Monday, March 31 2014

Dream on...

The new edition of Third Way is out now, including a piece I've penned on dreams

Here's an infrequently heard, possibly risky-sounding proposition. Dreams are integral to our experience of God. They are not just pleasant, confusing, disturbing, and/or arresting nocturnal interruptions, of little meaning beyond weirdly echoing the fantasies and fears of our own unsettled psyches. Rather, they can convey insights and intimations, communications and knowledge of our relationship to the divine.

If that does sound spiritually off-piste, and I suspect it does outside of some charismatic circles, then our Christian forebears clearly thought differently. There are hundreds of references to dreams and dreaming in the Bible, from famous ones such as Jacob's ladder and the Magi's warning, to promises that life in the Spirit includes the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams. Abraham, Joseph, Samuel, Saul, Pilate's wife and Paul are amongst those stirred by significant dreams.

But a clear warning note is heard amongst these Biblical references. Joseph tells Pharaoh's officials that dream interpretation is "God's business". Jeremiah is particularly vexed by dreamers. "The prophets say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?... Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain? declares the Lord."

The caution is reflected amongst the early church fathers too. They felt dreams could be predictive and prophetic, though human beings are as readily deceived by them. Tertullian drew up an influential distinction between dreams emanating from God and those emanating from the Devil. Discernment of dreams was therefore crucial. A wrong interpretation could imperil your soul. Sexual dreams, for example, fell squarely into the latter category. When John Cassian came to write about the transformations of monastic life, one of his tests of a true conversion of heart was no longer having lustful dreams. They are involuntary, he reasoned, and so the monk who ceases to have them must truly now be living in God. But sexual content is only one indicator of whether a dream is to be trusted or not, and erotic fantasies are also distinguished by, of course, being easy to spot - unlike the many other seductive wiles of demons.

The worries of desert fathers and conservative bishops can appear anachronistic. But at heart, their insights are sound. Discernment is of the essence because whilst dreams are valuable, they are also routinely caught up in the conflicts and tensions of the dreamer's mind - one way in which today we might understand references to dreams originating with demons and the Devil. If you have a dream in which you appear as a divine figure, say, someone who is spiritually powerful or capable of transcending the laws of nature, this is probably about your own grandiose or omnipotent fantasies, not signs of a calling from God.

But the art of discernment has had a new lease of life in our times, which is one reason the place of dreams in spiritual life is due a revival. In short, twenty-first century dreamers can gain from two twentieth century innovations: developmental psychology and depth psychology. The first tells us more than has ever before been known about the difficulties of early life, and how they can play on into adult life. Dreams are one route to gaining enlightenment about how the years we don't remember remain active in our minds. The second, depth psychology, tells us about that part of ourselves of which we're not very conscious and yet which still constrains and limits, even determines, our habits and personalities, our experiences and hopes. Understand that better, and all sorts of untapped potentials might be released.

The twentieth century innovations were kicked off with the new "science" of dreams proposed by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He famously remarked that dreams are the "royal road to the unconscious" and in his best-selling book, The Interpretation of Dreams, announces that whilst dreams have confused and deluded countless generations, he now can reveal their secrets. Freud actually got the specifics wrong, most psychotherapists now agree. But his achievement was to put dreams firmly back on the maps that might guide us in life so that we can face our demons and, believers might add, be assisted in finding a path back to God.

Though now contested, it is helpful to begin with Freud because his ideas have seeped into the zeitgeist. He argues that dreams serve a purpose, that of helping us sleep: if a dream wakes you up, your dreaming has failed. He thought that we need dreams to sleep for much the same reason that we develop neurotic habits to help us through our waking hours. I worry about the whereabouts of my cats, or whether I locked the front door, or I play with my hands when sitting still, because those distractions are preferable to the deeper distress that they veil. If the true anguish of my struggles, which I've been engaged with from birth or perhaps before, were to impinge upon my day to day existence then life would become intolerable. To put it the other way round, when life does become unbearable because of anxiety or depression or other forms of mental ill-health, that is, in a sense, because my little ticks and worries have failed to hold things together.

Dreams attempt the same during the night. They try to keep buried the profoundly disturbing thoughts and feelings that tend to have more power during the dark hours, when we are less defended, more vulnerable. For the most part, they succeed. But when your sleep is routinely disturbed, or nightmares wake you with a start, it may be a sign that your hard won mechanisms of self-protection are becoming fragile or brittle. Such experiences might precipitate seeking help.

Freud thought that dreams then offer clues. The individual stories of disturbance they tell might be of use, because within the details of your dreams will be concealed patterns that reflect your unconscious trouble. One of Freud's famous dreams demonstrates how. It concerns a young widow, Irma. She was a patient of Freud and friend of the family. In Freud's dream, Irma attends a reception. Freud there reproaches her for not accepting his "solution", and she complains of pains in her throat, chest and stomach. Freud looks into her mouth and diagnoses an infection. He concludes that a colleague of his, Dr Otto, had given Irma an injection with a dirty syringe. Then Freud awoke.

