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...

Friday, March 8 2013

Is love biological? Is sex about breeding?

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 6 2013

An apology that is transformative and healing is a rare thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 1 2013

Science and faith: a new dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 14 2013

God of love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 13 2013

Not in praise of hyper-romance

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

BBC Magazine - Viewpoint: Down with romantic love

Aeon Magazine - What is love?

Third Way - In defence of Narcissus

Wednesday, January 9 2013

Spiritual, but not religious? A dangerous mix

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif. I took part in a discussion about the same research last night on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves too...

People who are "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to suffer poor mental health, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King of University College London and his colleagues examined 7,400 interviews with folk in Britain, of whom 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% a spiritual one and 46% neither a religious nor spiritual outlook. The analysis led to one clear conclusion. "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]." The work supports evidence from other studies too.

All the usual weaknesses associated with asking individuals about religion are at play here, as the authors acknowledge. Nonetheless, the study prompts a number of speculations.

The spiritual itch is a deep one in the human psyche, for those who feel it. To scratch without the support of others might lead to an inner obsession that spirals out of control. It is possible, too, that personal crises drive people to seek spiritual solace that of itself does not address the underlying psychological distress. Then again, the resources of a healthy spiritual tradition, not pursued in isolation, should provide or point to the means of addressing psychological problems. The ground is then gradually cleared for genuine spiritual growth.

This raises another question, though. Do religious organisations in the UK today take enough notice of the insights of psychology and, conversely, do schools of therapy treat spirituality seriously? As the Cambridge psychologist and priest Fraser Watts explored in a recent talk, American therapists, for example, seem to be far happier talking about their clients' spiritual concerns than their British counterparts.

This must highlight broader cultural differences. In the US, religion tends to carry associations of freedom. I remember an American priest once saying to me, when I expressed amazement at the prevalence of religiosity in the US, that Americans came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. The two words "religion" and "freedom" naturally go together in the American psyche.

In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs: individuals are not just not coming to church, some are becoming mentally ill as a result of religious failure.

Other results from the research are striking too, though similarly not determinative. People with no religious or spiritual understanding were significantly younger and more often white British, but were less likely to have qualifications beyond secondary school, perhaps challenging research purporting to show that atheists are more intelligent.

Another finding of this work was that those who were neither religious nor spiritual had just as good mental health as those the religious. This contradicts a notion widely held in positive psychology that religion is good for happiness (though that positive correlation typically derives from North American evidence.)

Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can "do God" on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life. To be spiritual but not religious might be said to be like embarking on an extreme sport while refusing the support of safety procedures and the wisdom of experts who have made the jump before. Spirituality is like love: more risky than you can countenance when you're falling for it.

- page 2 of 6 -