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.
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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.
Wednesday, November 27 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, November 27 2013, 10:02
Was on Night Waves tonight, talking about Stoicism Week.
Tried to say that Christianity is the richest form of Stoicism today - feeling only that captures what ancient Stoicism thought fundamental: of trusting in a benign cosmos, praising God for the logos, and seeking to know the divine within and out. (NT Wright in his new book on Paul is thorough on such points.)
The therapeutic aspects of Stoicism are useful but not enough, as I think any ancient Stoic would have told you, and as interestingly I suspect the emerging limitations of CBT are proving too - CBT being another form of Stoicism for today.
There's a day of it on Saturday coming...
Wednesday, October 16 2013
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, October 16 2013, 09:07
I'm reviewing Sarah Coakley's new book - God, Sexuality, and the Self - a must read for anyone who gets 'why-three?' moments about the doctrine of the Trinity. In a nutshell, she argues Christianity loses touch with the experience that gives rise to the doctrine, with the result that attempting to hold onto the formula comes to feel disconnected or arbitrary.
The dynamic within which it makes sense begins with the yearning for the God known as Father, which comes to be seen as necessitating a purging of desire's possessiveness - a kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. At the same time, the yearning itself is realised as being primarily of God too - God longing to make all things anew. (Hence, in Romans 8, the Spirit groans with us.) So our desire is, at root, the work of the Spirit in us, for all that the entanglements of human desire are inevitably very messy.
The upshot is that the spiritual process whereby people become Christians, in the transformed not merely assent-giving sense, is Trinitarian-shaped. (That pattern is interestingly mirrored in some Buddhist traditions, where there is a threefold conception of the Buddha too, based upon the processes that precede enlightenment.)
A deep read - promoting lots of thought; not exactly light but not overly technical either.
Thursday, October 10 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, October 10 2013, 11:27
I've a piece on the links between psychotherapy and spirituality in the October issue of Third Way. Here's a clip or two:
... Jung noticed that, of his patients in the second half of life, there was not one whose problem was not at base in some sense religious . The spiritual systems that had offered individuals frames of reference which generated meaning and purpose were breaking down. Modern individuals had spontaneously embarked upon a new search for soul, because human beings can do no other, though it is a chaotic process that often precipitates psychological pain and problems. Much is at stake, nothing less than the breakdown of society, Jung feared. Therefore, he argued, clergy and therapists must join forces to meet the precipitous spiritual challenge of our times.
Why does each need the other? The church needs depth psychology because people do not generally experience life in theological terms anymore. On the whole, they no longer feel redeemed by the death of Christ as the medieval individual did when gazing up at the broken body on the rood screen. The notion of sin has ceased to describe a deathly state of being as the first readers of Luther and Calvin must have felt inside themselves. So when the modern church speaks in terms of its old formularies and creeds, deployed without psychological insight, it comes across as dogmatic: at best, anachronistic; at worst, irrelevant. It is an insight Pope Francis seems to have recognised when, during his recent trip to Brazil, he spoke of the church as cold, caught up in itself, and 'a prisoner of its own rigid formularies'.
Then, depth psychology needs the spiritual dimension too because whilst, since Freud, there have evolved rich ways of understanding the origins of psychological distress based upon traumas in the early years of life, there has been less development when it comes to understanding how suffering is linked to spiritual advance across the life course of an individual. Psychotherapy can look back, but struggles to peer forward. This is where spiritual traditions come into their own.
To use the language of the Christian tradition, it is through suffering that new life is found. Good Friday comes before Easter Sunday. Spiritual traditions hold out the hope that suffering can become a means to a transfigured end because the experience exposes the individual or group - painfully but powerfully - to sources of connection, possibility and fulfillment that were previously beyond conception. Call it salvation, enlightenment, release, returning to God...
... One way of describing psychotherapy is as a relationship that enables the individual to see more of themselves or of the groups to which they belong, not least church groups. It is a kind of awakening; becoming more conscious of hidden tendencies and compulsions that are typically barely felt on the everyday level and yet will, over time, shape and constrain character, choices and worldview. The psychologist and priest, Fraser Watts, talks of the abundance that this 'joining up' allows . 'Renewal involves being integrated, integrating what's on the surface with what's inside.' It is a theme that Jesus often referred to in his teaching, Watts continues. He seems to have been the kind of person who would meet a rich man, say, and spot that even though the chap kept every article of the law, it was an inner and personally defining attachment to riches that kept him from God.