He wrote many pages in his dream book analyzing the meaning of this fantasized encounter. He concluded that the dream represented a wish he had that Irma's complaints were not his responsibility, but could be passed to his colleague, Otto. This notion of dreams fulfilling wishes is the touchstone of Freud's theory. He felt that understanding a dream revealed secret desires or wishes that our conscious selves would prefer us not to have. One aim of psychoanalysis is to reverse engineer dreams and discover what they are attempting, but failing, to conceal.

His book is a fascinating read, hence entering the zeitgeist. The only trouble is that not many followers of Freud today go along with the wish-fulfillment idea. The big problem is that most dreams that wake us are clearly not of this kind. A traumatic dream, in which we repeat perhaps many times an experience of being attacked or of crashing, achieves the opposite: the wish is to forget the trauma and yet the dream persistently, painfully reminds us of it. An anxious dream, in which we find ourselves exposed in public or unable to run for the train, performs similarly. It prompts more apprehension, not less. So today, psychoanalysts are more likely to assume that dreams offer symbolic or narrative representations of whatever is troubling the patient. They capture a psychic disturbance or developmental deficit in a vivid, felt way.

Further, it is usually thought that different figures in the dream do not represent different people in real life but instead represent different aspects of the person having the dream. The dream uses individuals encountered during the day to stand in for qualities that belong to, or are sought by, the dreamer. You might dream of the man who was rude and abrupt as you left the supermarket yesterday because his behaviour chimed with a part of you that can be short and angry, but about which you'd prefer to forget. Your beautiful colleague with the comforting curves may feature in your dreams because you long, unawares, to be more in touch with a softer side of your rather independent and aloof public persona. The message is that next time you dream of an enemy taking a blow or worse, don't wake happy; examine yourself. Your projective powers are highly likely to eclipse any predictive capabilities.

The art of dream interpretation did not stop with Freud and his followers. Complementing them is another interpretative model, one that is increasingly influential today, and even more conducive to those with a theistic sensibility. It was first developed by Freud's erstwhile colleague, Carl Jung.

If, for Freud, dreams attempt at concealing, for Jung dreams are communications. Jung thought we dream, not in order to stay asleep, but because our conscious life lacks something. The dream conveys that lack, and we dream because the psyche has a potent capacity to try to heal itself. It is always struggling to do so. It wills to make us whole. For the spiritually-minded, Jung provides a dream model that allows us to understand both how our troubled past distorts our view of things now, and how the resources of our inner life might transform us by gradually expanding our personalities and developing our capacities in ways that currently elude, frighten, and/or seem impossible to us.

A first step is to recognise that the language of dreams is the language of symbols. The point about symbols is that they move us beyond the understanding of life that we might gain from empirical evidence or rational investigation. A biologist may look at an oak tree and see a member of the genus Quercus. But the mighty oak becomes a symbol when it conveys strength, rootedness and longevity too. Or I may catch sight of the sun. The astronomer sees an average star that is different only because it is close to us. But our star is also a symbol representing spiritual light, new life or radiant beauty - which must have been why the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun as Ra. Similarly, water, books, doors, running, mothers, lovers, crosses, spires - in fact, pretty much anything can become a symbol. To be human is, in a way, to be the creature who can look at the world and not fail to see all sorts of meanings and purposes imprinted upon that world.

Alongside sacred texts and thin places, rituals and poems, symbolization finds a natural home in our dreams. Their significance for us psychologically and spiritually rests on the fact that we have little consciously to do with their issue. They erupt from a place beyond our control. There's a kind of freedom in dreams that releases us from the strictures of self- and social monitoring, and may awaken us. They are like icons, windows into depth. So when the symbols of a dream are correctly discerned, and incorporated into conscious living, the result is not unlike the processes of prayer, conversion or healing.

Only, it is a complicated, often painstaking process, because the language of symbols is ultimately not reducible to the language of rational understanding. In fact, we need symbols and dreams precisely because our empirical capacities and reasoning are limited. Alone, they could not lead us to a living sense of God.

So how did Jung suggest we work with dream symbols so as not to be led astray? The key word is amplification. When he worked with his patient's dreams, he would elaborate on the symbols that they reported. But he did not interpret too quickly. The aim is to keep the dream alive in the individual's psyche, gradually unfolding its meaning to conscious awareness - a process that must be felt as well as understood. So he would encourage his patients to re-enter the dream, as it were, and allow all its feelings and images to come back to life. The dream could then be explored in a hynagogic state, an exercise he called active imagination. The therapists role is not only to help create the right mood or frame for this to take place, but also to contribute in a more objective way, by making timely suggestions, particularly on the basis of what the therapists knows about the meaning of symbols. Here's an example Jung offers in his chapter in the book, Man And His Symbols.

