Thursday, May 16 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, May 16 2013, 15:08
This piece, on the significance of Honest to God fifty years on, has just gone up at the BBC Magazine website.
People rarely queue around the block to buy a book. And when was the last time a prime minister had to pull rank and ask the publisher to send over a copy as none were otherwise available? It happened in the spring of 1963, fifty years ago. A book called Honest to God appeared on the shelves and caused a storm. Before long, a million copies were sold in 17 languages. The author was a Church of England clergyman, John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich in south London.
A couple of year previously, he had described sex as 'an act of holy communion' in the trial that tried to ban Lady Chatterley's Lover. That caused stir and his book was read partly because it called for a revolution in ethics, particularly on divorce.
But there were deeper shifts in the collective consciousness that found voice in its pages. The Observer newspaper's memorable headline caught it well: "Our Image of God Must Go".
People found that thought a liberation. Sarah Coakley, now a professor at Cambridge University, ended up making theology her career. "(Robinson) was a brilliant educator," she says. "He kept asking us students: 'Why is this important?' 'What matters now?'"
Rob Bell, the American evangelical leader whose congregation is counted in the thousands, feels similarly. "I can't even tell you how much that book affected me," he remarks. He too believes that we need new images of God - ones that enable us to speak of the mystery of everyday experience.
For Robinson, the problem was the belief that we are "down here" and God is "up there", as if sat on a cloud. Science destroys that worldview. Instead, he sought God in life. Similarly, Jesus is an alluring figure not because he saves you from your sins and a wrathful deity, or offers immortality, but because he displays the transforming potential of love.
The bishop was part of a movement known as demythologization, an attempt to re-describe Christianity in terms that make sense to the secular mind. Robinson drew on the philosophy of existentialism and especially the writings of the German-American, Paul Tillich. Tillich described God as the "ground of being", the power that sustains the cosmos in the face of the alternative, nothing. He argued that to be human is to have "ultimate concerns", namely something for which you would not only live, but die.
Robinson and his generation were in thrall to science and felt that religion must change. The same imperative is felt to this day when atheists compare religion to fairytales and believers pen apologetics in response. But I wonder whether this knock-about has actually been a distraction because, on the whole, it seems that people do not live in a demythologized world. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Regular church attendance has declined, yes. But since the 1960s, belief in a "spirit or life force" has doubled, according to British Religion in Numbers. Forty-one percent of us now believe in angels, 53% in an afterlife, and 70% in a soul.
For more evidence, wander into your local bookshop and find the Mind, Body, Spirit section. First, there will be one. Second, it is likely to be larger than history, psychology or biography. Or, note the interest in spiritual practices such as mindfulness meditation, which you can now get on the NHS, or think of the recent BBC TV programme, Pagans and Pilgrims. It visited Britain's holiest places and found that they are thriving.
To the convinced secularist this is likely to be bemusing, even offensive. There should not be "holy places" because a piece of land is just a piece of land. If individuals believe in angels or an afterlife then they must be stupid, sad or deluded.
And yet, look more closely and you will see that science itself promotes the re-enchantment of things. In books and on TV, physicists tell of vast cycles of cosmic death and rebirth. It is wonderful to be part of this majestic universe, they declare. They are right - although according to science alone, the cosmos does not die because it has never lived. Scientifically, the story is neither wonderful nor majestic; it just is. What science is doing is creating a new myth of things - in the proper sense of a story that attempts to convey something amazing we are part of that is really beyond our telling.
In short, there has been a spontaneous rediscovery of the spiritual dimension, if actually it ever died. The tragedy for the church, fifty years after Honest to God, is that many people no longer feel that Sunday worship and the images of God on offer there has much to do with it. This is a problem because religious practices and theological traditions hold a wealth of insights that are needed if the questing is to deepen and grow. They help ground the speculations of New Age thought and offer means of discernment.
For there is something crucial going on in this welter of spiritual experimentation and exploration. We humans are the creatures for whom our own existence is too small for us. We yearn for more, for connection, for meaning. And moreover, we find it. All the scepticism in the world cannot put it down.
Friday, April 26 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, April 26 2013, 08:23
I've a longish piece in the Church Times, asking what now after 50 years of Honest to God. Linda Woodhead captures the predicament for the C of E, I think:
Honest to God was right in so far as it told its readers that they could explore theologically, too. You need not be a don or a cleric. "It caught the wave of a popular kind of spirituality that empowers the individual, and has grown massively over the last 50 years," Professor Woodhead says. "The movement is fragmented, but can be characterised as ritually experimental and personal, in the sense of wondering how to live life more fully. More people do now believe in God as a spirit or life force than in what Robinson called a personal God 'out there'." But what the Church of England, in particular, has found it hard to do is to integrate new symbols and ritual practices that ground this understanding. "As a consequence, many who follow this new spiritual pathway have left the church in order to do so," Professor Woodhead says.
John Milbank suggests one striking way forward:
The tragedy is that people today clearly sense that the material world has been drained of the spiritual. You see it in the popularity of pilgrimages, New Age festivals, and the appreciation of nature. "It is striking that a kind of remythologisation has been going on while church attendance has been declining," Professor Milbank says. "Instead of Christian minimalism, which doubts everything from angels to the creeds, I'd argue for a Christian maximalism that proposes nothing less than cosmic transformation." This might connect with people's sense of the miraculousness of existence, he says. "Rather than offering a thinned-down moralism, it suggests a way back to the full richness of what the Christian tradition offers."
Thursday, April 25 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, April 25 2013, 09:37
"Forget that life is enveloped not just by known unknowns but unknown unknowns, and you will fall like Icarus from the sky".
BBC Radio 3, Monday April 29 - 22.45 and online
In the Essay this week, five contributors - journalists Mark Vernon, Madeleine Bunting, Alastair Campbell; scientist Susan Greenfield, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht - make The Case for Doubt - the idea that political, religious, and scientific doubt, even self-doubt, though sometimes troubling, is much more useful and valuable than fixed opinions and beliefs.
In this first Essay on doubt in politics, author and broadcaster Mark Vernon argues that a dislike of doubt in politics implies a loss of faith in politics, and that politicians - for their sake as well as ours - should stop cultivating delusions of omnipotent power.
Friday, April 19 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, April 19 2013, 09:54
I spoke with Rob Bell Monday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London (pictured above). I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Here's part four of the interview, talking about things from John Robinson to American evangelicalism.
So when you're talking about that it reminds of another one of my questions which is around how... I wonder whether another problem that Christianity has today is that it's become too much an answer and not enough a way. Early Christians sometimes said we are followers of the way, and that's got lost. There's not enough process. It's far too much: here's the answer.
That is, yes, that is huge. The power of Eucharist to me is it moves the centre of gravity from having your intellectual furniture arranged properly, which I think for a lot of people... the thing is you've got to get this stuff right and cognitive assent to the proper things.
Yes, that's another way.
What's interesting about Eucharist is that it moves it to you and I, at a table, in our frailty and humanity being reminded of love and grace and partaking together and in that discovering our connection with each other and the world. That's a living, breathing experience. So I wonder what you're going to see... a baptism. When someone gets up and says, I was a heroin addict and my life was a wreck and I had this rebirth, and they are going to lower me into this water and they are going to raise me back up as a symbol of my new life. Who's going to argue with that? You know what I mean? I wonder if what you're going to see more and more is a reclaiming of these powerful acts because they rescue us from the brain vortex - not that what you think isn't extremely important and doctrines have their vital role - but it is the flesh and blood lived experience that endures.
There is the moment of revelation or the moment of change which is one thing that I'm sure happens...
One of many along the way.
