Mark Vernon, writer and former priest, says we should rehabilitate the concept of narcissism as a valuable form of self-love. "Love others as if they were yourself, yes. But also, love yourself so you can love others. Proper self-regard resources other regard."
We will miss Rowan Williams when he is gone. Not because public life will be the poorer without that beard, those eyebrows: Boris Johnson's blond mop can fill the gap. Not because conservatives and liberals alike will lose a ready scapegoat: there will be others upon whom to load our discontent. But because he is, to my mind, the leading public intellectual of his generation.
I know that reading him can be like watching a jellyfish disintegrate in a jacuzzi, as one notable commentator memorably put it. My own version of that experience came after attending his lectures at university. During the series, I bumped into a friend on the high street and exclaimed: "why weren't you there?" After an excuse, they asked me what had been said. I stumbled and tried to explain before realising that the great man's words can seem like bright soap bubbles, bursting as they rise in the air. But of this I was sure: I wanted my friend to be there because it was obvious that something important was being aired, something unexpected would be said. Those words came from a place of vitality. Here is someone whom Aristotle would have called megalopsyche or "great souled". You want to sit alongside such humans on the rare occasions they come your way, which is presumably why even his biggest ideological opponents have done so.
It is always worth reading the archbishop for yourself, not how he is redacted in the press. Hoping you might agree, here is what I hear him saying in the new introduction to his collected lectures, Faith in the Public Square, crucial elements lost in the reports of last weekend's media.
He does criticise the way the economy is run when focused on growth for growth's sake. He does have a pop at his predecessor, Lord Carey, who has complained that Christians are being persecuted in this country. But what is missed in the headlines are the deeper, penetrating points. "We have been hearing a lot about the dangers of 'aggressive secularism'," he writes, but that noise obscures the fact that the notion of secularism does not describe where our society is at. (Keeping up the noise presumably suits the "aggressors".)
Most people do not live in a disenchanted world. Public rituals persist. I write as the Red Arrows fly overhead, celebrating the Olympics. Why do acrobatic jets suit the moment? Is it the roar? The colour? It is hard to say, which is partly why the ritual works. So if we are to progress crucial questions about how society can be organised around a diversity of beliefs, Williams continues, hadn't we better be clearer about where we are actually at?
The way he frames his interventions is striking too. To attempt to be a public commentator of any weight, he stresses, is to be doomed to failure. Some will accuse you of straying into their territory. Others will accuse you of platitudinous dumbing down. Others again will make the case for inscrutability. Williams knows he will fail. He signed up to that when he signed up to Christianity because Christianity recognises that failure is what human beings do. And yet, the recognition is not humiliating but liberating "because it delivers us from aspiring to mythic goals of absolute human control over human destiny".
He practises the risk he preaches. In the interview he gave at the weekend, he floated the idea of a president of the Anglican communion to relieve the next archbishop of his global duties. He is undoubtedly right that the job is impossible and will become more undoable. That solution, though, would surely sink the church into further division and squabbles. Can you imagine the power struggle that would ensue in the selection of such a figurehead?
In the book, Williams continues: "The best thing to hope for is that at least some of the inevitable mistakes may be interesting enough (or simply big enough) for someone else to work out better responses." Which professional politician would and could express such mitigated optimism? Actually, I suspect Boris conveys a not dissimilar stance and that is part of his appeal. Maybe the hair does matter.
What is it like to be a Christian? Not what do Christians believe or how many superstitions do they quietly excuse before breakfast? But what is faith as experienced?
It is an important question because, as Rowan Williams notes in his new book, The Lion's World, people might think they know what faith is about when, today, they perhaps don't, never having been there. Subtitled "A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia", the book is partly about CS Lewis. But it is also a chance for the archbishop of Canterbury to convey what Christianity means to him. This is difficult to do, not only because contemporary Britons lack Christian experience but because, as titular head of the established Church of England, Williams recognises a need to "rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything".
The elusory character of Christianity is also on the mind of Francis Spufford, the historian and science writer. The subtitle for his new book, Unapologetic, is "Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense". A central worry for him is not that the rational justification for belief has been undone. Faith is not about that anyway: as Coleridge noted, the best argument for Christianity is that "it fits the human heart". Rather, it is that so many of the secular alternatives to Christianity only work because they "depend on some tacky fantasy about ourselves". They are in flight from what is truly difficult about life; what is hardest to stomach about ourselves. Take John Lennon's anthem Imagine, which had such a prominent place in the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Spufford labels the lyrics the "My Little Pony of philosophical statements", with its monstrously deluded assumption that the default state of human beings – psychological, cultural and social – is one of peace.
Instead, Spufford likens the experience of being a Christian to listening to the adagio of Mozart's clarinet concerto. This "very patient piece of music" has been described as conveying the sound of mercy because its quiet beauty does not deny the horrors of life but admits they exist and yet insists there is more too. It is as if, running through the mess, there is an infinite kindness, or gentle forbearance, or what Dante called a love that moves the sun and stars. Reason cannot decide whether that is true. The feelings that deliver closer, insider knowledge of human experience can.
Williams reflects extensively on the nature of mercy as well. He portrays it as an unsentimental though humane experience, again because it means facing up to the truth about what you have done and who you are. The theistic insight is that this truth can only be seen when you are confronted by the divine. To meet God – or Aslan, as Lewis has it in the Narnia stories – is "to meet someone who, because he has freely created you and wants for you nothing but your good, your flourishing, is free to see you as you are and to reflect that seeing back to you".
In other words, to see yourself as others see you might be discomforting but it will also always be skewed by the distorting lens of their self-interest. To be unmasked as God sees you is painful because purgative, but is also a path to true liberation. It is merciful because without it we are left in a citadel of self-deception, life's energies being sapped and wasted on bolstering self-regard.
None of this proves the existence of God in the way a science would demand because its evidence arises from the inner lives of individuals. It does, though, reflect a strand in the philosophical discussion of God, often forgotten today. Pascal drew attention to the problem God has in revealing himself to creatures he has made to be free, because if God were to offer irrefutable evidence then that would force a relationship of coercion, not love. God's solution, Pascal proposed, is to "appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and [to remain] hidden from those who shun him".
The philosopher Paul Moser calls the demand for such proof "spectator evidence" in his more academic recent book, The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Re-examined. And being a spectator of life will not take you into life or reveal the ground of life to you. It separates the individual from both. Rather – and as Williams and Spufford stress – what is required is a transformation of the individual, akin to the transformation that occurs when someone falls in love. It happens not because there is a hardening of the evidence but because there is an unhardening of the heart, softened in relationship. Only then might we see as we are seen.
A quiet revolution is underway in hundreds of women's religious communities across the United States and Ireland. Its followers have been called "Green Sisters" by Sarah McFarland Taylor, professor of religion at Northwestern University, in the title of her book length study. These nuns, she writes, are some of the best educated women in America. They are committed to an ecological spirituality, building new "earth ministries" and reinvigorating religious life.
It will find expression in the 2012 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), meeting next week in St. Louis, Missouri. The keynote speaker is Barbara Marx Hubbard, cofounder of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution. Her website highlights endorsements from new age figures including Deepak Chopra and Neale Donald Walsch.
An insight into the movement can be gained from one of its key texts, published in the early 1990s by the late theologian and Passionist priest, Thomas Berry, and the cosmologist Brian Swimme. It was entitled, "The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era – A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos." It tells a scientific story of the evolution of universe, from the big bang to the emergence of human self-consciousness, and does so as a new sacred myth.
