Know Thyself – Rupert Spira and Mark Vernon in conversation

An MP3 podcast of the conversation is here.

What is the direct path of Advaita Vedanta and why is it significant for so many now? How is it found across traditions, including within Christianity? Why might it matter to us today, collectively as well as individually? What are its links to psychotherapy, individuality, freedom, God?

Mark Vernon talks with Rupert Spira about these questions and more.

0:34 What is the direct path and why is it of significance now?
13:59 If awareness of awareness is the start, what happens next?
17:20 Why might this matter socially as well as individually?
23:27 What is the relationship between the direct path and psychotherapy?
30:35 How does nondual show up in Christianty? What does the death and resurrection of Jesus mean?
41:55 How might the Trinity express nondual life?
50:47 How does this renew our experience of individuality?
53:45 Nondualism and a positive engagement with creation and the world.
1:10:38 Lessons from Dante’s journey into Paradise as a model of nondual expansion.
1:20:34 Growth after the recognition of our true being.
1:22:30 Goals after the recognition of true being.
1:25:08 The spontaneity of teaching.
1:27:47 Wrapping and further information.

For more about Rupert – https://rupertspira.com

For more about Mark – https://rupertspira.com

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Book Launch and Celebration of Dante 700, event recording

MP3 version here.

For further details about Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey – https://www.markvernon.com/books/dantes-divine-comedy-book

For further details about the Dante Society of London – https://dantesocietylondon.com/index.html

2:34 Welcome
3:23 Dante’s first 700 years
6:08 Dante Society of London
9:14 Invoking Dante today
10:33 Introducing my new book
18:08 Reading in Italian and English from the Inferno, with some thoughts
27:12 Reading in Italian and English from the Purgatorio, with some thoughts
34:44 Reading in Italian and English from the Paradiso, with some thoughts
43:44 QnA – When did Mark first feel the pang of love for Dante?
45:23 QnA – How is Dante regarded in Italy now?
47:40 QnA – Comments by Owen A Barfield on Owen Barfield, Dante and CS Lewis
50:28 QnA – In what ways is Dante a visionary?
54:00 QnA – Can you compare Dante’s Satan with Milton’s?
58:55 QnA – How does Dante inspire artists; how have artists responded?
1:03:13 QnA – What does Mark make of the Clive James’ translation?

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Dante’s Divine Comedy – book published!

Angelico Press has announced the release of Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey.

Dante Alighieri was early in recognizing that our age has a problem. His hometown, Florence, was at the epicenter of the move from the medieval world to the modern. He realized that awareness of divine reality was shifting, and that if it were lost, dire consequences would follow. The Divine Comedy was born in a time of troubling transition, which is why it still speaks today.

Dante’s masterpiece presents a cosmic vision of reality, which he invites his readers to traverse with him. In this narrative retelling and guide, from the gates of hell, up the mountain of purgatory, to the empyrean of paradise, Mark Vernon offers a vivid introduction and interpretation of a book that, 700 years on, continues to open minds and change lives.

I’ll be launching the book at this event. Please join us if you can!

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Against Moral Christianity

My Philosophy column in the new Idler, September-October 2021.

There is an old tradition of writing against figures or groups you disagree with. “Against” is the operative word. Augustine wrote “Contra Faustum”, which was a riposte to the Manichaean, Faustus. Thomas Aquinas wrote “Contra Gentiles”, which was a defence of Christianity against Judaism and Islam, with which Christianity has an uncomfortable amount in common.

My contra would be against a certain type of Christianity that is doing the rounds amongst the chattering classes right now. The title would be: Against Moral Christianity.

Those who are for moral Christianity make a case like this. First, they describe the ancient Greek and Roman worlds as dark and depraved. Slaves? They built on the suffering. Punishment? Crucifixions by the thousand. Foreigners? They called them barbarians and built walls to keep them out.

Then, Christianity arrived. At its centre is the figure of a man, Jesus, strung up on one of those shameful, agonising crosses. During his life, he taught people to love their neighbour, be a good Samaritan and, perhaps most shockingly of all, love enemies. A seed was sown that, in time, grew into the rights and freedoms which we take for granted. The modern world owes much to Christianity and we are fools to turn our backs on it.

Oddly enough, it is not just Christians making this case. The prominent agnostic historian, Tom Holland, is championing the cause, with the added twist that atheists who presume they have freed themselves from superstitious nonsense are really Christians in disguise.

Take the culture war tweets from anthropologist and atheist Alice Roberts, who is president of the campaign group, Humanists UK. “Humanism isn’t a religion,” she asserts as if a creed. “Religions are irrational.”

Atheists think that they are distancing themselves from God as they chuckle, but their preoccupation is Christian through and through, the argument goes. Christianity stressed orthodoxy, made windows into people’s souls, burnt heretics at the stake, and brought pogroms into the world. Culture wars? They’re thoroughly religious in spirit.

