Saturday, June 13 2015
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, June 13 2015, 17:06
I'm helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Here's a third post from me from the splendid archeological site of Philippi…
Paul sets foot on European soil for the first time, probably in the winter of 49AD. But what did he find at the port of Neapoli, modern day Kavala? What religious scene greeted him?
It would have been an important question for him too. Paul tells us he tailored his message to connect with his listeners. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. So what word would have struck a chord in Macedonia? The letter to the Philippians, though written years after his first arrival, provides evidence.
It seems his usual strategy was, first, to contact fellow diaspora Jews and/or those who reverenced Judaism, the so-called "god-fearers", who were widespread throughout the Roman empire. They would understand the language of the Christ, the Messiah, even if they rejected it.
When he got to Philippi, just up the road from Neapoli, he found no synagogue but, Acts tells us, he went to a place of prayer by the river. There he met a group of women including Lydia, whose heart opened to what Paul said. She was baptised.
However, Paul was not only interested in engaging fellow Jews. His next encounter in Philippi, according to Acts, was with another woman, only this one had a "spirit of Python". She was probably a prophetess from the Delphic Oracle, which is to say, a significant religious figure. No wonder the city was in uproar after Paul became annoyed with her and quashed her spirit.
It sounds like the story of a new religion casting out the old. But it's more interesting that. Why, for example, did Paul became so annoyed by the prophetess? She was proclaiming correctly that he was from the "Most High God". I suspect the incident reveals another side to Paul's ability to connect and persuade: he himself had spiritual abilities that deeply impressed.
The historian Ramsay MacMullen paints a vivid picture of the pagan milieu into which Paul had landed. "(People's) senses were assaulted by messages directing their attention to religion; shouts and singing in public places to an accompaniment as loud as ancient instruments could sound; applause for highly ornate prose paeans; enactment of scenes from the gods' stories performed in theaters and amphitheaters; the god-possessed swirl of worshippers coming down the street to the noise of rattles and drums."
To make an impression, which he clearly did, Paul had to be able to outclass the tumult with his own displays of supernormal power. It apparently came easily to him. In Acts, we read time and time again of how he healed and exorcised, prophesied and even seemingly caused earthquakes. Paul could channel quite a show. As he told the Corinthians, he did not have to use persuasive words of wisdom. He was a spiritual adept.
But if spectacle was part of what helped Paul connect with the Greeks, there was a further side to his appeal. This was more subtle, and perhaps longer lasting. It was Paul's authority as a mystic, which is to say, he could communicate a profoundly felt experience of the divine.
Mysticism, too, was integral to the ancient religious scene. At Philippi, the grave of Euephenes has been excavated. He was probably an initiate into the cult of the Kabeiroi. The heroon of Euephenes was discovered in tact because it had been incorporated into subsequent Christian buildings.
This respect suggests to me that Paul must have been recognised as the representative of a mystery religion too. There are echoes of this dynamic in the letter to the Philippians as well. Paul writes of having "the same mind as Christ"; of "overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight". It's here we find the mystical hymn of Christ emptying himself and "taking the form of a servant". He also hopes to "know the resurrection and make it his own".
Paul's message must have been rich. He had wisdom that could speak to the Jews; power that could persuade the pagans; and an ability to manifest the mystical side of life. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks in such a way that his arrival still speaks two millennia on.
Image: The mosaic floor of the Octagon church that incorporates the heroon of Euephenes.
Wednesday, June 10 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, June 10 2015, 09:23
I'm off on Friday helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself will be blogging here. Here's a second pre-departure post from me…
It's become one of the most famous moments in history. A Damascene conversion is a sudden and complete change in one's beliefs. Blinding lights. Tumbling horses. About turns.
Or was it so sudden? I think the answer to that must be yes and no.
Yes, there was a moment in history that radically changed Paul - though just what happened in that moment is also lost to history. Luke gives us three accounts in Acts that differ amongst themselves. And they differ again from Paul's own markedly brief references to it in his letters.
That speaks to me of the truth of the experience. I suspect that if you had been with Paul on the Damascus Road, it wouldn't have been clear what was going on. It seems that it wasn't entirely clear to him. In the letter to the Galatians, he writes of spending time in Arabia working things through, as it were.
So I suspect it also wasn't so sudden. Think of the time before, when Paul regarded himself as a regular Jew, not one of these new Jews who followed Jesus called Messiah. If the story of him watching the stoning of Stephen is anything to go by, he must have been bubbling with righteous rage, pious hatred, anxious orthodoxy. It was waiting to explode.
The great psychologist of religion, William James, was fascinated by conversion experiences. He understood them as upsurges from places deep within ourselves that may have been gestating for some time. They are precipitative eruptions that re-orientate us around a new axis. "I no longer live but Christ lives in me," Paul told the Galatians after his return from Arabia. What an insight to have gained.
A group of ancient Greek philosophers can help us understand the experience further. They are the Stoics, the most successful of the ancient schools. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. As was the tutor of Nero, Seneca. The Stoics were also very influential in 1st century Judaism: the mystic Philo of Alexandria drew deeply from their insights. And when John wrote the famous introduction to his gospel, "In the beginning was the Logos (Word)", he was utilising Stoic ideas to unpack this most tremendous truth about the cosmos.
Whether or not Paul directly read any of the Stoics is unclear. But Stoicism was in the air. And they argued that the great task in life is to re-orientate yourself into alignment with the Logos. Their understanding of the Logos was crucially different to the emerging Christian revelation, as we'll discover when we meet Paul talking to the philosophers in Athens. But for now, think about the way Stoics understood conversion.
The scholar Troels Engberg-Pedersen proposes a model of Stoic conversion. It begins with the individual dominated by their own perspective on things. They live their life according to their own intuitions, identity and desires. However, they are also vaguely aware that something is not quite right, "Our consciousness of our weakness," as Epictetus the Stoic put it.
That readies the individual for a second unpredictable stage, when they are struck by an authority from outside themselves. They are dislodged. The old axis of perception is rocked, sways, and tumbles. It may well feel like a breakdown or disaster. But it enables something invaluable: the discernment of a different perception of life. It us now known as coming from a new vantage that is rooted elsewhere - in the soul, filled with spirit, offering an energy that is gentle and unquenchable. The Logos is making its presence felt.
This leads to a third stage in which a new way of life gradually emerges. Hence Paul could also write about the centrality of "dying every day". If there was a pivotal moment in his life, there is also the on-going task of re-orientating his life with the truth of that experience. Nothing worthwhile is sudden.
This is what pilgrimages can be like too. There is the sudden thrill of arriving in a thin place like Athens or Delphi; the excitement of breathing the same air and feeling the same sun as Paul; a quiet revelation that surges up from within us, blessed by the Logos.
But the pilgrimage experience must also be woven into our ordinary life. It must become part of who we are, which is to say that we must change - must die - in accordance with it. The joy is that the new life, the new axis can then be known every day.
Monday, June 8 2015
By Mark Vernon on Monday, June 8 2015, 21:34
I'm off on Friday helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself will be blogging here. Here's a pre-departure post from me…
What would it have been like to meet Paul as he travelled around Greece? What might he have looked like? Would the encounter have been memorable? We can never know for sure, of course, but speculating is possible. And the hints and suggestions about his appearance and character are surprisingly revealing of the man we seek to follow on pilgrimage.
Luke makes several references to Paul that suggest the writer of Acts likened Paul to a Cynic philosopher. The Cynics were the shock-jocks of the ancient world. They felt that human problems arise from blindly following conventions: you can be free, said their founder Diogenes, if you live like a dog (hence their name, as "cynic" probably comes from the Greek for dog).
When you need a bed, curl up in the sun. When you need some food, nature will provide. Don't worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have worries enough for itself. Actually, Jesus said that, of course - though Jesus too has been likened to the Cynics by some New Testament scholarship.
If it seems a bit farfetched to think that Luke used Cynic sources to imagine Paul, consider this portrait of the ideal philosopher, recorded by his near-contemporary, Epictetus.
The ideal philosopher is unmarried, and recommends the single life, so as not to distract from the "service of God", Epictetus said. He follows his conscience rather than political or religious authority. He is kind-hearted to the extent of taking on the troubles and physical hardships of others. He can expect to be "beaten like an ass", though he must love those who beat him. He is an "enslaved leader", responsible only to God, not the masses. His friends and followers will be equally dedicated to his calling. He will be free, regarding God's will as better than his own. He will be despised and praised, desired and derided, a slave unto death.
Remind you of anyone? This is the man, Paul, whom we follow.
If that speaks of an awkward yet compelling character, what of his actual looks? They too might have been unsettling yet alluring. The iconographic tradition suggests that Paul was thin in the face, had a dark beard, large eyes, a monobrow, bandy legs, and was strong but short of stature. In fact, the name "Paul" may be a pun on the Greek for "short".