We live in period during which human consciousness is rapidly evolving to a fuller realisation of its place in the universe, the book explains. It is a process described as the universe "attempting to be felt." Appreciating the insight leads to a new experience of the numinous defined as, "being shocked by the splendour of existence."
Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent, has called it "progressive spirituality". The progressive element refers to the ethics and politics that the cosmic spirituality inspires. Followers of the universe story are highly ecologically aware. They champion the rights of women. Such convictions spring directly from what the science appears to be telling human beings about their place in the universe. The key word is relationality. We are literally linked to the stars in that we are made of stardust. We are entangled with one another like quantum particles. This sense of things leads to a rejection of the hierarchical and patriarchal assumptions implicit in so-called dominion theology, the belief that God gave man dominion over the natural world. In its place comes a green sense of custodianship and care.
Relationality also implies that we are creatures with all sorts of possible tomorrows like the non-determined states of quantum physics. Unlike a subatomic particle, though, we can and must take responsibility for those tomorrows because we have emerged into self-consciousness. And the key test of the decisions we make is environmental. In another book, The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future, Berry writes: "The [ecological] devastation taking place cannot be critiqued effectively from within the traditional religions or humanist ethics... Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself."
Diarmuid O'Murchu, a member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Order who spends much of his time travelling and lecturing on themes related to the universe story, put it like this: "It seems to me that if we humans are to begin to live more sanely, and humanely, and creatively on the planet and within the cosmos, then we have a huge task of letting go. We need to let go of power and of our dominance."
Inspiring tales of self-consciousness emerging from the primordial fireball can sound esoteric though they have very practical outcomes. Green sisters run numerous training programmes. A pioneering centre is the Genesis Farm in Caldwell, New Jersey, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Dominic. Courses and lectures for the autumn of this year focus on "earth literacy" and the transition movement, the global network that sponsors a shift in western patterns of life away from heavy consumption.
Lynch believes that in much the same way as the charismatic movement of the 1980s started out on the margins of the church and is now mainstream, so the universe story, and related new scientific sacred myths, will head the same way. But does the universe story make sense and how does it relate to orthodox theology and, for that matter, generally accepted science?
The theology has been called pantheistic by some, though the movement does not seem to have much occupied the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it recently censured the LCWR. Thomas Berry was heavily influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist who extended St. Paul's notion of the cosmic Christ to link spirit and matter, eternity and time. He was reprimanded by the Vatican for "serious errors", though in 2009, Pope Benedict, who has also been called the "green pope", appeared to revise official reception of Teilhard's ideas. Benedict praised him for his "great vision" of the cosmos as a "living host". In short, the theological jury on the universe story is still out.
When it comes to the science, it seems easier to offer critique. The universe story is heavily tied to twentieth century physics. The difficulty here is that the physics is changing. Take the big bang. Many cosmologists are now questioning it, proposing instead that the universe fluctuates in massive cosmic cycles. If that were the case then it would complicate claims such as the universe is "attempting to be felt". It would imply that the universe has made many such attempts, many times before, only to have to begin again and again. These eternal returns might erode the ethical urgency behind the green spirituality. Perhaps climate change on planet earth is cyclical too. If it weren't human beings causing it, some other natural process would.
In response, proponents of the universe story argue that we are only beginning to understand our connection with the cosmos, as scientists are only beginning to understand the nature of the universe, so we should positively expect the theology to change and develop in line with the science.
A deeper criticism is that proponents of ecological spirituality are somewhat picky about the science of which they make so much. So, whilst quantum physics is routinely cited to express the interconnectedness of all things, by way of analogy with the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, advocates of the universe story do not much consider the destructive energy embedded in, say, the so-called quantum vacuum. To put it bluntly, life for a subatomic particle is, on the whole, colossally violent. It seems that most of the universe, much of the time, is engaged in countless acts of creation followed by more or less immediate destruction.
There is also the tricky issue of how events at the subatomic level relate to phenomenon on everyday scales - the so-called "measurement problem". This means that it is far from clear how quantum entanglement could have anything to do with the experiences of human beings.
It is also possible to question the appeal to evolutionary science. The difficulty here is that spiritual conceptions of the evolution of consciousness require evolution to be progressive. It must lead, by a gradual unfolding and emergence, to the complexification of life. However, the implication of such directionality in natural selection is a highly contentious proposition in mainstream science.
When I approached the physicist Paul Davies, who is also the writer of best-selling books such as The Mind of God, for his thoughts on the universe story, he was resistant. He said: "There is a lot of flaky stuff in this area, where people present quantum physics in a mystical light and then draw all sorts of dubious ‘spiritual’ conclusions. I am reluctant to get involved because the field is so vague."
And yet, the new physics is radically changing our view of the natural world. Many will read about it in popular science books, or gaze in awe at the latest pictures from NASA on the television, only to continue with their lives as if everything were the same. It is easy to pick holes in the way green religious movements appropriate the science. The theology often seems questionable too. But at least these women are seriously trying to live by what they take the science to be saying. They are finding much needed sources of spiritual inspiration in the face of apparent climate disaster. If that powers a striving to be transformed and to respect the sacred in nature then the quest deserves to be respected.
Richard Dawkins is a master myth-maker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. His great book of that title, published over 35 years ago, described human beings as lumbering robots driven by immortal genes. It even had a brilliant, final twist. Sometimes, the myth promised, we can overcome the tyranny of the biological imperative inside us.
Inevitably - though perhaps more quickly than many anticipated - his myth is going the way of the world. It spoke powerfully of what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated.
A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature. They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn't stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists - and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next generation awaits a myth-maker of Dawkins' stature to tell us this new story about life.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Is it not overly provocative to refer to the selfish gene as a myth, though it seems quite precise: my dictionary includes definitions such as 'false belief' and 'fictitious thing'? It will be thought inflammatory because, unfortunately, naming something a myth carries these pejorative overtones in our times. It is as if myths are straightforwardly untrue, and those who believe them are ignorant and foolish.
Ironic, then, that following complaints made to the BBC because a conversation between Dawkins and Jeremy Paxman caused some people offence, that the BBC Trust excused Paxman's use of the word "hogwash" because he said it of myths rather than religion.
Much to his credit, Dawkins was strikingly fulsome about myths in the interview. He confessed to finding Aztec myths amusing and loving the myths that begin the book of Genesis. A tremendous writer, he understands their power. All successful popularizers of science do. His latest book, which prompted the Paxman interview, trades on the genre in its very title: The Magic of Reality. The book describes many myths, religious ones as well as scientific. Myths are so powerful because they fire the imagination, encourage play and make great poetic stories. They can only do so when there is something true in them.
There are, of course, differences between scientific and religious myths. For one thing, scientific myths are far less long-lived than religious ones. The great faiths of the world daily turn to myths that are thousands of years old and find truth leaping off the page as they read them. Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton?
Both kinds of myth seek evidence in their support. The difference here is that scientific stories seek empirical evidence - and when the empirical evidence fails, the myth fails too, which is what appears to be happening to the selfish gene.
Conversely, religious myths seek proof of a more personal kind. These myths work when they speak in their details about the truths of life.
Take a myth like that of Narcissus. It tells the tale of a beautiful man whose looks made him the centre of attention. Everyone fell for him and, as a result, his heart became swollen with pride, his demeanor hard and aloof. He became lost, then alone, and eventually died.
