Personal observations

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Friday, March 29 2013

Do we need a different Jesus?

I've been wondering how the figure of Jesus might recapture the contemporary imagination? Or which Jesus - because there are many - might strike individuals (a bit like me, I confess) as engaging; even worth orientating a life towards?

I don't think it can be many of the more common Jesuses you meet. I wouldn't want to knock the idea of the Jesus who died for my sin, for example: the prevalence of sin is one of Christianity's more obviously true doctrines and it is a wonderful thing to be able to live in spite of all your failings. But the cross as a sacrifice is now difficult to get a handle on.

If that's the evangelical Jesus, then the liberal one - Jesus the social justice champion - seems like a kind of category error. He was drawn to the poor, though I suspect not because he thought he could alleviate material suffering in any political sense, though he did what he could. But because he realised that the poor live explicitly what all people live implicitly: in a state of vulnerability and dependence. 'The poor will always be with you,' he said, because their condition will always be true of mortals. In this sense, 'Blessed are the poor.' They know a truth I typically don't.

But perhaps there is a Jesus tradition that might speak, and is ready to be revived. It has had an awkward relationship to mainstream western Christianity because early on it got on the wrong side of the gnostic and Chalcedonian controversies. I'm thinking of the Jesus who is variously described as the hidden, wisdom or mystery Jesus. He might speak to a world that seems increasingly conscious of a lost spiritual dimension.

This Jesus invites you on an inner journey in everyday life, thereby becoming more aware of what's going on at depth. Material life is important: denying it was the gnostic mistake. And the historical Jesus was not remembered for being an ascetic: he seems to have feasted and fasted, equally disinterested in both. That was presumably because he knew the humdrum is only part of our story, and not the determining part, a bit like choppy waves on the surface of the sea that lose touch with the slower, steadier pulse that traverses beneath, though contains much more of life's energy.

This Jesus naturally fits the language of psychology, a big plus today. Take his saying, 'First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye'. This can be translated as tackling the way we project what we dislike most about ourselves, and so find intolerable, into others. It's a neat, vivid version of the rule that if someone bugs you, you can be sure they reflect something you hate in yourself.

This tradition is also associated with the great psychotherapists of the early church, the desert fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus. He was the first to describe the deadly sins, though he himself did not deploy them to condemn people. Rather, he provides a guide to the inner life and warns his fellows that if they go on this journey they must be prepared to face their narcissism, gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory and pride. It is not easy to do. Self-justificatory denial is an ever present option.

In this schema, one way to see the cross is as a truth that all who seek enlightenment must face: transformed life can only be found through confusion and struggle because we understand only from within the constellation of our present suffering. Look at the stories of the ancient Greek heroes Odysseus, Heracles, Demeter. They undergo trials and deaths, which though they did not realise at the time, serve to break their assumptions about life and reveal the kind of insights that can only be transmitted by experience. Such myths are remembered because they capture the prototypical path of the individual soul. The Triduum of church liturgy around Easter can be experienced similarly.

Similarly, this Jesus is a wisdom teacher, a master of the kind of sayings and stories that dislodge, disorientate and make for movement and change. Some are pretty straightforward: 'It is more blessed to give than receive' (because it is in giving that you become more receptive). Others seem to be about how you tackle life: 'Sufficient for the day is its own trouble' (face the anxieties in front of you now and the anxieties of tomorrow may, in fact, lessen.)

Jesus does not have a monopoly in this domain. There are fascinating parallels between his teaching and that of the Greek cynics, say. I think these links should be explored. They help incarnate Jesus in history, you might say.

There are also other sayings that are more mystical: 'Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.' I take this to be pointing to Jesus the Logos, the word or pattern or wisdom which pervades creation - 'in whom we live and move and have our being,' as Paul put it, quoting the Stoics. To be washed in the Logos would be to have conscious and unconscious willfulness soaked away so that my life gradually reorientates around a bigger flow. For we humans, for whom our own existence is too small for us, this process is painful but liberating, I trust.

