connect back. I was feeling idealistic, hopeful, romantic.
I hadn't banked on the park being a makeshift boarding house for the homeless. I found my stones amidst the acanthus plants, but alongside them were human figures curled up in stained sleeping bags. The denser patches of shrubbery had become toilets.
It seemed to me that what Euripides had written of the Trojan women could be said of these modern-day defeated women and men: What woe must they suppress? What tears do they cry? What cheerless dirge expresses their sorrow?
Alongside the ancient playwrights, the ancient philosophers strove to find words of critique and pain too. They were inspired by Socrates, the man whom the rulers of ancient Athens had executed. His questioning and example had proven too much.
Today, Socrates could repeat almost the same set of questions he asked then. What vision of the good life are you politicians really offering? Whom are you serving in your lawmaking? What kind of society are you creating for your citizens?
A key issue the philosophers highlighted was the nature of money and debt. Money is fine, they observed, when it serves people and life. But beware: it has a life of its own. They were as wary of debt as the Hebrew prophets were of usury. Money quickly turns from being a servant to a tyrant; from being of service to demanding it be served. Then, it destroys opportunities, goods, life.
What monster has been created, Socrates might ask now? You talk of justice, Aristotle might add, and fail to see that justice needs friendship to stay human. Without goodwill, it too becomes a tyrant.
The playwrights and philosophers had a tragic view of life. Plato's shade, lurking in the park of his old Academy, would not be surprised by the homeless sleepers. But ancient tragedy also contained hope. Euripides and others wrote about the suffering of their times to remember and honour those who suffer. Their art - their prophecy - gave the suffering dignity and a voice.
Plato offered something else. He knew that whatever happens to the body, the eye of the soul can be kept open and bright. Though terrible things will happen, human beings need never lose sight of what's good, beautiful, and true.
It's a truth central to Christianity too. The tragic figure of the crucified Jesus, the prophet who warned money will become your god, also knew of the light that shines in the vastness of the darkness. It cannot be extinguished. The Greeks have known this truth for millennia. I hope they know it now.
Friday, June 19 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, June 19 2015, 16:27
Eleusis is off the beaten track when it comes to following in the footsteps of Paul. This is, in part, good. First, its temples, porticos and ceremonial ways are not filled with other visitors. Second, the silence of the fallen marble still speaks of how it was a thin place, somewhere that countless individuals received insight and consolation in the face of the great issues of life and death. I recommend a visit.
It's the home of the Eleusinian Mysteries and, because of its tremendous influence particularly in Roman times, is really as much a part of Christian history and experience as Paul's teaching on the second coming in Thessalonica or the centrality of love in Corinth.
We speak of baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments and mysteries. We take communion, engage rites of initiation, prepare ourselves to receive God with fasting, sacred meals, festivities, pilgrimages, liturgies. They transform lives and deliver the kind of knowledge that can't be read on a page. Such elements have many sources, but the link to the ancient mysteries is thoroughly in the mix.
It's worth saying a word about the word "mystery" because it can be mystifying. This is a shame as it is a simple idea of which everyone has experience. The word comes from the Greek verb for "to close" (hence, myopic). Recipients of mysteries closed their eyes - that is, they were shown things that eyes alone can't see. To put it another way, a mystery is a direct experience of truth. It's unmediated by words, objects or rites - although words, objects and rites are the vehicles that carry the individual to the moment when the direct experience shows itself.
The journey of Holy Week, particularly through the Triduum or Three Days, is a good example (and is another link with Eleusis, since the ancient mysteries involved a journey of several days to and from Athens). The liturgies on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday carry the congregation to the bleak heart of the emptiness of death, and then, through Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, to an experience of the mystery and joy of resurrection. The Easter Vigil in the early hours of the morning on Easter Sunday offers a direct sense of the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not comprehend.
It seems highly likely that Paul utilizes the language of the mysteries too, not least in his letters to the Corinthians. They lived within easy reach of Eleusis and would have recognised links when he wrote things like, "Listen, I tell you a mystery!" Or, "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies" - because the Eleusinian mysteries were deeply linked to growth and the seasons. Or again when he cited Isaiah, "Death has been swallowed up in victory" - because the mysteries involved a swallowing up in the earth before a release into a new, richer life.
Personally, I think that there may even be a direct link to Paul. One of his named converts in Athens is Dionysius the Areopagite. The name was to have an enormous impact upon subsequent theology when, in the late 5th century AD, a Christian Neoplatonic philosopher adopted it. Under Dionysius's name, he wrote works including Divine Names, Mystical Theology and Celestial Hierarchy, now referred to as authored by Pseudo-Dionysius or Pseudo-Denys. They could claim to be some of the most influential books in Christianity. And perhaps the original Dionysius was an Eleusinian initiate before he was a Christian. Perhaps this is why he was open to Paul's teaching on resurrection when Paul arrived in Athens. And perhaps Dionysius began a school of mysticism within Christianity that came to fruition in the 5th century texts.
The former dean of St Paul's cathedral, William Ralph Inge - Dean Inge, wrote an accessible book on mysticism, Christian Mysticism (it's widely available online). He offers a useful summary of what happened at Eleusis in an appendix, and why it matters to Christians. He concludes: "It is plain that this is one of the cases in which Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing from it all its best elements; and I do not see a Christian need feel any reluctance to make this admission." Personally, I think that this adoption of the practice and theology of the mysteries is crucial to knowing the life in all its fullness that Jesus lived and taught, and Paul so profoundly experienced and knew.
Thursday, June 18 2015
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, June 18 2015, 15:42
What would the Stoics and Epicureans have made of Paul's famous speech on the Areopagus in Athens, the capital city we've now arrived at on the pilgrimage? Let's take the words Luke puts into Paul's mouth in Acts 17 at face value, and consider them point by point. Once more, we see Paul being canny: don't alienate your audience unnecessarily; indeed, reach out to them as far as you can.
I found an altar to an unknown god. (v23)
The altar to the unknown god has not yet been found, in spite of the best efforts of well-funded archeologists. But altars to "unknown gods" are well attested by ancient sources, so Paul has picked an arresting starting point.
Further, the philosophers would broadly have agreed with Paul on the plethora of idols that littered the agora. The Epicureans believed in gods. In fact, some Epicureans thought that Epicurus was a god and remembered him on his birthday. But they were entirely against what they took to be the superstition that characterised much city-state religiosity. Leave the gods alone as they leave us alone, they tended to say.
Stoics were different. They were actively theistic. "We are children of Zeus," Epictetus the Stoic wrote about the same time as Luke. "Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within," he continues. The Stoics are with Paul, ready to hear more.
The God who made the world... gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (v24-25)
Now, though, any self-respecting Epicurean would have scoffed. They believed that life is merely the fortunate assembly of atoms. It requires no intervention from outside. There is no god who made the world.
The Stoics, though, would have listened on. God, through the operation of the Logos, generates and sustains all things, they taught. As Seneca, the near contemporary of Paul, explained: "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you... a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian."
He allotted the times of their existence... he is not far from each one of us. (v26-27)
This line would have interested the Stoics some more. They were strict determinists. Everything happened according to the divine will and purpose. Plus, they sought to know this will within their lives. Seneca again: "God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men." In fact, Paul's claim that God is "not far from each one of us" reads like a direct appeal to Stoic ears.
Which would explain why he next quotes two philosophers who were authorities for the Stoics (and not the Epicureans): "In him we live and move and have our being" (Epimenides). "For we too are his offspring" (Aratus). So what will he say next?
Now he commands all people everywhere to repent... v30
Having wooed them Paul, ever the rhetorician, choses this moment to turn up the heat. The themes of repentance and judgment are simply less comfortable personally, though not philosophically. Stoics practiced repentance (the Greek is metanoia - change of heart and mind). Here's Seneca on why it's necessary: "Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat." Repentance can lead the individual back to God.