Such is the troubled life of the narcissist. But the proof of the myth is not established by trying to find a man called Narcissus and seeing whether his heart became empirically swollen and his visage literally hard.
Everyone knows that. So why is it that many religious people are as wary of myths as Paxman appears to be? Is it because they agree with Paxman that the scientific accuracy of millennia old myth can be readily knocked down? Don't they see that saying that is like saying Shakespeare should not be taught in schools because Romeo and Juliet never existed?
Religious people should be masters of myth, like Dawkins, for the greatest myths convey the truth of things to us, be that spiritual or scientific.
It began with a walk in the Cairngorms almost 50 years ago. The physicist Peter Higgs had an idea about the origins of mass in the universe. The Higgs boson was born in the human mind. And now, after spending billions of dollars – as well as all the creative energy that cash represents – scientists at Cern (otherwise known as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) have discovered the subatomic particle. Or at least, they have seen the signature for something close to what they expect the Higgs to be.
It has been called the “God particle” because the Higgs plugs a crucial gap in what physicists refer to as the Standard Model. That has been successful at describing the behaviour of matter, energy and forces. Yet the discovery of the Higgs does not mean that physics is now over. Far from it. In the 50 years since Peter Higgs’ brainwave, cosmologists have discovered that the majority of the universe is made of stuff most probably unknown to science, the so-called dark mass and dark energy. The Standard Model will not be standard science for future generations.
Given those qualifications, it is striking that the Higgs has generated so much hype. This is partly because Cern, the organisation responsible for the Large Hadron Collider tests which discovered the particle, needs to justify the spend. So teams of spin doctors ensured the experiment produced regular headlines. But that only raises a further question: why are we so gripped by the weirdness of the subatomic world? Physics powerfully resonates with the notion of cosmic design. Physicists look for theories that can be described using mathematics. When tested, these theories reveal the hidden nature of reality. The mathematical and hidden element readily fires the theological imagination. As the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz put it: “When God calculates and thinks things through, the world is made”.
It is as if science and religion are part of the same enterprise: revealing the ways of God. “Science appears as a collective effort of the Human Mind to reach the Mind of God,” writes the physicist and priest Michael Heller. “The Mind of Man and the Mind of God are strangely interwoven.”
It is a powerful intuition explored in a famous essay by the Nobel laureate for physics, Eugene Wigner. His title says it all: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. Wigner describes the descriptive and predictive power of mathematics as a “miracle”. He continues: “It is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.”
It is not so hard to believe if you believe that human beings are made in the image of God. The trumpeting of the discovery of the God particle flirts with the thrilling thought that we have taken one step closer to divinity. As the essayist Annie Dillard has written: “What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: ‘Hello’?”
But it is easy for the theological imagination to become overexcited by science. For one thing, it seems likely that life can only emerge in a universe in which matter and energy are patterned and constrained. It is this patterning that gives mathematics a grip on nature. A life-bearing cosmos would inevitably be a mathematics-friendly cosmos.
Alternatively, you can ask what kind of God is revealed by the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. William Blake reflected on the deistic divinity implied by such an understanding of the cosmos and found it “soul-shuddering”. His“dark satanic mills” are the impersonal, cold machines that “grind out material reality”, much as the indifferent Higgs boson is said to generate mass. A tyrannical God would fix life according to laws of nature, Blake continued. A world of such determined domains of space and time would be a prison. Further, the scientist or theologian who overplays humankind’s capacity to understand the cosmos risks idolatry. “He who sees the Ratio only,” Blake mocked, “sees himself only.”
More generally, you could say that contemporary physics so captures our imagination because it is the way many now do metaphysics. As the scholastic theologians of the medieval period gazed towards heaven seeking the divine, so we gaze into the heavens seeking replies to our great questions. Both activities promise to reveal the nature of reality and so something of our own nature.
Only perhaps we need to learn not to be so concrete, so literal. If it is a mechanism you seek, then the God particle will thrill you. If it is life, then clues must be sought somewhere else.
Kate Turkington, in Johannesburg, talked with me on South Africa's Talk Radio 702 last weekend. I rather enjoyed it, in a rattling through some of the big questions kinda way. There's a podcast here. It gets going about 3 minutes in...
It is sensible to be sceptical of the pronouncements of neuroscience. When you read, say, that brain scanners have found the ‘love spot’ amongst the folds of grey matter, it is probably a case of neuromania, to use the word coined by the neuroscientist Raymond Tallis.
Nonetheless, neuroscience carries weight in our public discourse. Carefully considered, it offers insights into what it is to be human. Although, what is revealed, upon a second reading, often seems not so much like new insights, as old insights re-described with the authority of science. This is particularly true when it comes to matters concerning spirituality.
One crucial phenomenon here is brain lateralisation: the significance of the fact that the brain is not symmetric. Its two hemispheres are structurally, physiologically and psychologically different. They see the world in different ways.
In fact, argues Iain McGilchrist, in his fascinating book, The Master and His Emissary, it is best to think of the hemispheres as two personalities. It often makes better sense to ask what each hemisphere is like, as opposed to how it works.
It is a discovery with deep implications for the study of spirituality. I suspect McGilchrist’s book will prove instrumental in reinvigorating spirituality for an age that has otherwise grown wary of the religious quest. Others appear to think similarly too. Last month, no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, hosted a private seminar with McGilchrist to discuss the ramifications of his work.
The two persons interpretation of brain lateralisation comes from Roger Sperry, the neuroscientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on split-brain research. The left loves precision. Its purpose in life is to manipulate. It seeks certainty and gains that by building maps of what it has grasped of reality, though like physical maps, the left hemisphere’s charts come with the inherent limitation of being abstracted from the world as it actually is. They are handy fictions.
The right hemisphere serves the ability to make connections and build understanding. It has the kind of personality that enjoys possibilities and novelty. Delighting in pattern, it discovers, though is also able to remain uncommitted about the nature of things. This negative capability, to recall Keats’ expression, allows it to stay alert to the unknown and, therefore, more in touch with reality. It can live with what it can’t understand.
Why two hemispheres, not just one brain? In short, because we need both kinds of attention to survive. The left hemisphere’s narrower focus supports the capacity to control the world. The right offers the capacity to maintain a sustained, open engagement. If the left longs to make the world its own, the right receives. If the left conceptualises, the right is expectant.
The two are in a creative tension. Put them together and you have the brilliant capacity, say, to stand back from reality whilst remaining part of it; to have a distance from things without becoming detached. That must have tremendous evolutionary advantage: other animals have split brains too. In this process of right-left-right exchange, human experience deepens. It becomes three dimensional. One seamless self-consciousness is the result of embracing the wills of the two hemispheres.
Here, then, is a first ‘discovery’ that chimes with the traditions of spirituality because this is precisely the kind of awareness promoted in practices such as insight meditation. Mindfulness, as it is also known, cultivates an ability to be aware of thoughts and feelings as well as actually having those thoughts and feelings. As the author of the Visuddhimagga wrote 1600 years ago: ‘The first realization in insight is that the phenomena contemplated are distinct from the mind contemplating them… he can, with further insight, gain a clear understanding of these dual processes…’
It is important to emphasis the necessity of both hemispheres for such full consciousness, as it is tempting to make the reductionist move and simplistically associate the left with the rational and the right with emotion. McGilchrist is keen to stress that it was such popularisation of brain lateralisation that almost ruined the subject for serious science. As he said in a recent talk: ‘Then there was a Volvo ad about the car for your right brain. That did it. From then on, no self-respecting scientist could be found to touch the topic.’
