Sunday, July 24 2016
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, July 24 2016, 08:21
Phalluses adorned the ancient world. Over-sized erections were everywhere.
Instead of street signs, the Greeks placed monumental penises at road corners. Instead of door buzzers, Romans hung tintinnabulum - phallic figures decked with bells. Instead of decorating temple walls with instructive pictures, the Egyptians carved strutting, ithyphallic gods into the stone.
Erotic symbols, inscriptions and paintings so filled the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, that when the towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius were first uncovered, hundreds of these items were squirrelled away to save embarrassed modern eyes. The British Museum had a room for obscene artifacts: the Secretum.
To penises you can add symbolic vulvas and wombs, in the form of wells and caves, passages and grottos - dark spaces to be dipped into or entered. And such representations are not only found in Europe. They're widespread in India, in the lingam and the imagery of Shiva, and elsewhere. They're primitive, earthy and universal.
And yet, it's very hard for us today to sense why our forebears put gods like Priapus in the hallway; why they painted lovers in flagrante on their drinking cups; why they prized fine sculptures depicting gods copulating with goats. They didn't even hide them from their children.
The seemingly pornographic tone of the ancient world struck me whilst holidaying in Ireland. We'd travelled to the Celtic isle to search out holy sites. What I'd not expected was the prevalence of thrusting columns and ritual crevasses in sacred places. They clearly conveyed the ancient fascination. The Hill of Tara is capped by a megalithic pecker. The so-called passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth invite you in, if you dare. It's not hard to see links between the pre-Christian imagery and the iconic symbol of Ireland's medieval period: the nation's numerous, magnificent high crosses that stand up in the sky.
It's as if we've lost the imaginative equipment to relate to these shapes in ways that must, once, have come spontaneously, naturally. Instead, biology reduces them to pudenda, functional organs evolved for sexual reproduction. Or we see them in the light of the sexual revolution, evoking the promise of light-hearted pleasure. But there must have been more to erotics back then.
Take the Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius. Written in the second century AD, it's the story of Lucius's metamorphosis into a donkey, through wizardry, and his return to human form by the power of Isis. Whilst an ass, he sees many things and undergoes numerous adventures, including a love-affair with a lady who seduces him. In fact, she is so impressed by the donkey's amatory capabilities that she puts him on display. Lucius feels degraded and escapes.
The story was often told and illustrated in the ancient world, but are we to assume, simply, that Roman men found tales of women mounting male animals irresistibly exciting? The imagery was not for private titillation, sold in brown paper bags.
Maybe an imaginative, enriching link back can be found in another work by Apuleius, entitled On the God of Socrates. It's here that a famous proverb first appears, "familiarity breeds contempt". And the treatise is, in a way, about how the familiar can be defamiliarized, and so reveal something unexpected, expansive and new. It's what Socrates' god did for him.
Lucius' tale of becoming a donkey achieved that goal too. The vantage point of the ass releases him from being the ass that human beings so often are, or at least can be. It's an initiation into a higher conception of experience and possibilities, hence the inclusion of the mystery rites of Isis. Lucius is born again.
Erotics must have spoken to the ancient mind in such a way. It was not just about the sexual - or at least, the familiar forms by being embraced or entered would convey a dynamic that was not only reproductive and pleasurable, but transformative. The stone phallus, for example, expresses a vitality that links to the sky. The standing stone looks like a giant pin between the heavens and the earth. They reach for the gods.
No doubt the deployment of them was also superstitious. The ringing of the tintinnabulum in the wind, or when touched, must have felt reassuring. The Hermes that stood on street corners must have offered protection against the evil eye that monitors your every turn. But that was only the beginning of it. Surely, the sacred womb was not just a place to hide but an origin from which to be reborn? Surely, the phallus conveyed a pronounced, active energy? Next time you see one, hug it and see! The thrust might keep devils at bay, but only because it invokes stronger forces for good.
But there is a twist that the erotic images present. Their good could only be known by the risk of being engulfed, consumed, penetrated, invaded. The modern writer who understands this element is Georges Bataille, the French author of the Erotism: Death and Sensuality. For Bataille, the erotic is that which upsets us. It is not natural: sex is natural, but the meaning human beings load onto the sexual lifts the biological into the imaginative and spiritual.
Bataille is like Freud who, contrary to the popular characterization, did not reduce everything to sex, but precisely the opposite. He realised that for human beings, there is no such thing as pure sex. Such acts are always already saturated with desire - the desire to conquer, submit, connect, experience, live, die.
To put it another way, the erotic is sacramental. These artifacts make hidden meanings manifest. Familiarity breeds contempt, remarks Apuleius, as happens when we moderns snigger at our forebears' apparent obsessions. Do laugh, but do also sense the deeper energy they release.
For when we only see sex, and not symbol, we lose touch with an enchanted side of life. It's a dimension found not only on mountaintops and in temples. It can be felt in the portals of doorways, or in the direction we chose when we make a turn on the street.
Sunday, June 26 2016
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, June 26 2016, 06:48
A Sunday Sermon for The Idler.
I voted Remain. I believe Leave is a mistake. But the UK is now in a new place. The ground has shifted. Or has it?
There are steadier links that haven't changed. They are older than the EU. And they might assist us by reminding us of these islands' happier roots in Europe. In fact, I'm beginning half to hope that the removal of the promise of cheaper German washing-machines and Spanish holidays could release us to want deeper connections: the cultural and spiritual wellsprings of our union.
Move in your mind to the other side of Europe, to the sunny eastern end of the blue Mediterranean, and think of one of the continent's most successful creations: the Corinthian column. Discovered in the 5th century BC, in ancient Greece, no city or town is now complete without one. And they're worth contemplating for the spirit they convey, something of the soul of Europe.
The Corinthian capital's acanthus leaves spring up from a high votive basket. They stand for life pushing up from the soil. Hence, a Corinthian column does not support its load, like its Doric cousin, but elevates it. Think of the West End of St Paul's cathedral: its portico does not rest on stone leaves, it floats above them, apparently lighter than air. Or think of Nelson on his column: he becomes god-like, lifted into a heavenly realm.