On the other hand, Stoic adepts, such as might have been in Paul's audience, could well have been affronted by his audacity. OK, Paul comes from Tarsus, no mean Hellenistic city. But Tarsus is no Athens, they might have thought. Repentance for us? What will this man suggest next?
He will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed... v31
Again, judgment per se would have been tolerable to the Stoics. The philosopher Plutarch was writing about the same time as Luke. He's a Platonist, though I think that by the first century AD, Stoicism and Platonism often intermingled. Plutarch writes: "If the soul survives, we must expect that its due in honour and in punishment is awarded after death rather than before." Judgment, therefore, is OK. The tricky element for the Stoics would have been the notion of a man being appointed to judge. This Judge is presumably what they took to be Paul's "foreign deity" (v18).
By raising him from the dead. v31
Now Paul comes to the crux issue: resurrection. For, the Epicureans it was simply impossible. There is no postmortem survival, Epicurus had been explicit.
For the Stoics, resurrection was tricky but... Officially, they believed that when we die the fire of life leaves the body with the last breath. That fire is not lost: it returns to the cosmos from whence it came. Then there are the Platonic additions, and an active contemplation of the immortality of the soul.
Both these visions of postmortem existence are different from personal survival and, even more, from the reconstitution of a body. But, having brought them this far, I think Paul is inviting his Stoic listeners to reconsider and be challenged. After all, it's striking that he preaches the resurrection to the philosophers and not the cross, the thing that elsewhere he remarks is a stumbling block.
And some wanted to hear more of this ingenious man who was clearly passionate, confident and well-educated. We can take it that the Epicureans were the ones who scoffed, and the Stoics were the ones who wanted to hear Paul again (v34). There are also two named converts, Dionysius and Damaris, along with unnamed others. It was a good day for Paul at the Areopagus. He had made his mark in Athens.
Image: Areopagus from the Acropolis, Athens
Tuesday, June 16 2015
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, June 16 2015, 17:25
I'm helping lead a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Paul in Greece. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Today we've been in and around the Metéora monasteries looking at icons...
Plato is not dead, I was once emphatically told. Go into any Greek Orthodox church. Icons are Platonism made manifest!
We've seen many astonishing icons on day five of the pilgrimage, in the thriving Metéora monasteries and their churches. But why are they Platonic and should Christians care?
In his dialogue the Republic, Plato offers a series of analogies and myths that convey four levels at which human beings can perceive, make sense of, and know God and the cosmos. The most famous is the myth of the cave. It begins with the experience of prisoners strapped down at the back of the cave, only they don't realise they are held because it's the only reality they have ever known. They see flickering shadows on the wall in front of them and take them to be real.
It's a metaphor for the first level at which we know things, the empirical level. This is the material level of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling. There's nothing wrong with it. When I took part in the icon retreat at Southwark cathedral last year, one of the loveliest pleasures was handling the egg tempera paints and colours. But if my attempts to write an icon had stopped there, I would have scarcely begun. So too, in general, if we treat the brute stuff of the physical world as the sum total of reality, life won't take us very far.
In truth, no-one stops there. Human beings quite spontaneously interpret and analyse, gather and assess what their senses tell them. I don't just see azure blue outside the window, I see the bright sky. Similarly, with the icon writing. After a day becoming familiar with the paint, we moved onto applying it on a board, and experimented with the imagery produced. When the skilled iconographer sits down to work, the elegant forms of Christ, Mary, angels and saints emerge. The materiality of paint and board are transformed into an object of belief and devotion.
It's Plato's second level of knowledge. In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the moment a few brave prisoners loosen their bonds, peer into the gloom behind them, and see that the flickering shadows they had taken to be reality are the result of puppets dancing in front of a fire. There's more to life than they first assumed. Plato called it the level of belief - living by the convictions we have about things that are fine insofar as they go, only they don't go far enough either.
There is a third level. Think again about the icon. What really matters is not the picture but what the picture conveys. The Greek "eikon" means image or likeness. So it's the tangible manifestation of an intangible reality which the picture transmits or channels. Hence the sense of the numinous or transcendent when one enters an Orthodox church. The sacred space filled with icons becomes a thin place that opens your mind and imagination to a spiritual perception that is actually closer and more immediate than your physicality. The presence enters you like a breath. You step into an awareness of the aliveness of life at the level of soul.
St Paul uses the word "eikon" many times in much the same way, too. Just as we bear an earthy or visible eikon, he tells the Corinthians, so too we bear a heavenly or invisible eikon. In other words, our bodies are not only biological organisms but are breathing mirrors of our ensoulment. It's why our character becomes etched into the lines of our face as we grow old, and why others know who we really are when they see into our eyes.
Plato called this third level, flexible thinking. The seer now is one who is not held back by the literal or concrete but can work with, and live from, the metaphorical and symbolic. It's closer to the truth.
In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the next step that the escaping prisoners take as they realise they are in a cave. They see the mouth of the cave. It emits a uniform, illuminating light. They don't yet see or understand the source of the warm glow, but they certainly now know that shadows and fire don't explain much at all. They stay brave, inch their way towards the opening, and step out. To their astonishment and delight, they see the sun - or at least, they don't see the sun but realise that there is a source of all light that gives life. They can't quite look at the sun. It's blinding.
It's the fourth level of knowledge, the mystical. Plato calls it direct perception or true understanding. It's ineffable, an awareness of reality that is known through and beyond all eikons, perceptions, or words. In the most common Orthodox icon, Christ Pantocrator, this most profound awareness is symbolised by three letters painted into Christ's halo: ο, ω, ν. "ο ων" means "who is". The letters are reminders of the Being of which Christ is the full manifestation; the image of the invisible God. To appreciate the icon at this level is to understand it fully.
It's the goal of the Christian life. Such direct perception is to be united with the Being, with the divine. Union is possible because we can only understand what we can share in, participate with, or are akin to. We understand the material world because we are material as well. Similarly, we understand the immaterial world because we have an immaterial nature too. At the deepest level, the Platonists and indeed Paul risk saying that we can understand and know God insofar as we ourselves manifest the divine, which is to say that we have realised an awareness of the ground of our being and all beings.
It's the mystery of the incarnation, which Plato's fourfold schema unpacks too. First, there is the biological materiality of Jesus the man. Second, there is the historical actuality of his birth and death - the beliefs captured in creeds. Third, there is the theological meaning that is drawn out of these details, from the kenotic emptying Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians, to his notion that we too can become children of God or akin to the divine.
And fourth is the most basic reality of all. The incarnation reveals that in all eternity, the Father "gives birth" to the Son within God, as God. And so also God is born in creation within the human soul, alongside the cosmos as a whole. Hence, Paul writes of creation groaning with birth pangs. It's the fullness of the icon. We see God. We see Christ. We see Jesus. And we see the awesome truth of ourselves.
Image: Christ Pantocrator, the painting in the niche of the wall of the Holy Trinity's monastery, Meteora, Greece
Sunday, June 14 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, June 14 2015, 19:19
I'm helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Today we reached Thessalonica…
Reading between the lines of Paul's letters, so as to catch a glimpse of what gripped the first generation of Christians, is always tricky. Never more so, I feel, than with the letters to the Thessalonians.
Though the first epistle is the earliest Christian text in the Bible, it could be thought of as warm but a bit bland. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their example and welcome (incidentally, in marked contrast to the account of his visit to the city in Acts: Luke tells us that a riot led to Paul making a rapid exit in the middle of the night). In the letter, Paul also appeals to the Thessalonians to remember that he speaks with divine not mortal authority, and to recall that he and his companions "worked night and day so as not to be a burden to you".
The letters become more theologically interesting on one issue, though in relation to a subject that's awkward for Christians living two millennia on. Paul teaches about the parousia or Second Coming. He corrects the Thessalonians for worrying that some of the brethren are dying before Christ has returned. Everyone will share in the resurrection, he writes, and be "caught up in the clouds". Outside of American Rapture circles, does anyone believe that now?