Importantly, psychotherapy does not primarily aim to fix or heal such conflicts. Like Jesus with the rich man, it aims instead clearly to point them out. This is the issue of trying to solve problems from within the purview of what is problematic: such solutions inadvertently tend to exacerbate the issue. The relationship between a therapist and client is used to bring tensions to light, to explore and understand them in a felt way. Then, in time, they lessen their hold on the individual. He or she comes to see more of the impact of the forces at play in themselves and, thereby, is liberated from them. Something new becomes possible...
... In practice, this preparation for spiritual growth may happen in broadly two ways. There are those for whom life is constrained for reasons of profound damage or trauma. The slow, steady work of therapy - probably of different types, medical, behavioural and psychological - offers the hope of shifts and change. More commonly, the second way that therapy helps is with tackling the everyday defenses that everyone has to some degree. They don't stop the person functioning but they do limit who they might become. (You might say that the church as a whole falls into this camp.) Problems are often revealed in those emotional responses that are the opposite of the fruits of the spirit - moments of hatred, grumpiness, fear, impatience, unkindness, obfuscation, indecision, hardness of heart and excess. The question, then, is how to nurture the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
A clue is in the way Paul describes such virtues, as fruits. They are not capacities that can be willed. As Paul also noted, for all that he wanted it to be otherwise, he continued to do what he wouldn't do, and not do what he would - which in psychodynamic language is to say that he was influenced by his unconscious. Rather, the fruits are capacities that emerge as the individual or church is transformed. That is the source of renewal, and it is the practical details of this transformation process that western Christianity seems to lose sight of in the modern world, and with which psychotherapy can aid. In effect, the therapist says, you are forgiven for your hatred, greed and jealousy. Now we are free to explore the extent of such feelings in you, and why they have taken hold. As the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott put it, it is only when an individual knows about their 'vast reservoirs of unconscious hate' that they can also know they are loved, and so not be so ruled by their hate - or fear or anger. An older religious way of putting it would be to talk of being convicted of your sin, and then knowing the full extent of God's forgiveness. But this is the kind of language that does not quite work for most today. The psychodynamic notion of acceptance and exploration, though, might make more sense...
Saturday, October 5 2013
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, October 5 2013, 19:06
Have been doing a few short reviews at the TLS in recent weeks. The latest is Thich Nhat Hanh's The Art of Communicating, an intro to mindfulness. Here's a clip:
Books on mindfulness, including Nhat Hanh's, have begun to recognise that the psyches of Asian people, where mindfulness originates, tend to differ from those raised in the west. This has a major impact upon the effectiveness of its techniques.
To generalised: in the west, childhood is shaped by nuclear not extended families, which are also often broken. A particular kind of suffering arises should relatively isolated parents either not have enough time for their children, or project their unrealised hopes and fears onto them. Such children are trained in reacting to parental needs and so grow up out of touch with themselves. It causes what psychotherapists call narcissistic injuries, a profound inability to be content with oneself. A culture of distractions grows and reinforces the difficulty.
In Buddhist psychology, it is known as being in the realm of the hungry ghosts, who have extended bellies and tight throats, and are therefore unable to take in what would satisfy their longings. When it comes to mindfulness, particularly when practiced alone, the risk is that this basic predicament is left unaddressed. As a result, some teachers now recommend that mindfulness be coupled to psychotherapy.
Tuesday, July 23 2013
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, July 23 2013, 10:30
Dialogue is a great magazine that helps resource schools in the teaching of A-level religious studies. I write for it, and this is an excerpt from a piece in the current issue, on the power of myth. I try to draw an analogy with the power of words...
How do words work? Well, there is one theory of language that understands words operating on five different levels. (I've read about it in association with the ideas of the psychotherapist Ignacio Matte Blanco.)
First, unsurprisingly, is the literal level. Here, words or phrases have a straightforward meaning. If, for example, I utter, "I am a tiger", that can be treated as an empirical statement. It is either true or false, accurate or inaccurate. That is the way the literal level of language operates.