The crux of the figure of Jesus, for Christians, is his death and resurrection. Well, I sense this tradition can invigorate the meaning of that too. The mystery of Golgotha, I take it, is not some empirical demonstration of divine power. It does not prove, it shows and, I'm inclined to think, after the pattern of the ancient mystery cults, enacted in history. It offers a wisdom that had formerly been attainable at places like Eleusis, via theoria. This was spectacular journeying that strips away ignorance to afford glimpses of the spiritual truths of being - 'spiritual' simply meaning beyond the physical senses; another kind of knowing. Knowing what? Well, in Heraclitus' summary: 'Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living in their death and dying in their life.'

The death and resurrection of Jesus opened this mystery to all. The follower of the Christian way experiences it too, and might come to know eternal life.

Thursday, October 11 2012

Rowan Williams on being a person and freedom

Rowan Williams seems on fire in the last few months of his Canterbury tenure.

His recent Theos speech was a little dense but brilliant on the different between being an individual and being a person - roughly, the notion of being an individual abstracting us from life (individuals have rights, for example); whereas the notion of being a person takes us into our lived, embodied uniqueness, vulnerability and mystery - in the sense that to be a person is to 'overflow' natural categories of being in possession of this or that human capacity.

And I was just reading his speech to the Roman bishops. He is surely right that the attractive side of Christianity these days is coming out of the religious communities that live a profounder vision of what it is to be human than the one available in consumer culture. (He's thinking about Taizé, Sant’ Egidio, the Focolare.)

What is particularly brilliant about his analysis, I think, is recognising that Christians must navigate the shadow side of themselves to find 'freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them'. (There's something similar in the psychodynamic understanding of narcissism.) Though it is very hard to do, not least in the church, I feel, partly because it takes leaders who have themselves undergone that journey to lead others through it. Hence, he also admits, the church routinely fails to live this promise and so looks as 'anxious, busy, competitive and controlling' as any other human institution.

When Christians live that freedom, it is naturally attractive. Williams' continues:

'What people of all ages recognise in these practices is the possibility, quite simply, of living more humanly – living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment.'

He quotes Henri de Lubac a few times, whom I'm now off to read. ‘He who will best answer the needs of his time will be someone who will not have first sought to answer them.' ‘The man who seeks sincerity, instead of seeking truth in self-forgetfulness, is like the man who seeks to be detached instead of laying himself open in love.'

There's something in that on the difference between atheistic and theistic notions of meditation...

Wednesday, June 20 2012

On sci-fi and analog brains

I've noticed a couple of Templeton events in the last week or two. One was a forum at the British Academy in London, bringing together previous Templeton Prize winners who have been Gifford Lecturers too. The seven - including Martin Rees, Charles Taylor and Freeman Dyson - mused on what had changed since their lectures and what might be next for science and religion.

For what it's worth, I think Freeman Dyson is particularly worth listening to. He argued that the universe might be analog not digital, as might our brains, which would explain why AI never really takes off. He also noted that first rate sci-fi has more to say about the meaning of things than second rate science. Here's a clip:

Also, Templeton is relaunching its Big Questions Online site. I've written for it before, and note good questions coming up, such as whether information is the basis of reality and whether we are hard-wired to experience awe. A new feature is the option to join in the conversation, which no doubt many people will...

Monday, November 28 2011

On the achievement of an erotic relationship

Just finished the manuscript for God: All That Matters, part of a new series from Hodder, coming out next year.

I took the chance to do some new reading, and was particularly glad to engage with Christos Yannaras, the Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of, On the Absence and Unknowability of God. I'd often read that Eastern Orthodoxy is the direct inheritor of ancient Platonism. I believe it now. If you want to know what it felt like to follow Plato, a Greek orthodox liturgy is perhaps the best place to go.

It would radically transform the heady debates about God that do the rounds in the analytic world. Stop asking what you believe. Start asking what you love. Yannaras writes that to understand the divine is 'the achievement and gift of an erotic relationship', eros being the yearning and desire for what we lack, and an achievement because this passion is often a painful affair. It requires stepping outside of yourself, a frightening thought for the children of Descartes, whose sense of identity has become very focused on the desire for self-control and self-determination.