The Corinthian capital invites us to look up, to reach out, to grow. It speaks of virtue in action, not mere utility: nobility is the Corinthian capital of civil order, wrote Edmund Burke. The Corinthian column remembers that the best architecture is "frozen music", not boxes in glass: its fluting holds an echo of the silent melody that the natural world conveys. Ancient Greece first invited us to strive for double vision, as possessed by William Blake, that "inward eye" which can feel the soul of life and politics, and help us contain edgy gut instincts.
Plato operationalized this aspiration for Europeans by being the first to champion education, and the skills required not to survive but flourish. He advocated it not only for freemen, as the Athenian democracy had assumed, but for women and slaves too. He initiated the long struggle that opened people's minds to the spiritual worth of individuals, and how that matters more than birth or status.
England's greatest son, Shakespeare, made Plato's vocation his own. His history plays are meditations on the meaning of turbulent times. Remember Falstaff and Hal. I reckon* Falstaff stands for the English soul when it loses its focus. Sack replaces spirit. "What is honour? a word... What is that honour? air," Falstaff sneers. He is lost to distractions; fears for himself; celebrates by jeering.
Little wonder that Hal has to banish him to establish a kingdom of friendship. It's a vision that moves England from the regimented feudalism of Richard II, with its gap between landed and poor, to the freedom of Henry V, in which "English may as French, French Englishmen, Receive each other."
Higher vision always runs the risks of hubris, and nationalism. It's no coincidence that Sisyphus was the first king of Corinth. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, depicts him as the political type who, desiring power for power's sake, is fated to meaningless victories and defeats - a lifetime rolling the boulder again to the top of the hill.
But another English Platonist, Thomas Traherne, understood that the European experiment in vision will not, finally, let us down - and he lived through the blood-letting of the English civil war. What he realised is that fulfillment doesn't originate in economics. Happiness doesn't necessarily follow institutional union. Rather, liberation comes when we act as if our souls see "The very brightness of Eternity; For Man to Act even in the Wilderness, As if he did those Sovereign Joys possess."
Only those joys offer us personal sovereignty, because they link us to the place that's truly our home. Such is the indigenous spirituality of Europe. It belongs to no-one, and is ours each to know. Like the acanthus leaves, it springs up from the ground of our being, and draws us towards a more subtle union.
*With thanks to a recent lecture by Valentine Gerlier
Wednesday, April 27 2016
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, April 27 2016, 09:27
This piece was published by Newsweek.
It's odd that we think of nostalgia as a feeling to indulge. We play an old record, listen to a favorite sketch, relive a scene from a film - things that many might be doing now, given the recent deaths of Prince and David Bowie, Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling and Alan Rickman. Odd, because nostalgia is a kind of pain. The root of the word is shared with neuralgia, nerve pain, except that nostalgia is literally "home pain". It's an acute longing for the familiar.
This is what celebrity deaths stir up in us: the loss of what's gone. And because celebrities often once captured powerful hopes and emotions in their music and performances, their deaths can be genuinely unsettling.
Their passing - prompting repeats on the radio and images on screen - can also stir up unfinished business hidden in the depths of our psyches. That can reignite a residue of unmourned emotion left from a different category of deaths: those who were very close to us, perhaps a parent, a partner, a child.
Sigmund Freud was onto this dynamic. He detected a risk when we lose someone with whom we are intimately bound. The risk is that with those deaths, we lose too much. We can't comprehend what's gone. The gap is overwhelming and consumes us in a miasma of grief from which it feels there's no escape.
The philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, caught the horror of this experience when he wrote of the early death of his closest friend and soulmate. "We were halves throughout. By outliving him, I defraud him of his part. I am no more than half of myself. There is no action or imagination of mine wherein I do not miss him."
Freud described this experience as a shift from mourning to melancholia - or depression, as it would be labeled now. It's as if we enter a state of mind in which everything is blackened by emptiness, absence, departure. We can't mourn the loved one because that person was, in a way, the whole of life to us. The residue of that ache may linger for years.
Then, someone famous dies. Suddenly, mourning becomes possible. The icon meant a lot but, unlike a parent or partner or child, was not half of us. And so it's a loss that can be felt. It precipitates an outpouring of grief - the death of Diana comes to mind - that is as much an unblocking of the deeper melancholia as it is sadness at the departure of the celebrity. The tears are real. But they are about more than the shock of the immediate news.
What this suggests to me is that there is a kind of art to mourning, though one we are hindered with today. We're not very well served by our culture because it tends to keep the genuine tragedy of death at bay.
You see it in the trend to hold celebrations for a life rather than funerals. The urge to do so is understandable: there is a time to give thanks. But there is also a time to mourn, and that might be denied.
Or death becomes hidden from us because, due to increased longevity, it happens mostly to those who are old - homed and hospitalized out of sight. That's perhaps why this year's celebrity deaths amongst stars who are relatively young is shocking. We've forgotten that death is found in the midst of life.
Wisdom traditions advise practicing mourning. Socrates said that philosophy is learning to die. Buddhists meditate before skeletons. Christians keep Good Friday. And it's good advice. Lesser losses - even the end of the day, the final page of a good book, the browning of the cherry blossom - can be opportunities to practice the fact of demise. They won't be overwhelming as big deaths can be. But we may still recoil from them and reach for a distraction rather than experience the difficult feelings. Maybe it's wiser to linger.
That's perhaps the departed celebrity's final gift to us: a moment to live their deaths and so know some of the feelings around our own. It's nostalgia in a healing sense: an embrace of life in all its tricky fullness.
Friday, April 22 2016
By Mark Vernon on Friday, April 22 2016, 15:20
For much of human history, people have sensed that names carry energies, associations, blessings. In fact, names invariably have meanings attached. I don't so much mean literal meanings - Bel: the lovely one, or Samson: sun child - but looser, baggier ones.