According to the scholar Abraham Malherbe, many of these features seem to pick up on another ancient Greek image, that of the hero, Heracles. So what might be the link between Paul and Heracles?
Well, there is a strong association between the hero and Paul's hometown, Tarsus. It was an important place in Asia Minor: the Greek historian, Strabo, said it rivaled Alexandria and Athens in cultural significance. You might imagine that Paul, travelling through Greece, would have played up his links with Tarsus. They might impress, or at least get him a hearing. So too the link with Heracles might have stuck in the remembrance of his appearance.
But there is a deeper association with Heracles. In the myth, Heracles is remembered for his great labours. So too Paul, in Acts and in his own letters. And further, Heracles' labours included visiting the underworld, which is to say that in some sense, Heracles was thought to have conquered death.
Here we get to the heart of Paul's message as he travelled around Greece. His gospel is one of dying and rising, of being buried and reborn. New life, alongside the acceptance of struggle and suffering, is his driving agenda. Might this be the God-orientated man we seek to follow on pilgrimage? He's not for the fainthearted, with his inner authority, tough kindness, arresting features, cultured background, and life-promising message. I, for one, yearn to know more.
Friday, May 15 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, May 15 2015, 14:48
This review of Silence: A User's Guide by Maggie Ross is in the current issue of Third Way Magazine.
Silence is the crucial element in Christian life, argues the solitary and author Maggie Ross in this punchy, timely book. It is vital because the fundamental promise of Christianity cannot be realised without it, namely, new life in Christ. Ross calls this process of transfiguration "the work of silence". The results of it St Paul realised when he declared that he no longer lived but Christ lived in him. It led St Augustine to sense that God was closer to him than he was to himself; Mother Julian to know that all will be well; and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing to advocate the kind of contemplation that "beats away at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love."
A practice of silence can move the individual from living within the anxious strictures of their self-consciousness, to living out of the infinite love of God's deep mind. The tragedy is that silence has almost disappeared from western Christianity. Ross describes this loss, a sorry tale over two millennia of theological and ecclesiastical seduction by political, personal and institutional power. The stance an individual or church must sustain towards the unfolding action of silence goes when, with James and John, individuals place themselves at Jesus's right and left; or when the receptivity of Mary is eclipsed by the busyness of Martha; or perhaps today in the Church of England when the growth demands of intentional evangelism out shout the quiet mission of God - with which, after all, God is engaged regardless of the nervous preoccupations of a struggling established church.
Ross's study is also timely because the need for silence is currently on many non-Christian minds. The intuition that silence tracks the path to life in all its fullness has become a popular movement with the explosion of interest in mindfulness meditation. Or consider the threatening ecological crisis: Ross argues that this is, at root, a result of our civilisation's disconnection from the natural world. It arises because we have learnt to regard creation as a commodity for human exploitation, and have forgotten how to approach it as an environment with a life of its own, which we might behold.
It is a sign of the times that a nascent science of silence is emerging too, as presented in Iain McGilchrist's seminal book, The Master And His Emissary, an important reference point for Ross. The science suggests that human beings have broadly two ways of engaging with the world. The first is characterised by focus and manipulation. It attempts to organise things for its own ends and according to its own lights. It has evolved to help us survive, but if it becomes dominant then it restricts and throttles the life it tries to possess. This, McGilchrist argues, is the current state of the western mindset.
The alternative way of dealing with the world is open and receptive; it delights in surprise and mystery; it embraces the expansive possibilities of paradox, the potential of uncertainty and disturbance. It delights to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase. It is necessary to spiritual flourishing because, in theistic terms, it can tolerate human fragility and let God be God. It can see beyond self-concern and hold out for a relationship with the inexhaustible source of all life. A silent practice is the way to come to know this gift because in silence an individual's default way of engaging with the world can, first, be seen and, then, shift from the controlled to the open.
It's a difficult shift to undergo because it also requires confronting the grief, anger, hate, envy, despair, pride that observing one's mind reveals. It's the path through the narrow gate though, paradoxically, it's also to take up the lighter burden that Jesus spoke of too. The great Christian psychologists that Ross discusses - from Evagrius Ponticus to Simone Weil - have undergone and charted the change, though I believe there is also much to be gained by engaging with the insights of contemporary developmental and depth psychology. It seems to me that they offer a tremendous resource of living theory and practice for those serious about the work of silence. This new resource may well have arisen because, as Carl Jung noted, modern churches have a fractured if not dying relationship with the older contemplative wisdom. Perhaps Ross will discuss this in a promised second volume.
Her book is rhetorical as well as scholarly, an eleventh hour plea for the recovery of silence and all that it opens, beholds and enables. And I agree: the situation is serious. Nonetheless, I felt that she is at risk of condemning too fiercely the noisy trajectory of western Christianity. It may be true that some of the desert fathers and mothers declared, "Flee the bishops!" as they made for the wilderness, before the bishops rebranded them "white martyrs" to keep them in the fold. But it seems untrue that the last great theologian and senior ecclesiastic who understood the relationship between speech and silence was the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa. Ross's book has a forward by an obvious counterexample: Rowan Williams.
This is just as well because silence requires much holding and skillful discernment if those undertaking it are not to go astray: the enlightened individuals that can guide us will necessarily emerge from flawed institutions. Plus, McGilchrist's point is that we need both ways of engaging with the world, in right relationship. The challenge today is to find where the flame of silence still flickers amongst Christians, as well as to connect with where it burns more strongly elsewhere.
Wednesday, May 13 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, May 13 2015, 14:53
My annoyance at public intellectuals misunderstanding Plato overcame me and I isolated three common errors for The Idler Magazine, as below.
1. Plato invented secular philosophy.
The first story being told is of a crucial shift in human thought that crystalized in fifth century BC Athens. Before then, in the time of Homer and Hesiod, ancient Greeks had resorted to myths to guide them through the world. Now though, with the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato in particular, a new generation of Greeks developed the capacity to think about the world without referencing their multiple divinities.
Instead they turned to cool, godless reason. Logic helped them derive arguments about what's true. No longer need things be believed because deities said so. Instead, humanity began to build knowledge on the basis of proofs.
This is wrong. It's right that the philosophers deployed new methods to investigate how to live, the nature of the cosmos, the way to rule cities. Those methods included reason and empirical investigation. But it was also a standard assumption amongst the ancients that true knowledge was true because it reflected divine knowledge. Reason and experience are gifts by which we can participate in divine life. Knowing came to be understood as a receptive capacity that reason serves by discerning. Nature came to be experienced as showing itself to us, if we attend to it aright.
Hence Thales, often called the father of philosophy, could exclaim, "All things are full of gods." This is what his wondrous investigations revealed. For Plato, reason was a tool that could lead to divine insight, but if and only if accompanied by myths, reverent invocations, and the hard work of personal transformation.
This is a very good way of doing philosophy, which after all is the desire for a wisdom that often seems beyond human reach. And it has very little to do with contemporary secular philosophy that often seems stranded on a desert island of soulless logic. Plato might, in fact, help restore it to life.
2. Plato opposed the spirit to the body.
The second story is that Plato held the body to be a prison for the soul that, with luck, the soul could flee at death. This meant that he denigrated the body and idealized the soul. He set up a dualism that we still experience in forms such as sexual prohibitions and women's oppression.
If the academics read Plato (which sometimes, honestly, I wonder) they would learn that, for example, Socrates tousles the hair of his youthful follower, Phaedo, on his deathbed. Or they'd spot that Socrates did not just advocate philosopher kings in his dialogue the Republic, but philosopher queens. They are very likely to know that Plato the man probably gained his name because it is a pun on the Greek for "broad", suggesting that before he was a philosopher he had been a wrestler. They will also know that gymnasia were one of Socrates's and Plato's favourite haunts. But they don't take the next step: these are not details from the life of a body-hater.
Plato was actually gripped by something more subtle, more interesting and more valuable. It is the possibility that the body reflects the soul. It's much as we say that someone's character becomes, in time, etched into the lines on their face. Plato proposed that the soul is the form of the body; that the soul is the aliveness of the body.
It's true that he has Socrates wonder whether, after death, the body might come to feel like it has been a prison, such is the liberation that death could bring. But that's just one of several possibilities he considers, as anyone with curiosity would. He never offers a definitive creed.
So where did the dualism come from? I don't think it really existed until the seventeenth century, when Descartes proposed his famous cogito, "I think therefore I am." With this formula, it became possible to imagine a thinking part separate from a bodily part. We now live with that legacy.
But before then, philosophers had assumed human beings were incarnate: ensouled bodies. If you're against the dualism, which I think is sensible, Plato is a sophisticated ally not enemy number one.