But reading between the lines reveals more and, further, helps us relate to such themes. It helps to see Paul not only as a Jew but as an educated Hellenistic Jew. That can cast a different light on things.
For example, the detail about not being a burden has been interpreted by some scholars as a sign of how Paul was influenced by Stoicism. It seems to be the kind of attitude towards hospitality that a Stoic sage would commend, as opposed to, say, a travelling rabbi.
The Stoic teacher prided himself on living an integrated life. His or her knowledge of cosmic and divine matters did not mean that they didn't care about the humdrum. In fact, they abhorred people who were so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use, because accurate self-perception was the crucial first step on the path to deep wisdom. As Socrates had insisted, Know Thyself! Paul too seems to be saying to the Thessalonians, I manifested such an integrated life, and that's important for my authority.
The pastoral content of the letters develops the issue. Paul's moral instructions about not fornicating, living quietly, and minding your own affairs exemplifies what scholars call paraenesis. It's a type of unshowy morality that emerged from Stoicism, and other Hellenistic philosophy schools, and was regarded as exemplifying the veracity of your beliefs to others. Paul makes this kind of model behaviour his own, and frequently commends it to others.
Why might this be of interest? Well, seeing Paul in this light can help with a common difficulty felt in modern liberal circles: his awkward conservatism. Take a particularly tricky example, the passage in Colossians 3 about wives submitting to their husbands and slaves obeying their masters. And now think of it as standard first century exemplary morality. I think that these injunctions would have been taken as self-evident cases of best behaviour at the time. Self-evident cases of best behaviour will inevitably be different now - wives and husbands sharing things, and masters freeing their slaves, say. In other words, such passages shouldn't be read as timeless truths without context, as they are in contemporary debates about "male headship".
Paul's Stoicism can help with understanding his convictions on the Second Coming as well because Stoics too had an eschatology. Many argued that there would be a cosmic conflagration that would bring all things to glorious completion. The good Stoic should wait out the current times, behaving well, and so keep his soul ready for the fiery finale.
This is not at all to say that Paul was a fully signed-up Stoic. His eschatology is distinctive, involving the return of the Lord. But it is to say that such a belief would have resonated with other ideas current at the time, perhaps especially in a Greek city like Thessalonica. As with women obeying their husbands, and slaves their masters, placing Paul in his times - as a pilgrimage can so usefully do - helps us to distinguish the timeless revelation about which he was so passionate from the time-bound assumptions he also made.
Saturday, June 13 2015
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, June 13 2015, 17:06
I'm helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Here's a third post from me from the splendid archeological site of Philippi…
Paul sets foot on European soil for the first time, probably in the winter of 49AD. But what did he find at the port of Neapoli, modern day Kavala? What religious scene greeted him?
It would have been an important question for him too. Paul tells us he tailored his message to connect with his listeners. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. So what word would have struck a chord in Macedonia? The letter to the Philippians, though written years after his first arrival, provides evidence.
It seems his usual strategy was, first, to contact fellow diaspora Jews and/or those who reverenced Judaism, the so-called "god-fearers", who were widespread throughout the Roman empire. They would understand the language of the Christ, the Messiah, even if they rejected it.
When he got to Philippi, just up the road from Neapoli, he found no synagogue but, Acts tells us, he went to a place of prayer by the river. There he met a group of women including Lydia, whose heart opened to what Paul said. She was baptised.
However, Paul was not only interested in engaging fellow Jews. His next encounter in Philippi, according to Acts, was with another woman, only this one had a "spirit of Python". She was probably a prophetess from the Delphic Oracle, which is to say, a significant religious figure. No wonder the city was in uproar after Paul became annoyed with her and quashed her spirit.
It sounds like the story of a new religion casting out the old. But it's more interesting that. Why, for example, did Paul became so annoyed by the prophetess? She was proclaiming correctly that he was from the "Most High God". I suspect the incident reveals another side to Paul's ability to connect and persuade: he himself had spiritual abilities that deeply impressed.
The historian Ramsay MacMullen paints a vivid picture of the pagan milieu into which Paul had landed. "(People's) senses were assaulted by messages directing their attention to religion; shouts and singing in public places to an accompaniment as loud as ancient instruments could sound; applause for highly ornate prose paeans; enactment of scenes from the gods' stories performed in theaters and amphitheaters; the god-possessed swirl of worshippers coming down the street to the noise of rattles and drums."
To make an impression, which he clearly did, Paul had to be able to outclass the tumult with his own displays of supernormal power. It apparently came easily to him. In Acts, we read time and time again of how he healed and exorcised, prophesied and even seemingly caused earthquakes. Paul could channel quite a show. As he told the Corinthians, he did not have to use persuasive words of wisdom. He was a spiritual adept.
But if spectacle was part of what helped Paul connect with the Greeks, there was a further side to his appeal. This was more subtle, and perhaps longer lasting. It was Paul's authority as a mystic, which is to say, he could communicate a profoundly felt experience of the divine.
Mysticism, too, was integral to the ancient religious scene. At Philippi, the grave of Euephenes has been excavated. He was probably an initiate into the cult of the Kabeiroi. The heroon of Euephenes was discovered in tact because it had been incorporated into subsequent Christian buildings.
This respect suggests to me that Paul must have been recognised as the representative of a mystery religion too. There are echoes of this dynamic in the letter to the Philippians as well. Paul writes of having "the same mind as Christ"; of "overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight". It's here we find the mystical hymn of Christ emptying himself and "taking the form of a servant". He also hopes to "know the resurrection and make it his own".
Paul's message must have been rich. He had wisdom that could speak to the Jews; power that could persuade the pagans; and an ability to manifest the mystical side of life. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks in such a way that his arrival still speaks two millennia on.
Image: The mosaic floor of the Octagon church that incorporates the heroon of Euephenes.
Wednesday, June 10 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, June 10 2015, 09:23
I'm off on Friday helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself will be blogging here. Here's a second pre-departure post from me…
It's become one of the most famous moments in history. A Damascene conversion is a sudden and complete change in one's beliefs. Blinding lights. Tumbling horses. About turns.
Or was it so sudden? I think the answer to that must be yes and no.
Yes, there was a moment in history that radically changed Paul - though just what happened in that moment is also lost to history. Luke gives us three accounts in Acts that differ amongst themselves. And they differ again from Paul's own markedly brief references to it in his letters.
That speaks to me of the truth of the experience. I suspect that if you had been with Paul on the Damascus Road, it wouldn't have been clear what was going on. It seems that it wasn't entirely clear to him. In the letter to the Galatians, he writes of spending time in Arabia working things through, as it were.
So I suspect it also wasn't so sudden. Think of the time before, when Paul regarded himself as a regular Jew, not one of these new Jews who followed Jesus called Messiah. If the story of him watching the stoning of Stephen is anything to go by, he must have been bubbling with righteous rage, pious hatred, anxious orthodoxy. It was waiting to explode.
The great psychologist of religion, William James, was fascinated by conversion experiences. He understood them as upsurges from places deep within ourselves that may have been gestating for some time. They are precipitative eruptions that re-orientate us around a new axis. "I no longer live but Christ lives in me," Paul told the Galatians after his return from Arabia. What an insight to have gained.
A group of ancient Greek philosophers can help us understand the experience further. They are the Stoics, the most successful of the ancient schools. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. As was the tutor of Nero, Seneca. The Stoics were also very influential in 1st century Judaism: the mystic Philo of Alexandria drew deeply from their insights. And when John wrote the famous introduction to his gospel, "In the beginning was the Logos (Word)", he was utilising Stoic ideas to unpack this most tremendous truth about the cosmos.