For instance, a patient of mine dreamed of a drunken and disheveled vulgar woman. In the dream, it seemed that this woman was his wife, though in real life his wife was totally different. On the surface, therefore, the dream was shockingly untrue, and the patient immediately rejected it as dream nonsense…

What then, was his unconscious trying to convey by such an obviously untrue statement? Clearly it somehow expressed the idea of a degenerate female who was closely connected with the dreamer’s life; but since the projection of this image on to his wife was unjustified and factually untrue, I had to look elsewhere before I found out what this repulsive image represented.

In the Middle Ages... it was said that “every man carries a woman within himself.” It is this female element in every male that I have called the “anima.” This “feminine” aspect is essentially a certain inferior kind of relatedness to the surroundings, and particularly to women, which (in men) is kept carefully concealed from others as well as from oneself…

That was the case with this particular patient: His female side was not nice. His dream was actually saying to him: “You are in some respects behaving like degenerate female,” and thus gave him an appropriate shock.

I like this example because it is so grounded. The man needed a shock from the unconscious if he was to integrate a part of himself that he was trying to expel, and in so doing caused him to behave like a lout. But Jung also introduces us to his notion of archetypes, the propensity that we collectively inherit to have shared kinds of fantasies and experiences in our inner lives - in this case, a man dreaming of his anima. Often when you read about archetypes they are enthusiastically presented as semi-divine figures within us, but as here, Jung himself tends to keep his feet on the ground. He shows quite clearly that most of the time such figures play a far more humdrum role: to highlight uneasy issues in our personalities - perhaps residues from specific difficulties in our lives; or tendencies that have become out of balance.

You might say that dreams can help free us from the entanglements of the past. But you might then also ask, if they help free us from that, then what do they free us for? This is where we come back to the role dreams might play in our intimations and knowledge of God. Through the miasma of our own confusions, amidst the detritus of inner lives, the divine may shine. A dream of Jung himself provides an example. It was one of the experiences he had that, later in his life, helped him return to a dynamic Christian faith, having become thoroughly disillusioned with the church in his youth. He describes this vivid, "waking dream" in his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

One night I awoke and saw, bathed in bright light at the foot of the bed, the figure of Christ on the Cross. It was not quite life-size, but extremely distinct; and I saw that his body was made of greenish gold. The vision was marvelously beautiful, and yet I was profoundly shaken by it.

The vividness and observation of being profoundly shaken is one indicator that this dream was about more than Jung's own psychic conflicts. When he had this dream, he had already spent much of his life working through them, and so whilst as a rule, waking visions might be treated with caution, he realised that this dream was not psychotic but carried a sense of the numinous. It was tapping collective archetypes to speak of the divine.

As he contemplated and amplified the dream, one important detail stood out: the greenish gold of the corpus. He knew that green gold had long symbolised the living quality of the cosmos, a life-spirit that animates all things. He interpreted this detail to mean that the dream showed that the symbol of Christ on the cross had come back to life for him. "If I had not been so struck by the greenish-gold, I would have been tempted to assume that something essential was missing from my 'Christian' view - in other words, that my traditional Christ-image was somehow inadequate." But from then on, the cross could speak to him not merely as a functional sign of Christianity but as an active intimation that points to "a darker meaning which eludes conceptual formulation and can only be vaguely apprehended," but which is felt to be spiritually crucial and alive.

It is this aid that dreams can perform for us. Pay attention to them, and they may breath a fresh vitality into our imaginations and traditions by reawakening the power of symbols. That power is subjective, and all the more valuable for that. Dreams can help us intimately to know that God is and is alive.

Friday, February 21 2014

The impossibility of forgiveness

Next week's The Essay on BBC Radio 3 discusses forgiveness. My essay, on the impossibility of forgiveness, goes out on Tuesday 25th Feb. An extract is in today's Church Times. A taster:

HERE, then, is a clue. Put it like this: the things that most need forgiveness are the things that are most unforgivable. But being able to stay with that crux - and not short-circuit it in a bid to escape the pain - might bring us to a place where something higher or unexpected breaks through.

This different dispensation is illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance, and blows it all. He ends up eating pig food, just to stay alive. Then, he remembers his father's servants. He resolves to return to his father, beg forgiveness, and live like the hired men.

But the striking thing is that the father does not forgive his son. Instead, he throws a party. He who was lost is found; he who was dead is alive, the father says - much to the annoyance of the elder brother, who descends into a sulk.

This brother is right, in a sense. Forgiveness is impossible. The younger son has done an inexcusable thing. But the father sees things differently, from beyond the rights and wrongs of his son's actions.

He has not short-circuited the struggle with anger and agony. He thought his son lost and dead. But when the son actually returns, he can welcome him into a new life, grounded in the economy not of moral righteousness or rage, but of gratuitous love.