A second level is the analogical. Here, the literal meaning is eclipsed in favour of something more subtle that seeks expression. For example, consider this proverb: "Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep." To understand this phrase you have to sit with it for a while and contemplate what it might be suggesting. Presumably, the proverb is implying that there is something about the way tigers live that is good for humans too. Perhaps it is their courage, their independence, their stealth. What is quite clear is that the proverb is not advising you to go and dwell in the Bengali jungle and attempt to kill monkeys with your nails and teeth. To read the proverb in that literal way would destroy the meaning, as well as being ridiculous.
The third level is the metaphorical. It takes us down another rung of the ladder into a deeper meaning again. William Blake's famous poem, The Tyger, provides us with a tiger example that works at this level. He writes that the tiger burns bright, displays a "fearful symmetry", has fire in its eyes. So, asks Blake, what "immortal hand or eye" made such a creature? What work is displayed in such beautiful menace? Who is mirrored in the fire behind the tiger's eyes? The answer is God. The tiger becomes a metaphor for God and by contemplating the tiger the reader of the poem might gain a fresh sense of what the psalmist calls, "the fear of the Lord". That is the genius of Blake's verse.
The interesting thing about the metaphorical level is that it can't be described in a literal way at all. God is not the fire in the tiger's eye. Empirically speaking, there is no fire in the tiger's eyes, let alone divinity. God is not even like the fire in the tiger's eye, as if the meaning might be analogical: God does not flicker, is not coloured orange, does not generate thermal heat. And yet, somehow the image opens up something of the divine to us. To try to translate the metaphor into more straightforward language loses that possibility. The metaphor has to work on its own terms.
We come to the fourth level, and here things go mad. At this level, all meaning breaks down, even the metaphorical. It is a use of language that is hard to make any sense of. Instead, words deployed in this way provoke a sense of loss or terror, disturbance or dislocation. Take the word "tiger" again. It might be used in this fourth way by someone who was suffering from a psychotic episode. "I am a tiger!" they might yell or scream in a panic of craziness. The phrase would serve to inject into you something of their terror and dread. The communication is emotional not rational. In that sense, there is no meaning to be made of it. Instead, it conveys a side of life that is perhaps just beneath the surface for most of us some of the time. It is an experience that has to be survived as much as understood.
Then finally, beneath the troubled waters of this fourth level, lies a fifth. Its meanings are calm and unifying, though equally resistant to easy interpretation. This is the deepest sense in which language can be used. It is the one associated with mystery.
To keep to our example one more time, the story of the Buddha and the tiger comes to mind. It tells of the day the Buddha, in a previous life, took pity on a hungry tigress. She was unable to feed her cubs and so the Buddha lay down in front of her, wounded himself, and sacrificed his life for hers.
The striking quality of the story is its peacefulness. It is an account of a man being killed by a wild animal, and yet it conveys a sense of equanimity. It can be read in many ways, of course. But perhaps part of what it is suggesting is the oneness of existence. It is saying that, in a sense, the Buddha's life was worth no more than the life of the tiger and her cubs. He simply passed life on. Maybe it is not too fanciful to imagine that the Buddha murmured, "I am the tiger", as he lay down before her. He did not mean it in a literal or mad way, but as a mystic. The story attempts to capture something of the unity of things, the lively being that flows through all sentient creatures.
Again, this meaning cannot be translated into back up the higher levels. Read as a literal story it would provoke moral outrage. Of course the life of the man is worth more than that of the tiger! If the story is to carry any insight at all, and if that insight is to be experienced, the story must be allowed to tell itself, in its own terms. It must be allowed to speak from the fifth level of meaning.
This is an article about myth, which comes from muthos, the Greek word for story. I've offered a long introduction, but I hope you get the point. In everyday speech, the word myth has come to mean a fabrication, a false belief, an idealized but ridiculous conception. I think that this must be because the literal has gained the upper hand in the modern world, presumably because the scientific and empirical way of engaging with life has become so powerful. My argument is not against the value of the literal: being able to speak factually and accurately is often crucial, useful and illuminating. But it does seem to me to be a profound loss when we place so much faith on the literal that we lose sight of the other ways that words can be used - the analogical, the metaphorical, the mad and the mystical. Only then do myths come to be regarded as colourful but silly fabrications, as the conveyors not of deeper meaning but false beliefs.