Whether or not Paul directly read any of the Stoics is unclear. But Stoicism was in the air. And they argued that the great task in life is to re-orientate yourself into alignment with the Logos. Their understanding of the Logos was crucially different to the emerging Christian revelation, as we'll discover when we meet Paul talking to the philosophers in Athens. But for now, think about the way Stoics understood conversion.
The scholar Troels Engberg-Pedersen proposes a model of Stoic conversion. It begins with the individual dominated by their own perspective on things. They live their life according to their own intuitions, identity and desires. However, they are also vaguely aware that something is not quite right, "Our consciousness of our weakness," as Epictetus the Stoic put it.
That readies the individual for a second unpredictable stage, when they are struck by an authority from outside themselves. They are dislodged. The old axis of perception is rocked, sways, and tumbles. It may well feel like a breakdown or disaster. But it enables something invaluable: the discernment of a different perception of life. It us now known as coming from a new vantage that is rooted elsewhere - in the soul, filled with spirit, offering an energy that is gentle and unquenchable. The Logos is making its presence felt.
This leads to a third stage in which a new way of life gradually emerges. Hence Paul could also write about the centrality of "dying every day". If there was a pivotal moment in his life, there is also the on-going task of re-orientating his life with the truth of that experience. Nothing worthwhile is sudden.
This is what pilgrimages can be like too. There is the sudden thrill of arriving in a thin place like Athens or Delphi; the excitement of breathing the same air and feeling the same sun as Paul; a quiet revelation that surges up from within us, blessed by the Logos.
But the pilgrimage experience must also be woven into our ordinary life. It must become part of who we are, which is to say that we must change - must die - in accordance with it. The joy is that the new life, the new axis can then be known every day.
Monday, June 8 2015
By Mark Vernon on Monday, June 8 2015, 21:34
I'm off on Friday helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself will be blogging here. Here's a pre-departure post from me…
What would it have been like to meet Paul as he travelled around Greece? What might he have looked like? Would the encounter have been memorable? We can never know for sure, of course, but speculating is possible. And the hints and suggestions about his appearance and character are surprisingly revealing of the man we seek to follow on pilgrimage.
Luke makes several references to Paul that suggest the writer of Acts likened Paul to a Cynic philosopher. The Cynics were the shock-jocks of the ancient world. They felt that human problems arise from blindly following conventions: you can be free, said their founder Diogenes, if you live like a dog (hence their name, as "cynic" probably comes from the Greek for dog).
When you need a bed, curl up in the sun. When you need some food, nature will provide. Don't worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have worries enough for itself. Actually, Jesus said that, of course - though Jesus too has been likened to the Cynics by some New Testament scholarship.
If it seems a bit farfetched to think that Luke used Cynic sources to imagine Paul, consider this portrait of the ideal philosopher, recorded by his near-contemporary, Epictetus.
The ideal philosopher is unmarried, and recommends the single life, so as not to distract from the "service of God", Epictetus said. He follows his conscience rather than political or religious authority. He is kind-hearted to the extent of taking on the troubles and physical hardships of others. He can expect to be "beaten like an ass", though he must love those who beat him. He is an "enslaved leader", responsible only to God, not the masses. His friends and followers will be equally dedicated to his calling. He will be free, regarding God's will as better than his own. He will be despised and praised, desired and derided, a slave unto death.
Remind you of anyone? This is the man, Paul, whom we follow.
If that speaks of an awkward yet compelling character, what of his actual looks? They too might have been unsettling yet alluring. The iconographic tradition suggests that Paul was thin in the face, had a dark beard, large eyes, a monobrow, bandy legs, and was strong but short of stature. In fact, the name "Paul" may be a pun on the Greek for "short".
According to the scholar Abraham Malherbe, many of these features seem to pick up on another ancient Greek image, that of the hero, Heracles. So what might be the link between Paul and Heracles?
Well, there is a strong association between the hero and Paul's hometown, Tarsus. It was an important place in Asia Minor: the Greek historian, Strabo, said it rivaled Alexandria and Athens in cultural significance. You might imagine that Paul, travelling through Greece, would have played up his links with Tarsus. They might impress, or at least get him a hearing. So too the link with Heracles might have stuck in the remembrance of his appearance.
But there is a deeper association with Heracles. In the myth, Heracles is remembered for his great labours. So too Paul, in Acts and in his own letters. And further, Heracles' labours included visiting the underworld, which is to say that in some sense, Heracles was thought to have conquered death.
Here we get to the heart of Paul's message as he travelled around Greece. His gospel is one of dying and rising, of being buried and reborn. New life, alongside the acceptance of struggle and suffering, is his driving agenda. Might this be the God-orientated man we seek to follow on pilgrimage? He's not for the fainthearted, with his inner authority, tough kindness, arresting features, cultured background, and life-promising message. I, for one, yearn to know more.
Friday, May 15 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, May 15 2015, 14:48
This review of Silence: A User's Guide by Maggie Ross is in the current issue of Third Way Magazine.
Silence is the crucial element in Christian life, argues the solitary and author Maggie Ross in this punchy, timely book. It is vital because the fundamental promise of Christianity cannot be realised without it, namely, new life in Christ. Ross calls this process of transfiguration "the work of silence". The results of it St Paul realised when he declared that he no longer lived but Christ lived in him. It led St Augustine to sense that God was closer to him than he was to himself; Mother Julian to know that all will be well; and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing to advocate the kind of contemplation that "beats away at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love."
A practice of silence can move the individual from living within the anxious strictures of their self-consciousness, to living out of the infinite love of God's deep mind. The tragedy is that silence has almost disappeared from western Christianity. Ross describes this loss, a sorry tale over two millennia of theological and ecclesiastical seduction by political, personal and institutional power. The stance an individual or church must sustain towards the unfolding action of silence goes when, with James and John, individuals place themselves at Jesus's right and left; or when the receptivity of Mary is eclipsed by the busyness of Martha; or perhaps today in the Church of England when the growth demands of intentional evangelism out shout the quiet mission of God - with which, after all, God is engaged regardless of the nervous preoccupations of a struggling established church.
Ross's study is also timely because the need for silence is currently on many non-Christian minds. The intuition that silence tracks the path to life in all its fullness has become a popular movement with the explosion of interest in mindfulness meditation. Or consider the threatening ecological crisis: Ross argues that this is, at root, a result of our civilisation's disconnection from the natural world. It arises because we have learnt to regard creation as a commodity for human exploitation, and have forgotten how to approach it as an environment with a life of its own, which we might behold.
It is a sign of the times that a nascent science of silence is emerging too, as presented in Iain McGilchrist's seminal book, The Master And His Emissary, an important reference point for Ross. The science suggests that human beings have broadly two ways of engaging with the world. The first is characterised by focus and manipulation. It attempts to organise things for its own ends and according to its own lights. It has evolved to help us survive, but if it becomes dominant then it restricts and throttles the life it tries to possess. This, McGilchrist argues, is the current state of the western mindset.
The alternative way of dealing with the world is open and receptive; it delights in surprise and mystery; it embraces the expansive possibilities of paradox, the potential of uncertainty and disturbance. It delights to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase. It is necessary to spiritual flourishing because, in theistic terms, it can tolerate human fragility and let God be God. It can see beyond self-concern and hold out for a relationship with the inexhaustible source of all life. A silent practice is the way to come to know this gift because in silence an individual's default way of engaging with the world can, first, be seen and, then, shift from the controlled to the open.
It's a difficult shift to undergo because it also requires confronting the grief, anger, hate, envy, despair, pride that observing one's mind reveals. It's the path through the narrow gate though, paradoxically, it's also to take up the lighter burden that Jesus spoke of too. The great Christian psychologists that Ross discusses - from Evagrius Ponticus to Simone Weil - have undergone and charted the change, though I believe there is also much to be gained by engaging with the insights of contemporary developmental and depth psychology. It seems to me that they offer a tremendous resource of living theory and practice for those serious about the work of silence. This new resource may well have arisen because, as Carl Jung noted, modern churches have a fractured if not dying relationship with the older contemplative wisdom. Perhaps Ross will discuss this in a promised second volume.