'God… is revealed as a personal energy of erotic longing for each of his creatures', Yannaras continues. My sense is that it's like the felt knowing that exists between a mother and her child, rather than say the factual knowledge that a scientist gains of the world, fascinating though that is. God is understood not when a proposition is proven but when an eye of the soul is opened, as Plato put it, which I think can be roughly translated as, like being in love. William Countryman makes the point accessible in his book, Love Human and Divine:

‘[Love] can bring us into communion not only with God and with one another, but with every element in creation, from rocks to seraphim. Whether your connection with rocks takes the forms of a collector’s enthusiasm, a scientific delight in geology, an experience of mysticism in the natural world, or a sculptor’s intimacy with marble is secondary... they all proceed from the same erotic power of relating.’

Friday, November 11 2011

Tom Hodgkinson at Occupy on usury

There was a calm irony to Tom Hodgkinson's sermon on the evils of usury, at the Occupy camp by St Paul's yesterday. He cited the Bible as happily as an evangelical preacher, not on homosexuality or abortion, for which you have to know the handful of references, but on usury, which it unpicks on almost every other page.

Going way beyond references to God and Mammon, he drew out how, with the Reformation - which St Paul's celebrates magnificently in Baroque statuary on its facade - usury came in from the cold and has undermined all manner of goods, from neighbourliness and merrymaking to a fair price for a sheep. He wrote up some of the ideas here.

He wasn't saying, wind back the clock, though he did recommend his gold dealer just around the corner. He was saying, let's look the usury, upon which so much of our life depends, squarely in the face.

Monday, October 24 2011

Primary colours

Liquid Amber at Wisley gardens today.

Tuesday, October 18 2011

The Shard and transparently mortal buildings

I'm going to have to learn to block it out, but I was staring at the Shard again the other day. The shell is nearly completed. It is still a monstrosity. The planners who cut the deal should have arranged for compensation to be paid to folk whose visual environment is invaded by it, much like you get compensation for loss of light.

I found some consolation, though, listening to Roger Scruton talking about architecture, in a discussion with Ben Rogers. Rogers' talk doesn't come across on the podcast, but Scruton's is rich with ideas about what we might require of our architecture. In particular, he seemed to hit the nail on the head with what is so wrong with the Shard.

We've inherited an architecture of unhappiness in our time which has come in large part because functionalism has taken over our way of thinking about architecture. Buildings are designed for a specific function, usually at a drawing board so that the ground plan becomes all important, ignoring the fact that this function is as mortal as the person who's ordered it.

We're surrounded now by transparently mortal buildings... And it means that, because of the tyranny of the ground plan, most buildings are designed as a series of horizontal slabs. This is the modernist vernacular.

It was that line about 'transparently mortal buildings'. The Shard is, in effect, a mammoth celebration of death.

The architecture of happiness, conversely, is that which can survive a change of function. It doesn't have to be pulled down. A Georgian house becomes an office. A church becomes a settlement of flats. Buildings that outlast us, because they embody a satisfying form not a time-limited function, offer a deeper sense of place because their place is secured by a vision bigger than the person who ordered it. The sense of the past and future they afford lend their inhabitants some happiness.

(Image: Thefreddy12345)

Wednesday, October 12 2011

Is the transcendent natural?

I've been engaged in a conversation about the nature of the transcendent in recent days, with a group of folk who are, I think it would be fair to say, sceptics.

Their concerns, as I understand them, major on how the transcendent, whatever it might be, eludes scientific scrutiny. The fear is that it opens the door to all manner of mystification, religiosity and phooey. Alternatively, it implies strange processes by which apparently transcendent phenomena, notably consciousness/mind, emerge and float above, as it were, the material world with which science is comfortable. This is, in fact, leading some individuals entirely committed to naturalistic ways of describing the world to positing naturalistic ideas of the sacred, the transcendent and even the soul. Nicholas Humphrey comes to kind.

However, I tend to think that the word transcendent is treated as unnecessarily scary. I suspect it is often confused with the supernatural, the s-word often being deployed rhetorically to scare 'sane and rational' people off contemplating the transcendent. In truth, though, the transcendent is all around us.

For one thing, it is unclear to me what is meant by materialistic naturalism, if that is the philosophy which makes the transcendent inadmissible. And I bet if you ask most physicists these days, they'd be pretty unclear too. (I imagine biologists tend to more comfortable with calling on some kind of materialistic naturalism, mostly because they have a 19th century view of the nature of matter.) I prefer to follow Werner Heisenberg's advice, in his book Physics and Philosophy: he argues that old fashioned materialism is too narrow a frame to find a place for all manner of facets of life, often associated with mind; so better to stand on the known facets of life than the shifting sands of sciences that are changing so fast and whose ramifications are not at all understood.