3. Plato argued that goodness trounces God.
The third error that the academics promote is that Plato proved that goodness is more basic than godliness. Or, to put it another way, that the gods have no choice but to be good. This is then developed to suggest that goodness is more important than divinity, which is a short step away from the conclusion that divinity is not important at all. In short, Plato was really a new atheist.
The reference for this line of argument is Plato's dialogue, the Euthyphro. Again, I would suggest that our academics take a second look. Because if you follow the dialogue through, you see that it is one of Plato's aporetic works. It ends inconclusively.
If anything definitive can be concluded from Socrates and Euthyphro's exchange it would be that when human beings claim to know anything for certain about the gods, they are certain to tie themselves in knots. That is a useful reminder for religious and atheistic folk alike. No-one with any seriousness can presume to know what causes gods sleepless nights, least of all feeling trapped into being good because goodness dictates it to them.
Put it like this: to say the gods must be good is a bit like saying that grass must be green. It's nonsense. Goodness is implicit in divinity much as greenness is implicit in grass. But there's another more positive insight engaging with the Euthyphro can bring.
We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. She is a good child, someone might say. But the ancients treated goodness as a quality or virtue. It's supremely desirable because it's integral to our flourishing. Goodness tastes good, really good.
Why might that matter to us? Because it might help us come to feel that goodness is a joy, not an injunction; that it lifts us up, not leaves us guilty and wanting; that it is part of becoming all that we might become. Again, in an age starved of trust and vision - of goodness as a self-evident good - Plato can feed us. We should invoke his spirit and refuse the sticks with which academics routinely beat him.
Sunday, May 3 2015
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, May 3 2015, 08:42
A Sunday Sermon from The Idler Academy…
Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life. It's an oft forgotten insight in an age when mindfulness apps set targets for sitting still, and church-going is an obstacle course of activity, from food banks to flower rotas.
Take Rumi, the great spiritual writer of the Sufi tradition. He once told a story. A man left instructions on how to divide his estate. He was a devoted father and so wanted to do the wise thing. He told the town judge: "Whichever of my sons is laziest, give him all the inheritance."
It is a striking will, almost incomprehensible to the modern mind. But the man's sons were not spiritual lightweights. They knew their father was onto something.
So, when his father died, the eldest son told the judge that he was adept at laziness. It had made him patient. He explained how, for example, he could read another man's mind by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, he could watch him for three days and know him intuitively. Impressive, thought the judge: anyone who can wait three days shows promising signs of laziness. But what of the second son?
Laziness had made a different impact upon him. It had made him crafty. He too could understand another by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, the second son would start talking. The other was then bound to reply, and give themself away. Not quite so impressive, thought the judge: craftiness is a common human trait. All you have to do is know the trick. So what of third son?
Laziness had achieved its best with him. The youngest had the gift of presence - of being, not doing, we might say. And what comes with presence? The ability to be receptive. He could sit in front of another and feel what the other drew out of him. With that sense, he could understand anyone. Moreover, he could receive insights from a place beyond joy and grief. The deepest and darkest recesses of the soul were as clear as day to him. He knew the way between voice and presence where information flows.
"The youngest was, obviously, the laziest," Rumi concludes. "He won."
Other spiritual teachers have echoed the value of this key quality. Jesus told his followers that the burden is light. If it feels heavy, hard work, impossible then something has gone wrong. Ease is the key guide.
The Buddha taught "right effort", which in our day invariably means less effort. When your legs are dead, your back is aching, and your mind feels caught up in a storm, it's time to stop meditating. A mindless, joyful chat with a friend will be more spiritually beneficial.
But why? Why is it that idleness, laziness, and ease offer the surest path to enlightenment? The quick answer, the gurus tell us, is that our own efforts can accomplish nothing. They key task is not to achieve, but to let go; it's not to be in control, but to release; it's not to live, but in a sense to die.
Then, and only then, by a supreme non-effort of the will - that is so hard in a world orientated around work, status, responsibility - something radically new might be glimpsed. It's a source of life and pleasure on the other side of partying hard. It's a resting place that is also alive. It's an intelligence that does not manically accumulate facts but calmly issues wisdom.
Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life.
Thursday, April 16 2015
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, April 16 2015, 15:19
The British Museum's new Beauty exhibition is fantastic but I wish they'd made more of Socrates's moobs. A piece from The Idler.
The new show at the British Museum, Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, is tremendous. To see such a collection of sculpture and artifact, idol and vase under one roof is an opportunity not to be missed. But, to my mind, there’s something the exhibition doesn’t quite nail.
The blurbs stress the take-home message: the ancient Greeks made our sense of beauty; we still think of the body beautiful according to the categories they developed two and a half millennia ago. What struggles to be heard, though, is that at the same time, the Greeks embedded a powerful, crucial critique of the notion they ostensibly celebrated in glazed clay and polished marble.
Just what’s missing in the exhibition struck me when reference was made to Charmides. He was a vibrant, thrusting and astonishingly beautiful Greek man. As Plato puts it in the dialogue named after him, when Charmides entered the room, everyone fell in love with him, and were astonished and confused by his entrance.
I’ve experienced the effect the statuesque have on others when I once spent a day with a woman who was a model. As we walked down the street, the crowd parted before us: we passed through the midst with the ease of the Israelites through the Red Sea. We sat in a bar: it was as if the entire place lent towards her, like iron filings to a magnet.
In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates is also bewitched by Charmides. But he nonetheless has the presence of mind to raise a question. Charmides seems perfect, indeed, an example of the Greek virtue of kalos kagathos, beautiful and good. But, asks Socrates, does he have a well-formed soul?
The first readers of the dialogue would immediate spot that this is the crucial issue, not his looks. Charmides had everything going for him in his youth: beauty, family, education. And yet, at the time Plato was writing, Charmides had grown up to become a notorious dictator. He was one of the Thirty Tyrants, the pro-Spartan oligarchy installed after the Peloponnesian War that crushed the Athenian democratic experiment.
Sure enough, Charmides’ predilection for force emerges under questioning from Socrates. The message is clear: don’t be fooled by the bright surface. It can hide the monstrous.
The danger is almost spelt out with Aphrodite, another figure who carried the ancient consciousness of beauty’s allure and risk. Several of the sculptures depict her nude at her bath, inviting you to sneak a glimpse of her most intimate parts, only to be met by the back of her hand. And remember, the hand is of a god. It will strike you down. Beauty can do that. But on the whole, the curators don’t seem to have taken the lesson on board. They broadcast the dazzle, perhaps because dazzle sells, and so can’t quite focus on the danger. Various commentators on the exhibits don’t appear to have thought much beyond beauty’s surface either.
For example, the neuroscientist Semir Zeki, who pioneered the so-called science of neuroaesthetics, offers an explanation of why we share the same appreciation of beauty as the ancient Greeks. Roughly, it’s because our brains are wired to seek symmetry, and symmetry is what makes for beauty. And yet, the most symmetrical faces in the exhibition, such as those of the kouroi, aren’t beautiful but rather appear as eerie pastiches of beauty. They are unsettling rather than attractive. The ancient Greeks knew that true beauty is not a question of symmetry but rather of balance, a reflexive notion that can’t be hardwired because it’s responsive rather than programmed.
These ideas are also discussed by Plato. In the Symposium, he explicitly warns against becoming fixated on the beauty of the body. Instead, he argues that the energy released by the sight of the gorgeous figure needs to be channeled to a desire for a deeper beauty – that of the soul, of the good, of the divine.
Moreover, an ugly surface may transmit this deeper goal more safely, as was the case with Socrates. Three images of the philosopher are shown in the exhibition. They are typical, emphasizing his pug nose, pot belly and dangling moobs. Again, though, what is missed is that his iconography stands in ironic judgment on those who don’t give him a second glance and so miss a true incarnation of the beautiful and good.
The demon that possessed Charmides, whose power seems undiminished in 21st century Bloomsbury, must be chuckling at how little humankind has learnt in two and a half thousand years.
Mark Vernon’s course on psychology and psychotherapy at The Idler Academy begins on Monday 20th April.
Wednesday, March 4 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, March 4 2015, 12:23
I've this review of Graham Ward's Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't in the March issue of Third Way magazine.
The Peterhouse Ghost made an appearance in 1997. The fellows of the oldest Cambridge college were at High Table. Dinner was disturbed by a commotion in the Combination Room. The then dean and author of Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't, Graham Ward, discovered two quaking servants amidst hundreds of fragments of broken china, mute with fear at the spectre that had crossed their path.
What intrigued Ward was not the reality of the haunting (it intrigues me), but the wide range of beliefs that were rallied to explain what had happened, as discussion rippled around the college. For some, the idea of ghosts was entirely acceptable and little more clarification was required. For others, ghosts were an entirely unacceptable proposition and academic disciplines from neuroscience to physics were deployed to explain away the incident. Others again, felt that the sighting was indicative of the inadequacy of scientific materialism and of the need for new explanatory paradigms.