Myths use words and phrases in all of the five senses that we have discussed. Part of their joy is the way they can slip and slide across levels of meaning. Take the story of the Buddha and the tigress. There is, in fact, a literal sense in which the life of the tiger and the man are one and the same. Evolution suggests that all mammalian life on Earth originates from a common source. But whilst that is scientifically accurate, it is a rather concrete way to read the story, humanly speaking. The theme of sacrifice feels as if it carries more weight. That would be to treat the story analogically: we too might sacrifice something of ourselves for the next generation like the Buddha. Or there is the metaphorical that draws attention to the kind of man the Buddha was. He loved life, else he would not have cared to save the cubs, but he was not attached to life and so could offer his own life up without panic or struggle. We might sit with life and death in the same way, the story suggests.
The mad side of the story is evident too. Imagine being an onlooker. To watch this event would have been shocking. It would have stuck in your mind like a barbed thorn. What a mix of folly, horror and excitement!
Then, there is the mystery, which we've discussed.
To put it another way, myths use language in order that we might explore multiple aspects of life. The great advantage that myths have is that they, generally, tell stories that are gripping and archetypal. This helps to keep the analysis alive: the myth lives within you in a way that the factual cannot. As it points to what is not yet understood, or what will never be fully comprehended, the story's vitality is not lessened in the telling and retelling. Indeed, it deepens with repeating as the levels reveal themselves.
Friday, July 12 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, July 12 2013, 10:18
This short thought has gone up on The Day website, the online newspaper for schools...
Philosophy struggles to find time in schools. This is probably partly the fault of contemporary Anglo-American philosophers. On their watch, the subject has come to feel dry, abstract and impenetrable to many on the outside. But it is also because, as a culture, we have lost touch with some of the key educational benefits of philosophy, not least of which is that young people love it.
They enjoy philosophy because it gives them a chance to explore, develop and air their own views. To put it another way, philosophy is not about what to think, but how to think. And thinking well – which ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato believed is the product of an educated heart as well as head – is exhilarating because it makes for our flourishing. Life is bigger as a result.
I think this is because really good philosophy, the kind that will appeal to students, is not just about reason and logic. They are important qualities, but thinking rationally is not the main aim of philosophy, in my view. Rather, the ability to sort through what you think serves a greater purpose.
If you can learn how to think freely through the practice of philosophy then true freedom of speech can be yours.
The ability to speak freely is harder than it might first seem. The ability to communicate with clarity is one component, the element with which rational thinking can help. To be able to offer three or four reasons for your point of view is far more persuasive, and personally satisfying, then huffing and insisting that such and such is just what you think.
But also, to speak freely, you have got to have discovered what you think about something to start with. That means having the inner freedom to explore possibilities. I have found that a number of components go into that process.
First, students need to be able to take risks with what they think. They may not be quite sure at first, and so need to feel encouraged and safe enough to venture a half-formed idea or possibility. Their inner accuser – the debilitating voice that whispers ‘Don't look stupid!’ – can be tamed in the process so that students find a greater liberty to step into the unknown.
Being able to tolerate not knowing is another attribute that philosophy can foster. This is what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, the capacity to be 'in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' The problem with irritable reaching after reason is that it blocks the kind of honesty, openness and patience that discernment properly requires.
A third, related quality that you detect in those who can speak freely is an ability to play with ideas. It is the delight you find in, say, the novels of Lewis Carroll. ‘Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.’ Such sending up of tight, defensive reasoning makes space for the crucial elements of imagination and novelty, creativity and surprise that are the hallmark of free speakers – and of philosophers worth reading.
In short, philosophy is not just about reason. I suspect it might find more time in schools if that became more widely known. The good philosopher is the individual who can take risks, can tolerate uncertainty, can play with ideas. The heart is developed alongside the mind. And of course, such qualities should be central to education.
Sunday, June 9 2013
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, June 9 2013, 09:14
A couple of things to consider, if you have noticed how quantum phenomena - like particle entanglement and the role of observers - are often checked, these days, in discussions about spirituality (as if we are entangled, as if consciousness is fundamental...)