That noted, what does physics suggest? I did a physics degree at one point, and whilst that never took me beyond the wave equation for a hydrogen atom and a first look at special relativity, it exposed me enough to the subject to feel that the world of mathematics, which physicists typically experience as a process of discovery, provides quite a good example of exploring a transcendent world that links with the everyday world.

In fact, it could be that what can be called the transcendent is what makes the natural sciences possible. This would be the weight of the observation about mathematics. Then there's also the philosophical point about laws of natural which, it seems to me, have to be in some sense transcendent in relation to the natural sciences, or else you embark upon an infinite regress where the laws of nature need secondary laws of nature that determine them, that need tertiary laws of nature etc etc... It is for this reason that in physics you get books about the '7 fundamental constants' or whatever - fundamental being acceptable code for transcendent features; and in Dawkins-style evolution you get notions such as the immortality of the genes. I don't buy that, but the general point is that the natural sciences do, in fact, appear to lead to transcendent concepts that are required as their ground.

I know there's loads of debate about the nature of laws of nature. So more broadly again, on the transcendent in the everyday, I was reading about Abraham Maslow's notion of D-cognition and B-cognition the other day. This is the idea that D-cognition - D for deficiency - is the kind of knowledge required in the daily business of striving and surviving, which is largely a process of finding what we lack. B-cognition - B for being - is the felt or intuited sense of participating in the world at a deeper level than the humdrum. It's a different kind of knowing that can be linked to a sense of the transcendent.

Maslow has an example, from when he was once participating in a graduation ceremony. Apparently, he tended to think of such occasions as 'silly rituals'. However, on this day he suddenly perceived a tremendous procession, beginning with the great figures at the origins of his discipline and reaching into the future with the generations not yet born. It was not a hallucination. Rather, the ritual conveyed a vivid and I would say transcendent representation of the deep meaning of university life.

In general, the function of mimetic, mythical, ritual, poetic, religious and other ways of exploring our participation in the world would be to show or perhaps unveil the transcendent. It strikes me as highly likely to be a very common way that people experience the world, alongside the humdrum. And entirely natural.

Sunday, October 2 2011

Celtic evangelists

If you're passing Southwark Cathedral, do take time to look at The Four Evangelists by Sophie Dickens. They are tremendous, circling the aisle of the nave.

Based on imagery from the Book of Kells, it is as if a more ancient memory of Christianity has returned, one not almost overwhelming associated with comforting thoughts of love, but one that spoke to the archetypal passions in human beings - a faith like a winged man, at least as strange and troubling before it became so familiar.

Friday, September 30 2011

The Big Questions - God

I've just finished the manuscript for a book in Quercus' The Big Questions series, the one on God.

Reading it through, I realised one of the running questions is why science seems to be encouraging new spiritual exploration and enquiry, more than undermining it. There's the way a scientific attention to the world can develop a mode of perception that naturally provokes wonder. There's the way science is often counterintuitive, much as many spiritual practices discern counterintuitive perceptions of reality. Or there's the humility science can instill, which is not dissimilar to the notion that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

So, I was interested to read that the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion has just published research suggesting that 70% of scientists believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict; that 68% of scientists surveyed consider themselves spiritual to some degree; and that non-religious scientists typically think highly of their religious colleagues.

Friday, September 23 2011

The autumn equinox today...

... marking the aging of the year.

Though I've noticed these little cyclamens in the park nearby, just flowering, facing down the enormity of the season's change.

There's hope as well as a nip in the air.

Monday, September 19 2011

A Monday heresy

I didn't like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. I couldn't make head or tail of what was going on for almost all the time, and it didn't add up by the end. It took wikipedia for me to sort it out.

It's true that it's beautifully filmed and cinema insiders are loving it for its homages to Hitchcock etc. It's true that Gary Oldman has a smile like the Mona Lisa, hovering in between emotional states so as to seem almost from another world. It's watchable.

But what is a thriller if it fails to tell the story? And it's not just that it's demanding. I like demanding. I felt it was crudely obfuscatory. That's not a playful trick, a brilliant reversal, an artful unfolding. It's cheap narration.