Exactly, because maybe baptism is more like the day you go and see your therapist for the first time, and it's not until four or five years later - and then ten years after that - that you realise what was really going on.
You realise what they were saying to you.
That's one of the problems, we need the process emphasis, I feel. That's why Buddhism is so strong in this country, because it is saying, here's a whole series of exercises and tools and discernments that can take you on a journey.
Yup, I always begin with at least... of all the images that could be used, what the Christian tradition begins with is Jesus calling disciples who are students. So a student fundamentally begins from a posture of humility, with a sense of expectation and lots of capacity for surprise because you never know what might be just around the corner. And you're expectations are that you're going to be learning. So that is the fundamental posture of the whole thing, is if you knew everything then you would be the master. You are not the master. I'm shocked by how many people, when I say, wait, wait, wait. I don't know what you're thinking but I begin with this image of a disciple or a student.
So I am learning this way, and for Jesus this way was not esoteric or ambiguous. It was, I want to teach you how to worry less, how to be less judgmental, how to be more generous, how to be more loving of your enemies, how to stand in solidarity with people in their suffering. I'm learning how to live a way that is to me the best way, it's compelling, it's worth whatever cost or sacrifice comes with it. It's just a much more healthy framing of what this thing is. And of course, to be a student you trust the master. Sure. And that will have a personal dimension to it. I think you're completely right. Then process becomes natural. And of course, I'll always be growing, and learning, and expanding, and changing, and evolving. That shouldn't be a surprise.
I'm pushing on because I'm conscious of the time.
By the way, I have lots of interviews where the interviewer says, you know: you've grown. As I read your books, you know you've really grown. And I'm kinda of, is that - how is that a story that someone who is apparently a spiritual leader, which is kind of the point of spiritual institutions is that they would help you grows, is that a leader grows - how messed up is it that, that's a story!.
Well, it's probably the media's fault in large part.
Hey, you know what: you've grown! (He laughs.)
A bit more of a journalistic question. What images of God really work today? And I ask this because I notice that in the book you make a lot of spirit, ruach, breath - this are the kind of images. Not father, I don't think father mentioned once.
Yes, there is. There's a thing on language, I talk about father.
OK. I beg your pardon. The question I was going to ask was, this month is the 50th anniversary of the book Honest to God, which was a huge seller in this country.
I can't even tell you how much that book affected me.
Oh right, well how interesting because the front cover of the Observer newspaper which really got the book selling was, Our Images of God Have Got To Go. And it was particularly God the Father, and this felt like a liberation to people to be able to talk about other images of God. So what images of God work and maybe also how did that particular book speak to you?
There's like three questions there and they are all awesome. This man knows John Robinson which is just... OK.
Oh, oh! If it is free to think of other images that is wonderful but I don't think you have to toss father and here's why. A friend of mine just wrote a book and I just read the manuscript and he's a good friend of mine but I'd never actually heard his full story. His father abandoned him when he was young and his mother married a man who raised him. And later in life, maybe in his twenties, he went looking for his biological father. And found his biological father who wrote him a letter and said, I want nothing to do with you - after they'd met and interacted. I disavow being your father. Like one of those just bone crunching, I will not be your father from this time forward, I do not want to be known as your father. And this guy's like a great - my friend - but he literally says the image of God the father: I cannot tell you how helpful it is to my growth and psyche to imagine the love that I sort of long for from a biological father. How much of my healing has come from this image.
Flipside is there's a writer named Renée Altson who begins her book by talking about how she grew up in a family which wasn't healthy. And she says, by that I mean my father used to sing the Lord's prayer while he raped me.
So a lot of it is simply context. It's interesting to me in the Catholic church, that is male run, how popular mother Mary is. It's almost like if you don't give me a sacred feminine, we'll go find one. You know what I mean? Because of a divine image we can relate to.
Actually when people ask me what's your first thing that comes to mind (when I think about God): song - a song you're hearing that you want to hear louder. So if it's not an old man in the sky is it a whatever in the shy... it's actually more sonic. And a friend of mine who's a really good musician in Nashville, he thinks that the best metaphor for Trinity is three-part harmony, because it's tonal and the tones can stack on top of each other and you can hear them all the same, but they sound the best altogether. You know what I mean? It's funny to me that sound... for me personally that's the first thing that jumps to mind.
What did John Robinson's book, Honest To God, mean to you?
Oh my word! Well. I had been saying a few things, and a friend of mine who had been visiting from out of town said - he had read Honest to God and said... I think when he puts Tillich about the Ground of our Being that was the first time I'd seen clearly articulated my sense of needing people who did not believe in God but had a profound sense of justice or a profound appreciation for beauty - who did have these things that they were very dogmatic and convinced of. And I'm like wait, wait, wait - I know this category of things, you still believe it is best to be generous, and you still believe we should be kind, and you have a profound sense that we should care for the Earth. So you have all these things within you that are deeply held convictions: I think those things are actually connected with this word that you want nothing to do with. You are very doubtful about this, but you have not doubts about these things.
Secondly, his ordinary holiness in the Eucharist heightening our senses to the depth and the common. When a writer puts language to something that you have intuitively had the sense of... wait: this isn't about getting us somewhere else. This is about our growing awareness of this is a meal but it's more than a meal. I probably first read him when my oldest son was a couple of years old, and his birth, and my second son's birth, and my sense that my boys were just little sacks of blood and bones, and yet they were so much more. You know what I mean? It's like standing in the hospital holding my newborn sons was like somehow connecting me with the universe. Like there is depth to these little bundles that I can't even put language too. And each day with them somehow opens me up to the world in ways I never could explain.
So I think that's where his book, when he started talking about the depths and the commons. Oh, and then as a pastor, I kept realising, I think my job here isn't to fabricate an experience that will somehow give them this thing to get them to next Sunday. My job here is to help them see what's been right in front of them the whole time. So it's rooted to my own sense of I think I'm trying to do something else here.
Yes. Thank you. One last question, a bit journalistic as well. You know that American evangelicalism seems like a most peculiar thing in this country. Often rather frightening and terrifying.
It terrifies me too. Crazy.
How would you assess the state of American evangelicalism today, and to give that a bit more focus, I think you recently made some comments about same-sex marriage, in relation to that issue... um, what was the response from the 90% of evangelicals or whatever it is that would find that deeply offensive and problematic?
I've no idea. I don't Google my name. If evangelical originally was a term used by the first Christians to refer to the good news, this buoyant, joyous announcement that God's grace is real, that we can serve each other, and that sacrificial love trumps coercive military violence... I mean this was essentially a Roman propaganda term that these first Christians took and the military superpower that crushed everybody unless you confess that Caesar is Lord, and if you don't you get hung from these stakes. So the Roman empire goes around and we make you a province of Rome and we tax you to build bigger armies so we can crush more people. So the force of military violence is the way the world is made peaceful. Which always depends upon which end of the sword you are on. This little ragtag of people come along, and they're Jew and Gentile and slave, it's a crazy group of people from all walks of life. And they come along and say: oh, Jesus is Lord, and we've got good news. And our good news is about sacrificial love.
So, if I was your therapist now I'd wonder whether you are making an association between the Roman military and the very conservative, bad evangelicals. (Laughs)
Well, I would begin contextually with these first Christians who used this good news, this evangelical word, to say, there's a better way. And it's through serving, it's through humbly giving up yourself and sacrificing and joining the least of these, which to me is just a ... if that's what we're talking about when we use the word evangelical, then I'm in!
Let me just ask the same question in a different way. People like me look to people like you, hoping you're doing something to rescue American evangelicalism from what look like horrors so often. Do you have a sense of that at all? I take the point that you don't Google your name, but do you have a sense of what you stand for in the midst of American evangelicalism?