Take Mark, my name and the name day for Monday 25th April. It's short and sharp, clearly defined by its consonants at the beginning and end. It'd be very different to be called Marcus, with that softer, less distinct close.
Or there's the single syllable. I've siblings with longer names and though they prefer shortened versions, I tend to stick with their full names. I enjoy that it takes a little longer to say them; that there's more than one sound in their name; that their names somehow evolve on the tongue. I think I miss that with Mark.
Mark's Christian symbol, which associates the name with the gospel-writer St Mark, is a winged lion. The symbols linked to the evangelists - Matthew is a winged man; Luke an ox; John an eagle - are rather lost on us today. We're not used to associating animals with qualities, as the medieval mind did spontaneously. It's as if we've become more disconnected from nature with its dynamics and vitalities.
Some say the winged lion resonates with the opening of Mark's gospel. It begins boldly, abruptly, like a roar: "The beginning of the good news" - a proclamation. Others say the lion has to do with the resurrection, and the Christian promise of awakened life, because lions were said to sleep with their eyes open. Or there's the link with courage or kingship, qualities that Mark utilises fully in his exploration of the significance of Jesus.
Or perhaps the lion echoes back to pre-Christian days and the origins of the name itself. Markos, in Latin, means "given to Mars". It was a common name in the martial culture of the Romans. Mark Anthony. Marcus Tullius Cicero. Marcus Aurelius. It's odd to hear your name ascribed to others who, for all their fame, so clearly come from a different consciousness and time.
The Christian period dropped the link between names and gods. With monotheism, the experience of gods having an impact upon your life - Pan causing panic; Virtus bestowing manliness - gave way to an inner sense of relating directly to God. The Jewish name for God, "I am", suggests that God might be experienced in one's own identity, one's own I-ness. Names become more personal, less collective. Hence, Mark belongs to me, I feel when I hear it. I don't feel that a deity is being evoked in the constellation of my experience.
But on my name day, I think of St Mark. He seems like a younger man to me, often frightened in spite of his leonine symbol, the one who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested. He feels as if he is one who bears witness, not just by having his name linked to the gospel of Mark, but by being identified with John Mark, the companion of St Paul.
Perhaps that's the value of name days for us now. I'd advise utilizing the contemplative service of evensong on your name day, with its thanksgiving for the saint in the prayers. It's a space to ponder what the name means, who has shared it, what traditions remember, what gods or emblems are conjured. And in so doing, reflect on who we ourselves might be.
Saturday, April 9 2016
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, April 9 2016, 21:52
A Sunday Sermon from The Idler.
Money is making the news - or to be more specific, off-shore money that supposedly affords the über-rich a glamorous life that most of us can only dream of.
But it's odd, the minute you think about it. Take the other big story of last week, the unexpected paternity revelation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also carried the distinctive sound of sloshing excess money, though with a very different tone.
Justin Welby comes from a privileged background. He was sent to Eton. When his mother was short of money, the establishment secured her a job at Number 10 and a flat in Hyde Park Gate. The source of DNA for Welby's deceased father was found on ivory-backed, monogrammed hairbrushes. And yet, it's quite clear that money bought Welby no happiness. "The poor child was left like a little football," his biological father is said once to have remarked.
So when we all know that money doesn't buy happiness, why do we get so excited about it? I think it's because no-one is quite sure just what money is.
Attempts to answer the question are ancient. The theory that tends to capture the imagination can be sourced to Aristotle. He argued that in complex societies, marked by citizens seeking very different lives, there is a need for something universal that everyone desires. That universal something facilitates exchange. Say that I make shoes and you make hats, but I don't want a hat though you want shoes. We therefore need some third thing that both of us value. For much of civilized human history that universal something has been gold - or silver or bronze; some type of valuable metal.
It's left us feeling that money is real; something that can be meaningfully accumulated; something that is worth being jealous of; that is worth organising your life in pursuit of. You can feel the weight of it in your pocket, see the sum of it in your bank. And it's a plausible theory. A friend of mine, who's a banker, said he realised he was fascinated by money when as a child he received his pocket-money as a fiver, when his friends only got coins. He was the envy of the playground and he's been gripped by the power of money ever since.
So here's a startling thought. Perhaps money isn't anything real at all. After all, stashed in the bank, or an off-shore account, it does you no good. For that, you have to spend it. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a wonderful expression for stored, inert money: "frozen desire". Those who live their lives with more filthy lucre than they can spend become a bit frozen, a bit dazzling, a bit dead, he thought. He's not alone. Plato observed, in the wealthy Athens of his day, that those who have made fortunes are often boring company because they only really value others who have made fortunes.
So Plato offered another answer to the question of what money is. He argued it wasn't primarily a means of exchange, though it can be that. Rather, it was a symbol. And onto that symbol can be projected all manner of worries, hopes, aspirations, dreams.
I think this idea about the nature of money explains more. For one thing, it's actually the way the modern economy has gone, since the abandonment of the gold standard in the 1930s. Today, money is usually called fiat money: it is printed by governments at will. It comes with a promise on it. But that promise is in itself meaningless, and that's the point. Money can therefore come to mean almost anything to anyone. Hence, last week, the prime minister's off-shore money brought into focus all sorts of complaints and resentments, and there was nothing he could do to stop the vitriol that came his way.
Plato thought it's worth remembering that money is only a symbol because he hoped that educated citizens would be able to contain what it symbolised. Some things can be usefully bought with money, yes. But other things cannot - for example, happiness
What seems to have happened in late capitalist cultures, such as our own, is that we've forgotten to limit our understanding of money. It's become almost everything. To recall a saying of the person who finally brought Justin Welby happiness, Jesus of Nazareth: the risk is that you serve money like you serve God. But whereas the latter gives life, the former simply cannot.
When it breaks all bounds, money gains a terrible pseudo-divine power over us. But if Plato is right, you can be sure it's not real. It's just a symbol. And when we worship mere symbols, our civilization really is on the rocks.