Tuesday, September 13 2011

A depressing moment by the Shard

I was contemplating the soullessness of the Shard again last night, London's 'warning sign of disease' as Jonathan Jones put it - the disorder being environmental, aesthetic and economic disproportion.

Its straight lines heading in one, dreary direction. Up. Its growth for growth's sake, the 'philosophy of the cancer cell'. Like a derivative work of conceptual art, it has one message - size - that you get at first glance and, by choice, would never particularly want to see again.

Size is offered as architectural interest, sheer scale as a prompt to curiosity. But it isn't at all remarkable in buildings, and so there's only one way to go: even bigger.

I thought on. That is the disease of our times. I upgraded my mobile just to have more memory, fooled into thinking that 5 gigabytes will inject more excitement into my life than 2. Or there are the headlines panicking as economies flat line, as if growth of itself would precipitate spontaneous outbreaks of human happiness.

The Shard seemed like a monument to a lack of surprise at life - genuine surprise replaced by a fetish for new, bigger objects, gizmos. As I looked at its acres of repetitively blank glass, desperately trying to catch a reflection of the city so as to make its surface look interesting, I felt my senses depleting, my body disappearing.

Then, the sight of a London plane tree, beginning to yellow with autumn, waving in tune with the strong evening wind. Thank you. It told me that I was, in fact, alive.

(Image: Richard Fisher)

Tuesday, September 6 2011

Writing in the dust on 9/11

As the hype up to the anniversary of 9/11 reaches full steam, I am trying to remember the thought of some of the New Yorkers who were on the recent religion and violence seminar.

They observed that whilst the world heard George Bush declare a war on terror, and saw Tony Blair fall into line like a lieutenant, many who lived in the city preferred silence. They lit candles. They attended vigils. They squared up to the horror not with cries of justice and vengeance, but with remarkable compassion and calm.

We had been talking about Rowan Williams' book, Writing in the Dust, his reflections on the day in which he too was caught up. The title comes from the story of Jesus being presented with the woman caught in adultery, the pharisees demanding an instant respond. Jesus writes in the dust.

Williams reflects that there is a satisfaction to be had in responding quickly, dramatically. It feels like you are doing something meaningful, taking control. 'What makes discharging tension attractive is that it is an act that has a beginning and an end.' But the end often slips from view; the promise of closure revealed as an illusion. A different approach is to stay with the vulnerability. It's harder to do - impossible for politicians - though it was the example of the emergency services, Williams believes, who are practiced 'living in the presence of death'.

'Simone Weil said that the danger of imagination was that it filled up the void when we need to learn how to live in the presence of the void.' It's from the void that faith might return.

The anniversary is being marked by action programming that covers the story from every possible angle, as if desperate to fill the void. But I think too of the thought of the New Yorkers.

(Image: Scotty Weaver mourns the loss of son, P.O. Walter Weaver ESU Truck #3, during 9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero. Andrea Booher/FEMA)

Sunday, September 4 2011

Three things I read

Roger Scruton on icons (super-thoughtful piece in Prospect)

The growth of the advertising industry and of the marketable image has been greeted from the very beginning by protests from social commentators, fearing what Marx called “commodity fetishism”—in other words, the diversion of our energies from those free activities that are “ends in themselves” towards the world of addictive desires. Marx took the idea of fetishism from Feuerbach, who believed that all religion involves this state of mind, in which we animate the world with our own emotions, so placing our life “outside” of ourselves, and becoming enslaved to the puppets of our own imagination.

Pankaj Mishra on 9/11 (long reflective piece in the Guardian)

The sense of mad overkill, intellectual as well as military, grows more oppressive when you realise that, though al-Qaida murdered many people on 9/11 and undermined American self-esteem, the capacity of a few homicidal fanatics to seriously harm a large and powerful country such as the US was always limited. There is nothing surprising about their spectacular lack of success in rousing Muslim masses anywhere (as distinct from inciting a few no-hopers into suicidal terrorism). Their fantasy of a universal caliphate was always more likely to provoke fierce Muslim resistance than the globalising project of the west. Over-reaction to al-Qaida was by far the bigger danger to the west throughout the last decade; and, as it happened, groups of rootless conspirators, initially cultishly small and marginal, quickly proliferated around the world as a direct result of western military and ideological excesses after 9/11.