Um. People are very kind and encouraging and they say really, really nice things, so I'm overwhelmed with that.
Secondly, do you know how many evangelical leaders say things to me like, hey I love what you're doing, but I can't publically say it or I'll get fired? So when people who are known for being part of a movement start saying, I have real questions about this and I love what you're doing, elements of that movement are in trouble.
I think we have a large number of people in America who have evangelical roots who are more alive spiritually than ever, and more bouyant and hopeful about the future, like me. And we are grateful for our roots but we have rethought lots of things and we are more thrilled than every about where we are headed, and we are committed to telling the good news. And that sort of fearful, angry whatever rhetoric simply isn't compelling. And I actually think it is less... people... when people are scared they're louder. You generally yell fire in a theatre, you don't whisper it, if you're scared. I think it's a bit out of proportion.
I think that's a good place to end. Thank you.
Thursday, April 18 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, April 18 2013, 07:53
I spoke with Rob Bell Monday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London (pictured above). I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Here's part three of the interview, which I think gets to the heart of the new book.
I'm going to move you on, watching the time. Coming to the person of Jesus. The book is about what images of God work, how can we speak about God today. And I am wondering whether part of what you're arguing in the book is that we need what is sometimes called the wisdom Jesus or the mystery Jesus, a tradition that's struggled in Christianity because of associations with gnosticism.
The Jesus who speaks in this book of yours does seem to be the one who is the kind of sage, who tells the stories or has the phrases that can unlock something, almost psychologically, so that it helps you to see depth. I felt there's a lot of psychology, depth psychology you might say in the book, in between the lines.
And you are totally correct. This is a stream that a lot of people aren't familiar with. And, the Matthew 25, and the sheep and the goats and they get separated, and when you were hungry, and when you were thirsty, and when you were naked. This story that Jesus tells somehow manages in a lot of circles to be about the end of the world, or judgment, or heaven and hell, but the story seems to me to be about Jesus saying, my people are the kind who are more and more able to see the divine presence in every interaction. Which is a... now that to me is a... now that's powerful, that's helpful. Do ya know what I mean? Maybe in some ways what he is trying to say is, I'm trying to teach you about the divine presence in all your encounters, because it will make your life much more interesting, trust me.
You're correct. Jesus the wisdom teacher, which there's a long tradition of in the Jewish tradition, Jesus the mystic who comes to join you in... these are streams. You're the first person who's picked up on that, and I love it.
Then, there's the question for me, and this is part of the worried Christian in me: does Jesus the person and the emphasis on a direct relationship with Jesus the person, actually limit that Jesus the logos, you might say, that Jesus who is the current that runs through all things, in John's gospel?
Paul says, at one point, he holds all things together, and John speaks of this divine logos through which all things have come to be. What's funny if you actually quote these verses is that there are a number of people from the Christian tradition who are like, wait, wait, wait. Hold on! But when Paul says he holds all things together, or he's reconciling all things. God is reconciling all things on heaven and on earth, these are extremely expansive. Jesus speaks in Matthew 19 of the renewal of all things. These are extremely expansive, broad... I don't know what language you'd use. I mean if you talk about a divine energy that flows through all things, bringing them to their rightful place, or integrating them, people sort of, uh? But I'm not making this up. These first Christians were clearly tapped into that. This Jesus somehow spoke to them about the nature of the universe.
It's Paul's cosmic Christ.
Yes. His cosmic Christ that grace and this mystery permeates and is somehow hidden in all creation which in America, if you read those verses, people would be like, no wait. This is New Age. (He laughs.) I sometimes wonder if people don't engage with certain terms because they can't divorce those terms from some other vaguely similar realm that they heard about, and they say all that's about is that, and it's not.
So how does this sit alongside the person Jesus who, I may get this wrong, but in the evangelical tradition you almost have a one-on-one relationship with?
A phrase he never used, interestingly enough. I mean it's interesting that the phrase personal relationship is not in the Bible, that particular phrase. Right there, we've already added a layer of our own interpretation of, we take all of these different verses and what that means is you've got to have a personal relationship. He does say, people come follow me. And I do as a Christian have a profound sense that each day I'm invited to follow him, I'm invited to trust, I'm invited to surrender, I'm invited to confess. And that's a very deeply personal thing.
And something happens when... ah, well, I just met a guy last week who said, I went to church my whole life and I was actually a very bad man, I wasn't a good father. And about a year ago, all of a sudden it became real. I became aware of love. And I became aware of the sense that life matters and that I'm the recipient of a gift and I had a sense of God's love for me expressed in Jesus, and that I was to follow. And my relationship with my son has been restored, and I'm a totally different person. And he's a very tender, humble man as he's telling me this story. But whatever that is, that's personal.
He said, I went to church - he's Latin American - and the cultural landscape that I grew up in, and he went Saturday nights or whatever time he would go, that's what we did. He's probably 50, mid-50s. And he said, about a year ago, it suddenly meant something to me it had never meant. So whatever baggage is associated with these sorts of terms, I would say that's somebody for whom this all became very personal, real and present.
More tomorrow, on Christianity today...
Wednesday, April 17 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, April 17 2013, 09:16
I spoke with Rob Bell Monday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London (pictured above). I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Here's part two of the interview.
Moving on. I'm very persuaded by the line you have in the book that we live in a world that finds it very hard to see things at depth. Whether it's distractions, we're defended against it, our loss of the ability to talk about what we don't understand - the apophatic in traditional theology. But I wonder about wonder. Wonder is all over the science world. Any popular article or programme about science majors on wonder. But I wonder where we go from there? Or whether it just leaves us with what someone called the rhetoric of intensity, that just goes for more and more peak experiences, playing on the wonder, but it doesn't really take us anywhere. This is a worry that I would have about Christianity. A lot of the growth in Christianity does seem to me to be playing on the peak experience and you have to just keep giving your life to Jesus, because it doesn't really go anywhere else. You go to a big meeting, with lots of high powered music, and you give your life to Jesus again.
You know what my friends and I call this? We call them crack Sundays.
There is an addictive quality to it, this rhetoric of wonder, this intensity.
I actually make a distinction. I haven't actually heard anybody articulate it like you did. In the book, I am trying to articulate a different kind of wonder from the just-give-me-the-next-religious-hit, where the angels come crashing through the ceiling and we all have an endorphin rush as we put money in the offering plate because we have met God this morning. Do you know what I mean?
[Instead] the deep abiding sense of gratitude and amazement for the gift of life in its thousands of manifestations. Do you know what I mean? The people who you and I know and respect, perhaps they're older, who when you are with them, they're moving a little slower. They see. They are tuned into the power of this moment and the thing that just happened, and let's have a meal and doesn't it taste great.
In the book, I'm trying to speak... there's a sort of magic, myth, if we just say the right things, do the right things, chant the right things, then we have this euphoric high and we all go [sings high note], and then actually have to go back to real life. In the book I'm trying to say, I actually think the radical message of the Christian faith is you're growing awareness of the sacred and holy nature of everyday, and the mundane moments that you would have trudged through on your way to the high.
I met a guy recently, a friend introduced me, and he says, what do you do, and he says, I clean houses. You're a house-cleaner. He says, yes. He's wearing like a crisp white polo and tennis shorts and he says, I get to go into people's homes and bring order and cleanliness to their lives. I said, oh my word. These people must be so fortunate to have you. And he's like, no. It's me who's fortunate that I have the kind of work where people will entrust me to make their home a clean orderly place where they can thrive. And it's beautiful, do you know what I mean?