So it seems to me that the impossibility of forgiveness is actually an offer, although it is certainly difficult. At one level, it draws attention to the moral hazards of not really forgiving, but forgetting or excusing; to the important incompatibility of forgiveness with justice; to the mental ill-health that might originate when the moral imperative to forgive leads to repressing, not-feeling, not-mourning.

But, at another level, it points to the human experience that sometimes, with the most difficult aspects of life, the best course of action is not to try to fix things, but to stay with things.

In time, a radically different horizon might be glimpsed. It feels above morality and forgiveness - more like redemption or grace;gift, or love. That is what is promised by this apparently unpalatable truth: the impossibility of forgiveness.

Friday, December 6 2013

Godless spirituality for secularists

I've a piece thinking about the significance of the RSA's spirituality project in the Church Times today…

The "spiritual but not religious" are the largest group of individuals in the UK, according to the think tank, Theos. Its recent poll, which shaped the inaugural discussion on the new Things Unseen podcast (, found that only 13% of adults agree that human beings are purely material with no spiritual element. That much may be unsurprising to members of the Church of England who routinely work at the interface of regular and irregular church-goers.

What does seem to be a new phenomenon, though, is that avowedly secular groups are seeking to explore the spiritual dimension in life - and not just privately but through meetings and action. A case in point is The Sunday Assembly, also called the "atheist church", although its founders are keen to stress that Dawkins-like rallies are not its raison d'être. In only a few months, it has drawn hundreds of people and led to several "church plants".

Some will feel sceptical about this new spiritual questing, much of that unease focusing on the word "spiritual" itself. In much the same way as "sin" now spontaneously throws up associations of chocolate and lingerie, so "spirituality" can mean little more than warm feelings and a fondness for scented candles. Where is the ethical engagement in this touchy-feely piety; where is the embrace of suffering; where the intellectual weight? The issue is being tackled head-on by another self-consciously secular organisation, the RSA in London. Founded in 1754, at the height of the English Enlightenment, and usually associated with practical policy development, the society became interested in recent work on human wellbeing. The s-word kept coming up, particularly in the domain of positive psychology, the academic movement that lies behind many of the current political attempts to think about mental health as well as economic wealth. It identifies spirituality as a "signature strength".

So now, Jonathan Rowson, one of the directors at the RSA, is leading a year long project, that will include workshops and public events, to help make spirituality "more tangible and tractable". The evidence shows, he believes, that personal growth and social engagement are nurtured when people have a spiritual perspective, are informed by spiritual experience, and shape their lives with spiritual practices. He argues that the world's main policy challenges, from climate change to rising levels of obesity, may ultimately be spiritual in nature because they are about our struggle to align our behaviour with our values. Spirituality addresses such inner conflicts. That so many seem unable to resolve them may be, in part, a product of a culture that is starved of that which can motivate us at the deepest levels.

The first of the public events was held on 9th October - the discussion can be found as a podcast on the RSA's website - and it was striking how apologetic the contributors were for even talking about the subject. Rowson thanked the head of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, for the "reputational risk" involved in sponsoring the project. Other participants talked of feeling nervous and unsure, even whilst confessing that religion was central to their lives. Spirituality is a kind of taboo. Intellectuals, politicians, the media and even clergy can be as embarrassed by it as Victorians supposedly were by exposed piano legs.

It must be because we live in a world that has been profoundly shaped by a rejection of the spiritual dimension. David Bentley Hart makes the case in his new book, The Experience of God (Yale University Press: 2013), arguing that the philosophical and scientific paradigms that shape the contemporary imagination, to the extent of determining what can and cannot be perceived of life, have put off-limits subjects like faith, the soul, the implicit and so on. "The philosophical tendencies and presuppositions of any age are, to a very great degree, determined by the prevailing cultural mood or by the ideological premises generally approved of by the educated classes," he writes.

I think that is true. Listen to BBC Radio 2 or 4 any day of the week and you will be drawn into a worldview that finds evolutionary speculations about the origins of love or music engaging and acceptable, whereas wondering about truth or transcendence gets kid-glove treatment. That spiritual sensibilities, the sources of human purpose and meaning, are ring-fenced is surely part of the reason we find ourselves so frequently to be ethically and personally at sea.

But perhaps the nascent secular interest in spirituality marks a change. The task of redressing the imbalance is about nothing less than shifting mindsets, but when unexpected parties - like the RSA or self-conscious atheists - come out about spirituality, new connections become possible. Conversely, those who needed no persuading but find the s-word difficult must swallow their disdain and be prepared to treat the word as a placeholder for a society striving to revive these half-forgotten insights about what it is to be human.

I suspect that some steps will be easy to make. As the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith put it during the RSA discussion, many well-meaning people can agree on a notion of spirituality that is essentially a form of ethical humanism - the intuition that community, wonder and helping others adds value to life. But does that get to the heart of what is meant by spirituality? Isn't it rather engaging with the possibility that the source of human vitality and purpose ultimately lies beyond human capacities and understanding; that life is sustained by what theists call God? The difficult moment for the new spirituality will arrive when those who have put their faith in secular enlightenment are confronted with the possibility that it is not enough.