George Steiner on proofs for God (review of the arguments in the TLS, noting recent new developments)

The existence of our universe, its physical characteristics, the biological evolution of organic life make it inherently and cumulatively more plausible, more likely that God exists than the opposite... Swinburne argues eloquently that atheism offers no adequate counter-explanation. Any argument for possibility and the probable does nevertheless remain unquantifiable and impressionistic.

Incidentally, Steiner includes man-of-the-moment William Lane Craig, the philosopher no new atheist, apparently, wants to debate.

Recuperating a line of argument crucial to medieval Islam, W.L. Craig affirms the necessary causal foundation of the cosmos. This ultimate is itself without natural basis. The Big Bang and the laws of entropy, moreover, prove that our cosmos has its origins in time (Augustine would have concurred). This, again, legitimizes the assumption of a divine builder. But does it point to a personal God accessible to human apprehension?

(Image: Christ Acheiropoietos)

Sunday, August 14 2011

Temple to progress

Before we were so rudely interrupted by riots, I had the French Musée national de Préhistoire on my mind, in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. If you're in the Dordogne, it's a must visit. And don't mind crowds: when we were there a couple of weeks back it was half empty.

Set in the cliffs above the Vézère valley, there are so many caves round about that you feel sure another major archeological discovery can only be a stone's throw away. The artefacts are laid out chronologically, in smart glass cases that take you back half a million years and bring you to the bronze age. You can walk over entire dig sites, protected under glass, and peer at the contents of graves displaying very beautiful 'hand art' depictions of bison and deer. For a Time Team fan, it's very satisfying. But it set me thinking too, not just about the ancestors but about the museum and the nature of the culture that has produced that 'artefact'.

The chronological layout is informative, except that when you go into deep prehistory, nothing much happens for tens of thousands of years - nothing much if flint and bone technology is your main interest. And technology is the main interest of the museum: archeology is a material science, and worked flints and bones comprise the bulk of what survives. But it poses a problem: what to do about the long, slow periods? The solution the curators deploy is to compress the 'empty' millennia and give more space to periods of speedier advance.

I suppose it's inevitable. You've got to keep historians and visitors alike interested. But the net result is that this is the history of humankind very clearly told from the perspective of modernity - a blip of time in the grand scheme of things. It's the story of Baconian progress, the struggle to control and exploit the environment.

As was pointed out to me the other day, Bacon's philosophy is the most successful of all time. Is there a single state on the planet today that is not organised according to its principles? But deployed in a museum, it offers a view of history that conceals as much as it reveals. Have most humans, for most of history, thought of the goal of life like that at all? Is the fact that technology remained static for tens of thousands of years a reflection not of inefficiency or near-failure, but simply of a different philosophy of life? What would that be?

That struck me as a fascinating question, and I wondered what a museum of prehistory that tried to portray the stone age from the perspective of the stone age would be like. Anyone know one?

Monday, August 8 2011

When things are not always the same

Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning from David Lavery on Vimeo.

I spent much of my 'blog sabbatical' reading Owen Barfield, before finding this short film interviewing the man himself shortly before he died in 1997. It serves as a good introduction.

What interests me is his ideas about how consciousness has evolved. Via etymology and other means, he argues that premodern and prehistoric men and women did not just look at the cosmos in a different way to us; they knew a different cosmos to us because their perception of phenomena was so radically different.

Hence, gods and spirits were not the best explanations they could muster for otherwise inexplicable events and happenings, as if our forebears were wannabe scientists. Rather, they were a sophisticated expression of a cosmos that was alive - a world largely lost to us, as science has been built upon the assumption that the cosmos is matter and matter is mechanical and dead.

Alternatively, the images that prehistoric peoples painted on the walls of caves would not have been a means by which they could understand animals to increase the chances of a successful hunt. That is post-Baconian reasoning, incorporating his philosophy of science based upon discovering a means of controlling nature so as to put it to human ends. Rather, it may have been more like what Georges Bataille thought: cave art expresses our forebears realisation that they were animals and in that very moment feeling themselves to be distanced from other animals, for what other animal realises and expresses as much? There is, then, a corresponding sense alienation from the natural world, and the art perhaps seeks communion with the natural world, or to re-establish our belonging in it.