Ward uses the story to launch a wide ranging discussion on the nature of belief. He defines it not as propositional statements to which an individual can give assent. Rather, he convincingly shows that belief is more complex, subtle and primitive. It is a preconscious disposition that informs, shapes and possibly determines the way we then interpret and experience the world. "I trust in God" captures the meaning better than "I believe in God", as commonly meant.
Belief is, therefore, comprised of many dynamics. For example, it's partly a product of our embodiment. The medical doctor and philosopher Raymond Tallis argues that the evolution of an index or pointing finger was as crucial to the capacity for belief as anything that evolved in the brain. Only with pointing can you conceive of yourself as having agency and being an agent. It creates an instrumental awareness of the body and the world, and so is a prerequisite not just for advanced tool use but also for the concept of "tool". Some other animals deploy what we call tools, but without the concept they neither experience nor develop tools in nearly such a rich way. A crow can use a stick but it won't decorate one, let alone sell it as an expensive walking stick.
Such developments signal momentous changes in consciousness and in the capacity for belief. Ward takes several fascinating chapters carefully to examine the archeological evidence left by our hominid ancestors to track its emergence. Homo sapiens sapiens is a creature that doesn't just interact with the world like, say, plants. We don't just perceive the world as, say, single-celled animals do as they are drawn towards nourishment and withdraw from dangers. Human beings perceive the world as this or that. Moreover, such intentional perception of the world incorporates the immaterial as well as the material - the visible and the invisible - in a fine interlacing of meaning.
Consider the role of the imagination. Coleridge argued that imagination creates a potential space that can be then filled with something actual, be that tangible or intangible. This human capacity is required to do everything from carving figurines to composing symphonies. Belief is also a political issue, in the sense that a community of believers - scientists, artists, philosophers, church-goers - play a crucial role in deciding what is believable. This insights helps unpack the depth of the challenge for theists in circles that are broadly atheistic. Evidence or arguments for the existence of God are not enough because there is the prior issue of whether such cultures are predisposed to believe in theism at all. To put it another way, lives transformed or arts that show transcendence are more likely to open an individual to perceiving the divine because such experiences address the issue at the right level. Reason then comes in to aid discernment.
Contemporary understandings of consciousness are crucial to such believability. Materialist explanations render religious beliefs radically unbelievable by reducing them to neural firings. What is often overlooked is that the same move empties the science of explanatory value too. They also can't explain why we experience the world as 3D and "out there", an experience unimaginable to the zombie-like registering of electrochemical exchanges in brain states. The writer Will Self offered a more apt image in a recent interview: "We’re a kind of energy field rather than something that’s imprisoned in a small bone globe."
Ward develops the argument to show how novels and stories work only because we can know characters and visit places that are totally fictional. Even when fiction evokes or references real places and people, the literature speaks to us because it reveals aspects of experience that would not otherwise be known or seen. Take the sign saying "Platform 9¾" at King's Cross Station. For Harry Potter fans, it turns the spot into something akin to a sacred place.
A religious attitude towards belief, Ward concludes, develops a stage further what is implicit in all belief, which is to say in all human consciousness. If the latter facilities our perceiving the world as this or that, religious belief moves us beyond to perceive the divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. William James grasped this final movement of belief when he defined it as trust in "an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." It's what Paul meant by "living by faith". It's how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews could described faith not as belief in spite of evidence, as is sometimes said today, but as precisely the opposite: "the evidence of things not seen."
Thursday, February 26 2015
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, February 26 2015, 18:57
And the Unknowing of Noise…
We live in a society with a powerful aversion to silence; with an anxiety of not having something said, or anything to say. Silence is feared and equated with emptiness, meaninglessness, nothing.
Muzak is, of course, omnipresent. Or phones and plugged-in pods that create a bubble of noise, keeping the outside world out and starving the inner world of space. If the radio or TV falls silent, it suggests a fault, at best, and possibly global disaster.
Twenty-four hour news, too, cannot tolerate any gaps. You see it particularly during election campaigns, as we are suffering in the UK at the moment. For our wannabe leaders, to be caught off-guard in front of a camera is career threatening. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin doctor, famously filled the political day and night with the "grid". That's become the norm. It's noise as a means of control. "Silence is regarded as a sort of sin now, and it has to be filled with a lot of gossip and sound bites," Douglas Hurd, the politician and novelist, has written.
Or think about silence and friendship. It used to be said that a best friend is a person with whom you can be silent. No embarrassment, no irritation. Today, a best friend is someone with whom you are in constant contact, texting and messaging as automatically as breathing. Fill the space.
Research suggests that there is a connection between the wealth of a society and the levels of noise within it. A project at Sheffield Hallam University tracked the levels of noise in the UK for a number of years. It is rising - in Sheffield city centre, for example, by 3 decibels in 10 years. Officially 125 million Europeans suffer from noise above the recommended guidelines, according to the UK Noise Association, and this is almost certainly an underestimate.
Or maybe the lack of silence is a deeper, cultural issue? Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, argues that our suspicion of silence has religious roots. In the second and third centuries AD, ecclesiastical authorities became antagonistic towards a group known as gnostikoi. They were Christians who claimed that God is most fully known as unknowable, and so therefore in silence. The authorities, who felt the need to shape what believers believed, branded them gnostics and cast them out of the fold. The problem was compounded in the next century when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Belonging to the church meant having access to secular wealth and power, so now what you thought was of political importance too. Thereafter, western rites included creeds and confessions that had to be audibly rehearsed. They policed who was in and who out.. The logic was that that the inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.
The legacy of this tradition is that, today, most western churches do not practice silence. I suspect that this explains part of the appeal of mindfulness meditation: where else can you find and grow in silence? Silence is now also routinely associated with dissent and protest. Think of the tradition that runs from the Quakers to the use of silence by the Occupy protestors.
Alternatively, the Christian legacy seems to have shaped powerful scientific traditions too, such as empiricism or behaviourism. They work on the principle that if manifest evidence - scientific noise - cannot be produced in support of a theory or experience, then the theory or experience is either extraneous or deluded. Silence is treated as meaningless.
Does this matter? I think it does. I know a monk. He spends the majority of his day not talking. His aim is to live in quietude. Not talking has intrinsic value since it is then that he is able to listen to his inner tribulations and for the "still, small voice of God". To put it in secular terms, silence is necessary in order better to perceive and understand things.
To introduce some silence into your life is, therefore, a radical reorientation of your life, from one of possession by articulation to one of reception by waiting, watching, wanting. As Thomas Carlyle wrote: "Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time."
That, then, might be the most profound worry about rising noise levels and the strangeness of silence: it stops us thinking; it stops us experiencing. We must relearn to allow our minds to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase.
This piece, a revision and reworking of a couple of older pieces, has been published by IAI News.
Wednesday, January 21 2015
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, January 21 2015, 12:20
The role of the inner censor hasn’t been much discussed since the atrocities in Paris, though it has a crucial part to play in our freedom. A piece from The Idler.
Freedom of speech has been extensively discussed since the atrocities in Paris at the beginning of the year. But a crucial element has largely been overlooked, I think. The freedom to speak, question and satirize openly is not just a function of the society, democracy or culture in which we live. It is also, crucially, about our inner freedom and the extent to which we ourselves repress, edit or deny.
The proposal that outer freedom may depend upon inner freedom goes back to the debates on liberty during the Enlightenment. David Hume, the Scottish thinker, famously remarked that our passions drive us to the extent that he himself would "prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."
Adam Smith, his near-contemporary and the father of capitalism, argued similarly. He suggested that each of us carries an "impartial spectator". A personal haunting, it sees everything we do. It does not pass judgement but merely lets us know that we are being watched, by ourselves. That generates all manner of inner reactions and emotions, and we feel free only when we feel our impartial spectator sympathizes with our actions. As Mahatma Gandhi remarked, "Freedom and slavery are mental states."
Sigmund Freud made the link his own. He believed we have a personal censor within us. He called it the superego, or over-I. This inner critic and disciplinarian unceasingly monitors our thoughts, feelings and utterances. It represses, or at least moderates, what it considers illicit, intolerable or offensive. It can become more powerful than any law-maker or tyrant, manifesting a range of neuroses and obsessions that trap and disable the cramped, edited, self-monitoring individual.
The superego, Freud argued, arises inevitably out of childhood belligerence. Aggressiveness against the parent develops in the child because the parent prevents it having whatever it wants. But the child is also required to renounce this aggression, if it is to grow up. Caught between the Scylla of desire and the Charybdis of family authority, the child "takes the unattackable authority into itself". In other words, the external authority turns into an inner superego which displays all the aggressiveness against the child that the child would like to have shown its parents.