And it's... I think of the story of the monk brother Lawrence, who is peeling potatoes and people are coming from miles and miles around because this man peels potatoes and there is such a sense of presence and love and peace and calm with him that you just can't get enough. To me that's the thing that's going on at the heart of the Christian faith that's kind of missed in a lot of things. In the book I talk about Eucharist, and is the church service when you come in from out of the big bad world to find God, or is [it] the place where your eyes are opened and your senses heightened to the presence of God everywhere else?
Yes. The sacramental everywhere.
And if there's anything we need in the modern world it's help along those lines.
More tomorrow: Rob Bell on Jesus the sage...
Tuesday, April 16 2013
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, April 16 2013, 10:55
I spoke with Rob Bell yesterday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London. I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. About half the book riffs on modern science, and quantum physics in particular. So I started off, asking Rob about that. Here's the first part of my interview.
I first of all wanted to ask you about the science in the book, and I wonder what work the science is being asked to do, if that makes sense. The dominant view in science is that there just isn't a telos or end in science, and the Spirit of religion is very different from the energy of Einstein. I did a physics degree and I feel the pull of modern science, but there are these common slippages that do go on in the science/religion debate. Quantum entanglement is appealed to because it resonates with the sense we're interconnected, but it doesn't show interconnectedness at the human level. It is a powerful metaphor. And then a powerful metaphor slips into a semi-proof.
What I am not trying to do is: see, this is proof! Abraham Joshua Heschel said I don't ask for success, I ask for wonder. And in the book... to me there is great power in, wow! There's some weirdness here. Just the sense of reality: particles disappear in one place and appear in another without travelling the distance in between? This is a much more interesting universe than a lot of us were first taught.
So, one of the things that is a big debate in quantum physics is whether quantum physics has this incredible descriptive power that can make predictions, or whether it does that and tells us about the way world actually is in itself. It's a moot point. If you come from a certain persuasion that sees the interconnectedness anyway, then it's quite easy to run to quantum theory and rely too much on what's actually not clear in science at all.
I think you're phrase, 'if you come form a particular persuasion'... I have no illusions that you can lay out your case and people will go: oh my word, you're right! Do you know what I mean? Like, if you already think this, then you tend to have a lens through which you view things, especially when it comes to God. If you believe there's no God, then generally you're going to run all new external stimuli through that particular lens. Do you know what I mean? That is why I try in the book... to be honest with you, there's a degree of having fun with it.
OK, fair enough.
There's a degree of having fun, and also to me, a degree of... I-don't-know-if-you're-aware-of-it-but-there's-some-really-interesting-truths-about-the-universe. They took apart an atom and they discovered they could take it apart a little more, and then some more, and then when we got in there we found there are clouds of possibilities. That to me is about how the universe is far more interesting and complex, and perhaps you could use the word mysterious. While they even will say, from these clouds of possibilities and predictions, we actually can make microwave ovens and ipods and etc. So, while it's been harnessed for all sorts of good, it still creates to me a more accurate but a more interesting, lyrical, poetic, beautiful, mysterious view of the universe.
So that's the space for the poetry or the mystery of religion?
At some point - like Jeffrey Kluger, writing in Time magazine, about the Higgs boson just says, this is brushing up against the spiritual. Which is a mainstream American magazine saying, the search for the Higgs boson and the implications of this... Like I say in the book, I'm sure lots of quantum physicists would bristle at that, but you cannot talk about an energy that holds all things together or flows without: wow! I was taught, probably like you, that in the modern world there is this hard, cold materiality that we can study and we have repeatability, and there may be this other realm called God.
There are certain rational people who say we have this - physics and biology and we do all that in school, and there may or may not be all this other religious stuff. But this hard materiality in its essence is just weird.
You point to that very well in the book. But what's the weirdness doing for you as a believer?
My experience around the dinner table with very smart agnostics is: come on! We have science and it's all pretty straightforward. But the problem is it is kinda not very straightforward. So there is a sort of dismissive... I'm speaking in the book in very general terms to the person who says, come on, we have all that. But the problem is that the thing you are trusting is way more interesting than you are giving it credit for and it leaves open all sorts of interesting possibilities.
And they say that all the bones of our ancestors could fit in the back of a truck. So we have these grand, hopefully accurate theories about where are origins are, and Lucy and all the bones and that. But if you see all the bones together, we haven't dug up that much. So I just think there is a fundamental thing that you and I were marinated in which is a master's story. We're the master's and just give us enough time and we'll sort this thing out.
The risk is, and I'm playing the sceptic here, is whether you're appealing to a God of the gaps, which I'm sure you don't want to, or whether you're appealing to a God that runs through all things, that underpins all that science can see, there's another depth that the eyes of faith or religious traditions can see. The risk is that you slip into the gaps argument rather than the deeper ontology.
I'm well aware of that, and I'm well aware of lots of people with far more educational experience writing about this much more eloquently, but I go back to: you're at the dinner table with your friends, and your one friend does the dismissive gesture, and I go, wait, wait, wait. I think it's a little more interesting than that. I'm not a scholar, or a biologist, or a scientist, but I do think at the most basic dinner party level, you can hold the door open for a number of people who would tend to close it. Particles do straight things.
More of the interview on wonder, Jesus and Christianity today to follow...
Friday, March 15 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, March 15 2013, 11:18
This piece has just gone up at The School of Life's blog...
It can come as something of a surprise to learn that western religions are not much interested in immortality. Take ancient Judaism, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible. Immortality is hardly mentioned. Humans are said to go to ‘sheol’, a shadowy subterranean abode, or to 'Gehenna', an actual place outside Jerusalem of fiery discomfort. Upon arrival, individuals then drift into a half-life and fade away. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, recommending life here and now, amongst the people of Israel. It is not suggesting that this life is but a foretaste of a life to come.
This much at least, the Hebrews had in common with other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. The afterlife perhaps lasts a little longer for heroes, the ancient Greeks mused, but only because their life force resists inevitable death more strongly.
Only in the East, amongst the religions of India, is there a widespread belief in life after death, manifest in various forms of soul transmigration. Western thinkers like Plato toy with this possibility. In the dialogue called the Phaedo, he has Socrates present arguments for the immortality of the soul. Then, in the Apology, he has Socrates declare he doesn’t know what happens and anyway, if death is annihilation, then there’s nothing to fear because death is, well, nothing.
Ideas shift as BC turns to AD, when a hope of life after death becomes more prominent. But importantly, it is not immortality that is anticipated. Death is still regarded as death. Bodies clearly rot, and having a body matters. This is symbolically represented by the practice of burying corpses in contact with the ground, not in a coffin. Instead, there grows an expectation that death will be conquered. ‘He maketh death to vanish in life eternal,’ says an Orthodox prayer.
This is not about immortality, because if there was a soul that drifted off after death, untouched by the change of state, there would be no need to hope that death might vanish. Instead, what is prayed for is resurrection. There must be a discontinuity between this life and any next life, a radical break known in death. But there is a hope that God will make a new body, as indeed God made the old body, and that through the discontinuity some measure of continuity may be known too – which is to say, we might be recognisably the same person, in some way.
Difference between this life and the next is emphasized because it became clear to the Jews, and then the Christians, that this life needs redeeming. If the afterlife is just more and more of the same, then everlasting life would become by default an everlasting punishment. At the very least, exhaustion and boredom would set it. Immortality is a form of tragedy.
So instead of immortality, what is pondered is eternity. This is a state outside of time – if the word ‘state’ can even be used, since it implies a time-bound existence. And perhaps the notion of eternity gains ground because it feels as if eternity can be glimpsed in the here and now, at least from time to time.