First, a discussion between me and Rupert Sheldrake, available as podcast and iTunes, as the latest in our Science Set Free musings: the spiritual uses of science.
Second, a piece published in the Church Times on the validity of the supposed resonances between what bosons get up to and what spiritual beings detect. An excerpt:
A recent poll of physicists and philosophers, conducted by Professor Anton Zeilinger, a physicist who is known for his work on quantum entanglement, reports that the favourite way of understanding what quantum physics means is known as the Copenhagen interpretation. Devised by such luminaries as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, it says that, in spite of the success of the science, it tells us nothing about the way the world is in itself. Objective truth lies permanently behind a veil of ignorance. The paradox of Schrödinger's cat simply highlights what we cannot know, not what we might infer.
The upshot is that all the spiritual speculations are just that: speculations. The science confirms nothing for sure. Appealing to the physics as a source of authority is a mistake. As the Revd Dr John Polkinghorne, the former physics professor who was later ordained priest, has remarked: "Physics is showing the world to be both more supple and subtle, but you need to be careful."
Whether or not the Copenhagen interpretation is itself right, or whether other possibilities might be better, is not likely to be decided any time soon. In the mean time, it seems sensible to be wary of quantum spirituality, when the science is being asked to do more than provide vivid analogies for spiritual realities.
Spirituality should trust its own sources of authority. It is a mistake to reach out to a science that is undecided, and likely to change remarkably fast.
Monday, May 27 2013
By Mark Vernon on Monday, May 27 2013, 10:42
Just published, from the Guardian Short's How to believe series
Carl Jung was one of the 20th century’s most significant psychological theorists. He developed concepts we use everyday – introverts and extroverts chief among them. Mark Vernon’s eight-part ebook explores some of Jung’s key ideas and also looks at his relationship with the other giant of the mind – Sigmund Freud.
The How to Believe series of ebooks explores the teachings, philosophies and beliefs of major thinkers and religious texts. In a short, easy-to-access format, leading writers present new understandings of these perennially important ideas.
Thursday, May 16 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, May 16 2013, 15:08
This piece, on the significance of Honest to God fifty years on, has just gone up at the BBC Magazine website.
People rarely queue around the block to buy a book. And when was the last time a prime minister had to pull rank and ask the publisher to send over a copy as none were otherwise available? It happened in the spring of 1963, fifty years ago. A book called Honest to God appeared on the shelves and caused a storm. Before long, a million copies were sold in 17 languages. The author was a Church of England clergyman, John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich in south London.
A couple of year previously, he had described sex as 'an act of holy communion' in the trial that tried to ban Lady Chatterley's Lover. That caused stir and his book was read partly because it called for a revolution in ethics, particularly on divorce.
But there were deeper shifts in the collective consciousness that found voice in its pages. The Observer newspaper's memorable headline caught it well: "Our Image of God Must Go".
People found that thought a liberation. Sarah Coakley, now a professor at Cambridge University, ended up making theology her career. "(Robinson) was a brilliant educator," she says. "He kept asking us students: 'Why is this important?' 'What matters now?'"
Rob Bell, the American evangelical leader whose congregation is counted in the thousands, feels similarly. "I can't even tell you how much that book affected me," he remarks. He too believes that we need new images of God - ones that enable us to speak of the mystery of everyday experience.
For Robinson, the problem was the belief that we are "down here" and God is "up there", as if sat on a cloud. Science destroys that worldview. Instead, he sought God in life. Similarly, Jesus is an alluring figure not because he saves you from your sins and a wrathful deity, or offers immortality, but because he displays the transforming potential of love.
The bishop was part of a movement known as demythologization, an attempt to re-describe Christianity in terms that make sense to the secular mind. Robinson drew on the philosophy of existentialism and especially the writings of the German-American, Paul Tillich. Tillich described God as the "ground of being", the power that sustains the cosmos in the face of the alternative, nothing. He argued that to be human is to have "ultimate concerns", namely something for which you would not only live, but die.