Wednesday, November 27 2013

Stoicism today

Was on Night Waves tonight, talking about Stoicism Week.

Tried to say that Christianity is the richest form of Stoicism today - feeling only that captures what ancient Stoicism thought fundamental: of trusting in a benign cosmos, praising God for the logos, and seeking to know the divine within and out. (NT Wright in his new book on Paul is thorough on such points.)

The therapeutic aspects of Stoicism are useful but not enough, as I think any ancient Stoic would have told you, and as interestingly I suspect the emerging limitations of CBT are proving too - CBT being another form of Stoicism for today.

There's a day of it on Saturday coming...

Wednesday, October 16 2013

Making sense of the Trinity

I'm reviewing Sarah Coakley's new book - God, Sexuality, and the Self - a must read for anyone who gets 'why-three?' moments about the doctrine of the Trinity. In a nutshell, she argues Christianity loses touch with the experience that gives rise to the doctrine, with the result that attempting to hold onto the formula comes to feel disconnected or arbitrary.

The dynamic within which it makes sense begins with the yearning for the God known as Father, which comes to be seen as necessitating a purging of desire's possessiveness - a kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. At the same time, the yearning itself is realised as being primarily of God too - God longing to make all things anew. (Hence, in Romans 8, the Spirit groans with us.) So our desire is, at root, the work of the Spirit in us, for all that the entanglements of human desire are inevitably very messy.

The upshot is that the spiritual process whereby people become Christians, in the transformed not merely assent-giving sense, is Trinitarian-shaped. (That pattern is interestingly mirrored in some Buddhist traditions, where there is a threefold conception of the Buddha too, based upon the processes that precede enlightenment.)

A deep read - promoting lots of thought; not exactly light but not overly technical either.

Thursday, October 10 2013

Why the church needs therapy

I've a piece on the links between psychotherapy and spirituality in the October issue of Third Way. Here's a clip or two:

... Jung noticed that, of his patients in the second half of life, there was not one whose problem was not at base in some sense religious . The spiritual systems that had offered individuals frames of reference which generated meaning and purpose were breaking down. Modern individuals had spontaneously embarked upon a new search for soul, because human beings can do no other, though it is a chaotic process that often precipitates psychological pain and problems. Much is at stake, nothing less than the breakdown of society, Jung feared. Therefore, he argued, clergy and therapists must join forces to meet the precipitous spiritual challenge of our times.

Why does each need the other? The church needs depth psychology because people do not generally experience life in theological terms anymore. On the whole, they no longer feel redeemed by the death of Christ as the medieval individual did when gazing up at the broken body on the rood screen. The notion of sin has ceased to describe a deathly state of being as the first readers of Luther and Calvin must have felt inside themselves. So when the modern church speaks in terms of its old formularies and creeds, deployed without psychological insight, it comes across as dogmatic: at best, anachronistic; at worst, irrelevant. It is an insight Pope Francis seems to have recognised when, during his recent trip to Brazil, he spoke of the church as cold, caught up in itself, and 'a prisoner of its own rigid formularies'.

Then, depth psychology needs the spiritual dimension too because whilst, since Freud, there have evolved rich ways of understanding the origins of psychological distress based upon traumas in the early years of life, there has been less development when it comes to understanding how suffering is linked to spiritual advance across the life course of an individual. Psychotherapy can look back, but struggles to peer forward. This is where spiritual traditions come into their own.

To use the language of the Christian tradition, it is through suffering that new life is found. Good Friday comes before Easter Sunday. Spiritual traditions hold out the hope that suffering can become a means to a transfigured end because the experience exposes the individual or group - painfully but powerfully - to sources of connection, possibility and fulfillment that were previously beyond conception. Call it salvation, enlightenment, release, returning to God...

... One way of describing psychotherapy is as a relationship that enables the individual to see more of themselves or of the groups to which they belong, not least church groups. It is a kind of awakening; becoming more conscious of hidden tendencies and compulsions that are typically barely felt on the everyday level and yet will, over time, shape and constrain character, choices and worldview. The psychologist and priest, Fraser Watts, talks of the abundance that this 'joining up' allows . 'Renewal involves being integrated, integrating what's on the surface with what's inside.' It is a theme that Jesus often referred to in his teaching, Watts continues. He seems to have been the kind of person who would meet a rich man, say, and spot that even though the chap kept every article of the law, it was an inner and personally defining attachment to riches that kept him from God.

Importantly, psychotherapy does not primarily aim to fix or heal such conflicts. Like Jesus with the rich man, it aims instead clearly to point them out. This is the issue of trying to solve problems from within the purview of what is problematic: such solutions inadvertently tend to exacerbate the issue. The relationship between a therapist and client is used to bring tensions to light, to explore and understand them in a felt way. Then, in time, they lessen their hold on the individual. He or she comes to see more of the impact of the forces at play in themselves and, thereby, is liberated from them. Something new becomes possible...