Would 2 plus 2 equal 4 even if the universe and time had never existed, you might ask? If it feels to you that it would, and it is contentious proposition, then perhaps to do mathematics is to touch something eternal. Or there are the aesthetic invocations of eternity that arise from mystical experience. ‘To see the world in a grain of sand… And eternity in an hour,’ contemplated William Blake.
In fact, I wonder whether eternity might be nearer to us than we think. I once spoke with the physicist Roger Penrose about the nature of light. He described how it seems that light does not ‘experience’ time, because that is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light – and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. That would make turning the lights on in the morning something akin to a mystical experience; to being bathed in eternity.
So although you can read and hear all manner of metaphors reaching for the afterlife in Judeo-Christian writings, and some appear to imply immortality, the official line is, no. Death is real. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas are so clear on this fact that he wrote, ‘My soul is not I’.
But perhaps, beyond a discontinuity, lies eternity. We could taste it now. We might know it ‘then’.
Thursday, March 14 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, March 14 2013, 08:00
Excerpts from a feature in last week's Church Times. I think it's about a really quite striking development in understanding of the heart. Modern science, following Descartes mechanistic philosophy, regards the heart as a pump - a very fancy pump, but a pump. But new research suggests that all those old metaphors - heavy-hearted, lifting hearts, the heart as the seat of emotion, courage, insight - might have a physiological basis.
... We talk about being "heavy-hearted" or "downhearted", and, in fact, depression has long been correlated with an increased risk of heart disease. This is a result of many complex factors, including the effects of stress hormones and the suppression of the immune system by depression. But a new link is being made between heart-rate variability and low moods.
New research, pioneered by Professor Stephen Porges at the University of Illinois, in Chicago, suggests that heartbeat responsiveness is a good predictor of emotional health. The child who has a heart that can react dynamically to, say, a father's mocking, or a mother's criticism, is likely to be more emotionally resilient as an adult. In other words, a heavy heart - if by "heavy" is meant the felt sense of being emotionally unresponsive - has literally to do with depression.
This much is perhaps not so surprising. We all know that our heart races when we are shocked or excited. Taking a deep breath calms us down because it calms the heart. But consider the work of Professor Hugo Critchley and Dr Sarah Garfinkel at the University of Sussex. They have shown that individuals are better at recognising scary-looking faces flashing before them when their hearts are in the systole or contracting phase of beating.
Other research suggests that the heart helps to mediate the fine-tuning of various emotional capacities, such as empathy. Such findings resonate with the notion of "embodied cognition" - the evidence that our bodies as well as our brains are engaged in the generation and processing of thoughts and feelings (Comment, 1 February).
There is also an area of research being conducted by Professor David Paterson of Oxford University, among others. He studies what is coming to be known as the "heart's brain" - the network of neurons that surround parts of the heart. It seems that these neurons have autonomous processing power. They do not merely pass on signals from the brain. The implication is that the brain and the heart work in tandem, not as master and slave...
These new insights are emerging because the technology now exists to study more than just the musculature of the heart. It seems, at the very least, that the heart can recall and compute responses to its immediate surroundings, as well as cater for the needs of other parts of the body, such as the limbs.
When you remember that the human body is constantly awash with sensorimotor patterns and pulses - the heart itself, breathing, digestion in the gut, physical gesticulations, and locomotion - it starts to look plausible to think of the heart as the centre of a dynamic, interactive system that helps to make sense of things. If this embraces our emotional lives, then it includes our intellectual and spiritual lives, too, since these elements of understanding cannot easily be separated from one another...
Friday, March 8 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, March 8 2013, 07:55
Was on Night Waves last night, talking about Love: All That Matters, and it demonstrated how widespread are the presumed conclusions of pop-evolution. So, one of my learned co-panelists described love as pretty simple because, well, it's biology. He was referring, I guess, to the idea that love is the illusion that evolution deploys to keep us together whilst we raise those gene-carriers we all the kids.
In fact, the origins of sexual reproduction are 'hidden in darkness' according to Richard Dawkins. No explanations are 'knock-down convincing'. The fact is that most living creatures do not reproduce via some kind of sexual exchange, and a supposed sexual selection when it apparently occurs actually fits uneasily with observed behaviour: the peacock with the fanciest tail does not always get the peahen.
In the book, I toy with the possibility that sexual congress does not serve a primarily reproductive function but a social bonding one. Sexual reproduction hitches a ride on the back of that, not the other way round. It is the spandrel. In short, love is not simple - not biological - if that is code for breeding. It is what take it to be: love.
Wednesday, March 6 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, March 6 2013, 06:52
A piece on the art of saying sorry went up at the Guardian's Cif yesterday. It had a slightly tortuous hook, but here's the main point.
You will be able to recall a parent leaning over you and commanding you to say sorry – perhaps to Auntie Maude on the day you spilt blackcurrant juice over her white tablecloth. The truth is that you did not feel sorry at all. You were bored sitting in her front room. Nonetheless, you forced the S-word through your lips because you had no choice – and it was fury, not regret, that accompanied your muttering. Presumably such an upbringing led PG Wodehouse to make a personal note: "It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them."
That's the trouble with demanding an apology. Intention is all, and when it is not given freely, the meaning becomes confused and probably lost.
Then again, if you were a smart child you probably learned to twist your apologies to your advantage. Most parents will have heard their loved ones treating the word sorry as a shortcut to getting what they want, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Sorry, Mummy. Can I go out now?" In this kind of scenario the power dynamics are reversed. Sorry becomes a too easy word to say because it gives apologisers the upper hand and enables them to redirect things to what they want. Oscar Wilde knew that trick: "I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose."
In fact, I wonder whether there is ever such a thing as a clear and genuine apology that is transformative and healing. A case that is discussed amongst therapists concerns a young girl who was hospitalised for various life-threatening psychological complaints. A nurse heard her murmuring, "Say you're sorry. Say you're sorry." In response, a doctor replied, "I am sorry. I am very, very sorry," and others in the room joined in with the refrain. The impact upon the child was remarkable and almost instantaneous. Within a week she had recovered.
It seemed to be a case capturing the magic of an apology. But a few years later, things again started going wrong for the girl, now a teenager. She was hospitalised and then spent several years as an outpatient until what was really troubling her was discovered. It turned out that the S-word served only to bury her problems more deeply.
Then again, a world in which no one ever said sorry is a bleak one to contemplate. Perhaps, then, a good apology is a temporary measure. It can relieve a tricky situation for a while by unfreezing things and allowing relationships some flow. The mistake is to believe that is the end of the story. What sorry might create is the time and space for considering more deeply what went wrong.
Friday, March 1 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, March 1 2013, 10:06
I think the relationship between science and religion is changing, as I tried to say in an article in the Church Times. A new dialogue seems possible not so much with the physical sciences, where the lines of engagement seem pretty fixed for good and ill, but with the human sciences.
'The most exciting work in the future looks likely to be interdisciplinary,' explains Michael Welker, professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg and one of the principle players in the field. Moreover, rather than considering general questions about how science and religion might relate to one another - whether they should be in conflict or alternatively operate as 'nonoverlapping magisteria', each looking at the world in different ways - it seems that focusing on specific problems is likely to bring experts in different fields into fruitful dialogue.
Take, for example, the issue of our continuity and discontinuity as persons - the difficulty of accounting for the fact that materially we are not the same biological creatures as we were even a few weeks ago, and yet life feels connected and everyone from your mother to a judge will treat you as the same person that you were even years ago.