It's consciously experienced as conscience or morality or a persecutory voice inside the head that sounds strikingly like mother or father. As the adult emerges, society takes full advantage of the inner censor to keep the person in check because society requires that its members do not satisfy their desires willy-nilly with double the ferocity of any parent. In effect, Freud thought, civilisation demands that we live with a perpetual frustration of our most primitive needs to speak, seek and act.
The implication is that the inner intensity of the superego is echoed in the outer intensity with which issues like freedom of speech are debated. In part powering the demand for unrestricted freedom of expression, or the sacralizing of freedom of speech, is the severity and intolerance with which individuals struggle against themselves inside. (In repressive societies, the superego is simply writ large.) The suggestion is that the energy that drives the satirical artist to push at the boundaries of propriety, and the pleasure that comes from viewing outrageous cartoons, is partly caught up with this inner battle. At times like now, it certainly feels as if all kinds of unspoken, emotive dynamics are at play.
Freud's solution was free association. In the privacy of the consulting room, lying on the couch - because, interestingly, a vulnerable position helps outwit the superego - he encouraged his patients to say whatever thoughts or feelings came to conscious awareness. They were invited to wander in their minds without inhibition.
Try it. It's hard to do, and the capacity truly to freely associate may, in fact, be the end point of therapy rather than its starting point. But it's worth trying during the current debate about freedom of speech. A better appreciation of the wiles and strength of the inner censor and critic not only generates self-awareness. If Freud is only half right, it may moderate the ferocity with which the debate is engaged in the public arena, with all the external curtailments on freedom that intensity inevitably brings in its wake.
Friday, January 9 2015
By Mark Vernon on Friday, January 9 2015, 08:11
This piece is just published in the Church Times, thinking about the report on spirituality from the RSA.
SPIRITUALITY is back, if ever it went away. Sam Harris, one of the leading advocates of the new atheism, published a "guide to spirituality", Waking Up, last year. Then there is Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the highly successful Sunday Assembly, who argues that one of its main tasks is developing a language for spirituality. He describes himself as a "humanist mystic", and feels a "spirit in life" which transcends the everyday.
Now, a proudly secular institution in London, the RSA, has published a long report, Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges (Leader comment, 2 January). The report argues that spirituality needs to play a greater part in the public realm, because, without it, human beings are unable to draw on the depth in life which is required to tackle seemingly intractable problems, from unfettered consumption to climate change.
The author, Jonathan Rowson, consulted widely with more than 300 people of many faiths and none (including, I should add for transparency's sake, me).
This new curiosity about spirituality immediately raises hackles. There is a discomfort with the S- word itself, a feeling that "spirituality" is a vague term (as if "religious" were not). The charge is that it is ethically unengaged, intellectually incoherent, personally embarrassing, sentimental, and passive. One wag consulted by Rowson noted that, when he heard the expression "spiritual but not religious", he described himself as "religious but not spiritual". Last week's affirming Church Times leader still noted that the report did not escape the trap of treating spirituality as a largely individual matter.
The report recognises these difficulties, and makes them a starting- point. Rowson argues that the very vagueness of the term may be an advantage. It is one of those words, like "soul" or "sacred", that don't die, for all the railing against them, because they capture something that is crucial for human beings - crucial, perhaps, for the reason that it can't be precisely captured. The word can, therefore, hold a space that might withstand the onslaught of materialist values, and the tendency to pin down, exploit, and instrumentalise. If no one owns it, no one can claim a monopoly over it.
As for the charge of individualism, I would argue that this is also a strength of the report. Rowson's main motivation for thinking about spirituality is that it is needed to tackle important social issues, by means of personal growth. His professional life in policy development has taught him that, without individual transformation - expressed in the great spiritual injunction to "know thyself" - the big problems stay largely untouched. For Christians, you might say that, unless you and I are prepared to risk the happiness of the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the pure in heart, we may well be actually perpetuating the collective issues that face us.
THE new exploration of spirituality might also help to dissolve the religious barriers that are felt to exclude because they tightly define belief in God or Jesus. Religion itself could come to be seen as "a secure base from which to explore, not a fence beyond which lies infidels", as Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of Theos (and another of those consulted), put it.
Similarly, I wonder whether many religious people are uncomfortable with a serious, transformative spirituality, because of the demands it would make on them as individuals. Church of England religiosity currently seems to be taking a highly extraverted and paradoxically this-worldly turn. It is energised by a concern for the socially excluded and materially marginalised, as no doubt it should be. But such matters can also serve to keep the challenge of Christianity safely in other people's lives, thereby sidestepping the question whether we ourselves are dying each day to live more in Christ.
Related to the personal issue, spirituality should be a mission issue too. After all, if the mood music about spirituality has changed, it is also clearly true that a majority of people have not stopped believing in God or that there is a spiritual dimension to life. What has changed is the sense that the Church of England has much to offer when it comes to exploring those depths. As the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, recently put it in an interview with the philosopher Jules Evans: "The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes. . . It's that it's spiritually incredible."
For all the valuable campaigning on issues of social justice, if the Church does not know and communicate the feeling that life is rooted in a source deeper and more compelling than the everyday, then it has lost touch with its wellspring, and its days will look increasingly numbered. The RSA report - and the new interest in spiritual depth - is, I believe, implictly a challenge to us, and to our Church.
Monday, November 24 2014
By Mark Vernon on Monday, November 24 2014, 15:13
It's Stoic Week 2014. This article is an adapted extract from the new issue of The Idler Magazine. The organisers of Stoic Week will be publishing it on their blog alongside a response from someone who disagrees.
Ancient Stoics believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction.
The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that "moves through all creation". He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos.
It's worth reading this hymn in full, not only because it is the Stoic document closest to the founder, but because it conveys the crucial dimension of ancient Stoicism that, sadly to my mind, is ripped out today.
Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Logos of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Logos of all came to be one.
This Logos, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Logos.
To put it another way, ancient Stoics did not believe that it is possible to live contentedly by ignoring what you can't control, as Stoicism is sometimes interpreted today. They did not presume that those most human of feelings, fear and anger, are simply our personal choices, to be turned off and on by some trained trick of the will. They saw that life can gradually be re-ordered to serve a deeper, divine imperative that runs through all things. Let go into that fundamental goodness, and whatever happens will ultimately be shaped after its beneficent, magnificent pattern. It's a commitment of faith to a changed perception of life, not a commitment to reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment, again as Stoicism can sometimes seem by its modern advocates.
It was a question of knowing the divine in nature through felt experience as much as reasoned argument. Hence, Seneca, speaks of intuiting the presence of God in nature.
If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God.
Seneca also seems to have felt he had a relationship with God. "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you... a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian." Philosophy is nothing if not a promise that we can know the deity, and not primarily by our efforts but because God wills to be known to us. In another letter, he writes: "God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men. No mind that has not God, is good. Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat."
Epictetus, too, had a powerful sense of God in his life. This is important to note because it is often from Epictetus that contemporary Stoics lift injunctions about how to live, though leaving the crucially divine setting behind - the metaphysical big picture that is required to make full sense of how we response to what happens. We are "children of Zeus", he says, before addressing God as father in prayer, acknowledging God's omnipresence, and God as the source and sustainer of our life. Indeed, our life is but a reflection of God's life, which is why it makes sense to let go of our own striving and trust life: "If our souls are so bound up with God and joined together with Him, as being parts and portions of His being, does not God perceive their every motion as being a motion of that which is His own and of one body with Himself?" Knowing this fact in every moment of our lives is what secures the Stoic promise of tranquility and freedom. "You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!" He adds: "Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your own genius is within."
Our task in life is not only to know the divinity in the sinews of our being, in every breath we take, but also to fulfill our part in God's purposes. This engages us in a struggle that is personal, not mechanical; there is a moral element of choice about how we might live, and struggle with yourself as well as with discerning the divine around and about, within and before. We are interpreters of God's world and witnesses of God's work. In a climactic celebration of Stoic life, Epictetus declares:
Why, if we had sense, ought we to be doing anything else, publicly and privately, than hymning and praising the Deity, and rehearsing His benefits? Ought we not, as we dig and plough and eat, to sing the hymn of praise to God? ‘Great is God, that He hath furnished us these instruments wherewith we shall till the earth. Great is God, that He hath given us hands, and power to swallow, and a belly, and power to grow unconsciously, and to breathe while asleep.’ This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and above all to sing the greatest and divinest hymn, that God has given us the faculty to comprehend these things and to follow the path of reason. What then? Since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be someone to fulfill this office for you, and in behalf of all sing the hymn of praise to God? Why, what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song.
Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view. Epictetus again:
(Stoicism)says that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God.
Today, it is religious scholars of the ancient world who understand this essential aspect of Stoicism and aren't embarrassed to write about it. In his recent book on St Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright summarizes Stoicism, observing: "Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not. Philosophers... are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted."