Being ‘right-brained’ does not mean being spiritual. The truth is that the most valuable spiritual insight lives on a knife-edge between intuition and discernment. You need both to keep a balance between what Wittgenstein called ‘saying’ and ‘showing’.
This is a second dominant theme in spiritual writers. Denys the Areopagite, for example, stressed such a binocular approach when he remarked: ‘The tradition of the theologians is twofold, on the one hand ineffable and mystical, on the other manifest and more knowable… the ineffable is interwoven with what can be uttered. The one persuades and contains within itself the truth of what it says, the offer effects and establishes the soul with God by initiations that do not teach anything.’ The marriage of the left and right hemispheres could hardly be more precisely expressed.
A third area concerns the importance of the body. ‘Spiritual practice is always embodied when it is most effective,’ explains Fraser Watts, who heads up a research group on embodied cognition in the University of Cambridge. ‘People pray with their bodies as well as their minds.’ Hence a spiritual director is likely not to advise you to contemplate ‘proofs’ for the existence of God to deepen your relationship with the divine, but to go on pilgrimage, attend liturgies and rituals, or introduce discipline and pattern into your life.
This makes sense when it is realised that the right hemisphere is more deeply connected to the body. Both hemispheres have motor and sensory connections with the opposite side of the body. But whereas the left makes maps, the right carries a whole body sense that is intimately linked to lived, affective experience. It is responsible for empathic and emotional connections with others and the world. It is the wellspring of expansive, meaningful and uncertain feeling – which in the theological realm is the pathway to God. Hence, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing insists, the cloud is pierced by a ‘dart of longing love’, not intellection.
There are many other points of contact between the science and the spiritual, but one more particularly catches my eye. It concerns the way the two hemispheres communicate. This is something of a problem because they speak such different languages. The gulf is bridged largely by processes of inhibition across the structure known as the corpus callosum.
It is the inhibitive quality that is so fascinating because what it implies is that the left can only accept what the right has to offer, and vice versa, by a process of unknowing what it had taken to be the case. It must let go and tolerate a new, unsettling and unexpected vision of things. To make the link to the spiritual, it could be said that this mode of communication is a kind of via negativa. To cite the author of The Cloud of Unknowing again, when describing how God might be grasped: what was known must be ‘covered with a cloud of forgetting’.
In his book, McGilchrist musters the evidence to show that the left hemisphere is good at suppressing the insights of the right. Hence an age that fails to understand the spiritual quest, such as ours, may be suffering from a condition known as ‘hemispheric utilisation bias’. The left has, as it were, imposed its view of the world upon us at a cultural level.
That explains why it is often claimed that neuroscience demonstrates we are purely material beings and that consciousness is a delusional by-product of electrically charged meat. But perhaps the truth is precisely the opposite. To put it crudely, a culture enamoured with the insights of the left hemisphere trusts the neuroscience because it is a science. What it is perhaps just beginning to notice is that the science is subtly unpicking the very worldview to which it has been so wedded.
Silence is like forgiveness. Many would say it’s a lovely idea, until they have to do it (to borrow a line from C.S. Lewis). Or more provocatively, could there be a cultural conspiracy around silence, as if the powers-that-be would prefer that we did not do it? After all, the silent person is a dangerous person. They have thoughts of their own.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, is developing something of reputation for making scholarly jibes at the tradition he has so extensively studied. He has remarked that the conversion of England in the sixth century was prompted by Pope Gregory falling for the fair-haired “angels” from these islands, when they appeared in the Roman slave market. Funny, MacCulloch noted, that the church is now so troubled by same-sex affections. Then, in his TV series, How God Made the English, he argued that the established church defends the place of all faiths in society, not because the Church of England has long championed tolerance, but because historically it has been so intolerant. It has learnt the lesson the best way, that is, the hard way.
Now, in his Gifford Lectures, delivered last month and available online, he has turned his mind to silence. The lectures present a lively history of silence in the church, and left me with a clear sense that this is a history that effects us all today.
A suspicion of silence took root in the second and third centuries, when bishops penned diatribes against the so-called gnostikoi, Christians who claimed that God was most fully known as unknowable, and so therefore in silence. To be branded a gnostic was to be cast out of the fold. Then, in the fourth century, came the conversion of Constantine. The church aligned itself to secular power and now what you thought was of political importance too. Thereafter, western rites included creeds to be audibly confessed. They policed who was in and who out.
The legacy of this tradition is that, today, if you go to a mass or morning worship, there will be barely a moment’s silence. Quakers aside, it is as if there is a de facto ban on silence in public worship. When people gather together, they should rehearse approved truths. The inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.
Related is the widespread assumption that to be a Christian is to give your assent to truth statements: you go to church not because you are searching but because you believe.
The legacy seems to have shaped powerful secular traditions too, such as empiricism or behaviourism. They work on the principle that if manifest evidence cannot be produced in support of human experience, the experience is either extraneous or deluded.
The loss of silence is becoming what might be called a mission issue. Take the growing popularity of Western Buddhism. It is, I suspect, partly a reaction. Buddhism encourages the individual to train in silent practices that take the inner life seriously. This appeals to contemporary individualism and, further, such Buddhism naturally adopts the insights of psychology and so befriends modern science, unlike Christianity that appears to be locked in fights over publicly agreed truths.
MacCulloch highlights the fate of Evagrius Ponticus. (Who? you might ask. Quite.) The fourth century monk was one of the first Christians systematically to chart the inner life, describing the difficult thoughts that the individual would face as they journeyed inwards – unruly passions including lust, anger, sloth and pride. The hope was that the individual might come to understand their feelings and so be freer of them.
If that sounds rather like mindfulness meditation, which eases the individual away from the snares of discursive thought and the depression and anxiety that can result, it is because the insight is essentially the same. The tragedy for the church is that Evagrius was branded a gnostic. His exploration of human inwardness was transformed into the Seven Deadly Sins. Subtle inner guidance was brought under strict ecclesiastical control.
So, once again, MacCulloch’s intervention is timely. Noisy Christianity is alive and kicking. For individuals who feel the allure of silence, it is off-putting and irrelevant. They might never know that there are profound, useful meditative traditions in Christianity too.
The new edition of The Idler is out now, examining utopias. I've an essay on Plato's much misunderstood, I reckon, Republic. It begins:
Karl Popper almost did it for Plato, when he published The Open Society in 1962. A central plank of Popper’s defence of freedom was a fierce attack on what he called ‘utopian social engineering’. He cast Plato as the originator of a form of totalitarian politics that in the twentieth century threatened the whole world, in the form of the Marxist regime of the Soviet Union. In short, Plato was an armchair Stalin. The ancient Greek philosopher was responsible for nurturing the dream of all subsequent dictators, that they could design an ideal state that would never decay.
Never mind that when Popper wrote The Open Society he did not have to hand a decent translation of Plato’s key text, the Republic, as he admits in his autobiography, Unended Quest. Or that ‘what I read was determined largely by what books I could get in New Zealand’, which was limited because of the war. Subsequent generations of English-speaking philosophers have picked up the main drift and tended to follow Popper’s line. Plato’s invention of the genre of utopian political writing was a dangerous mistake. It could be said to be indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions. Certainly any freedom-loving liberal, who might feel compelled to read the Republic as an historical artefact, should do so mostly so as to marshal arguments against it.