Sunday, March 27 2016
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, March 27 2016, 06:00
A Sunday Sermon for Easter Day…
Is life a tragedy or a comedy? The ancient question is worth revisiting when Easter falls early and Spring is still striving to establish herself; when the happiness of a prospective holiday is tinged by terrorist threats at the airport; when tens of millions want Donald Trump to be the most powerful man in the world.
By tragedy, I don't mean "when the morning cries and you don't know why", to quote the eponymous song of the Bee Gees. Such sadness, after all, can at least be touched by a heartfelt lyric. No. Tragedy is meaninglessness beyond reach. It's what Nietzsche felt about the death of God: the sun is unhinged, the world has grown cold, we're adrift in empty space.
By a comedy, I don't mean that life's challenges can be lightened by a well placed laugh, though they can. Rather, it's the archaic sense of comedy I'm after, as in Dante's Divine Comedy. This is the hard won realisation that life's darkness is actually the prelude to the dawn of life's broader completion. Comedy is the fairytale with a happy ending, not out of wish fulfillment, but because the sinister middle passage has been endured and has precipitated an awakening.
Writers like Christopher Hamilton, who has just published A Philosophy of Tragedy (Reaktion), reject life as comedy. Who can affirm that after Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz? They plunge deep into the "suffering, failure, confusion and homelessness" of the tragic experience of life, and argue that staring it unflinchingly in the face is infinitely better than the other tragedy towards which comedy would entice us: easing the load with faux-meaning.
The tragic view is probably the default credo of our times. Consumer faux-meaning tacitly acknowledges it: shop or drop. It's between the lines of cheerful self-help books, paradoxically implied in their cascade of upbeat tips and consolations: keep trying, because trying is all there is. I think it's there in the growing trend for humanist funerals, which - understandably but in my view mistakenly - aren't called funerals but celebrations. It's as if the parent or partner is remembered on an island of care, and for an hour those present turn their backs on surrounding oceans of presumed indifference. Nietzsche saw it coming. If reality at core is no more than our folly and sufferings, all that remains is the fragile will to live.
Comedy understands that folly and sufferings are facts of life, but senses they are not the bare facts. There is always, eventually more to be said, felt, understood. It argues that tragedy's claim to be squaring up to reality is, in fact, two things. First, a projection of fear onto the cosmos that is then experienced as a void; it's what happens when we're overwhelmed. Second, a refusal to give up being the author of oneself when, in truth, we never were nor entirely will be.
So, it's different from the Panglossian belief that all things turn out for the best, or that suffering has a meaning. It's rather that suffering has a place, just not the whole place. It's the intuition that the blackest moments are black but can still be touched by love; that despair whilst easily defeating manic optimism is not stronger than Malala's courage or Mandela's hope.
Put it like this. There is a deeper logic to reality than tragedy allows. I wonder if it's illuminating to ask why you can't say, "there's a lack of cold," when you can say, "there's a lack of heat." The point is that coldness is the removal of heat, but heat is not the removal of coldness. Heat is the reality. Coldness can only be defined in relation to heat.
So too with love and fear, or gift and possession, or life and death. Fear, possessiveness and death appear sovereign when it's forgotten that they are really forms of existential forgetfulness. Fear is a lack of love's connection. Possessiveness is a denial that life's a gift. Death is a part of life in a way that life could never be a part of death.
Which is also to say, Happy Easter.
Saturday, March 26 2016
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, March 26 2016, 19:40
This review is published in the new issue, and the last, of Third Way…
Desire has always been a problem in the church, perhaps the main problem. And yet, implies Sarah Coakley, this should come as no surprise. Christianity is, at heart, about the human desire for God. Her new book, which weaves together a series of talks and so provides a readable introduction to her theology, finds its focus in the flourishing of desire expressed in the Trinitarian understanding of God. It's a basic theological dynamic that Coakley argues individual Christians and church leaders alike repeatedly lose sight of when the desire for God is unleashed.
As it must be, because becoming a Christian begins with the yearning to know God called Father - the verb "know" meant in the Biblical sense: the most basic sense of knowing has always implied a union with what is known. As Paul intimated in the crucial eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, this yearning is discovered to actually be God's because, as Paul puts it, the Spirit groans within us with a desire too profound for words. It is God's longing for cosmic rebirth and renewal. But there's a crucial step that must now be taken. Desire must be purged if it is truly to know God. In particular, its inclination towards possessiveness must be converted into the kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. In short, in coming to know the Father by the energy of the Spirit, we become like Christ. At least, that is, when the transformation is going well.
A key figure for Coakley is Gregory of Nyssa. This fourth century Greek bishop offers an approach to desire that is radically different from those typically adopted in the western church. The latter has tended to faintheartedness in the face of the desires that the Spirit stirs. It has wanted to control and contain, within ecclesiastically enforced limits; it has been nervous of the sexual imagery that the exploration of desire inevitably requires because the desire for God is an erotic desire for more from life. But in Gregory, Coakley finds a fascinating figure who never recoils with distaste. And moreover, offers an approach to the transformation of desire that offers crucial leads for us today.
Take his first treatise, On Virginity. It is an arresting choice of subject because Gregory was married at the time he wrote it. The question arises as to how or why he so celebrated this virtue? The answer is that literal virginity is, for Gregory, the least interesting form of virginity. At its most developed, it is a state of mind in which all desires intentionally channel towards God. This means, for example, that simply being celibate is not nearly enough. In fact, the celibate who keeps his vow but turns to the bottle or becomes overbearingly churchy may be being less true to the Christian vocation than the married person who, through an exploration of desire in a faithful relationship with another, comes to a rich often painful understanding of the ups and downs of love.
Gregory had the advantage of being Greek and, therefore, of reading Plato. Plato realised that the palace of wisdom is found via the road of excess, as William Blake was subsequently to put it. In fact, the experience of falling in love may be a crucial first intimation of the path towards God. Think of what falling in love is like, Plato advises. It's wanting what is beautiful and good. At first, that's mistakenly over-identified with the newfound beloved, as becomes apparent in any relationship that matures. But that's not the important thing early on. Rather, it's that the individual has fallen for the alluring power of what's beautiful and good - the desires that can carry them to God.