I've laboured the point about the theology, and included several key texts, because this is what you will miss if you read most introductions to Stoicism today. To be frank, I think it is dishonest to sideline the divine foundations. It turns Stoicism into an atmosphere without air, a sea without water. Such reductionism is doubly misleading when it comes to Stoicism because the Stoics prided themselves on their rational approach to life that adds up because all its different parts link together - physics, ethics and metaphysics. Drop one element and they felt you are on the way to losing the lot.
That, I fear, is what today's atheistic interpreters of Stoicism risk doing today. Unfounded and ungrounded, Stoicism loses its promise, its efficacy, and its divine energy.
Thursday, October 30 2014
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, October 30 2014, 21:01
This piece is published in this week's edition of The Tablet.
For many Christians the existence of Purgatory is an article of faith. Even for Protestant writers such as C.S. Lewis it made sense as the place where the dead continue their journey towards God: why should our struggle end just because we have died, he reasoned? But can purgatory have secular meaning too?
Yes, a group of psychotherapists, theologians and historians affirmed at a recent conference. They met at the Anna Freud Centre in London, under the auspices of the Freud Museum, one sign of the rapprochement now taking place between psychotherapy and religion.
Sigmund Freud’s scepticism about belief in God is waning among psychotherapists and new links are being forged. Purgatory might play a part because therapy itself can be thought of as a profoundly purgatorial experience. The key is to expand the notion of Purgatory as a place we go to after death, and think of it too as a state of being that can be vividly known in life.
DANTE’S highly influential depiction of Purgatory, in the Divine Comedy, is particularly instructive. He describes Purgatory as a mountain. As his travellers ascend, they spend time on its various terraces. The souls of the departed are purged of various sins at each stage, the first being the most deep-rooted and necessary to tackle, namely the sin of pride. When stuck in the state of pride, a soul may not even know of its need for God. And if it does, it will resist the implied dependency.
Dante’s examination of the dynamics of such sin, which are gradually revealed by the soul’s time in Purgatory, compare favourably with modern psychodynamic insights. Pride in particular may be likened to what often shows up as the fundamental issue in psychotherapy, the state of mind that therapists refer to as narcissism.
Strictly speaking, narcissism is not a love of self, but a determination to love oneself that constantly fails. Narcissistic defences against feeling unlovable therefore accrue to the personality, and they are often in the form of pride because one of the best defences is to attempt to make the world in your own image. It is a form of fantasy omnipotence. And as well as cutting you off from other people, because it is through our vulnerabilities that we most intimately connect, narcissism cuts you off from the divine. Pride and narcissism alike mistake oneself for God.
In a way, the difficult task in therapy is to come to the deep realisation that one is not divine, but a human being who depends on love. This realisation is profoundly troubling if one’s early experiences of vulnerability were traumatic, for one reason or another. Conversely, without such an acknowledgement, life gets stuck. Only the individual who can love can grow, Freud realised. So too, the soul must remain on Dante’s first ledge of Purgatory until it can acknowledge its pride and then its need to open up to God’s compassionate and merciful judgement, for all that these are initially experienced as undesirable, painful and frightening.
Purgatory reflects aspects of the therapeutic experience in other ways too, Kalu Singh, one of the conference participants, continued. It might sound like a humdrum observation, but it is crucial that both take time. They do so because both must reach to the ground of our being, of who we have become and might become. Purgatory is a place of remaking, and further, this remaking is achieved not by forgetting the past but by not letting the past entirely shape the future. Therapy can be experienced like that too.
It is perhaps why Dante’s good angels seem to embody some of the qualities of a good therapist. They accompany the travellers and make space for them. What they do not do is attack them, tempt them, or hinder the deeper processes that might unfold. The psychotherapist, too, waits on the soul, as the Greek word itself implies.
The ways in which Purgatory differs from hell can help develop the comparisons. They were explored by psychoanalyst Richard Carvalho, who noted that if there is no hope in hell, as Dante put it, there is hope in Purgatory. In fact, Purgatory is a place or state shaped by hope, in spite of the pain: the pain is endured not simply as punishment, as it is envisaged in hell, but as process.
It might be put like this. In hell, a central problem is that the soul feels it is impossible to let go of bad experiences. So, a “hell of our own making” is the experience of being trapped in perpetual states of envy, rage, revenge and hate.
The psychoanalytic explorations of these emotions, particularly in the work of Melanie Klein, can read remarkably like the exploration of the seven deadly sins in the Church Fathers. Much as Evagrius Ponticus warned his brethren that pride and so on is what they would find if they ventured on the inner journey to God, so too the psychotherapist is trained to tolerate the negative feelings that will emerge in the relationship they have with their client.
But unlike in hell, Purgatory allows these feelings to be explored and worked through. The soul’s task, and the therapeutic one, is to find a way out of the compulsive clinging to what Christianity refers to as sin, the tragic human trait that left unchecked repeats and repeats and repeats.
The acknowledgement of pride helps to identify a way out, because fundamental to change and redemption is that it cannot be achieved alone: if hell is solipsistic, purgatory is relational. To put it theologically, grace is operative in Purgatory, and similarly modern psychology has demonstrated how the young child needs self-giving parents if it is to learn how not to be caught and ruined by its difficult feelings. As the psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott used to put it, the child needs a nurturing environment in order to be able both to experience the full range of its emotions and feel that it can survive the nastier aspects.
A therapeutic reading of Purgatory is not overly anachronistic, the historian Miri Rubin suggested. When ideas about Purgatory developed apace, at the turn of the first Christian millennium, Purgatory was envisaged as a place where you come to terms with yourself because you see yourself clearly, perhaps for the first time. This is to say that to the medieval mind too, Purgatory does not need to be a state you enter only once you have died. It is a process that is affected by, and is in, the here and now.
The spread of cultural and social activities associated with Purgatory, from chantry chapels to indulgences, can be understood in this way as well. Medieval ideas about Purgatory also contain the notion that the whole of human history is a kind of Purgatory, as creation is redeemed and returns to God.
The crucial dynamic in Dante’s Divine Comedy is, of course, love – the force that moves the sun and the other stars. Dante tells of falling into a rapture at his first taste of love, when seeing Beatrice. But this courtly, romantic love is gradually transformed into the longing not only for another human being, but for the divine. It is re-directed by being able to be thought about, as psychotherapists might say.
And indeed, Freud himself felt that the motor of psychoanalysis is love. It is the longing for more from life that enables the capacity to move beyond overwhelming experiences by gradually being able to gain a felt understanding of them and, then, to incorporate them. It is the realisation that they can propel one through life rather than simply leave one trapped. To put it theologically, Dante comes to realise that he loves God in the love he felt towards Beatrice.
Carl Jung, Freud’s erstwhile disciple, noticed that those who sought his help in the second half of their lives faced problems that were, at base, invariably religious. He argued that we moderns have spontaneously embarked upon new ways to nurture our souls. Many fail us, and so clergy and therapists need to be friends not enemies. As the rapprochement between psychotherapy and religion continues, thinking about Purgatory might prove to be an unexpected and yet fruitful place of meeting.
Monday, October 27 2014
By Mark Vernon on Monday, October 27 2014, 09:21
This review is published in the current issue of Third Way magazine.
There is a quick answer to the question that forms the title of the 95-year-old philosopher Mary Midgley's new book. It is, no. You are not an illusion. But understanding the appeal of "selficide" illuminates much about contemporary popular discourse, and in particular why it is often difficult for religious perspectives to be heard.
Midgley is a lively writer, enjoyed for the focus and clarity with which she steers a way through often complex arguments. (In the interests of disclosure, I should say that I am the editor of the series in which this book and her previous one, The Solitary Self, are published, though I had no direct hand in editing the latest.) There is a technical way of summing up why it can seem plausible to assert that our powerful sense of being an individual, a person, a self is illusory: the methodological stance of the natural sciences has become an ontological conviction. In other words, the highly successful practice of treating the natural world as full of physical objects to be studied empirically has morphed into an assumption that the natural world is full of nothing but physical objects.
When it comes to experience and consciousness, free will and so on this assumption becomes problematic, because these aspects of life are not physical objects. A London bus is big but it is also red. Physics can study the size of the bus though not its redness: all physics can reveal is that my eye is receiving light of about 700 nanometers wavelength. If you think that physics offers the best access to reality, the temptation is therefore to write off the experience of redness as a byproduct of what happens when a certain wavelength hits the cells at the back of your eye and is processed by the neurons at the back of your brain. There is no real experience of redness. The reality is the electrochemical states in the brain. Mental life is an illusion and, since mentality is so central to our experience of ourselves, you are an illusion too.
(It's worth adding that Midgley is not asking the Buddhist question about the illusory nature of the self: her's an issue prior to that about the reality of mental life at all which is to say that the Buddhist enquiry into the nature of the self presumes mental life is real in some sense.)