Poor Plato. The fundamental devices he uses to frame his seminal political discussion are ignored or forgotten. Just to note that he always wrote in the form of dialogues, never in his own voice, should be enough. It was his apparently failed attempt to ensure that his readers would not lift philosophy from the page, like the fundamentalist does theology from a sacred book, but would engage with his interlocutors and cultivate wisdom in their own life. John Stuart Mill described the process well in his political pamphlet, On Liberty. Plato produced brilliant discussions of the great questions of philosophy and life, Mill writes, ‘to the purpose of convincing anyone who had merely adopted the commonplaces of received opinion that he did not understand the subject.’ Plato’s political writings, like his other work, are designed to guard against social engineering by relentless exposing the folly of human ignorance.
In fact, it is only relatively recently that the Republic has been interpreted as if it were Plato’s premier political work. It seems that it was adopted by the Victorian public school system as an ur-text for the young men who were being trained to govern the empire. They had the Bible to shape their souls and the Republic to hone their leadership.
Before then, the Republic had been treated as an exercise in fantasy politics, an attempt to expose what is at stake in political philosophy, rather than as an attempt to write a manifesto upon which Plato might, as it were, stand for election to office. In that former sense, it has been very successful, not least since the ideas about justice, education and the good that it contains are still discussed millennia later. Additional evidence about the correct way to read the Republic is found in the fact that it actually contains very little discussion of the day-to-day business of government. You might say that it is deliberately not practical. Further still, Plato has one of his characters comment that such a city-state as they have been describing will never, in actually, be found. But the literalism of twentieth century Anglo-American analytic philosophy appears to be such that even a warning like that is met with bemusement and, then, overlooked.
Of the many grim details emerging from the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, an unexpected twist appeared in Norway's Verdens Gang newspaper. The director of the Ila prison, where Breivik may spend the rest of his days, described how the mass murderer could be supplied with "professional friends". They would play indoor hockey with him, or chess.
The Norwegian prison service is faced with a conundrum. On on the one hand, Breivik cannot be trusted with other prisoners because of security fears; on the other, it is not prepared to leave him languishing in isolation. Specially trained companions may be the solution.
This will seem offensively shocking or unsettlingly admirable, depending upon your view of state punishment and incarceration. But consider, for the sake of argument, that it is a dramatic example of brave prison idealism. By trying to make Breivik's life behind bars liveable, as opposed to locking the door and throwing away the key, it is not giving up on the possibility that he may reform.
The opposite stance prevails in countries that have the death penalty for murder. Take the United States, where state execution is remarkably persistent for all its enlightenment values. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Thomas Lacquer concluded that the American death penalty had little to do with punishment or justice. It simply failed to deliver on either count. Instead, he argued that a "primordial sacrificial logic" was at play. Like a scapegoat designated to carry away the sins of the many, killing those who commit atrocities reassures the community that the moral order is not fundamentally flawed. Capital punishment is a rite of purification.
Similarly, some may feel that Breivik has committed acts so heinous that his continuing existence – and certainly happy existence – offends the moral order. Sacrifice may seem the only option, the opposite of supplying prison friends.
But think of it this way. Implicit in Breivik's perverse ideology is a quest for an imagined purity, of a racist kind. By punishing but not scapegoating, and in fact caring for Breivik, Norway is setting itself above his purity games. The state will not follow the sacrificial logic.
There is a second related conundrum embedded in the story, too. It might be put like this. Are there not cases, particularly terrible crimes, when justice itself is not enough? Something more is required if the horror is to be redeemed.
This struck me when reading about the work of Nic Dunlop. He tracked down Comrade Duch, the head of the Khmer Rouge's secret police, a man responsible for the murder of more than 20,000 people. However, at the end of his journey, following a grisly trail of torture and death, what Dunlop found took him by surprise. It was not so much justice, as understanding.
Duch turned out to be a pathetic figure, apparently contrite a few decades on. "As long as he remains a human being," Dunlop concludes, "and that's what I found, there is hope."
It is as if a different imperative comes through when no practical justice can do justice to the horror that has happened. It needs to be viewed from a place beyond good and evil. The events must be known, but without destroying hope. Only then can human beings who have suffered much have the chance of living well. It is a kind of forgiveness, which might be defined as the capacity to have a future in spite of the past.
It is surely too soon for that for Breivik's victims. But perhaps deep in the Norwegian prison system's collective unconscious lies the hope that, one day, it may not be. Compassion for the perpetrator as well as the victims helps hold on to that brave possibility.
I've a review of John Polkinghorne's Science and Religion In Quest of Truth in the new TLS. The full piece is behind a paywall, I think, or of course the newspaper is on all good bookstands. The second half of the review casts an eye to the future of the science and religion debate...
[Polkinghorne] briefly but carefully makes the case for an understanding of the unpredictability of quantum physics that is ontologically intrinsic, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation. He argues for a similar kind of intrinsic unpredictability in relation to chaos theory. Put them together and this implies that reality might have an ‘open grain’ rather than a closed causal tightness. He speculates – acknowledging the boldness – that this might make room for ‘novel additional causal principles… beyond those described by conventional physics.’ Several possibilities relevant to science and religion would follow.
First, that there is no reason to assume that science has the last say on the nature of reality. There is a ‘need for humble realism about what science can actually tell us about the character of causal process,’ he writes, noting that scientism is ‘overblown’. Second, that there is plenty of scope for a notion of top-down as well as bottom-up causation. Indeed, explicating a general theory of the emergent phenomena that are best described top-down might turn out to be one of the triumphs of twenty-first century science. At the moment, scientists are still collecting cases, like nineteenth century naturalists collecting specimens.
Further, it could be that the scientific concept of information is key – information defined as the specification of dynamic patterns of large-scale orderly behaviour. That, in turn, might become enriched so as to offer a new understanding of the nature of personhood: perhaps personhood will come to be thought of as a continuously developing ‘information-bearing pattern’ carried by the constantly changing biology of the body. This pattern or form, which starts to look not unlike the Aristotelian conception of the soul, would incorporate memories alongside everything else that constitutes a person.
Then, there could be further possibilities, to do with God’s action in the world. Divine providence might come to be described as the ‘input of pure information’, a cosmic level dynamic patterning, analogous to the strange attractor of chaos theory that constrains and directs though without physical or energetic exchange.
Written about 380BC, Plato's Republic is still our blueprint for thinking about the relationship between justice and the state. But who exactly is the "philosopher king" that Plato envisages? Did he really advocate infanticide? And who will "guard the guardians"?
We expect marriages to get rocky and families to provoke pain. But friends tend to be presented in a mostly happy light: think Sex and the City, or Friends. Bumps and scrapes between Samantha and Charlotte are in the plot but only so they might be resolved. Lovers come and go. Friends remain.
This idealisation does not help us in real life, where friendships do not just have entertaining ups and downs, but disturbing fights and bitter endings. Such a reality is demonstrated in new research based on data collected from the Mass Observation Project, just published in The Sociological Review.
Prof Carol Smart and her colleagues argue that some friends can be dumped quite easily. These are "simple friendships" – people we know for fun, say, so when the fun ceases the relationship is dropped or drifts away. But "complex friendships" – people to whom we were close, as soulmates – prove more distressing.
One woman is typical when she confessed that she stuck with an old friend out of responsibility: 'I have an ongoing friendship with a divorced man … who is a good friend in many ways, but who can be very overbearing, loud and insensitive … and he has an anxiety problem. I am sorry for him but find myself totally drained after a day in his company.'