Her book is rhetorical as well as scholarly, an eleventh hour plea for the recovery of silence and all that it opens, beholds and enables. And I agree: the situation is serious. Nonetheless, I felt that she is at risk of condemning too fiercely the noisy trajectory of western Christianity. It may be true that some of the desert fathers and mothers declared, "Flee the bishops!" as they made for the wilderness, before the bishops rebranded them "white martyrs" to keep them in the fold. But it seems untrue that the last great theologian and senior ecclesiastic who understood the relationship between speech and silence was the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa. Ross's book has a forward by an obvious counterexample: Rowan Williams.
This is just as well because silence requires much holding and skillful discernment if those undertaking it are not to go astray: the enlightened individuals that can guide us will necessarily emerge from flawed institutions. Plus, McGilchrist's point is that we need both ways of engaging with the world, in right relationship. The challenge today is to find where the flame of silence still flickers amongst Christians, as well as to connect with where it burns more strongly elsewhere.
Wednesday, May 13 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, May 13 2015, 14:53
My annoyance at public intellectuals misunderstanding Plato overcame me and I isolated three common errors for The Idler Magazine, as below.
1. Plato invented secular philosophy.
The first story being told is of a crucial shift in human thought that crystalized in fifth century BC Athens. Before then, in the time of Homer and Hesiod, ancient Greeks had resorted to myths to guide them through the world. Now though, with the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato in particular, a new generation of Greeks developed the capacity to think about the world without referencing their multiple divinities.
Instead they turned to cool, godless reason. Logic helped them derive arguments about what's true. No longer need things be believed because deities said so. Instead, humanity began to build knowledge on the basis of proofs.
This is wrong. It's right that the philosophers deployed new methods to investigate how to live, the nature of the cosmos, the way to rule cities. Those methods included reason and empirical investigation. But it was also a standard assumption amongst the ancients that true knowledge was true because it reflected divine knowledge. Reason and experience are gifts by which we can participate in divine life. Knowing came to be understood as a receptive capacity that reason serves by discerning. Nature came to be experienced as showing itself to us, if we attend to it aright.
Hence Thales, often called the father of philosophy, could exclaim, "All things are full of gods." This is what his wondrous investigations revealed. For Plato, reason was a tool that could lead to divine insight, but if and only if accompanied by myths, reverent invocations, and the hard work of personal transformation.
This is a very good way of doing philosophy, which after all is the desire for a wisdom that often seems beyond human reach. And it has very little to do with contemporary secular philosophy that often seems stranded on a desert island of soulless logic. Plato might, in fact, help restore it to life.
2. Plato opposed the spirit to the body.
The second story is that Plato held the body to be a prison for the soul that, with luck, the soul could flee at death. This meant that he denigrated the body and idealized the soul. He set up a dualism that we still experience in forms such as sexual prohibitions and women's oppression.
If the academics read Plato (which sometimes, honestly, I wonder) they would learn that, for example, Socrates tousles the hair of his youthful follower, Phaedo, on his deathbed. Or they'd spot that Socrates did not just advocate philosopher kings in his dialogue the Republic, but philosopher queens. They are very likely to know that Plato the man probably gained his name because it is a pun on the Greek for "broad", suggesting that before he was a philosopher he had been a wrestler. They will also know that gymnasia were one of Socrates's and Plato's favourite haunts. But they don't take the next step: these are not details from the life of a body-hater.
Plato was actually gripped by something more subtle, more interesting and more valuable. It is the possibility that the body reflects the soul. It's much as we say that someone's character becomes, in time, etched into the lines on their face. Plato proposed that the soul is the form of the body; that the soul is the aliveness of the body.
It's true that he has Socrates wonder whether, after death, the body might come to feel like it has been a prison, such is the liberation that death could bring. But that's just one of several possibilities he considers, as anyone with curiosity would. He never offers a definitive creed.
So where did the dualism come from? I don't think it really existed until the seventeenth century, when Descartes proposed his famous cogito, "I think therefore I am." With this formula, it became possible to imagine a thinking part separate from a bodily part. We now live with that legacy.
But before then, philosophers had assumed human beings were incarnate: ensouled bodies. If you're against the dualism, which I think is sensible, Plato is a sophisticated ally not enemy number one.
3. Plato argued that goodness trounces God.
The third error that the academics promote is that Plato proved that goodness is more basic than godliness. Or, to put it another way, that the gods have no choice but to be good. This is then developed to suggest that goodness is more important than divinity, which is a short step away from the conclusion that divinity is not important at all. In short, Plato was really a new atheist.
The reference for this line of argument is Plato's dialogue, the Euthyphro. Again, I would suggest that our academics take a second look. Because if you follow the dialogue through, you see that it is one of Plato's aporetic works. It ends inconclusively.
If anything definitive can be concluded from Socrates and Euthyphro's exchange it would be that when human beings claim to know anything for certain about the gods, they are certain to tie themselves in knots. That is a useful reminder for religious and atheistic folk alike. No-one with any seriousness can presume to know what causes gods sleepless nights, least of all feeling trapped into being good because goodness dictates it to them.
Put it like this: to say the gods must be good is a bit like saying that grass must be green. It's nonsense. Goodness is implicit in divinity much as greenness is implicit in grass. But there's another more positive insight engaging with the Euthyphro can bring.
We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. She is a good child, someone might say. But the ancients treated goodness as a quality or virtue. It's supremely desirable because it's integral to our flourishing. Goodness tastes good, really good.
Why might that matter to us? Because it might help us come to feel that goodness is a joy, not an injunction; that it lifts us up, not leaves us guilty and wanting; that it is part of becoming all that we might become. Again, in an age starved of trust and vision - of goodness as a self-evident good - Plato can feed us. We should invoke his spirit and refuse the sticks with which academics routinely beat him.
Sunday, May 3 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, May 3 2015, 08:42
A Sunday Sermon from The Idler Academy…
Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life. It's an oft forgotten insight in an age when mindfulness apps set targets for sitting still, and church-going is an obstacle course of activity, from food banks to flower rotas.
Take Rumi, the great spiritual writer of the Sufi tradition. He once told a story. A man left instructions on how to divide his estate. He was a devoted father and so wanted to do the wise thing. He told the town judge: "Whichever of my sons is laziest, give him all the inheritance."
It is a striking will, almost incomprehensible to the modern mind. But the man's sons were not spiritual lightweights. They knew their father was onto something.
So, when his father died, the eldest son told the judge that he was adept at laziness. It had made him patient. He explained how, for example, he could read another man's mind by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, he could watch him for three days and know him intuitively. Impressive, thought the judge: anyone who can wait three days shows promising signs of laziness. But what of the second son?
Laziness had made a different impact upon him. It had made him crafty. He too could understand another by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, the second son would start talking. The other was then bound to reply, and give themself away. Not quite so impressive, thought the judge: craftiness is a common human trait. All you have to do is know the trick. So what of third son?
Laziness had achieved its best with him. The youngest had the gift of presence - of being, not doing, we might say. And what comes with presence? The ability to be receptive. He could sit in front of another and feel what the other drew out of him. With that sense, he could understand anyone. Moreover, he could receive insights from a place beyond joy and grief. The deepest and darkest recesses of the soul were as clear as day to him. He knew the way between voice and presence where information flows.
"The youngest was, obviously, the laziest," Rumi concludes. "He won."
Other spiritual teachers have echoed the value of this key quality. Jesus told his followers that the burden is light. If it feels heavy, hard work, impossible then something has gone wrong. Ease is the key guide.
The Buddha taught "right effort", which in our day invariably means less effort. When your legs are dead, your back is aching, and your mind feels caught up in a storm, it's time to stop meditating. A mindless, joyful chat with a friend will be more spiritually beneficial.