Of course, Midgley points out, no-one can actually live as if they or their family are an illusion. And there are all sorts of reasons why the reduction of everything to physical objects, and declaring any remainder illusory, fails. If reductionism is taken to reveal the truth of things, why stop at the brain and not molecules, atoms or quarks? The atomic fundamentalist would insist that the experience of pain is no more neurons firing than it is the sense of agony: it is but a pattern of atomic excitation.
Alternatively, consider a simple question asked by Socrates, in Plato's dialogue the Phaedo. Why is he sitting in prison awaiting death by hemlock? The materialists of his day, Socrates says, would argue that his body consists of bones and sinews, and that a certain combination of contractions and movements in those bones and sinews led to him being behind bars. Only that seems a wholly inadequate explanation of his predicament because it misses out the main moral dimension. He is under arrest for what he believes to be the best way to live. That is the reality, and it is materialism that is flawed by dismissing ethics and the like. The paucity of this worldview was highlighted by Plato almost 2,500 years ago. Science has certainly progressed since then, but one of Midgley's main points is that now our moral imaginations seem to be shrinking.
As well as diagnosing what has gone wrong, Midgley argues we need to understand what has been lost. The crucial part played by intention and motivation in mental life, and so also our sense of self is one element she explores. She notes that Charles Darwin did not lose sight of this dynamic. He took it to be as real as the materiality of the fossils he also studied.
For example, in The Descent of Man, he examines the behaviour of female Argus pheasants who chose a mate by male display. Today, evolutionists would describe these remarkable dances and parades as merely representing the potency of genes. But Darwin argued that the male pheasants are clearly trying to charm a female. The display has nothing meaningfully to do with genes at all. "Many will declare that it is utterly incredible that a female bird should be able to appreciate the fine shading and exquisite patterns with an almost human degree of taste," he wrote. Darwin did not find it incredible. The mental life of pheasants is a fascinating subject of study and an obvious fact. Again, subsequent evolutionary science has, in this sense, regressed not progressed. Its "life-blindness", as Midgley puts it, makes a casualty of a pheasant's experience and our own.
Midgley respects the importance of the reality described by Christianity, though is agnostic as to its veracity herself. She argues that it is one thing not to believe in God and quite another not to believe in selves, without following the argument that the one may lead to the other: as some atheist as well as theist philosophers have pointed out, if you remove the ground of Being, then all beings come to be regarded as insubstantial and perhaps dispensable too.
She is also inclined to blame a certain kind of Christianity for the emergence of scientism. It is the type that searches for a world taken to be more real than the immediately reality that surrounds us - perhaps a heaven, the full presence of God, a perfect kingdom. Science makes the same theological move when it claims maths is more real than mud. What she seems to lose sight of is the centrality in Christianity, and indeed in Platonism before, of the very human experiences of love and suffering. They are not perceived of as impediments to truth but as the means by which we gain our deepest insights into life.
Nonetheless, by undoing the excessive claims of science, and showing why it should not dominate public discourse, Midgley contributes greatly to making space for religious truths again. Her books are always an illuminating read.
Friday, October 17 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, October 17 2014, 14:58
This piece is published in Third Way Magazine this month.
In a fascinating conversation with the philosopher Jules Evans , Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, remarks: "The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women. It’s that it’s spiritually incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us." Western religion is "feeble", he continues, because it has been reduced from a journey of many dimensions and parts to a set of ideas that might be "encapsulated in a neat formula".
To put it another way, it's not gay marriage that is the main problem for contemporary Christianity. It's not congregational decline. It's not maintaining a religious voice on the public stage. Such issues, says Chartres, are really proxies for something more substantial, the loss of "fluency in spiritual matters". If Christians had that, the problems that preoccupy us would possibly dissolve, and certainly take second place.
A PROJECTION WITHDRAWN
We suffer from spiritual "impoverishment", and it happens when prayer becomes little more than a form of talking with God, or worse, the means of posting a divine wish list: I want someone to be converted, to be healed, to be renewed. A more alive and therefore credible spiritual life starts with a move through such activities and into the process - the struggle - by which our projections onto God begin to come undone.
Hence, Meister Eckhart went so far as to preach, "If I say that God is good that is not true. God is not good; I am good." He meant that God is beyond what we might think of as good - or wise or lovable - and when we see that we catch a glimpse of God. Cyprian Smith, in his penetrating book on Eckhart, The Way of Paradox , draws an analogy with falling in love: it's when we can let our beloved love us as themselves, as opposed to being the supplier of what we design or need or want, that we enter into a rich relationship with them. It's a frightening process, one that often feels as if we are falling out of love. So too with God. But what can emerge on the other side of this purgation is a life that is good, wise and desirable because it is truly rooted in God.
Saint Paul puts it succinctly when it talks of no longer living, but Christ living in him . What he discovered, when he admitted he didn't know how to pray, was the Spirit already praying within "with sighs too deep for words" . It's the kind of meditation or contemplation taught by fluent spiritual traditions: "Once you... had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life," as Chartres puts it in the conversation .
AN EASTERN JESUS
You might say that the Christian journey is one of the transformation of consciousness; it offers a revolution of our awareness of reality. It's painful and difficult because the trip is Copernican in shape: time and time again we must wrestle with the displacement of our egos as the sun at the centre of things. But, under one reading at least, it is a journey that Jesus himself seems to have undergone. This offers a vision of Christian life that, I suspect, can address some of the spiritual shallowness that the bishop of London identifies.
Alongside medieval adepts like Meister Eckhart, it is presented in the writings of modern Christians like Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths. In fact, the current head of the Shantivanam ashram that was lead by Griffiths, John Martin Sahajananda, was in London recently. He described how the life of Jesus as presented in the gospels suggests that his relationship with God evolved, in the sense of being a lifelong discovery of what was true all along. And astonishingly, Jesus' story is presented as if it might also become ours.
Brother Martin explained that a first type of consciousness experienced by Jesus was simply as a human being, the child of Mary. In this "waking consciousness", Jesus knew himself as a creature and experienced God as transcendent and other. A second type was his "collective consciousness" as a Jew, symbolized in his circumcision on the eighth day. In this position, Judaism seemed like his way, truth, and life - though he also sensed its limitations, perhaps in conversations such as he had with the Samaritan woman at the well or with the Canaanite women whose daughter was demon-possessed . It is as if such encounters were remembered because they conveyed part of the process through which Jesus undid his religiously-shaped projections onto God and let in wider possibilities.
The baptism of Jesus symbolizes a third type of consciousness that transcends the second. "It was the moment he came out of the womb of Judaism and entered into the universal presence of God. It was his spiritual rebirth," Brother Martin writes in his book, Fully Human Fully Divine . He calls it "universal consciousness". The question now is not whether you are Jew or Gentile but whether you know yourself as a child of God. Further, God comes to be perceived not only as a transcendent other but as an indwelling presence: Emmanuel.
ONE WITH GOD
The journey does not end there. A fourth type of consciousness in Jesus' life came with the realisation that he was one with God: "The Father and I are one." Hence he could now say that he is the way, the truth, and the life by virtue of his identification with God who is the way, truth, and life. This is his "awakened consciousness" and he shows this way, truth, and life to us, his followers.
In an arresting aside, Brother Martin remarked that had Jesus proclaimed himself as one with God in India then he would have been sent to an ashram not the cross. Though, the Christian revelation is challenging to Indian religions in other ways. In recognising his identity with God as Abba, Father, Jesus shows that intimacy with the divine is a mark of the evolution of human consciousness. So too is the realisation that loving one's neighbour is the same as loving God. It's a step change from the old covenantal command to love God and neighbour.
ANCIENT & MODERN
It might be called a Vedantic understanding of Christianity , which appeals to me for a number of reasons. First, it is rooted in a spiritually rich and fluent tradition, one in which the difficult practices of withdrawing our projections are alive and being handed on. Moreover, in forms such as mindfulness meditation, it is becoming increasingly accessible in the west, perhaps because our spiritual neediness has led many to look to the east.
That said, it also chimes with western developmental psychology, which can be thought of as a twentieth century science of human consciousness. Although this discipline is typically ambivalent about the spiritual dimension, it does describe human development as a series of step changes in awareness and awakening. Drawing links might, therefore, help to re-establish the fluency and vitality of older spiritual traditions.
For example, the Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan explores the process by which human beings discover meaning in life as a successive evolution of mindsets, from self-possession, to self-authoring, to self-transforming. With the last "we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organisation is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and oppositeness; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other."
Might a vision of Christianity as a transformation of consciousness grab people's attention today? Could it reinvigorate an enfeebled religious imagination obsessed with issues? After all, if ours is a culture that lacks spiritual fluency, it is one in which many are anxious about depth in life and whether consumerism offers all that there is to being human. Christianity says, there is much more. It is found in the person of Jesus, and the call to follow him along the evolutionary trail.