The idealisation of friendship comes through in the research too. Some insisted that you should not abandon old friends, ever. "I'm loyal towards my friend," said one participant, before admitting: "This sounds awful, but I don't get a lot out of the friendship any more." Another person made the arresting observation that the way someone talks about their friends opens a window into the soul, "through which a person's moral calibre could be assessed".
Interestingly, the research advises caution when it comes to reconnecting with old friends. Meeting college or childhood friends can "call up the ghost of former selves, causing regret, embarrassment and discomfort".
Part of the problem is that friendship has no institutionalised life course. When you fall in love, you will think about moving in, about engagement, about marriage, about children, about divorce, about how to get along with your ex. The pathway is not trekked by everyone, of course. But the marital pattern provides a template against which to chart your love life, even when you honour it in the breach. Further, the institutional nature of marriage and marriage-like relationships means that help can be sought when things go wrong.
Not so with friendship because the course of a friendship has no such pattern or support. That is part of its appeal, in fact – friendship as the relationship of freedom. You did not choose your family. You realise that you had little conscious sense of why you chose your lover, once the romance quietens. But you did choose your friends, apparently. And then something goes wrong. You are left floundering.
Perhaps there should be friendship counselling too. It would recognise that friendship is vital to human wellbeing because this form of human love gets under our skin quite as much as any other, for good and ill. But in the meantime, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has a useful metaphor to offer.
He knew a thing or two about amity's calamities, having once been a friend of Wagner. The experience of the break-up seems to have led Nietzsche to develop the notion of "star friendship".
Stars are distant, like the friendships of yesteryear. They look bright, as you remember the good times. But the great thing about stars is that they don't cast a shadow over you now. So too might old friendship, once a blessing, now broken. It is not easy to find the place where they don't cast a shadow of guilt or bitterness or loss. But the star metaphor might keep you headed in a better direction. It holds out the hope that one day you will wake up and realise that you're over the friendship, it was good, and all will be well.
Is it just me or has the dialogue between science and religion become a bit stale? I thought as much recently while taking part in a conference on the debate. We were all so well defended in our respective corners – atheists, believers, agnostics. It seemed highly unlikely that what anyone said would seriously unsettle anyone else.
The smart and articulate apologists for theism were easily able to accommodate the challenges materialist science throws at faith. The smart and articulate atheists seemed content to accept the limits of the scientific worldview and not really be challenged by the insights of theology.
Something similar troubled me when I was asked to write The Big Questions: God for the series from Quercus (and indulge me if I add, out this week). Many of the contemporary big questions in theology arise from the impact of modern science, so could I find anything new to say? Well, I did find some new names to read, and while not often cited, I think they might yet find that their time will come.
One was the great German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His place in the history of science is secure, having discovered that human beings possess an intermaxillary bone. Animals had long been known to possess this anatomical feature of the jaw. But in Goethe's day, there was a lively science-and-religion-type dispute as to whether human beings did too. The leading anatomist Petrus Camper denied it and further argued that this demonstrated that human beings were different from animals. Eventually, though, Goethe's research won the day.
It proved to be no trivial discovery but inspired the concept of homology, the study of anatomical features across different species. This proved crucial for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. We have four limbs because our fish ancestors had four fins, and so on. What is interesting to reflect on now, though, is the means by which Goethe did his science.
His trouble with Camper alerted him to fashions in science – fashions that scientists find difficult to shake off because their reputations are likely to have been secured by those fashions. He was also convinced that good science embraces a subjective as well as objective dimension. This is because what scientists see in the natural world depends upon what they are prepared to contemplate seeing. He was prepared to contemplate the human intermaxillary bone. It demonstrated to him that imagination matters as much as investigation.
By imagination, Goethe meant something more than practical ingenuity or empirical creativity. He meant the capacity to discern the living world in all its aspects. Materialism, for example, does not. It treats the living world as a dead mechanism.
Annie Dillard explores the implications in her essay Teaching a Stone to Talk. She describes a man called Larry who is trying to listen to stones speaking. It seems mad but, Dillard asks, is not that hope what secretly drives the scientific impulse? Meteorologists record the wind's speed, but were they drawn to science because once they also heard the wind's cry? Geologists assess the age of stones, but do they sometimes also hear them "shout forth praise"? "What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab?" asks Dillard. "Are they not both saying: Hello?"
Popular science routinely trades on this sense of nature's aliveness. If you saw Brian Cox's TV series Wonders of the Universe you may recall how images of the cosmos were accompanied by the rising swell and celebratory trumpets of orchestral music. In fact, the producers received a number of complaints from viewers about the music being too loud. They could not hear Cox explain the hard science as he wistfully gazed heavenwards. And yet, you could be forgiven for concluding that the music was more important. It spoke more loudly and clearly to the meaning of being made of stardust. The music interpreted the physics for us. It made the stones speak. That is the sound we wanted to hear.
Another writer who has explored the power of the imagination in our engagement with the world is Owen Barfield. A philologist, he was fascinated by how words change their meaning over time. Take a word like "literal". Today it means straightforward or on the face of it. But when Saint Augustine, for example, wrote The Literal Meaning of Genesis, the last thing he read was that the world was created in six days. Literal then meant the true meaning, which could only be discerned by struggling with the text, as you might a poem.
The flattening out of the word "literal" is just one instance of a trend that Barfield detected across modern English. He proposed that it is tied up with materialism's mechanistic worldview. It flattens our imagination, thereby also deadening our experience of connection and meaning. Unlike our ancestors, we struggle to hear the stones speak.
Barfield argued that we need to recover our full imaginative capacities if we are deeply to know that the world is alive. Matter, he believed, would then be seen for what it once was, as an expression of spirit. ("Matter" is linked to "mater", or mother, remembered in the expression, mother earth.) This might not be so difficult to achieve because, actually, we experience it every day. When you perceive the matter called a human being speaking, you spontaneously know those perceptions as one person communicating with you, another person. You do not have a theory of other minds, as some philosophers have proposed, driven by a flattening scientistic ideology. We know such matter as spirited people – as souls, you might say.
The paradox that Goethe highlights is that materialism understands itself to be the champion of empiricism, when really it detaches us from the world as we experience it, in the name of objectivity. "All theory, dear friend, is grey," he wrote. "But the golden tree of actual life springs ever green."
Perhaps then, this is the problem with the contemporary dialogue between science and religion. Theology has felt obliged to secure a place for itself broadly within the materialist worldview, sensing its main task is apologetic. But perhaps the time is coming for thinkers to be braver, to push for a truer contemplation of nature, one that knows its aliveness, its spirit. Goethe and Barfield, to name just two, offer rich, imaginative resources.
Fundamentalism, fanaticism, fights. Headlines in the press often cast religion in a bad light. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise; all in all, the practices of faith tend to have positive effects on people’s lives.
The impact has been assessed across a number of metrics. For example, the likelihood that an individual will drink excessively or take drugs decreases significantly if they go to church, temple or mosque. Among Americans – where religiosity has been extensively studied – being actively religious means you are less likely to commit crime, get divorced, commit suicide or suffer from depression. You will probably also be healthier and live longer.