Some of Aristotle's speculations about the nature of the human person, explored by Thomas Aquinas too, might be of use here. He argued that the soul is the 'form of the body'. It is a kind of dynamic pattern or animating basis to which the biological flesh conforms. Compare that with the understanding that is emerging in modern biology. 'What links us together is not matter itself but the continuously developing, almost infinitely complex, "information-bearing pattern" carried at any one time by the matter that then makes up my body', Polkinghorne writes Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. 'I believe that it is this information-bearing pattern that is the human soul.' The ancient notion looks not unlike the modern one. Hence the possibility of fruitful exchange...
In terms of the relationship between science and religion, this is a big change. No longer would theology be 'catching up' with scientific innovation. Instead, when faced with focused questions such as what it is to be human, the two would be on a level playing field. Both could contribute to the conversation, and both would have to recognize the inherent limitations of their insights. Such epistemological modesty neutralizes the fight over which discipline is the best arbiter of truth, and all in the interests of thorough and open-minded debate.
Thursday, February 14 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, February 14 2013, 18:01
This is a slightly longer version of the article that has gone up at the Guardian's Cif belief...
Religious and spiritual sorts tend to bang on about love. God is love, some say. Practice the art of loving-kindness, others commend. And I've found it hard to know what sense to make of these sentiments. They can so easily lose weight and meaning in a thousand repetitions. Or there is the claim that love reveals and is the fundamental truth of reality. What can be made of that in a scientific age?
Then, I started to read up on developmental psychology, whilst writing a book about love. It seems to me that the modern science illuminates the older, religious claims.
Psychologists and psychotherapists as diverse as Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott seem to say that we learn about love in roughly three stages. Our first love is narcissistic - not an entirely pleasant thought, though behaving as if we were the only creature of importance in the world is necessary for our early survival. Freud talked of His Majesty the Baby.
Neonates are lovable and tyrannical. Winnicott showed that the good-enough parent is not perfect but is capable of being devoted to their child, especially in the early weeks. The aim is to instill a feeling that life can be trusted because, on the whole, it delivers what the child needs, physically and emotionally. A sense of wellbeing grows in the young body. It provides the basis for the kind of self-love that enables you to get over yourself and feel comfortable in your own skin. The myth of Narcissus conveys a similar insight. The problem the beautiful youth had was not that he loved himself too much, but that he couldn't love himself.
Narcissism might be called the love of one, and love between two follows next. It is a step into the unknown. It's frightening to awaken to the realization that you are dependent upon another - a parent, in the child's case; a partner, in the adult equivalent: romantic love. But the upside is that life expands. To be one of two promises deeper delights and wider horizons than narcissism can embrace.
There is an assumption that dyadic love, also called falling in love, is the pinnacle of lovely experiences. But it is only the midpoint of the story according to developmental psychology. The next step comes with a secure enough attachment, as Bowlby put it. Equipped with such trust, the child is able to explore the world - to take tentative steps away from the cosy twosome.
It can enter what has usefully been called a triangular space. There's me, there's Mum or Dad, and now there's something else - a third dimension known in the reality of siblings, friends, interests, goals, a current of life that runs independently of me, though I'm somehow part of it. Again, taking that step is alarming, possibly traumatic. However, if negotiated OK, life becomes richer again, and more risky, and the individual's perception of reality grows.
So what does this have to do with God and love? Well, first, consider Plato. He argued that love has an epistemological dimension because of the way it draws our perceptions up a ladder of illumination. We find ourselves on one rung, lower down, and spend some time steadying ourselves with the view. Then, having gained our balance, we are inclined to look up. There's another rung, and an urge to step up. It is an unsettling, possibly frightening, experience. It is more comfortable to stay where you are. But with the right support, another view is gained.
The process can repeat itself, Plato proposed, until a moment is reached when the view that appears is nothing less than a beatific vision. It is as if we have momentarily taken in all that life and reality are. Plato called it the beautiful and the true. Believers call it God. The point is that love resources the ascent. It is a dynamic view of love that is remarkably commensurate with developmental psychology.
A second way of thinking about this dynamic is more simply put. At each transition - from one to two, from two to the triangular space - the individual realizes is that love was already there waiting for him or her. Narcissistic self-absorption relaxes with the realization that I am held in the love of another. Lovers move from falling in love to standing in love, to recalled Erich Fromm's phrase.
The life of faith detects that there is a fourth dimension to add to this third, a divine love that is there waiting. It holds all because it is the source of the love that flows through all. Fear and uncertainty do not cease. Human love always feels a bit like that. But faith is the felt sense that love can be trusted because love is, in truth, the ground of reality.
Wednesday, February 13 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, February 13 2013, 15:21
A small collection of articles just online, because tomorrow is 14th February...
BBC Magazine - Viewpoint: Down with romantic love
Aeon Magazine - What is love?
Third Way - In defence of Narcissus
Wednesday, January 9 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, January 9 2013, 10:10
This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif. I took part in a discussion about the same research last night on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves too...
People who are "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to suffer poor mental health, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King of University College London and his colleagues examined 7,400 interviews with folk in Britain, of whom 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% a spiritual one and 46% neither a religious nor spiritual outlook. The analysis led to one clear conclusion. "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]." The work supports evidence from other studies too.
All the usual weaknesses associated with asking individuals about religion are at play here, as the authors acknowledge. Nonetheless, the study prompts a number of speculations.
The spiritual itch is a deep one in the human psyche, for those who feel it. To scratch without the support of others might lead to an inner obsession that spirals out of control. It is possible, too, that personal crises drive people to seek spiritual solace that of itself does not address the underlying psychological distress. Then again, the resources of a healthy spiritual tradition, not pursued in isolation, should provide or point to the means of addressing psychological problems. The ground is then gradually cleared for genuine spiritual growth.
This raises another question, though. Do religious organisations in the UK today take enough notice of the insights of psychology and, conversely, do schools of therapy treat spirituality seriously? As the Cambridge psychologist and priest Fraser Watts explored in a recent talk, American therapists, for example, seem to be far happier talking about their clients' spiritual concerns than their British counterparts.
This must highlight broader cultural differences. In the US, religion tends to carry associations of freedom. I remember an American priest once saying to me, when I expressed amazement at the prevalence of religiosity in the US, that Americans came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. The two words "religion" and "freedom" naturally go together in the American psyche.
In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs: individuals are not just not coming to church, some are becoming mentally ill as a result of religious failure.
Other results from the research are striking too, though similarly not determinative. People with no religious or spiritual understanding were significantly younger and more often white British, but were less likely to have qualifications beyond secondary school, perhaps challenging research purporting to show that atheists are more intelligent.
Another finding of this work was that those who were neither religious nor spiritual had just as good mental health as those the religious. This contradicts a notion widely held in positive psychology that religion is good for happiness (though that positive correlation typically derives from North American evidence.)
Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can "do God" on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life. To be spiritual but not religious might be said to be like embarking on an extreme sport while refusing the support of safety procedures and the wisdom of experts who have made the jump before. Spirituality is like love: more risky than you can countenance when you're falling for it.
Friday, January 4 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, January 4 2013, 09:30
This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Comment is free...
Every year, I "give" an award to the Most Despised Science Book of the Year. The 2010 award went to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for What Darwin Got Wrong. In 2011, Ray Tallis won with Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.
My runner-up this time is Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion, though in fact it had a strikingly decent reception for a book also critiquing scientistic dogmatism.
So the winner for 2012 must be Thomas Nagel, for his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.
Steven Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker". Jerry Coyne blogged: "Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga", which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel's gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.