Friday, October 10 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, October 10 2014, 20:10
I've this piece in the Church Times, and was glad to see too that Nature this week is asking the same question...
Evolution is the headline challenge to Christianity in the so-called culture wars. Various apologists make the case that there needn't be a clash, but the fact remains that humans are apes, life is a bloody struggle, nature produces great variety but even greater waste, and where believers foolishly sense design, there are really only random processes.
Biologists seem to know as much. Research from YouGov published last month concluded that almost half of British biologists are atheists, compared with less than one in five of the general population. A smaller proportion of atheists is found among physicists, even.
And yet what this story of stand-off often fails to note is that the theory of evolution is far from settled. Moreover, unease about neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, the version of Darwin's theory championed by Professor Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, has been growing in recent years. There are a number of figures in the field who, although they wholeheartedly accept that life evolves, are now questioning it.
Take the problem of "missing hereditability", the suggestion that genes can account for only a fraction of what we inherit from our forebears. It has become impossible to ignore this since the sequencing of the human genome in 2003. This impressive achievement has, none the less, dramatically failed to deliver on its promise to account for human diseases and behaviours through genetic mechanisms.
Click to enlarge
A handful of breakthroughs have been made, and modern science's efficient PR machine ensures that newspapers still carry headlines about genes for this and that. Massive funding is at stake. But, in truth, the stated goals of the project have not materialised.
BUT something far more interesting, particularly for theists, has emerged. The failure has led to the mainstreaming of the new science of epigenetics. This acknowledges that the environment and nurture - even a parent's experiences - directly influence what is passed on to offspring. It undermines the idea that inheritance happens only via DNA, and that evolution is built solely on random mutations. To put it simply, life is far more complicated and responsive than "selfish-geneism" allows.
Genetic determinism was, in fact, challenged from its inception by a now forgotten biologist, Walter Weldon. He argued that the environment and nurture were required to account for the inherited variations within species observed in nature. Further, Weldon's view might have won the day, and saved us from a century of biological reductionism; but he died young. What is known as Mendelian genetics had better PR and, then as now, that often matters more than pure science.
Epigenetics might interest believers because it is one step away from the mechanistic interpretation of evolution which appears to land such blows on theism. It is a new piece in the puzzle of life which raises the possibility that evolutionary processes many not be blind and random, but might have direction, even purpose.
To that extent, it chimes with another critic of the status quo, the NYU philosopher, Thomas Nagel. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, he asks whether life may tend towards the emergence of consciousness. When you immerse yourself in all the extraordinary intricacies and syntheses at play in biological systems, it can certainly seem as if the universe wills itself to become aware of itself in the organism Homo sapiens.
AT A recent conference, "The Uses and Abuses of Biology", organised by the Faraday Institute of Cambridge University, Dr Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Palaeobiology at Cambridge, speculated that we might do well to return to the insights of the co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.
Right from the start, Wallace argued that human consciousness was far more sophisticated than would be needed merely to afford human beings survival advantages. We don't use language just to warn our fellows of danger but to compose sublime, searching poems. We don't use sound just to attract a mate but to nurture the ecstasy and insights of music.
Neo-Darwinism puts language and music down as an evolutionary by-product or excess. But that is scientifically unsatisfactory, because it is, in effect, saying that there is no direct explanation. It also feels humanly inadequate, leading to comments such as those of the Harvard professor Stephen Pinker, who describes music as "auditory cheesecake". Don't sit next to him during a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion.
Theists can be intrigued by this sort of debate, since it might change the narrative of a "clash" with science. But they also shouldn't get too excited. As Professor Conway Morris continued, biology would have to become an unimaginably different science were it to embrace any teleological dynamics. The taboo against directionality is strong.
Then again, paradigm shifts occur regularly in the history of science. Perhaps biologists are about to make an evolutionary breakthrough.
Friday, May 23 2014
By Mark Vernon on Friday, May 23 2014, 10:01
This piece is in the latest Church Times, out today…
We are in the midst of a spiritual revival. It has touched the lives possibly of millions. It keeps books in the Amazon top 20 for years. It's bigger than the Alpha Course. And yet, the church seems hardly to have noticed it, or at least responds with nervousness. It is the practice of mindfulness - a technique and a state of being that the Oxford psychologist and Anglican priest, Mark Williams, has defined as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity."
The latest sign was the launch this week, on 7th May, of an all party parliamentary group, supported by the Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of Oxford, Exeter and Bangor universities. Seventy or more MPs have undergone mindfulness training, and the aim is to help spread the practice into health, education, criminal justice and work. So might the established church now start to take more serious note and, if so, how?
There is the nervousness to overcome, the sense that Buddhism is spreading across the land under the guise of teaching useful skills (Features, Lent Series 2013). One way to address this issue is realise that the concept of mindfulness is, in a sense, biblical. When scholars first translated the Pali word "sati" they landed on the word "mindful" by borrowing from the psalms: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" The use there captures something of the power of attention - of God being intimately aware of us, and we of ourselves.
It is, therefore, truer to say that mindfulness is just one of a family of practices, now often forgotten, that have long been part of the Christian tradition too, practices that might include reciting the Jesus Prayer, sitting still, and contemplative communion with God. "The skill required is inner silence," Martin Laird explains in his excellent introduction, Into the Silent Land, because "It is the noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of our being."
It can also be helpful to draw a distinction between "problem-solving" and "spiritual" mindfulness, as Alex Gooch puts it in a new collection of essays, After Mindfulness edited by Manu Bazzano (Palgrave Macmillan). Problem-solving mindfulness is a technique that, for example, tackles addictions (Comment, 3 January). There is lots of evidence it helps. Spiritual mindfulness is different in that it addresses not only individual troubles, but questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine.
Why Christianity lost touch with its mindfulness traditions is a moot point. In his book, Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that western ecclesiastical authorities have long tended not to sanction silence as part of everyday Christian life because in Christendom, much of social and political importance rested on the beliefs of individuals being made public. Elizabeth I did not want to make windows into men's souls, but amongst leaders she is an exception. Western liturgies that to this day contain little or no silence is a byproduct. The worry about mindfulness as secret Buddhism might be another.
But like the many revivals of religious life across the centuries, of which Justin Welby is rightly making so much (News, 4 April), I suspect that the mindfulness movement can be seen as a spontaneous desire to recover this lost dimension of the spiritual life that contemporary Christianity is failing to provide.
That said, secular mindfulness teachers tend to steer clear of the s-word and it is theologically unlike, even opposed, to the Christian understanding of God, grace and salvation. Rather, it is presented as a method through which the individual might become skilled to save themselves from unnecessary suffering. But a closer look suggests that this might be only a surface difference and that mindfulness can be a route through which individuals rediscover the divine.
Consider this. A good mindfulness teacher will not try to sell the practice with promises of happiness or fixes for anxiety, though there is a lot of that around. (In this way, mindfulness is a step on from CBT that does offer techniques for directly managing troubling thoughts and feelings.) Rather, they will teach the profoundly counterintuitive insight that the effort in mindfulness training is, paradoxically, aimed at learning to do nothing. Do not strive to mend, but rather see more fundamentally what is going on inside; understand the machinations of the mind more clearly. Yearning to be happy or be free of psychic pain is, in fact, likely to compound the problem.
But why should someone trust this recommendation? What is the model of being human that lies behind it? It is that in spite of appearances, all is well. Creation is benign. Life can be trusted. Suffering certainly copiously exists but a stronger grace longs to be felt, if only we can ease up on our desperate self-holding and so know it in some silence. To put it another way, mindfulness is premised on the conviction that our worried egos and daily preoccupations veil the truth that our lives rest in a life that sustains and supports all things.
Again, mindfulness teachers will stick to secular language such as "training the observer" or "simply noticing". That's right, that's the practice. But why do that if letting go were letting go into a godless, heartless void? It seems to me that, in practice, mindfulness nurtures the experience of knowing the God "in whom we live and move and have our being".
I suspect that soon individuals will turn to the philosophical and theological questions mindfulness naturally raises, and about which the Christian tradition holds rich and compelling possibilities. Christians now might want to develop mindfulness groups, discuss it, above all practice it. Because if mindfulness is symptomatic of a spiritual revival then it is also a mission issue, in the sense of missio dei: God's work in the world with which the church is invited to join. To put it another way, in a secular age, mindfulness may prove to be a much needed experiential way back to belief in God.
Monday, March 31 2014
By Mark Vernon on Monday, March 31 2014, 20:50
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
By Mark Vernon on Friday, February 21 2014, 11:13
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
By Mark Vernon on Friday, December 6 2013, 11:48
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 (http://www.thingsunseen.co.uk), 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.