... In practice, this preparation for spiritual growth may happen in broadly two ways. There are those for whom life is constrained for reasons of profound damage or trauma. The slow, steady work of therapy - probably of different types, medical, behavioural and psychological - offers the hope of shifts and change. More commonly, the second way that therapy helps is with tackling the everyday defenses that everyone has to some degree. They don't stop the person functioning but they do limit who they might become. (You might say that the church as a whole falls into this camp.) Problems are often revealed in those emotional responses that are the opposite of the fruits of the spirit - moments of hatred, grumpiness, fear, impatience, unkindness, obfuscation, indecision, hardness of heart and excess. The question, then, is how to nurture the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

A clue is in the way Paul describes such virtues, as fruits. They are not capacities that can be willed. As Paul also noted, for all that he wanted it to be otherwise, he continued to do what he wouldn't do, and not do what he would - which in psychodynamic language is to say that he was influenced by his unconscious. Rather, the fruits are capacities that emerge as the individual or church is transformed. That is the source of renewal, and it is the practical details of this transformation process that western Christianity seems to lose sight of in the modern world, and with which psychotherapy can aid. In effect, the therapist says, you are forgiven for your hatred, greed and jealousy. Now we are free to explore the extent of such feelings in you, and why they have taken hold. As the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott put it, it is only when an individual knows about their 'vast reservoirs of unconscious hate' that they can also know they are loved, and so not be so ruled by their hate - or fear or anger. An older religious way of putting it would be to talk of being convicted of your sin, and then knowing the full extent of God's forgiveness. But this is the kind of language that does not quite work for most today. The psychodynamic notion of acceptance and exploration, though, might make more sense...

Saturday, October 5 2013

Mindfulness and the western psyche

Have been doing a few short reviews at the TLS in recent weeks. The latest is Thich Nhat Hanh's The Art of Communicating, an intro to mindfulness. Here's a clip:

Books on mindfulness, including Nhat Hanh's, have begun to recognise that the psyches of Asian people, where mindfulness originates, tend to differ from those raised in the west. This has a major impact upon the effectiveness of its techniques.

To generalised: in the west, childhood is shaped by nuclear not extended families, which are also often broken. A particular kind of suffering arises should relatively isolated parents either not have enough time for their children, or project their unrealised hopes and fears onto them. Such children are trained in reacting to parental needs and so grow up out of touch with themselves. It causes what psychotherapists call narcissistic injuries, a profound inability to be content with oneself. A culture of distractions grows and reinforces the difficulty.

In Buddhist psychology, it is known as being in the realm of the hungry ghosts, who have extended bellies and tight throats, and are therefore unable to take in what would satisfy their longings. When it comes to mindfulness, particularly when practiced alone, the risk is that this basic predicament is left unaddressed. As a result, some teachers now recommend that mindfulness be coupled to psychotherapy.

Tuesday, July 23 2013

A way to understand the power of myth

Dialogue is a great magazine that helps resource schools in the teaching of A-level religious studies. I write for it, and this is an excerpt from a piece in the current issue, on the power of myth. I try to draw an analogy with the power of words...

How do words work? Well, there is one theory of language that understands words operating on five different levels. (I've read about it in association with the ideas of the psychotherapist Ignacio Matte Blanco.)

First, unsurprisingly, is the literal level. Here, words or phrases have a straightforward meaning. If, for example, I utter, "I am a tiger", that can be treated as an empirical statement. It is either true or false, accurate or inaccurate. That is the way the literal level of language operates.

A second level is the analogical. Here, the literal meaning is eclipsed in favour of something more subtle that seeks expression. For example, consider this proverb: "Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep." To understand this phrase you have to sit with it for a while and contemplate what it might be suggesting. Presumably, the proverb is implying that there is something about the way tigers live that is good for humans too. Perhaps it is their courage, their independence, their stealth. What is quite clear is that the proverb is not advising you to go and dwell in the Bengali jungle and attempt to kill monkeys with your nails and teeth. To read the proverb in that literal way would destroy the meaning, as well as being ridiculous.

The third level is the metaphorical. It takes us down another rung of the ladder into a deeper meaning again. William Blake's famous poem, The Tyger, provides us with a tiger example that works at this level. He writes that the tiger burns bright, displays a "fearful symmetry", has fire in its eyes. So, asks Blake, what "immortal hand or eye" made such a creature? What work is displayed in such beautiful menace? Who is mirrored in the fire behind the tiger's eyes? The answer is God. The tiger becomes a metaphor for God and by contemplating the tiger the reader of the poem might gain a fresh sense of what the psalmist calls, "the fear of the Lord". That is the genius of Blake's verse.