In contra epistles, there comes a point at which the author, having outlined, more or less fairly, some of the beliefs of their opponents, subtly turns against them. That moment is now.

Stakes and pogroms? Heresy trials and culture wars? Is Christianity really better than what came before? In his magisterial doorstopper, A History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch points out that as soon as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, Christians started persecuting one another. The first recorded case of intra-Christian harassment comes within two years of Christianity’s public acceptance. It’s a doubly troubling fact because that was easily within living memory of by far the severest Roman persecution, under Diocletian. So much for loving your neighbour.

And what about loving your enemies? It wasn’t a new idea, in fact. Socrates argued for it, according to Plato. “We ought neither to requite wrong with wrong nor to do evil to anyone, no matter what they may have done to us,” the gadfly of Athens concludes in the dialogue called Crito, a case that is repeated in the Republic: “For it has been made clear to us that in no case is it just to harm anyone.”

I am genuinely baffled that decorated scholars, as well as popular historians, don’t seem to know this. I can only think that they are caught in a moral panic that makes them forgetful. Or could it be something else – that not many Christian leaders really understand Jesus’s teaching.

Now, hold on a minute, you may be thinking, your columnist is going too far. However, I am only repeating what one prominent teacher of the faith admits in a recent book on Jesus’s parables. The one about the Good Samaritan is clear enough, so it seems. But when you look more closely, it turns out that most of Jesus’s parables are amoral or immoral. They feature unjust judges, unforgiving servants, and labourers who get the same pay regardless of how long they have worked. It’s not social justice, so what was Jesus on about?

What doesn’t occur to the apologists is that Christianity might not be about morality. After all, there was plenty of it around in the first century. The Jews read the Hebrew Bible with its prophetic calls for justice. The Stoics majored on how to live, as did the Epicureans, though they were a little less successful in terms of impact. Nietzsche picked up on that in an interesting way. He liked the Epicureans because they seemed to him to resist what he called the “slave morality” of Christianity. What the German disliked about Christianity, as he saw it, is the way it turns human weakness on its head, by valorising it, rather than attempting what the Epicureans did. They strove to overcome weakness with practices that strengthen resolve – in Epicurus’s case, an ability to face suffering and death with equanimity.

Jesus was born into the moral melee of the ancient world and, I think, realised something else. If the world really is to change, people need a radical revolution of heart that makes life look utterly transformed. Centuries of moralism had shown that route doesn’t cut it.

This means that the parables aren’t finger-wagging tales that have a “palpable design” on you, as T.S. Eliot noted. They are koans designed to interrupt pretty obvious assumptions. They are riddles that might open eyes to see, and ears to hear, something completely different.

I echo Monty Python’s famous catchphrase. It was part of their genius that they knew more about religion than many priests and prelates. Recall the 16-ton weight scenes, when a massive mass falls on someone when they least expect it. My guess is that meeting Jesus would have been like that. He was out for conversion, not nudging you to improve your behaviour.

September 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, whose Divine Comedy is one of the greatest expressions of Christianity. (Plugs can appear in contra diatribes, so let me add that my new book is out this month too – Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide For The Spiritual Journey.) It is striking that Dante sees souls who are hung up on morality in the Inferno. They are so obsessed with right and wrong, fearing that they sinned or raging because they were sinned against, that they have become stuck. That’s the problem with morality. It offers guidance but mostly delivers guilt.

What Christianity initially taught was something far more radical, so much so that I suspect most Christian teachers today are afraid to say it. Their forebears weren’t. “The Word of God became a man so that from a man you might learn how to become a god,” wrote Clement of Alexandria in the second century. “By dwelling in one, the Word dwelt in all,” affirmed Cyril of Alexandria in the third century. “The Son of God became man so that we might become God,” added Athanasius of Alexandria in the fourth. “The descent of God to the human level was at the same time the ascent of humanity to the divine level,” preached Leo the Great in the fifth.

Dante has that experience of ascent. He describes it in the Paradiso. He knows himself to be spinning “with the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

Nowadays, it would be called nondualism. You might hear more about it from someone who has taken psychedelics than a bishop in a purple shirt. It’s an astonishing image of ourselves and we need it. Morality merely condemns. The spiritual vision of true religion jolts us into knowing we are alive.

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Did Dante really go to paradise?

An MP3 version of this talk and others is online here.

In this 700th anniversary year, the truth of the Divine Comedy is a key issue.

Modern critics may explain its spiritual veracity by putting its impact down to social construction and performativity. But Dante knew about literature as much as he knew about divine life. He is emphatically clear that he has travelled to the high heavens and seeks to write so that we may follow him too.

In this talk, I use Dante’s own framework of the literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogic to explore how he doesn’t just report his time in heaven, but presents us with an account that opens divine domains to this day.