But why? Why is it that idleness, laziness, and ease offer the surest path to enlightenment? The quick answer, the gurus tell us, is that our own efforts can accomplish nothing. They key task is not to achieve, but to let go; it's not to be in control, but to release; it's not to live, but in a sense to die.
Then, and only then, by a supreme non-effort of the will - that is so hard in a world orientated around work, status, responsibility - something radically new might be glimpsed. It's a source of life and pleasure on the other side of partying hard. It's a resting place that is also alive. It's an intelligence that does not manically accumulate facts but calmly issues wisdom.
Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life.
Thursday, April 16 2015
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, April 16 2015, 15:19
The British Museum's new Beauty exhibition is fantastic but I wish they'd made more of Socrates's moobs. A piece from The Idler.
The new show at the British Museum, Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, is tremendous. To see such a collection of sculpture and artifact, idol and vase under one roof is an opportunity not to be missed. But, to my mind, there’s something the exhibition doesn’t quite nail.
The blurbs stress the take-home message: the ancient Greeks made our sense of beauty; we still think of the body beautiful according to the categories they developed two and a half millennia ago. What struggles to be heard, though, is that at the same time, the Greeks embedded a powerful, crucial critique of the notion they ostensibly celebrated in glazed clay and polished marble.
Just what’s missing in the exhibition struck me when reference was made to Charmides. He was a vibrant, thrusting and astonishingly beautiful Greek man. As Plato puts it in the dialogue named after him, when Charmides entered the room, everyone fell in love with him, and were astonished and confused by his entrance.
I’ve experienced the effect the statuesque have on others when I once spent a day with a woman who was a model. As we walked down the street, the crowd parted before us: we passed through the midst with the ease of the Israelites through the Red Sea. We sat in a bar: it was as if the entire place lent towards her, like iron filings to a magnet.
In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates is also bewitched by Charmides. But he nonetheless has the presence of mind to raise a question. Charmides seems perfect, indeed, an example of the Greek virtue of kalos kagathos, beautiful and good. But, asks Socrates, does he have a well-formed soul?
The first readers of the dialogue would immediate spot that this is the crucial issue, not his looks. Charmides had everything going for him in his youth: beauty, family, education. And yet, at the time Plato was writing, Charmides had grown up to become a notorious dictator. He was one of the Thirty Tyrants, the pro-Spartan oligarchy installed after the Peloponnesian War that crushed the Athenian democratic experiment.
Sure enough, Charmides’ predilection for force emerges under questioning from Socrates. The message is clear: don’t be fooled by the bright surface. It can hide the monstrous.
The danger is almost spelt out with Aphrodite, another figure who carried the ancient consciousness of beauty’s allure and risk. Several of the sculptures depict her nude at her bath, inviting you to sneak a glimpse of her most intimate parts, only to be met by the back of her hand. And remember, the hand is of a god. It will strike you down. Beauty can do that. But on the whole, the curators don’t seem to have taken the lesson on board. They broadcast the dazzle, perhaps because dazzle sells, and so can’t quite focus on the danger. Various commentators on the exhibits don’t appear to have thought much beyond beauty’s surface either.
For example, the neuroscientist Semir Zeki, who pioneered the so-called science of neuroaesthetics, offers an explanation of why we share the same appreciation of beauty as the ancient Greeks. Roughly, it’s because our brains are wired to seek symmetry, and symmetry is what makes for beauty. And yet, the most symmetrical faces in the exhibition, such as those of the kouroi, aren’t beautiful but rather appear as eerie pastiches of beauty. They are unsettling rather than attractive. The ancient Greeks knew that true beauty is not a question of symmetry but rather of balance, a reflexive notion that can’t be hardwired because it’s responsive rather than programmed.
These ideas are also discussed by Plato. In the Symposium, he explicitly warns against becoming fixated on the beauty of the body. Instead, he argues that the energy released by the sight of the gorgeous figure needs to be channeled to a desire for a deeper beauty – that of the soul, of the good, of the divine.
Moreover, an ugly surface may transmit this deeper goal more safely, as was the case with Socrates. Three images of the philosopher are shown in the exhibition. They are typical, emphasizing his pug nose, pot belly and dangling moobs. Again, though, what is missed is that his iconography stands in ironic judgment on those who don’t give him a second glance and so miss a true incarnation of the beautiful and good.
The demon that possessed Charmides, whose power seems undiminished in 21st century Bloomsbury, must be chuckling at how little humankind has learnt in two and a half thousand years.
Mark Vernon’s course on psychology and psychotherapy at The Idler Academy begins on Monday 20th April.
Wednesday, March 4 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, March 4 2015, 12:23
I've this review of Graham Ward's Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't in the March issue of Third Way magazine.
The Peterhouse Ghost made an appearance in 1997. The fellows of the oldest Cambridge college were at High Table. Dinner was disturbed by a commotion in the Combination Room. The then dean and author of Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't, Graham Ward, discovered two quaking servants amidst hundreds of fragments of broken china, mute with fear at the spectre that had crossed their path.
What intrigued Ward was not the reality of the haunting (it intrigues me), but the wide range of beliefs that were rallied to explain what had happened, as discussion rippled around the college. For some, the idea of ghosts was entirely acceptable and little more clarification was required. For others, ghosts were an entirely unacceptable proposition and academic disciplines from neuroscience to physics were deployed to explain away the incident. Others again, felt that the sighting was indicative of the inadequacy of scientific materialism and of the need for new explanatory paradigms.
Ward uses the story to launch a wide ranging discussion on the nature of belief. He defines it not as propositional statements to which an individual can give assent. Rather, he convincingly shows that belief is more complex, subtle and primitive. It is a preconscious disposition that informs, shapes and possibly determines the way we then interpret and experience the world. "I trust in God" captures the meaning better than "I believe in God", as commonly meant.
Belief is, therefore, comprised of many dynamics. For example, it's partly a product of our embodiment. The medical doctor and philosopher Raymond Tallis argues that the evolution of an index or pointing finger was as crucial to the capacity for belief as anything that evolved in the brain. Only with pointing can you conceive of yourself as having agency and being an agent. It creates an instrumental awareness of the body and the world, and so is a prerequisite not just for advanced tool use but also for the concept of "tool". Some other animals deploy what we call tools, but without the concept they neither experience nor develop tools in nearly such a rich way. A crow can use a stick but it won't decorate one, let alone sell it as an expensive walking stick.
Such developments signal momentous changes in consciousness and in the capacity for belief. Ward takes several fascinating chapters carefully to examine the archeological evidence left by our hominid ancestors to track its emergence. Homo sapiens sapiens is a creature that doesn't just interact with the world like, say, plants. We don't just perceive the world as, say, single-celled animals do as they are drawn towards nourishment and withdraw from dangers. Human beings perceive the world as this or that. Moreover, such intentional perception of the world incorporates the immaterial as well as the material - the visible and the invisible - in a fine interlacing of meaning.
Consider the role of the imagination. Coleridge argued that imagination creates a potential space that can be then filled with something actual, be that tangible or intangible. This human capacity is required to do everything from carving figurines to composing symphonies. Belief is also a political issue, in the sense that a community of believers - scientists, artists, philosophers, church-goers - play a crucial role in deciding what is believable. This insights helps unpack the depth of the challenge for theists in circles that are broadly atheistic. Evidence or arguments for the existence of God are not enough because there is the prior issue of whether such cultures are predisposed to believe in theism at all. To put it another way, lives transformed or arts that show transcendence are more likely to open an individual to perceiving the divine because such experiences address the issue at the right level. Reason then comes in to aid discernment.
Contemporary understandings of consciousness are crucial to such believability. Materialist explanations render religious beliefs radically unbelievable by reducing them to neural firings. What is often overlooked is that the same move empties the science of explanatory value too. They also can't explain why we experience the world as 3D and "out there", an experience unimaginable to the zombie-like registering of electrochemical exchanges in brain states. The writer Will Self offered a more apt image in a recent interview: "We’re a kind of energy field rather than something that’s imprisoned in a small bone globe."