The interesting thing about the metaphorical level is that it can't be described in a literal way at all. God is not the fire in the tiger's eye. Empirically speaking, there is no fire in the tiger's eyes, let alone divinity. God is not even like the fire in the tiger's eye, as if the meaning might be analogical: God does not flicker, is not coloured orange, does not generate thermal heat. And yet, somehow the image opens up something of the divine to us. To try to translate the metaphor into more straightforward language loses that possibility. The metaphor has to work on its own terms.

We come to the fourth level, and here things go mad. At this level, all meaning breaks down, even the metaphorical. It is a use of language that is hard to make any sense of. Instead, words deployed in this way provoke a sense of loss or terror, disturbance or dislocation. Take the word "tiger" again. It might be used in this fourth way by someone who was suffering from a psychotic episode. "I am a tiger!" they might yell or scream in a panic of craziness. The phrase would serve to inject into you something of their terror and dread. The communication is emotional not rational. In that sense, there is no meaning to be made of it. Instead, it conveys a side of life that is perhaps just beneath the surface for most of us some of the time. It is an experience that has to be survived as much as understood.

Then finally, beneath the troubled waters of this fourth level, lies a fifth. Its meanings are calm and unifying, though equally resistant to easy interpretation. This is the deepest sense in which language can be used. It is the one associated with mystery. To keep to our example one more time, the story of the Buddha and the tiger comes to mind. It tells of the day the Buddha, in a previous life, took pity on a hungry tigress. She was unable to feed her cubs and so the Buddha lay down in front of her, wounded himself, and sacrificed his life for hers.

The striking quality of the story is its peacefulness. It is an account of a man being killed by a wild animal, and yet it conveys a sense of equanimity. It can be read in many ways, of course. But perhaps part of what it is suggesting is the oneness of existence. It is saying that, in a sense, the Buddha's life was worth no more than the life of the tiger and her cubs. He simply passed life on. Maybe it is not too fanciful to imagine that the Buddha murmured, "I am the tiger", as he lay down before her. He did not mean it in a literal or mad way, but as a mystic. The story attempts to capture something of the unity of things, the lively being that flows through all sentient creatures.

Again, this meaning cannot be translated into back up the higher levels. Read as a literal story it would provoke moral outrage. Of course the life of the man is worth more than that of the tiger! If the story is to carry any insight at all, and if that insight is to be experienced, the story must be allowed to tell itself, in its own terms. It must be allowed to speak from the fifth level of meaning.

This is an article about myth, which comes from muthos, the Greek word for story. I've offered a long introduction, but I hope you get the point. In everyday speech, the word myth has come to mean a fabrication, a false belief, an idealized but ridiculous conception. I think that this must be because the literal has gained the upper hand in the modern world, presumably because the scientific and empirical way of engaging with life has become so powerful. My argument is not against the value of the literal: being able to speak factually and accurately is often crucial, useful and illuminating. But it does seem to me to be a profound loss when we place so much faith on the literal that we lose sight of the other ways that words can be used - the analogical, the metaphorical, the mad and the mystical. Only then do myths come to be regarded as colourful but silly fabrications, as the conveyors not of deeper meaning but false beliefs.


Myths use words and phrases in all of the five senses that we have discussed. Part of their joy is the way they can slip and slide across levels of meaning. Take the story of the Buddha and the tigress. There is, in fact, a literal sense in which the life of the tiger and the man are one and the same. Evolution suggests that all mammalian life on Earth originates from a common source. But whilst that is scientifically accurate, it is a rather concrete way to read the story, humanly speaking. The theme of sacrifice feels as if it carries more weight. That would be to treat the story analogically: we too might sacrifice something of ourselves for the next generation like the Buddha. Or there is the metaphorical that draws attention to the kind of man the Buddha was. He loved life, else he would not have cared to save the cubs, but he was not attached to life and so could offer his own life up without panic or struggle. We might sit with life and death in the same way, the story suggests.

The mad side of the story is evident too. Imagine being an onlooker. To watch this event would have been shocking. It would have stuck in your mind like a barbed thorn. What a mix of folly, horror and excitement!

Then, there is the mystery, which we've discussed.

To put it another way, myths use language in order that we might explore multiple aspects of life. The great advantage that myths have is that they, generally, tell stories that are gripping and archetypal. This helps to keep the analysis alive: the myth lives within you in a way that the factual cannot. As it points to what is not yet understood, or what will never be fully comprehended, the story's vitality is not lessened in the telling and retelling. Indeed, it deepens with repeating as the levels reveal themselves.

Friday, July 12 2013

Philosophy and true freedom of speech

This short thought has gone up on The Day website, the online newspaper for schools...

Philosophy struggles to find time in schools. This is probably partly the fault of contemporary Anglo-American philosophers. On their watch, the subject has come to feel dry, abstract and impenetrable to many on the outside. But it is also because, as a culture, we have lost touch with some of the key educational benefits of philosophy, not least of which is that young people love it.