Disparagement is particularly unfair, though, because the book is a model of carefulness, sobriety and reason. If reading Sheldrake feels daring, Tallis thrilling and Fodor worthwhile but hard work, reading Nagel feels like opening the door on to a tidy, sunny room that you didn't know existed. It is as if his heart said to his head, I can't help but feel that materialist reductionism isn't right. And his head said to his heart, OK: let's take a fresh look. So what caused the offence?
Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.
There it is. The t-word – a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: "There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done." But has it? This is the moot point.
The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain. Read Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson's measured piece on the reaction Nagel's book sparked, published in Prospect. The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will "appear absurd" or "strange", he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn't quite continue, and consider the arguments.
I'm considering some of them with Rupert Sheldrake in a series of podcasts, if you'll forgive the plug. But it is striking that they can be aired in relatively kosher scientific circles too. A recent example is Paul Davies's bestseller, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so. The upshot is that Davies himself favours a universe that contains a "life principle".
So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists? It may be that they are used to the basic assumptions of their science being regularly overturned. Biology, though, has had a very good run since 1859. Questioning their science feels like a form of self-sabotage and dangerous. Hence, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, reviewing Nagel for the Nation, evoked the spectre of supernaturalism; and Simon Blackburn, reviewing for the New Statesman, jested that "if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index".
That was written tongue-in-cheek, but it is a purity argument no less. As Mary Douglas pointed out, secular societies still draw symbolic boundaries to keep the permissible in and threatening stuff out. Those who cross them risk expulsion. The media ritual of the public review offers a mechanism.
As Freeman Dyson recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, contemporary philosophers bow too low to science, mostly because they haven't done any, and have simultaneously lost touch with the elements that made their predecessors so great: the truths held by history, literature, religion. The 2012 award is well earned. We need those prepared to face the flak.
Tuesday, December 4 2012
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, December 4 2012, 15:35
This piece just went up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...
The earliest extended stoic text to survive the passage of time is a hymn to Zeus. It was written by Cleanthes, the second head of the school, in the third century BCE. The mighty god is summoned as "most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful".
But it is not just a hymn of high praise. Within it threads the fundamental element of stoic thought that underpins the exercises and practices, psychology and cosmology celebrated this week by the organisers of Stoic Week. Without this thread, Cleanthes felt that stoicism makes no sense and, worse, might lead you astray.
It was called the logos – using one of those extraordinarily rich Greek terms that can be translated as word, discourse, reason, activity and principle. The logos, Cleanthes remembers, "moves through all creation". It is the wellspring of unity, direction, purpose. The wretched flee the logos, he continues, and their alienation from it is the cause of their suffering. Because they do not know the logos in their lives they instead seek fame, money, pleasure for pleasure's sake, all manner of passing things that sweep them along and actually destroy what human beings truly wish for. The result is a troubled life of ignorance. "If they obey the logos intelligently, they would have the good life," the hymn continues.
It is striking, then, that Stoic Week makes no reference to the logos (unless a moment of revelation has yet to come on the blog). Presumably that is because the philosophers and therapists behind the experiment feel either that the theological aspect is irrelevant today or that it would distract from the usefulness of the stoic practices that aim to build resilience, gratefulness and aspiration. But I think it is a vital issue to raise.
The ancient stoic training was an attempt to orient the whole of life to the logos. Chrysippus, the third head of the school and one of the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world, used the metaphor of a cylinder rolling down a hill. Life is like that. There is nothing you can do to change it. What you can do is learn "to go with the flow", as opposed to resisting the bumps and shocks.
But why should you go with the flow, one of his young disciples might have asked? Because the flow can be trusted, Chrysippus would have replied. It is the action of the logos. It is mysterious, yes; often painful, yes. But ultimately benign. And if life were not providential, you are right: it would be more noble to resist it all the way.
In other words, the stoic notion of flow was a kind of devotion, an offering of yourself. Cultivating the right inner attitude was absolutely crucial to the good life stoicism promised. Practise stoicism for self-serving reasons, as instrumentally driven therapies and self-help might encourage, and you risk alienating yourself further.
Think about it this way. It is often remarked that ancient stoicism is close to modern CBT. That undoubtedly offers people timely help. But only some, it seems. Longitudinal testing of CBT appears to be suggesting the benefits are short-lived. I wonder whether Chrysippus might help explain why: does CBT unwittingly encourage the delusion of living out of your own strength, he might ask?
Stoicism was the most successful of the ancient Athenian schools. What is perhaps not much appreciated now is that it is, in a way, alive and kicking to this day. When the first Christians searched for resources to try to understand what they had encountered in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, stoic insights made tremendous sense.
St Paul felt that his experience of the divine was like that of the stoics. "For in him we live and move and have our being," he taught, explaining he was quoting from stoic philosophers. St John was so impressed that he argued Jesus was the incarnation of the logos, celebrated in the opening line of his gospel: "In the beginning was the word." Practices such as saying grace before meals, or giving thanks for the day at night-time, are stoic.
Is it too cheeky to suggest that if you want to practise stoicism today, you might start in a church?
Sunday, November 18 2012
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, November 18 2012, 19:14
This is a slightly longer version of a piece that is up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...
Are our centuries of technological innovation remolding us culturally? Are we becoming a new species, spiritually speaking, so that the inner lives of future generations will seem as strange and elusive as Paleolithic man's is to us? Are we living in a new axial age?
The question is posed in a collection of essays, edited by the American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah. With his colleague, Hans Joas, The Axial Age and Its Consequences probes the implications of this thesis in the history of ideas, first named by the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers.
The first Axial Age, it is said, ran across the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE. It marked a transformative time in human experience, broadly accepted now by sociologists of religion, which can be summarized as an inward turn and a discovery of transcendence. So, in this period the Hebrew prophets declared that God was more concerned with attitudes of heart than with bloody rituals in the Temple. Not long after, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - that extraordinary procession of master and pupil - "brought philosophy down from the heavens": they were gripped by the nature of the human condition. The Buddha probably lived at the same time as Socrates, attempting reform of the religions of India by his attention to human suffering and desire. Confucianism and Daoism were born too, creating between them a rich dialectic of humanist rationalism and spiritual non-rationalism in China.
"To generalize is to be an idiot," observed William Blake in a presumably self-conscious generalization. So duly warned, are ours axial times too?
Jaspers noted that in the period around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth blossomed "superstition in manifold guises, doctrines of salvation of the most extraordinary kinds, circles gathered round peripatetic preachers, therapists, poets and prophets, in an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion..." Sound familiar? Further, continued Jaspers, this riotous marketplace of ideas eroded the moral substructure of society: enjoyment was pursued for its own sake, and slaves, the poor and the vanquished were left to rot. It took Christianity to replace the chaos with vision and purpose - Christianity being one way of consolidating and operationalizing the Hebrew and Greek insights of the first Axial Age.
But if "an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion" marks our times too, then there seems to be no new Christianity to guide our way, observes Richard Madsen in his essay in the new book. Is there a contemporary faith that might refresh "the deep matrix from which we sprang", as Jaspers put it?
We need to be careful with the word "faith" here. It is not what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, calls "expressive spirituality", of which there is plenty today, based on the conviction that each one of us must create an authentic and individual source of consolation, dreams and self-realization. Expressive spirituality actually breeds dislocation and feeds the chaos. Even less is faith about being cognitively persuaded to adopt a creed: the head cannot reach "the deep matrix" and so its convictions, when they lack heart, feel empty.
Rather, the faith that can energize and organize people is what Jaspers defines as "the fulfilling and moving element in the depths of man, in which man is linked, above and beyond himself." It is for such a connection that Barack Obama reaches in his most soaring rhetoric, though he can't also help raise the question of whether it's enough to save the Union? Hence the suspicion that we need a new axial age.