It's a journey through the narrow gate, for sure. The shadow of love's dream is a nightmare, because it continually runs the risk of not getting what it wants, and so forcefully taking what it wants. That's why, in Christian terms, the possessiveness of love must be transformed into the pattern of Christ's love. But again, married life offers helpful models here. After all, what is the desire to have children if not the moreness of the love that originally wanted only the beloved, evolving into a kind of over-spilling of love that wants to share its love with the offspring of that love? If that has a Trinitarian feel to it - love over-spilling in love to share with the offspring of love - then that's because Trinitarian desire energies reality.
Discipline is crucial in all this, hence the new asceticism of Coakley's title. Without the purging, there is no fulfillment. But perhaps we need new resources to inspire the discipline, as the old ones so easily feel as if they are closing life down, not opening life up. Take the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when the goal of love is so quickly aligned with sexual consummation. But courtly love sought the more patient goals that asceticism at its best aims for too. The knight fell in love with an unavailable lady so that the love would be indefinitely delayed. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, he was transformed, becoming gentle, aware, kind - more Christlike. Love nurtures experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unaware.
Coakley's work is important because it goes to the heart of what we need to address in Christianity today - not just the problems faced by the church, but what might make Christianity attractive in a culture that yearns for the spiritual dimension and yet doesn't consider that the church has anything substantial to offer it. That's because, in many of the church's current manifestations, it doesn't. But the deep wisdom about desire that's in the tradition, and is always longing to be reawakened, can stir us all anew.
Friday, March 18 2016
By Mark Vernon on Friday, March 18 2016, 07:55
This comment piece is in this week's Church Times.
A debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard, on the virtues of Greece and Rome, recently drew an audience of thousands. Greek philosophy and classical history routinely secure primetime slots on TV and radio. Books on similar themes abound. The Classics hold a surprising fascination for we twenty-first century moderns.
And yet, contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless or aimless.
Maybe the likes of Johnson and Beard get nervous when it comes to gods or metaphysics. Reputations are at stake. But the loss of this crucial dynamic matters because it goes to the heart of much with which we today are struggling, from mental health to climate change. If the Greeks have anything for us, it might well be the element that has gone missing. And it's one that should concern Christians too.
Most of the media treats the Classics in much the same way as it treats matters from the history of science to issues in ethics: cut from the discussion is anything that fails to fit into a secular narrative. Take the presentation of the ancient philosophers. Broadly speaking, it's said that they developed human reason, overcame religious superstition, and thereby liberated the human mind. You could say: logic plus democracy equals progressive godlessness. Science and reason are treated as diamond-sharp tools that surgically unpick the myths and metaphysics of the past. Public discourse has developed an unthinking habit that pitches enlightenment against divinity.
But the ancient philosophers had an entirely different vision of things, one that might refresh our vision now. They saw reason as a gift that reveals an extraordinary truth: the human mind can share in a cosmic reality that far exceeds its own understanding. Reason's greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open onto transcendent vistas upon which the soul can gaze and feed. Consider how Lucretius celebrates Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, who is today often praised as a poster boy for modern atheism: "The keen force of his mind conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his soul." Ancient Epicureans kept their founder's birthday like a saint's day, and granted his request to honour his "holy body".
It's why Aristotle said that philosophy begins and ends in wonder not empirical evidence, or knock-out proofs, or self-consistent conclusions. It's why figures like Thales and Pythagoras rushed to the temple when they gained insights into magnets or music: they were not indulging superstitious customs that die hard, but were reframing religious practices as thanksgivings for sharing in the cosmic mind. Similarly, nature is not primarily for us to exploit, but rather for us to connect with and know - an attitude that it's clear we've lost, if you think about our failures to meet challenges such as climate change.
If we could regain the ancients' transcendent imagination, we might regain an immanent experience of our connection with nature. Caring for the environment might cease to feel like a moral burden and come to be felt as a joyful good. I suspect such a sensibility would make Christianity more attractive too: less a question of judging creedal probabilities about the resurrection or miracles; more a welcome to engage deeply in a felt sense of God.
To put it another way, what ancient philosophy offers is a pathway towards the transformation of your soul. Indeed, it nurtures the sense of having a soul, another perception that the secular narrative undermines. The soul can be likened to the liveliness of a poem — the very poetry, you might say. It is conveyed, but exceeds the material “body” of the poem, namely the words.
An undeveloped soul is like an unfinished poem. It's flat. It feels empty because its full potential is not realized. People are similar, the ancient philosophers realized. Only worse, they suffer from the emptiness too. The loss may manifest itself in addictions, or persistent and crippling anxieties, or a diminished and depressed sense of vitality. So they developed a range of practices - including meditations and visualizations, rituals and rites, community-living and reason - to awaken the soul. Many of these are becoming popular again, though sadly, often outside of Christian circles.
In fact, it's more accurate to think of ancient philosophers as monks and nuns. They lived a way of life that was dedicated to manifesting a vision of reality in their lives. Their therapy was not primarily designed to get you through the day. It was designed to release you from a restricted view of things in order to become aware of the deeper pulse upon which life rest, in which we live and move and have our being, as the Stoics used to say before St Paul borrowed the expression.
Again, this has direct implications for today. Take Stoicism. It's core advice was to learn to notice how you respond to what happens to you. It was the inspiration behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now widely available on the NHS. And yet, longitudinal studies of CBT's efficacy are increasingly showing that it does not deliver what it promised. The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why. If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.
Socrates became wise when he appreciated how little he understood. He realised that although the scientists of his day could theorize about the cosmos, and although the engineers of Athens could construct the Parthenon in nine impressive years, this ability to manipulate was being mistaken for wisdom about what the soul requires. He learnt that a civilisation's moment of greatest peril is when it is at its material peak. Human hubris then feels it can master all things, and exceed the ways of the gods. It's another lesson the Classics, in their fullness, might prompt us to consider.