They enjoy philosophy because it gives them a chance to explore, develop and air their own views. To put it another way, philosophy is not about what to think, but how to think. And thinking well – which ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato believed is the product of an educated heart as well as head – is exhilarating because it makes for our flourishing. Life is bigger as a result.

I think this is because really good philosophy, the kind that will appeal to students, is not just about reason and logic. They are important qualities, but thinking rationally is not the main aim of philosophy, in my view. Rather, the ability to sort through what you think serves a greater purpose.

If you can learn how to think freely through the practice of philosophy then true freedom of speech can be yours.

The ability to speak freely is harder than it might first seem. The ability to communicate with clarity is one component, the element with which rational thinking can help. To be able to offer three or four reasons for your point of view is far more persuasive, and personally satisfying, then huffing and insisting that such and such is just what you think.

But also, to speak freely, you have got to have discovered what you think about something to start with. That means having the inner freedom to explore possibilities. I have found that a number of components go into that process.

First, students need to be able to take risks with what they think. They may not be quite sure at first, and so need to feel encouraged and safe enough to venture a half-formed idea or possibility. Their inner accuser – the debilitating voice that whispers ‘Don't look stupid!’ – can be tamed in the process so that students find a greater liberty to step into the unknown.

Being able to tolerate not knowing is another attribute that philosophy can foster. This is what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, the capacity to be 'in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' The problem with irritable reaching after reason is that it blocks the kind of honesty, openness and patience that discernment properly requires.

A third, related quality that you detect in those who can speak freely is an ability to play with ideas. It is the delight you find in, say, the novels of Lewis Carroll. ‘Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.’ Such sending up of tight, defensive reasoning makes space for the crucial elements of imagination and novelty, creativity and surprise that are the hallmark of free speakers – and of philosophers worth reading.

In short, philosophy is not just about reason. I suspect it might find more time in schools if that became more widely known. The good philosopher is the individual who can take risks, can tolerate uncertainty, can play with ideas. The heart is developed alongside the mind. And of course, such qualities should be central to education.

Sunday, June 9 2013

Quantum mysticism?

A couple of things to consider, if you have noticed how quantum phenomena - like particle entanglement and the role of observers - are often checked, these days, in discussions about spirituality (as if we are entangled, as if consciousness is fundamental...)

First, a discussion between me and Rupert Sheldrake, available as podcast and iTunes, as the latest in our Science Set Free musings: the spiritual uses of science.

Second, a piece published in the Church Times on the validity of the supposed resonances between what bosons get up to and what spiritual beings detect. An excerpt:

A recent poll of physicists and philosophers, conducted by Professor Anton Zeilinger, a physicist who is known for his work on quantum entanglement, reports that the favourite way of understanding what quantum physics means is known as the Copenhagen interpretation. Devised by such luminaries as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, it says that, in spite of the success of the science, it tells us nothing about the way the world is in itself. Objective truth lies permanently behind a veil of ignorance. The paradox of Schrödinger's cat simply highlights what we cannot know, not what we might infer.

The upshot is that all the spiritual speculations are just that: speculations. The science confirms nothing for sure. Appealing to the physics as a source of authority is a mistake. As the Revd Dr John Polkinghorne, the former physics professor who was later ordained priest, has remarked: "Physics is showing the world to be both more supple and subtle, but you need to be careful."

Whether or not the Copenhagen interpretation is itself right, or whether other possibilities might be better, is not likely to be decided any time soon. In the mean time, it seems sensible to be wary of quantum spirituality, when the science is being asked to do more than provide vivid analogies for spiritual realities.

Spirituality should trust its own sources of authority. It is a mistake to reach out to a science that is undecided, and likely to change remarkably fast.

Monday, May 27 2013

Carl Jung by Mark Vernon

Just published, from the Guardian Short's How to believe series

Carl Jung was one of the 20th century’s most significant psychological theorists. He developed concepts we use everyday – introverts and extroverts chief among them. Mark Vernon’s eight-part ebook explores some of Jung’s key ideas and also looks at his relationship with the other giant of the mind – Sigmund Freud.

The How to Believe series of ebooks explores the teachings, philosophies and beliefs of major thinkers and religious texts. In a short, easy-to-access format, leading writers present new understandings of these perennially important ideas.

Thursday, May 16 2013

When did people stop thinking God lives on a cloud?

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

Honest to God, fifty years on

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

The Case for Doubt - Mark Vernon on Political Doubt

"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

Rob Bell on images of God for today and American evangelicalism, Pt 4

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

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

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

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

Right, right.

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

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

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

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

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

It's Paul's cosmic Christ.

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

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

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

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


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

More tomorrow, on Christianity today...

Wednesday, April 17 2013

Rob Bell on crack Christianity, Pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. The sacramental everywhere.

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

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

Tuesday, April 16 2013

Rob Bell on quantum physics

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

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

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

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

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

OK, fair enough.

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

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

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

A reductionism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 15 2013

Not immortality, but eternity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 14 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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