Madsen notes that the original axial movements emerged on the margins of powerful empires. Only at the edges of societies and institutions might you find the kind of balance between playfulness with inherited traditions, and respect for them too, that can re-tap the axial energy and transmit it in ways that are once again meaningful.
Examples do, in fact, abound Madsen avers. He highlights the emergence of forms of socially engaged Buddhism in Taiwan. The founder of one, Buddha's Light Mountain, has written: "I do not unconditionally follow tradition. I do not toy with the idea of emptiness and talk in vain about abstruse things. I do not consciously accept the opinion of the majority. Instead, I constantly review our tradition, observe, and think about the future of Buddhism. I keep on reappraising values as I grow."
In the Christian tradition, Madsen finds inspiration in South Korea and its "vigorous minjung (people's) Christian theology, which mixes some of the expansionist passion of evangelical Christianity with the concern for social justice of ecumenical Christianity." In the West, Madsen points to Taizé, the Sant'Egidio community and the Sojourners.
Practical wisdom and spiritual vitality is sought in these movements. They are flexible, unlike fundamentalist religious movements, because their way of life is orientated not around protecting doctrines but around the struggle to be faithful to the deepest principles of their tradition. They also strive imaginatively to communicate their "findings". And they engage in critical dialogue with other traditions, a dialogue energized more by the exchange of ideas than the claim to power.
Crucially too for plural times, axial movements recognise that truth ultimately lies beyond any one group. That is the insight of the transcendent turn from the first Axial Age. An axial faith holds things sacred and makes a genuine commitment to one tradition because of, not in spite of, the recognition that human beings are linked to that which is "above and beyond " all.
Friday, October 26 2012
By Mark Vernon on Friday, October 26 2012, 16:49
This piece is now on the Guardian's Comment is free belief site...
Spirituality has always been associated with the quest for health. Camberwell in south London, I recently learned, derives its name from a healing well frequented by those who were "cambered", or physically disabled. But it is only a scientific age that would seek to distil causal links between a spiritual practice and its physical effects, and perhaps also be concerned to exorcise any metaphysical excess.
The discussion of the benefits of practices traditionally associated with religions is firmly on the secular agenda. The new edition of the Handbook of Religion and Health lists more than 3,000 published studies. Research on forgiveness and gratitude alone has increased by an order of magnitude since the turn of the millennium.
Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, has gathered evidence to show that gratitude has psychological benefits, sustains physical wellbeing and feeds human relationships. He also believes there is an important spiritual side to the virtue, as gratitude cultivates a sense of fulfilment in life by nurturing the sense of dependency on others and God.
Or consider forgiveness. A significant cultural reassessment of this virtue seems under way: it is now taken less as a sign of weakness and more of inner strength. "Genuine forgiveness is important in transforming relations, just as confession, apology and repentance are. Forgiveness is connected to other virtues, like empathy and justice," adds Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, professor of psychology at Hope College, Michigan. She is also keen to stress that forgiveness is not about forgetting the damage of the offence, but is interested in the wellbeing of the offender.
Researchers emphasise that the links between spirituality and wellbeing need much further study. "Do we really know what it is about what sort of religion, spirituality or belief that enhances health?" asks Stephen Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping and moderator of a recent conference that addressed these issues, Spiritual Progress and Human Flourishing. His answer is no, but "progress is being made".
Teaching spirituality and health is also being promoted. In August, Oxford University Press published a textbook for public health professionals, The Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare. Christina Puchalski of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, and one of the book's editors, argues that healthcare improvements have been driven by technology. "What is unfortunately missing is a relationship-centred compassionate approach," she argues, "and that's the foundation of spirituality in healthcare."
And the burgeoning interest raises theological questions too. Another book, published in September by the Templeton Press, asks whether healthcare risks turning faith into a medical commodity. Healing To All Their Flesh: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Spirituality, Theology, and Health, worries that, while research on religion and health is now acceptable, it may be distorting. As Jeff Levin, one of the book's editors, writes in the prologue: "Religion is just more grist for the mill of structural-equation models, survival analyses, logistic regressions and the like."
In other words, there is a lack of theoretical and theological reflection in the field and that matters for two reasons. One is scientific. Levin continues: "A medical researcher would never conduct a study of the health impact of, say, environmental toxins or nutritional status or social support without first consulting an environmental toxicologist or a nutritionist or a sociologist who could expertly identify what questions to ask, what hypotheses to frame, and, once data were collected, how to analyse the data and then how to interpret findings. Yet, in studies of religion and health, this is done all the time; it is probably the norm. This is foolish, irresponsible and self-defeating."
Second, it matters at a human level. Could there be something cruel in "prescribing" a spiritual practice as if it were a pill because of the implications for the patient when the supposed "remedy" fails to work? What is not being asked is what religious traditions actually teach about the link between faith and health – a question that might then lead to others, like how the status of the spirit matters for the functioning of the body?
After all, it seems likely that the wellbeing gained from religious practices would be indirect. The believer who says grace at the start of a meal does not do so to be happy but to thank God. Alternatively, and reflecting on Julian Baggini's interesting article on atheists fasting, celebrating a newfound control of the appetites could confuse the means with the end: spiritually speaking, fasting is about expanding an individual's range of interests so that they can move beyond material concerns.
Spirituality and health are both great goods. But confusing the two brings risks. It might load individuals already anxious about their lifestyles with yet more burdens. And it could stymie the spiritual transformation of the person.
Wednesday, October 10 2012
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, October 10 2012, 16:35
The BBC Magazine has an edited transcript of my Four Thought on narcissism being broadcast this evening, at 8.45pm. Here's an excerpt from the edit...
Perhaps our understanding of ourselves has become too individualistic, too mechanical. We worry about autonomy more than connection, about freedom over commitment, about individual rights more than the common good.
It's as if the default image that the Western mind has of itself is the billiard ball. We jostle and bounce off each other for fear of touching and holding one another. Could the wariness of the word narcissism be because our culture is secretly, unhealthily, narcissistic? That's why we retreat from the word.
The quest for the perfect body repeats Narcissus's fate in that it's absorbed with the image on the surface. It's caught at the level of the ephemeral and becomes stuck in the shallows. Such an individual cannot see the depths of another's soul because they have never gazed into the depths of their own soul.
The Rowntree report concludes that claims made for interventions that can solve problems of self-esteem should be viewed warily. Short-term interventions are particularly suspect. It takes time, like the time it takes to raise a human child. Also, the kind of self-love that enables human beings to flourish cannot be demanded or programmed. It must be given to us as a gift, like the mother who gives her child the capacity to love others by loving her child herself.
Such love is empty if it's not a personal exchange. Manualised attempts at therapy, the kind that teach exercises and procedures like telling yourself that you are lovable, lack the very quality that is most needed and desired. Relationship matters.
So there's no easy way out of this predicament, though perhaps a more careful analysis of self-love provides some insight and hope. The work of Freud and the psychotherapists who have developed and critiqued his insights and methods provides a key resource. The story of Narcissus does too.
In the Narcissus myth, the flower first grew where the young man fell
It appears to end badly. The beautiful young man realises that the image in the water is a reflection of himself. He then realises that he cannot break the habit. The only way out is to die.
But where the body of Narcissus had wasted away, a flower appears - a narcissus, a soft yellow bloom. What the myth suggests is that early narcissism must die and sink into the ground of our being where it can feed us like the soil does the flower. This happens when the young infant has a good enough parent. Our primary carers do at first comply with our illusion that we are His Majesty the Baby. But only so we can then take the risk to overcome the illusion.