Ward develops the argument to show how novels and stories work only because we can know characters and visit places that are totally fictional. Even when fiction evokes or references real places and people, the literature speaks to us because it reveals aspects of experience that would not otherwise be known or seen. Take the sign saying "Platform 9¾" at King's Cross Station. For Harry Potter fans, it turns the spot into something akin to a sacred place.
A religious attitude towards belief, Ward concludes, develops a stage further what is implicit in all belief, which is to say in all human consciousness. If the latter facilities our perceiving the world as this or that, religious belief moves us beyond to perceive the divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. William James grasped this final movement of belief when he defined it as trust in "an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." It's what Paul meant by "living by faith". It's how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews could described faith not as belief in spite of evidence, as is sometimes said today, but as precisely the opposite: "the evidence of things not seen."
Thursday, February 26 2015
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, February 26 2015, 18:57
And the Unknowing of Noise…
We live in a society with a powerful aversion to silence; with an anxiety of not having something said, or anything to say. Silence is feared and equated with emptiness, meaninglessness, nothing.
Muzak is, of course, omnipresent. Or phones and plugged-in pods that create a bubble of noise, keeping the outside world out and starving the inner world of space. If the radio or TV falls silent, it suggests a fault, at best, and possibly global disaster.
Twenty-four hour news, too, cannot tolerate any gaps. You see it particularly during election campaigns, as we are suffering in the UK at the moment. For our wannabe leaders, to be caught off-guard in front of a camera is career threatening. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin doctor, famously filled the political day and night with the "grid". That's become the norm. It's noise as a means of control. "Silence is regarded as a sort of sin now, and it has to be filled with a lot of gossip and sound bites," Douglas Hurd, the politician and novelist, has written.
Or think about silence and friendship. It used to be said that a best friend is a person with whom you can be silent. No embarrassment, no irritation. Today, a best friend is someone with whom you are in constant contact, texting and messaging as automatically as breathing. Fill the space.
Research suggests that there is a connection between the wealth of a society and the levels of noise within it. A project at Sheffield Hallam University tracked the levels of noise in the UK for a number of years. It is rising - in Sheffield city centre, for example, by 3 decibels in 10 years. Officially 125 million Europeans suffer from noise above the recommended guidelines, according to the UK Noise Association, and this is almost certainly an underestimate.
Or maybe the lack of silence is a deeper, cultural issue? Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, argues that our suspicion of silence has religious roots. In the second and third centuries AD, ecclesiastical authorities became antagonistic towards a group known as gnostikoi. They were Christians who claimed that God is most fully known as unknowable, and so therefore in silence. The authorities, who felt the need to shape what believers believed, branded them gnostics and cast them out of the fold. The problem was compounded in the next century when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Belonging to the church meant having access to secular wealth and power, so now what you thought was of political importance too. Thereafter, western rites included creeds and confessions that had to be audibly rehearsed. They policed who was in and who out.. The logic was that that the inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.
The legacy of this tradition is that, today, most western churches do not practice silence. I suspect that this explains part of the appeal of mindfulness meditation: where else can you find and grow in silence? Silence is now also routinely associated with dissent and protest. Think of the tradition that runs from the Quakers to the use of silence by the Occupy protestors.
Alternatively, the Christian legacy seems to have shaped powerful scientific traditions too, such as empiricism or behaviourism. They work on the principle that if manifest evidence - scientific noise - cannot be produced in support of a theory or experience, then the theory or experience is either extraneous or deluded. Silence is treated as meaningless.
Does this matter? I think it does. I know a monk. He spends the majority of his day not talking. His aim is to live in quietude. Not talking has intrinsic value since it is then that he is able to listen to his inner tribulations and for the "still, small voice of God". To put it in secular terms, silence is necessary in order better to perceive and understand things.
To introduce some silence into your life is, therefore, a radical reorientation of your life, from one of possession by articulation to one of reception by waiting, watching, wanting. As Thomas Carlyle wrote: "Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time."
That, then, might be the most profound worry about rising noise levels and the strangeness of silence: it stops us thinking; it stops us experiencing. We must relearn to allow our minds to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase.
This piece, a revision and reworking of a couple of older pieces, has been published by IAI News.
Wednesday, January 21 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, January 21 2015, 12:20
The role of the inner censor hasn’t been much discussed since the atrocities in Paris, though it has a crucial part to play in our freedom. A piece from The Idler.
Freedom of speech has been extensively discussed since the atrocities in Paris at the beginning of the year. But a crucial element has largely been overlooked, I think. The freedom to speak, question and satirize openly is not just a function of the society, democracy or culture in which we live. It is also, crucially, about our inner freedom and the extent to which we ourselves repress, edit or deny.
The proposal that outer freedom may depend upon inner freedom goes back to the debates on liberty during the Enlightenment. David Hume, the Scottish thinker, famously remarked that our passions drive us to the extent that he himself would "prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."
Adam Smith, his near-contemporary and the father of capitalism, argued similarly. He suggested that each of us carries an "impartial spectator". A personal haunting, it sees everything we do. It does not pass judgement but merely lets us know that we are being watched, by ourselves. That generates all manner of inner reactions and emotions, and we feel free only when we feel our impartial spectator sympathizes with our actions. As Mahatma Gandhi remarked, "Freedom and slavery are mental states."
Sigmund Freud made the link his own. He believed we have a personal censor within us. He called it the superego, or over-I. This inner critic and disciplinarian unceasingly monitors our thoughts, feelings and utterances. It represses, or at least moderates, what it considers illicit, intolerable or offensive. It can become more powerful than any law-maker or tyrant, manifesting a range of neuroses and obsessions that trap and disable the cramped, edited, self-monitoring individual.
The superego, Freud argued, arises inevitably out of childhood belligerence. Aggressiveness against the parent develops in the child because the parent prevents it having whatever it wants. But the child is also required to renounce this aggression, if it is to grow up. Caught between the Scylla of desire and the Charybdis of family authority, the child "takes the unattackable authority into itself". In other words, the external authority turns into an inner superego which displays all the aggressiveness against the child that the child would like to have shown its parents.
It's consciously experienced as conscience or morality or a persecutory voice inside the head that sounds strikingly like mother or father. As the adult emerges, society takes full advantage of the inner censor to keep the person in check because society requires that its members do not satisfy their desires willy-nilly with double the ferocity of any parent. In effect, Freud thought, civilisation demands that we live with a perpetual frustration of our most primitive needs to speak, seek and act.
The implication is that the inner intensity of the superego is echoed in the outer intensity with which issues like freedom of speech are debated. In part powering the demand for unrestricted freedom of expression, or the sacralizing of freedom of speech, is the severity and intolerance with which individuals struggle against themselves inside. (In repressive societies, the superego is simply writ large.) The suggestion is that the energy that drives the satirical artist to push at the boundaries of propriety, and the pleasure that comes from viewing outrageous cartoons, is partly caught up with this inner battle. At times like now, it certainly feels as if all kinds of unspoken, emotive dynamics are at play.
Freud's solution was free association. In the privacy of the consulting room, lying on the couch - because, interestingly, a vulnerable position helps outwit the superego - he encouraged his patients to say whatever thoughts or feelings came to conscious awareness. They were invited to wander in their minds without inhibition.
Try it. It's hard to do, and the capacity truly to freely associate may, in fact, be the end point of therapy rather than its starting point. But it's worth trying during the current debate about freedom of speech. A better appreciation of the wiles and strength of the inner censor and critic not only generates self-awareness. If Freud is only half right, it may moderate the ferocity with which the debate is engaged in the public arena, with all the external curtailments on freedom that intensity inevitably brings in its wake.