Barfield called this earlier consciousness 'participatory'. He argued that we moderns are passing through a phase of alienation - one that objectifies the world and so brings the great goods of science too. But it is not sustainable, because we distantly recall our participation. What we seek, he thought, is 'final participation', a form of consciousness that by deploying the analytical mind in conjunction with a more expansive imagination might move us to a phase where we can know ourselves as subjects and objects. Such a sense is not here yet, on the whole, but various individuals capture glimpses of it, and it draws us to itself.

Whatever you make of that future story, Barfield's ideas about the history of consciousness might change many current debates, not least those in science and religion. Our understanding of religions past would be very different. Our expectations of religions present might be so too.

Monday, July 25 2011

Having a brief blog sabbatical

Back in a couple of weeks...

Wednesday, July 13 2011

Congratulations to Philosophy Now

For their 200th issue. And for dedicating it to the most important subject in philosophy: love.

Tuesday, July 12 2011

Ranevskaya and the deadly burden of the cherry orchard

I'm fascinated at the moment by what the therapist, and I'd say philosopher, Judith Hemming calls group conscience. She's interviewed by Robert Rowland Smith in Robert's new project on innovation. Roughly, the idea is that we spend much of our lives serving our belonging to groups.

'Most of what counts as identity is actually to do with the relational dynamics that hold us and summon us and push us and drive us,' she explains. 'It is more relevant and interesting to study the forces around us and the nature of the forces around us than it is to home in, as individualism has encouraged us to do, to home in on the individual.'

For many, the most powerful group that we belong to is the family, though a country, belief or organisation can similarly shape a life. 'The group is much more influential on us than the strong emphasis on the individual has allowed us to see,' Hemming continues. Her therapeutic practice, called constellations, aims in part to help people see how the groups they belong to impact them. It can be a painful process as well as a challenging one as it conflicts with the freedom we tend to think we enjoy as individuals. However, acknowledging what is, is ultimately a liberating experience as it means we can draw from our belonging, rather than struggling to bear it.

The process, and what can go wrong, is well displayed in Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard, currently at the National Theatre. Seeing it at the weekend, it came across to me as a study in such group family entanglements.

To cut to the chase: Ranevskaya, the landowner, must sell the cherry orchard to pay her family debts. It's ostensibly a financial matter, though when we learn that the wealth the cherry orchard supplied was bought on the back of serf labour, it becomes clear that another kind of debt is being paid. Her life has been paid for by the lives of others. Their deaths seal a bond between her and the serfs. This is the group to which she belongs and out of an unconscious loyalty to those who have died, she too is drawn to death in life.

That this is the fundamental problem Ranevskaya faces is suggested by the details that emerge during the play. For one thing, she has tried to kill herself. Another recurrent feature is that the men closest to her make a habit of dying. She takes husbands/lovers who drink and gamble themselves to destruction.

Then, there is her son who died by drowning. She is unable to mourn this loss: though he died five years before, she is still readily and swiftly prompted to tears by it. Under the group reading of the situation, what she has not been able to do is mourn the losses of all those others who have died. The deaths immediately around her are the way that the long dead haunt her with the debt she owes.

Ranevskaya is even unable to hold onto the money she gains from the orchard. Hence, her parlous financial state. Though consciously she identifies the orchard with her youth, it is as if, unconsciously, she knows that the orchard is the cause of her unhappiness and she wants to give it away.

A moment of truth comes in the voice of the socialist Trofimov, who complains that the orchard prevents him running away with Anya, Ranevskaya's daughter. It holds them back, he observes. They are tied to it. Though he doesn't complete the thought, the death/debt owed to the serfs and the land blocks what would flow between them too.

That the burden passes down the generations is evident in another stuck relationship as well, between Varya, Ranevskaya's adopted daughter, and the man who loves her and, by marriage, could save the family estate as he has money. But she is literally unable to speak to him of her love for him. It is as if her family must pay the debt at their expense, not marry their way out of it.

The tragedy is complete when at the end, Firs dies on stage, remarking that life is over and he has not lived. That, in a way, is a comment on all the family's lives. Because they have not been able to face the group truth of their life, they have tragically and unwittingly given their lives to pay the debt of their family conscience that drew its life from those of the serfs.

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