Friday, November 20 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, November 20 2015, 10:03
This piece is in the new edition of the Church Times.
THE unconscious is 100 years old this month — counting the publication of Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “The Unconscious” as its birthday. Of course, the unconscious is as old as the psyche, and Freud, too, had been working on it for some years before 1915. His investigations into dreams and hypnosis, hysteria and neurosis demanded it, and he felt that a systematic model was needed.
It is striking how much of Freud’s 1915 description has a religious feel to it. For example, he argues that the processes that take place in the human unconscious have a timeless quality. “They are not ordered temporarily, are not altered by the passage of time.”
They are eternal, in the strict sense — outside time. Freud had stumbled across an experience of life that matched the psalmist’s description of God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday” (Psalm 90.4).
Human beings do not live for millennia, but they do live for decades, and psychoanalysis was showing that, in the human mind, the experiences of decades ago have as much vitality as those of yesterday. We have an eternal dimension, too.
It is a finding subsequently substantiated in John Bowlby’s attachment theory: how we experience love and holding in our earliest years, which we cannot consciously remember, influences how we experience love and being held as adults.
This is one reason why, in spite of Freud’s antipathy to religion, psychoanalysis has always had a spiritual feel. Psychodynamic therapy puts the individual in touch with a side of himself or herself which is utterly mysterious to a materialist frame of reference. Yet there is no doubt that it is real.
ANOTHER remarkable observation that Freud makes is that one unconscious can communicate with another, without either individual necessarily realising it. Freud did not know what to make of this aspect in 1915. It subsequently became one of the keystones of psychotherapy, in “transference”: the unspoken felt exchanges that take place between client and therapist, which the therapist has learnt to notice and interpret.
For the spiritually minded, Freud’s observation offers one way of understanding how the immaterial and material worlds interact. It is as if we live in fields of psychic energy which affect us as much as the fields of electromagnetic energy which surround us, also known as darkness and light. We exist in webs of feeling and meaning, for good or ill. We become who we are in response to those who are physically and psychically close. Roughly speaking, communications from benign sources develop the soul; malignancy makes the soul contract.
IT IS clear from research in transgenerational trauma that our ancestors have an impact on us, too. The dead do not simply die. The unconscious can be a way of conceptualising how God and even the angels might shape us as well.
As the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, preached at Michaelmas this year: “Thoughts and notions may come from outside us: our lowest, our destructive ideas, from the source of evil; our highest, our saving notions, from the message of the angels, from our loving Father God.”
That is not language that Freud would use; but he did go on to posit death and life drives, welling up from the unconscious.
Another remark in his 1915 essay carries echoes of how mystics have conceptualised the divine. Opposites and paradoxes are present without contradiction in the unconscious, Freud observed. It is why in dreams we can fly, and why there is a part of us more amenable to poetry than reason.
Theology, too, is full of opposites and paradoxes. God is three in one. The divine can be conceived of simultaneously as creator, shepherd, fire, wisdom. “It might be fruitful to offer the model of the unconscious as one which does better justice to the notion of God within his creation, to the intimate closeness of the infinite which faith also values,” proposes Rodney Bomford, the author of The Symmetry of God (Free Association Books, 1999).
Yes, there are significant differences between God and the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious often feels a dark, oppressive place — although his erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, realised that the unconscious has an expansive and liberating energy, too. God is not the unconscious. Yet studying the unconscious helps the imagination to open to the divine mystery.
FINALLY, the unconscious can assist in understanding pastoral aspects of spirituality. In a footnote to his essay, Freud writes: “The unconscious act exerts on somatic processes an influence of intense plastic power which the conscious act can never do.” To use other terms, the unconscious may lie behind psychosomatic illnesses.
Whatever the causes, which are hotly contested, somatising disorders are widespread: one recent study estimated that the NHS spends £3 billion each year on unexplained symptoms. The unconscious will not account for it all, but there is an urgent need to acknowledge its reach.
Churches and other spiritual buildings are important here. They are known as “brick mothers” in psychotherapeutic circles — structures that transmit feelings of safety and healing. They can be thought of as places that precipitate, and even store, the curative powers of the unconscious, much as buried trauma can conversely cause such psychic and somatic distress.
It helps to explain how churches can assist in supporting improvements in mental health, such as the one promoted by the Recovery Friendly Church course, an initiative developed in a collaboration between St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham, and the Recovery College of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.
The founder of psychoanalysis is not often thought of as a friend of religion. But read him more closely: his curiosity concerning the dynamics of the human soul produces reasons for confidence in, as well as the development of, the insights of generations of people of faith.
Sunday, September 27 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, September 27 2015, 10:34
This essay, adapted from my book Love: All That Matters, is in the current issue of TPM.
Developmental psychology is a field of study hardly known until the twentieth century. Before figures like Sigmund Freud, philosophers seemed not much to have noticed that the inner life of the child has a determining impact upon the love life of the adult. Exceptions include thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But it wasn't until Freud developed notions such as infantile sexuality, and followers of his including Jean Piaget and Melanie Klein developed practices of infant observation, that it became clear just how profoundly the first few years shape our subsequent experiences of and attempts to love. My sense is that the philosophy of love has yet fully to embrace these new discoveries perhaps because, during the same period, philosophy came to inhabit a silo of knowledge isolated from psychology, which itself became pre-occupied with behavioural investigations, as opposed to the psychodynamic. That time appears now to be passing.
The developmental insights can usefully be summarised by arguing that our capacity for love emerges in, broadly, three stages. At each stage a different relational dynamic becomes possible, one deeper and more expansive than what was previously known. However, the transition between each mode is painful because it requires letting go of the security that comes with the former familiar love. A life will tend to go well - an individual will be more likely to flourish - if they can wisely utilize and spontaneously enjoy each kind of love. Conversely, things will tend to become stuck and troubled, perhaps seriously damaged, when a to-and-fro movement between the loves is blocked.