The upbeat message sounds clearly in positive psychology too, the discipline known as the science of happiness. Martin Seligman, the US psychologist who has put positive psychology on the map, argues that lasting levels of happiness can be influenced by changing your life. “Becoming religious” is in his top five things to do. These results are echoed by the economist, Professor Richard Layard, who advised the last Labour Government on well-being. In his 2005 book, Happiness: lessons from a new science, he presented evidence that having no faith had a more detrimental impact on happiness than losing a job, though not quite as bad as being widowed.
It reads as if the science was designed for advertising God. But the evidence becomes more complicated when a further, crucial question is asked. Just why is it that religion has positive effects? A range of possibilities are mooted, and hotly contested.
A first possibility assigns efficacy to the proscriptive character of religion. World faiths carry moral weight, which is to say that they encourage, if not insist, that faithful adherents do not do things like take drugs, commit crimes and practice infidelity.It is certainly the case that commandments, in the form of “thou shalt not”, are important. They set a tone, help sustain attitudes. But, as any honest believer will testify, commandments are often honoured in the breach. So the question needs to be asked: how it is that proscriptions actually work, in so far as they do?
The story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous is illuminating. In 1931, the psychologist Carl Jung was trying to treat an alcoholic, though Roland H’s craving for drink remained stubbornly strong. Then Jung had an idea. He recommended that Roland attend the meetings of an evangelical Christian movement which stressed submission to God. It worked. Roland had a conversion experience, which Jung interpreted as releasing a new source of energy from his patient’s unconscious, one more powerful than the desire to drink. Roland related the experience to another apparently hopeless alcoholic, Bill W, and it worked for him too. He founded AA, which today has more than two million members in 150 countries.
Research on the effectiveness of the 12-step AA programme is disputed. But it seems undeniable that the recognition of a “higher power” was crucial to the success it has had. In other words, proscriptions work not when they are perceived as persecutory commandments but rather when they are perceived as charting a path to a new way of life.
Speaking personally, I have a friend who regularly attends AA meetings, though he is not a churchgoer. But the language of conversion makes eminent sense to him. He pointed me to the literature of Narcotics Anonymous, which expresses it well. “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority: a loving God as he may express himself in our group conscience.” And yet, this only points to another knotty issue in the debate. It has to do with the significance of groups.
An alternative possibility to prohibitions being the secret of religion’s success is that individual well-being is boosted by the social support provided in groups – and not just religious groups, but family groups, common interest groups or therapeutic groups. Could the group aspect be what helps people at AA meetings and benefits people who go to church? As the psychologist Oliver James recently noted in The Guardian: “It is … plausible that the comradeship and feeling of belonging supplied by religious peers are a substitute for the buzz you get from substances.” James conceded, however, that social support does not provide an adequate explanation. He cited a large-scale study that tracked the lives of thousands of Americans and concluded that community was not a substantial mediator of inner strength.
There are other possibilities. Richard Layard has suggested that the benefits of religion have little to do with prohibitions or sociality but, rather, the issue is emotional habits. He argues that religious practices train individuals to control their feelings.
In his book on happiness, Professor Layard discussed The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, noting how the saint sought to nurture several attitudes that modern science has demonstrated are essential for well-being. Ignatius urged his readers to praise God, that is, to learn to be grateful. He believed that humankind was made to serve God, which had the effect of dissolving egoism by drawing attention away from yourself. As Layard also pointed out, Ignatius argued that salvation involves being indifferent to what happens to you, so while everyone has times of desolation, it is also the case that such experiences tend to pass. This too can help, by building resilience.
Resilience is a theme that interests Eric Greitens, an American humanitarian and social entrepreneur currently researching the virtue. Early indications of his work suggest that individuals who demonstrate resilience in the face of life’s difficulties cannot simply bounce back because their harsh experiences become part of them. Instead, they are able to live with the distress in such a way that they can ascribe meaning to it. The experiences do not demean them, but deepen their sense of being human.
Again, this is an attitude embedded in spiritual traditions. Julian of Norwich lived through the Black Death, one of the most devastating plagues in history, and yet she was still able to write, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Many of the researchers in the positive psychology field are searching for ways of reformulating such religious attitudes for a secular age. They exhibit a desire to raid religious traditions for their wisdom, while removing the theological scaffolding that has traditionally supported them. One of the most articulate recent attempts is found in the latest book by philosopher Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, published earlier this year. In it, he agrees with the positive psychologists that religious practices provide useful techniques for everything from building humane communities to tending attitudes of kindness.
But reading de Botton’s book crystallised in my mind something crucial about religion that is overlooked. It will come as no surprise to believers that this something has to do with God. Positive psychology is characterised by its instrumentality. Alain de Botton puts it explicitly: “Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” What he misses, is that religions are good at building community and nurturing kindness because, paradoxically, they do not aim directly to do either. Rather, they aim to open adherents to that source of life, or spiritual sustenance, that is expansive of our humanity. They offer practices that, over time, transform the soul. It is variously called salvation, eternal life or enlightenment.
Goodwill and well-being may follow. They also may not. But when they do, they are happy by-products of the main task, which is not actually to have a successful life. It is to come to know God. The spiritual dimension has instrumental effects; but without the vertical striving, religious virtues come to feel empty. To whom are you expressing gratitude for life if not God? The blind mechanisms of evolution? Or, it might be noted that you do not become religious in order to be happy, and if you tried to do so the strategy would fail you.
It is striking that atheistic writers and researchers are coming to a new appreciation of religion. Going are the days when faith could simply be written off. Nonetheless, I suspect that their ideas will flounder because a basic and obvious question is being avoided, though as Oliver James remarked, it is one “no researchers have ever posited”. Might human well-being actually have something to do with God?
In the spring of 399 BC, Socrates drank the hemlock and died. For most of his long life, he had been fortunate enough to live in a democracy. Athens had been an ideal home for a man whose trademark was to ask simple but unsettling questions. If what Plato tells us is right, he would ask politicians whether they really knew what they were talking about when they promised their fellows the good life. It turned out the politicians did not. Worse still, they believed their own rhetoric and were ignorant of their ignorance.
This troubled Socrates. What future for democracy, if it rested on such self-delusion? He felt it was vitally important to admit that the human condition is one of profound uncertainty, deep doubt. We are in between creatures. On the one hand, we are not ignorant and un-self-aware like most other animals. We can learn much. But on the other hand, we are not omniscient and all-seeing like the gods.
This is why the lust for certainty is a sin, as a former Archbishop of York put it, because certainty demands the eradication of doubts and imagining you are a god. Forget that life is enveloped not just by known unknowns but unknown unknowns and you will fall like Icarus from the sky.
Socrates became a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, which is to say someone who sought with a passion to understand what he lacked. He was unlike the politicians in that he knew he was ignorant about many things. It was for this reason that the Delphic oracle had declared that no-one was wiser than he. Wisdom can tolerate doubt.
A few of his fellow citizens took to this message. But it seems that most did not. It is not comfortable to have your ignorance exposed in the marketplace, where Socrates loitered with his unnerving questions. It is not pleasant to feel that being human is like treading water in oceans of untold depths. They said that speaking to Socrates was like being stung by a ray. Others saw him coming and darted down a side street to avoid an encounter.
And in 399 BC it finally came to a head. The first democracy found its greatest son guilty. The freedom to explore the uncertainties at the heart of human life was too much. The citizens lost faith in their new political adventure and in themselves.
I think the word faith is the right one to use, because to be able to doubt requires a kind of faith. It is the faith which tells you that tolerating doubt is worthwhile because amidst the anxieties of ignorance and uncertainty, something useful and valuable will be found. Faith might be defined as the capacity to see that doubt is troubling and meaningful.