Robinson and his generation were in thrall to science and felt that religion must change. The same imperative is felt to this day when atheists compare religion to fairytales and believers pen apologetics in response. But I wonder whether this knock-about has actually been a distraction because, on the whole, it seems that people do not live in a demythologized world. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Regular church attendance has declined, yes. But since the 1960s, belief in a "spirit or life force" has doubled, according to British Religion in Numbers. Forty-one percent of us now believe in angels, 53% in an afterlife, and 70% in a soul.
For more evidence, wander into your local bookshop and find the Mind, Body, Spirit section. First, there will be one. Second, it is likely to be larger than history, psychology or biography. Or, note the interest in spiritual practices such as mindfulness meditation, which you can now get on the NHS, or think of the recent BBC TV programme, Pagans and Pilgrims. It visited Britain's holiest places and found that they are thriving.
To the convinced secularist this is likely to be bemusing, even offensive. There should not be "holy places" because a piece of land is just a piece of land. If individuals believe in angels or an afterlife then they must be stupid, sad or deluded.
And yet, look more closely and you will see that science itself promotes the re-enchantment of things. In books and on TV, physicists tell of vast cycles of cosmic death and rebirth. It is wonderful to be part of this majestic universe, they declare. They are right - although according to science alone, the cosmos does not die because it has never lived. Scientifically, the story is neither wonderful nor majestic; it just is. What science is doing is creating a new myth of things - in the proper sense of a story that attempts to convey something amazing we are part of that is really beyond our telling.
In short, there has been a spontaneous rediscovery of the spiritual dimension, if actually it ever died. The tragedy for the church, fifty years after Honest to God, is that many people no longer feel that Sunday worship and the images of God on offer there has much to do with it. This is a problem because religious practices and theological traditions hold a wealth of insights that are needed if the questing is to deepen and grow. They help ground the speculations of New Age thought and offer means of discernment.
For there is something crucial going on in this welter of spiritual experimentation and exploration. We humans are the creatures for whom our own existence is too small for us. We yearn for more, for connection, for meaning. And moreover, we find it. All the scepticism in the world cannot put it down.
Friday, April 26 2013
By Mark Vernon on Friday, April 26 2013, 08:23
I've a longish piece in the Church Times, asking what now after 50 years of Honest to God. Linda Woodhead captures the predicament for the C of E, I think:
Honest to God was right in so far as it told its readers that they could explore theologically, too. You need not be a don or a cleric. "It caught the wave of a popular kind of spirituality that empowers the individual, and has grown massively over the last 50 years," Professor Woodhead says. "The movement is fragmented, but can be characterised as ritually experimental and personal, in the sense of wondering how to live life more fully. More people do now believe in God as a spirit or life force than in what Robinson called a personal God 'out there'." But what the Church of England, in particular, has found it hard to do is to integrate new symbols and ritual practices that ground this understanding. "As a consequence, many who follow this new spiritual pathway have left the church in order to do so," Professor Woodhead says.
John Milbank suggests one striking way forward:
The tragedy is that people today clearly sense that the material world has been drained of the spiritual. You see it in the popularity of pilgrimages, New Age festivals, and the appreciation of nature. "It is striking that a kind of remythologisation has been going on while church attendance has been declining," Professor Milbank says. "Instead of Christian minimalism, which doubts everything from angels to the creeds, I'd argue for a Christian maximalism that proposes nothing less than cosmic transformation." This might connect with people's sense of the miraculousness of existence, he says. "Rather than offering a thinned-down moralism, it suggests a way back to the full richness of what the Christian tradition offers."
Thursday, April 25 2013
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, April 25 2013, 09:37
"Forget that life is enveloped not just by known unknowns but unknown unknowns, and you will fall like Icarus from the sky".
BBC Radio 3, Monday April 29 - 22.45 and online
In the Essay this week, five contributors - journalists Mark Vernon, Madeleine Bunting, Alastair Campbell; scientist Susan Greenfield, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht - make The Case for Doubt - the idea that political, religious, and scientific doubt, even self-doubt, though sometimes troubling, is much more useful and valuable than fixed opinions and beliefs.
In this first Essay on doubt in politics, author and broadcaster Mark Vernon argues that a dislike of doubt in politics implies a loss of faith in politics, and that politicians - for their sake as well as ours - should stop cultivating delusions of omnipotent power.