The three loves begin with self-love or, to give it its seemingly darker, more technical name, narcissism. In life, this is our first love, as the evidence is that it is the kind of love with which we are born. On the whole, it serves us well because it ensures we survive. It selfishly demands the nourishment and security, both physical and psychological, that the newborn child needs. However, there is a downside. Narcissism has little or no felt appreciation that other human beings exist as separate entities in the world. So, unless it is transcended, this love leaves us lonely and isolated, worried by the existence of others and untrusting. We must love ourselves but in such a way that we can get over ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin. Then narcissism serves us well because it means we can embrace a world apart from ourselves.
That leads to the second kind of love, the love that discovers there is another person in the world and this person is both loveable and returns love. Typically, it is thought that it begins to dawn on the very young child that it has a mother, or a primary carer, who is devoted to it. The infant is encouraged in play to explore the little intimacies that this other person longs to share and it develops the capacity for a healthy attachment to this other. The bodily warmth of their twosome nurtures in it the wonderful realization that it is not alone. The child grows in love, develops a stronger sense of itself through this relationship and, all being well, lays down capacities that will serve it well when, as a young adult, it falls in love and discovers once more that there is another person who might love them and whom they might love.
The second love supports a happy state of affairs, one that can be regarded as the pinnacle of love, particularly in its grown-up form: romantic love. But, in fact, it is a crucial part of the developmental story that this is not the end of love. Left in that phase, romantic love is as limited and limiting as self-love. The two lovers are stranded, struggling to find fulfilment in each other, when, in truth, fulfilment for human beings requires far more than love focused on just one other person.
So the individual must make another transition, which again is difficult. However, if once more it navigates the shift well enough, a third even more tremendous experience of love comes into conscious view. It is the love that can welcome a third dimension into its embrace. It is the most expansive and open, and with it the individual can throw him- or herself wholeheartedly into life.
The first experience of this third love is likely to occur when the now not quite so young child realizes mother has other interests and loves, not least the individual she relates to as her beloved. That comes as a shock to the child, although it may then sense that Dad loves him or her as well as Mum, and that their threesome enables all kinds of experiences that were inconceivable before. One of the most astonishing is when the child notices it can observe two others loving, as he or she watches on, which leads to the sense that he or she too is being watched. Internalized, this is the basis for self-awareness and self-consciousness, and the sense that the centre of life is not focused on me, or between me and another, but is dispersed throughout fields or networks of shared connection.
Life is much more promising, and complex, and at times frightening, than the infant could have possibly imagined. With this third love, the child – and then adult – develops the confidence and trust required to enter into mature love and so to become a friend; to pursue wider interests and passions; all in all, to reach out into life in all its fulness.
In fact, and although he showed little interest in the inner lives of infants, Plato described a developmental process that can be related to the modern psychology: in works like the Symposium and the Phaedrus, he provides a vivid description of the way that love works. It has the remarkable quality of revealing an experience of life that far transcends the first taste of love that awoke us to its allure. By committing to live a life in pursuit of love, Plato says, life will become far more for us than we might imagine. Love carries within itself a tremendous transformative potential. The individual who loves well enough – be it as a beloved, a friend, a parent – is changed as they love. Love itself seems to overcome inherent limitations, often to a surprising degree. When that change goes well, people find their capacity for loving expanding, too. They sense more and more of life.
Plato argued that love moves us because of the magnetic force known as beauty: the beauty we discern in our beloved is love’s ‘promise of happiness’ should we manage to make a life together. It works in two ways.
First, our appraisal of the beauty draws us to them or it, although what Plato also noticed is that at this stage we do not know precisely what we will find should we get there. This is partly because beauty awakens us from afar: its task is to draw us towards who or what is not yet known. But there is a more radical aspect to beauty’s promise, too, because love itself creates a new future out of the relationship as it unfolds. It is not just that the beloved is at first a stranger to us. Something new happens when lovers get together. To put it another way, we bet on love when we respond to beauty, a bet that is ‘a stab at the future’ as the philosopher Alexander Nehamas puts it. This insight, Nehamas argues, is Plato’s most startling: love is creative, working reflexively in the fit and friction of the relationship that is uniquely the lovers’ own. ‘What is mine is thine, and thine is mine’, as the old phrase has it, not only because they will now share what separately they had before but because something comes into being that is forged within and belongs to their relationship.
Plato stressed that love is a tricky path to follow, one of great toil, likely setbacks, and possible failure. Human beings find themselves in something of a bind when it comes to love because the love that spontaneously arises within the individual is inevitably limited and flawed for the reason that human beings are limited and flawed creatures. We are always, in a way, failures in love.
It is a truth that chimes with developmental psychology. There are the anxious experiences that must be borne for the infant to transcend their narcissism and grant that mother has interests other than itself. Though it is a struggle not without hope, Plato would add. To switch back to his description: if courageous and capable, the individual is likely to undergo a transformation in which the first yearnings for another human body subtly shift and begin to speak to them of a deeper desire.
A common adult manifestation of this movement is the perhaps surprising wish to have children with a person to whom you are attracted. Children, Plato explains, are a product of love’s spiritual desire for more from life: sexual relationships in human beings stirs up a longing that teenage lovers would never have dreamed of – a desire to overcome their egoism, felt as a longing to have and hold a new life sprung from their love.
It's one form of adult love celebrated by Plato. Children can prove to be a great satisfaction. But they have a tendency to have a life of their own and routinely disrupt the hopes and longings of parents. So, individuals strive for other ways of embracing more from life, Plato continues, of transcending the boundaries of their own limited existence. There are the sciences and arts, friends and work, wealth and fame. Though, again, you do not have to look too hard to feel that they are likely to offer only fragile satisfaction as well.
There is an element in some of these activities that can mitigate the risk to a degree – that is, when they contribute to the common good. Plato suspected that this is why people seek to make contributions to the societies in which they live. That can take many forms. Individuals become artists not only for reasons of self-expression but to make public works. Engaging in research and science not only scratches a personal itch that wants to know but contributes to the accumulation of knowledge that links the individual to wider concerns. Others may devote their loves to upholding justice, caring for others, or laying down their life for their country.