Friday, January 9 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, January 9 2015, 08:11
This piece is just published in the Church Times, thinking about the report on spirituality from the RSA.
SPIRITUALITY is back, if ever it went away. Sam Harris, one of the leading advocates of the new atheism, published a "guide to spirituality", Waking Up, last year. Then there is Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the highly successful Sunday Assembly, who argues that one of its main tasks is developing a language for spirituality. He describes himself as a "humanist mystic", and feels a "spirit in life" which transcends the everyday.
Now, a proudly secular institution in London, the RSA, has published a long report, Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges (Leader comment, 2 January). The report argues that spirituality needs to play a greater part in the public realm, because, without it, human beings are unable to draw on the depth in life which is required to tackle seemingly intractable problems, from unfettered consumption to climate change.
The author, Jonathan Rowson, consulted widely with more than 300 people of many faiths and none (including, I should add for transparency's sake, me).
This new curiosity about spirituality immediately raises hackles. There is a discomfort with the S- word itself, a feeling that "spirituality" is a vague term (as if "religious" were not). The charge is that it is ethically unengaged, intellectually incoherent, personally embarrassing, sentimental, and passive. One wag consulted by Rowson noted that, when he heard the expression "spiritual but not religious", he described himself as "religious but not spiritual". Last week's affirming Church Times leader still noted that the report did not escape the trap of treating spirituality as a largely individual matter.
The report recognises these difficulties, and makes them a starting- point. Rowson argues that the very vagueness of the term may be an advantage. It is one of those words, like "soul" or "sacred", that don't die, for all the railing against them, because they capture something that is crucial for human beings - crucial, perhaps, for the reason that it can't be precisely captured. The word can, therefore, hold a space that might withstand the onslaught of materialist values, and the tendency to pin down, exploit, and instrumentalise. If no one owns it, no one can claim a monopoly over it.
As for the charge of individualism, I would argue that this is also a strength of the report. Rowson's main motivation for thinking about spirituality is that it is needed to tackle important social issues, by means of personal growth. His professional life in policy development has taught him that, without individual transformation - expressed in the great spiritual injunction to "know thyself" - the big problems stay largely untouched. For Christians, you might say that, unless you and I are prepared to risk the happiness of the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the pure in heart, we may well be actually perpetuating the collective issues that face us.
THE new exploration of spirituality might also help to dissolve the religious barriers that are felt to exclude because they tightly define belief in God or Jesus. Religion itself could come to be seen as "a secure base from which to explore, not a fence beyond which lies infidels", as Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of Theos (and another of those consulted), put it.
Similarly, I wonder whether many religious people are uncomfortable with a serious, transformative spirituality, because of the demands it would make on them as individuals. Church of England religiosity currently seems to be taking a highly extraverted and paradoxically this-worldly turn. It is energised by a concern for the socially excluded and materially marginalised, as no doubt it should be. But such matters can also serve to keep the challenge of Christianity safely in other people's lives, thereby sidestepping the question whether we ourselves are dying each day to live more in Christ.
Related to the personal issue, spirituality should be a mission issue too. After all, if the mood music about spirituality has changed, it is also clearly true that a majority of people have not stopped believing in God or that there is a spiritual dimension to life. What has changed is the sense that the Church of England has much to offer when it comes to exploring those depths. As the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, recently put it in an interview with the philosopher Jules Evans: "The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes. . . It's that it's spiritually incredible."
For all the valuable campaigning on issues of social justice, if the Church does not know and communicate the feeling that life is rooted in a source deeper and more compelling than the everyday, then it has lost touch with its wellspring, and its days will look increasingly numbered. The RSA report - and the new interest in spiritual depth - is, I believe, implictly a challenge to us, and to our Church.
Monday, November 24 2014
By Mark Vernon on Monday, November 24 2014, 15:13
It's Stoic Week 2014. This article is an adapted extract from the new issue of The Idler Magazine. The organisers of Stoic Week will be publishing it on their blog alongside a response from someone who disagrees.
Ancient Stoics believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction.
The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that "moves through all creation". He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos.
It's worth reading this hymn in full, not only because it is the Stoic document closest to the founder, but because it conveys the crucial dimension of ancient Stoicism that, sadly to my mind, is ripped out today.
Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Logos of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Logos of all came to be one.
This Logos, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Logos.
To put it another way, ancient Stoics did not believe that it is possible to live contentedly by ignoring what you can't control, as Stoicism is sometimes interpreted today. They did not presume that those most human of feelings, fear and anger, are simply our personal choices, to be turned off and on by some trained trick of the will. They saw that life can gradually be re-ordered to serve a deeper, divine imperative that runs through all things. Let go into that fundamental goodness, and whatever happens will ultimately be shaped after its beneficent, magnificent pattern. It's a commitment of faith to a changed perception of life, not a commitment to reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment, again as Stoicism can sometimes seem by its modern advocates.
It was a question of knowing the divine in nature through felt experience as much as reasoned argument. Hence, Seneca, speaks of intuiting the presence of God in nature.
If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God.
Seneca also seems to have felt he had a relationship with God. "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you... a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian." Philosophy is nothing if not a promise that we can know the deity, and not primarily by our efforts but because God wills to be known to us. In another letter, he writes: "God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men. No mind that has not God, is good. Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat."
Epictetus, too, had a powerful sense of God in his life. This is important to note because it is often from Epictetus that contemporary Stoics lift injunctions about how to live, though leaving the crucially divine setting behind - the metaphysical big picture that is required to make full sense of how we response to what happens. We are "children of Zeus", he says, before addressing God as father in prayer, acknowledging God's omnipresence, and God as the source and sustainer of our life. Indeed, our life is but a reflection of God's life, which is why it makes sense to let go of our own striving and trust life: "If our souls are so bound up with God and joined together with Him, as being parts and portions of His being, does not God perceive their every motion as being a motion of that which is His own and of one body with Himself?" Knowing this fact in every moment of our lives is what secures the Stoic promise of tranquility and freedom. "You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!" He adds: "Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your own genius is within."
Our task in life is not only to know the divinity in the sinews of our being, in every breath we take, but also to fulfill our part in God's purposes. This engages us in a struggle that is personal, not mechanical; there is a moral element of choice about how we might live, and struggle with yourself as well as with discerning the divine around and about, within and before. We are interpreters of God's world and witnesses of God's work. In a climactic celebration of Stoic life, Epictetus declares:
Why, if we had sense, ought we to be doing anything else, publicly and privately, than hymning and praising the Deity, and rehearsing His benefits? Ought we not, as we dig and plough and eat, to sing the hymn of praise to God? ‘Great is God, that He hath furnished us these instruments wherewith we shall till the earth. Great is God, that He hath given us hands, and power to swallow, and a belly, and power to grow unconsciously, and to breathe while asleep.’ This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and above all to sing the greatest and divinest hymn, that God has given us the faculty to comprehend these things and to follow the path of reason. What then? Since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be someone to fulfill this office for you, and in behalf of all sing the hymn of praise to God? Why, what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song.
Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view. Epictetus again:
(Stoicism)says that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God.
Today, it is religious scholars of the ancient world who understand this essential aspect of Stoicism and aren't embarrassed to write about it. In his recent book on St Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright summarizes Stoicism, observing: "Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not. Philosophers... are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted."
I've laboured the point about the theology, and included several key texts, because this is what you will miss if you read most introductions to Stoicism today. To be frank, I think it is dishonest to sideline the divine foundations. It turns Stoicism into an atmosphere without air, a sea without water. Such reductionism is doubly misleading when it comes to Stoicism because the Stoics prided themselves on their rational approach to life that adds up because all its different parts link together - physics, ethics and metaphysics. Drop one element and they felt you are on the way to losing the lot.
That, I fear, is what today's atheistic interpreters of Stoicism risk doing today. Unfounded and ungrounded, Stoicism loses its promise, its efficacy, and its divine energy.