To put it another way, a dislike of doubt in politics implies a loss of faith in politics. This does appear accurately to characterize our current condition, given falling membership of political parties and polling evidence on the widespread distrust of politicians.
This is a troubling problem for democracy, because democracy depends upon the goodwill of the people. When faith departs and doubts grow, crisis will follow. Government buildings will have to be surrounded by barricades and police, as has been seen in modern day Athens. Worse, a democratic deficit can become a political crisis from which tyranny may follow. Socrates’ death can be read as symptomatic of such a wobble. In the decade or so before his death, the young democracy had been overturned twice by oligarchs.
Mistakes can be made in responding to this predicament. One is to try to make up for this lack of faith, this not-doing-doubt, by pretending it doesn’t exist, by a kind of force of will. You see it exhibited in the faux-certainty of some political leaders. They affirm absolute confidence in their colleagues, until they are absolutely clear the colleague must go. No-one believes them.
Alternatively, you see the pretence that doubt doesn’t exist when politicians turn to the flaky certainties of evidence-based policy, as if the education of children or the rehabilitation of criminals could be decided by scientific fiat.
The scientists know that their research comes hedged with doubt. But then, there’s the headline. ‘Red wine causes cancer.’ ‘Pre-school children are too stressed.’ The researchers must bury their heads in their hands.
I don’t think there is much mileage in apportioning blame either. Candidates include the media, which has a severe intolerance of doubt, deepened by the 24 hour news cycle.
Or you might point a finger at the welfare state. The argument here is that an advanced welfare state, such as our own, unwittingly nurtures a litigious culture by over-promising on what it can deliver. Someone, somewhere should pay the price for what is, in truth, a humdrum risk of death in life. Or it creates an environment of suspicion in which it is thought that someone, somewhere is in the know about the perils of, say, avian flu. Something must be done.
But again, calls for action easily mutate into demands for certainty, where certainty is not to be had. Doubt-intolerance grows.
A better strategy may be to accept that doubt is a perennial problem for democracies. It was there at the start, with the death of Socrates. He was a victim of democracy’s group psychology, and groups are notoriously unable to bear doubts.
Eighty years after Socrates, Plato’s pupil Aristotle felt the force of that truth. Nationalistic Athens was whipped up again, this time by the democrat and orator Demosthenes, and Aristotle found himself on the wrong side. He left, going into self-exile, because he understood the logic of crowds. He didn’t want the Athenians to commit a crime against philosophy twice.
So much for the dark side. What more positively to do?
It is worth reflecting on the fact that doubt becomes more palatable when sweetened by good humour. Wit allows us to face the unknown with less fear. Sigmund Freud thought that jokes work by converting anxiety into pleasure. He recalled the jest made by the criminal being led to the gallows. It happened to be a Monday morning and so the villain cracked, ‘Not a good start to the week.’ He died more at ease, with a smile.
Socrates too is remembered for his irony. When he was asked what he thought might be a suitable punishment for his crimes, he replied, free meals for life.
To put it another way, Freud continues, humour eases doubt because it releases the energy that feeds the fear. ‘Look here!’, the joke says. ‘This is all that this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. A jest.’ It’s not really true, but for a moment we can feel safer and in that moment maybe learn something lasting about our feelings about doubt.
Satire is certainly part of a mature, democratic society – and it not only pokes fun at those with power. It aids citizens too. It prompts us not to demand faux-certainties from the powerful. It reminds us of their limitations and our own.
To achieve this double effect, it has to be performed in the right spirit - a spirit that prompts we citizens to reflect on ourselves as well has have a laugh at our masters. If satire only mocks the mighty, it may leave us with the comfortable delusion that the mighty are all to blame. If it makes us feel uneasy too, amidst the belly laughs and chuckles, then that might be because it is true to a degree at least, that we get the politicians we deserve.
On occasion, horror and calamity happens. Where there is doubt there is also the real possibility of mishap, error and failure. In the political sphere, Enoch Powell nailed it when he said: ‘All political lives… end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’
But there is hope in his remark too, for it seems to me that there are different ways of failing. One is to fail badly, raging and seeking revenge. The politician who fails in this way will rush to write self-justifying memoirs, instigate scorched earth policies as they leave office, or perhaps place a letter on the desk of their successor noting that there’s no money left.
But there is a good way of failing. I don’t mean a stiff-upper lip kind of failure that grins and bears it. Rather, it’s the good failure that paves a way for what follows.
It’s a subtle attitude, though one well understood in child psychology. The British paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, argued that a mother must fail her child in order that the child can make its way in the world. A perfect mother, who anticipated and fulfilled her child’s every need, would actually be a tyrant. Conversely, the primary-carer of a child must not fail the child too deeply or too often. If that happens, it suffers what Winnicott called impingements – experiences that leave the infant feeling under mortal threat, as if life itself might fail them.
It’s a balance, which Winnicott summed up in the useful phrase, the good-enough mother. The good-enough primary carer fails their charge well, so that the young child discovers a sense of its own agency, its own self.
The psychotherapist, Andrew Samuels, has proposed that this might be a handy notion to deploy in politics. In his book, Politics on the Couch, he argues that we need good-enough politicians. They will fail us because that is what politicians do, that is what life does. However, they might fail us well, so that as citizens their failure can encourage us to discover our agency, to be empowered – like the young child.
We might re-write Enoch Powell. It is not just that all political lives end in failure. Rather, the greatest political lives, knowing they will fail, strive to fail well so that others might live more bravely and better.
There would be benefits if voters could feel that they needed good-enough, not perfect politicians. It might curtail the poisonous cycles of doubt in politics – the apportioning of blame, the demand that something, anything must be done. It might lessen the idealization, when the politician promises the world. And then also the inevitable denigration, when the politician is subsequently belittled for failing to deliver the impossible.
The good-enough principle could be applied to the welfare state too, and the litigious culture that it risks nurturing. A health system that was good-enough would be there for us when serious impingements threatened. And it would also equip us to face up to the uncertainties of life and death. Similarly, an education system that was good-enough would ensure that all children had the basics. And it would also foster the energy, curiosity and pleasure that empowers the child to take the risks that lead to a deeper self-education too.
This might seem fantastical given our punishing political culture today. What politician would survive the mockery of the press were they openly to aim to be good-enough?
And yet, Andrew Samuels continues, perhaps there is a way to do it. What the good-enough politician might cultivate is not delusions of omnipotent power, the certainties that know no doubt. Instead, they could cultivate the energy inherent in the kind of politics that equips others to pioneer change. Such leaders position themselves as catalysts.
It is striking that this kind of politics copes well with doubt. In fact, uncertainty and failure appear to instill only more resolution and faith. Think of environmental politics. Failure presses in on every side, as talks collapse and international meetings fall apart. And yet, every setback renews the energy, inspires more creativity and imagination.
It might be in these arenas that we find lessons in the kind of politics with the faith to face life’s doubts, with the faith to tolerate uncertainty. What they have achieved is a rediscovery of soul. They manifest a kind of political spirituality, in the environmental case shown as a deep respect, a sense of the sacredness, of the earth. This generates a felt sense of aliveness - and so a well-resourced commitment, in spite of it all.
Doubt is before us. Though in truth it always was. We are the in between creature. To live well with doubt is to do well at being human, as Socrates tried to teach those first democrats.