Another aspect of love that builds in a degree of resilience is creativity. Plato points out that the love of friends, wealth or discovery may be possessive – as in, this is ‘my friend’, ‘my money’, ‘my insight’. But creativity may also take on a different tone, not possessive but generative. Possessive energies are transformed from being self-serving to being collaborative.
You can tell because when individuals collaborate on some project that they love, or when their collaboration is a commitment to each other born of love, the results are exponential. What they give birth to is more than either alone could have conceived. The beautiful ideas of one combine with those of another and a third thing is born. The lovers will themselves be changed by this process, as parents are when they have children. They will love something new that they could not have anticipated before their work of love began and it will take them out of themselves.
We are now a long way from the youthful desire for another body, or even the search for friends. Such is the transformative potential of love. But is there a fourth step to add to developmental psychology's three? Does love afford another dimension of existence that, when we follow it's path is opened up to us?
Certainly, many human beings have believed so, calling that dimension ‘God’, or ‘the transcendent’, or ‘infinite compassion’. The writer of the late fourteenth century spiritual guide The Cloud of Unknowing talked of a ‘dart of longing love’ that can penetrate these clouds of our unknowing. The Buddhist tradition has developed sophisticated practices that build lives of compassion which, in turn, promises a kind of awakening called enlightenment.
Plato believed so too. He made an observation something like this. What links the later creative activities of mature love with the first romantic urge is that they promise a kind of reversal. It is not we who must cling to love out of an act of desperation, but, rather, to mature in love is to discover that love is already flowing through us, has in a sense already made us. To borrow from developmental psychology: the young infant did not know its parent was there, though she or he was. Later, it did not know that the parent was supported by the love of others, though that is revealed when the child awakens to the reality of a third. The creative life is like that, too. It is born of the passion of others, always already ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.
I like the analogy of the philologist, Owen Barfield: to be human is to be like an Aeolian harp. These musical instruments consist of a wooden box and sounding board, over which strings are stretched across a bridge. They look a little like a violin without the neck. Also, they are not played by a bow, as the violin is, but rather by the wind. Aeolian harps are placed in openings across which the wind may blow, perhaps at a window: Aeolus is the god of the wind. As the air current sweeps across the strings, so the music from the harp is heard shifting and evolving, rising and falling. The analogy is that we are the harp, and the wind is the love required to make the music. We have a creative part to play in the harmonies that emerge, though without the movement of the pre-existing love there could only be silence.
Still, the fragility persists. Love is always a scary force. In taking us out of ourselves, placing our lives in the love of others, it places our wellbeing in their hands, too. When things go well, this fires our creativity, our capacity to give, our passion for life. When we are let down or betrayed, love generates rage, envy, desolation, the desire for destruction. You are far more likely to murdered by someone you love than by a stranger. It is friends who can hurt you the most, not strangers.
For Plato, though, and other philosophers and theologians influenced by him, there is a way out of this terrible ambivalence. Mature love teaches us not to strive for and cling to what we think we desire, or only to turn to the love of others. It alerts us to a love that is closer to us than we are to ourselves, to deploy the formula of Augustine, the Christian theologian and philosopher. This can, at the last, always be relied upon. Augustine called that love God, the place in which the restless heart can find rest. The sufferings of life do not cease: love still calls us to love. Only now there is the sense that the hurt and struggle can be redeemed. Love's greatest revelation is that the process of self-renunciation it leads us upon - and which developmental psychology has described so well in relation to early life - opens up a fourth dimension: a sense of divine love that underpins all the earlier growth and struggle.
The revelation is summed up in the formula from the Christian tradition: God is love. The most basic truth in life is not that we yearn for more when clumsily we love, though we do, but that the constant, unclouded love of God yearns for us. Plato never puts it quite like that, though is clear that he felt love was the energy that can propel us towards intimations of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Parallel intuitions can be found in other wisdom traditions too.
Such insights are the opposite of the implicit assumptions we lived by when we were born into the world and struggled to grab and possess life, in the desperate need to survive. The truth we might eventually come to is that love’s desire is most deeply satisfied by letting go, by allowing, by receiving. It is not about trying to control life. That is a necessary strategy for a time, and at certain times, in order that we might make something of ourselves as human beings. We all do it. And yet, a different kind of presence can come through too. It was the most lovely of all. ‘What do I love when I love my God?’ Augustine asks at the end of his Confessions . Is it the glories of creation, the intensity of existence, the wonder of the heavens, the silence of eternity? ‘I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things,’ he continues, ‘and their beauty was all the answer they gave.’ This is a love that does not seek to possess, or even to create, but to contemplate. It is the only final response to the natural desire for more. It is an extension of the observation that love thrives best when we do not gaze into each other’s eyes but turn together towards life. The promise is a kind of love that engages not just life, but the ground of being itself.
It seems to me that what has been learned of love from developmental psychology - the dynamic and momentum it gives to the unfolding of love in life - can naturally be continued to point in this divine direction. Ultimately, love is not from us. It made and makes us. Human love is the experience that inevitably oscillates between poles of possessing and releasing, struggle and rest, surface and depth, body and soul, pain and pleasure, terrestrial and celestial. And yet, without the higher poles, it may be mistaken for being defined by the possessing, struggle, surface, body and pain.
The divine element is, of course, the tricky element in a secular age. The desire to invest in family and friends, in work and creativity, is straightforward to accept – if often hard to pull off in life. That love might lead us on an erotic quest towards God may feel like a step too far. Perhaps family and friends, work and the like are enough. Maybe there is nothing more in life than life and so it is futile to seek the divine. Spiritual love is deluded love.
However, I suspect that this is a possibility that cannot be decided upon by reason or psychology, by myth or evidence alone. Ultimately, it can only be answered by the ever-expansive journey into life called love. That path is itself epistemologically revealing. It is integral to love's transformative potential. To use Martha Nussbaum's phrase, though she did not mean it in this way, there is such a thing as 'love's knowledge'. If there is a way back to God, only love will finally reveal it to us.
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.