For more on my book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey (Angelico Press), see https://www.markvernon.com/books/dantes-divine-comedy-book

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What the West can learn from the East – conversation with Rupert Sheldrake

A MP3 version of the conversation is online here.

Meditation, yoga, vegetarianism. Eastern practices have become a feature of western life. But what do we learn from them?

This episode of the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, with Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon, is prompted by a sense that the western way of life is being challenged, if not facing a full-on crisis.

As Rowan Williams puts it in his new book, Looking East In Winter, climate change and environmental degradation are leading to a sense of needing not a programme or an ideology but an epiphany, which might renew our perception of reality.

They discuss how eastern Christianity, as well as traditions in India, are based on participating with life and emphasise the cultivation of consciousness. They ask how this relates to insights such as the Christian Trinity and movements such as romanticism, as well as the effects of mechanistic science, which itself grew out of western religious perceptions.

For more conversations between Rupert and Mark see:

Talks


https://www.sheldrake.org/audios/sheldrake-vernon-dialogues

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Nondualism, Divine Life and Now – on Looking East in Winter by Rowan Williams

A MP3 version of the talk can be found here.

Rowan Williams has written another hugely significant book, one ripe with meaning for now.

In this talk, I unpack its themes of non-dualism and Trinitarian life, eros and kenosis, politics and justice, seeing truthfully and destroying the world.

0:39 Addressing the Anthropocene
1:28 The need for an epiphany
2:52 What is our key problem?
4:32 Nondual non-identity
7:12 Trinitarian life
9:05 The erotic life of the divine
13:30 True kenosis and ecstasy
17:42 The truth of ourselves
20:49 Watchfulness, angelic awareness, mindfulness
23:39 Apatheia and anger
25:19 Being in the world, not of the world
28:20 The artist and philosopher
29:43 The gift of wisdom and remedying ignorance
30:27 Rationality and relating
31:55 Being natural
33:11 A new solidarity and Maria Skobtsova
34:32 A new apologetics
35:25 A new politics and sense of justice
38:48 Hospitality as a way of life
39:10 Freedom and fulfilment
40:39 Divinization and the future

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Not OK, computer

My July-Aug 2021 philosophy column at The Idler.

The ubiquity of computers is a worry. On the one hand there are those actively pursuing a future in which humanity lives at the beck and call of an ultra-advanced artificial intelligence, called the Singularity. It is championed not only by private companies like Google but government agencies like NASA. Those guys have bigger financial muscle than most nations. Their vision, even if fanciful, will shape our tomorrow.

On the other hand there is the fact that, already, computers like DeepMind beat world champions at games like chess and AlphaGo. What is disturbing about the winning is not the triumphs themselves, which were inevitable given the colossal calculating power available to the supercomputer: it can churn through more probabilities than there are stars in the galaxy in the time it takes a cursor to blink. Rather, it is the way in which the wins are celebrated.

Excited observers describe the machine’s moves as “inventive”, “creative”, “intuitive”. Such individuals claim to be students of science, but don’t stop to consider a fact: computers don’t even compute. A silicon chip has absolutely no idea what it means to comprehend the simplest sum, say that 1+1=2. A printed circuit board nudges charged particles across semi-conducting barriers. It does nothing more, or less, than shuffle a billion switches between “off” and “on”.

Lost in this blaze of electronic banality is the inventiveness, creativity and intuitive genius of the conscious agents who made the machines, also called human beings. We are the ones who can convert dead physics into devices that aid us. We are the entities who have understanding, insight and agency. The whirring beige boxes have precisely no capacity to find themselves impressive, no matter how impressive they seem to their living, breathing, yearning, loving makers. A computer cannot even be humble about its ability to juggle terabytes. So why do people gasp at a datawarehouse that is entirely ignorant of what it is wired to perform?

The reason, I fear, is that human beings forget who they are. This is the real worry. The age of the computer appears to be one in which we collectively march into a cloud of unknowing that cannot see the astonishing fact that we are aware, reflective, intelligent, purposeful, fearful, hopeful; in a word: conscious. The truly deadly thing is that our species increasingly fails to notice that it is experiencing, because it has become lost in the virtual reality it has created. It is this alienation that the ubiquity of machines appears to be bringing about, not because algorithms have woken up, but because their presence sends us to sleep. The risk is that we become like them, not that they become like us.

One of the most interesting things I am doing at the moment is taking part in a research group interrogating this trance. Organised by the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR), and including scholars like Rowan Williams whose wisdom has danced across the pages of this magazine, it is asking a central question: what is spiritual intelligence?

The idea is better to understand the nature of artificial intelligence and, clarity gained, to contrast it with types of knowing, notably the kind associated with spiritual perceptions. For example, where an AI can solve problems like recognising faces by spotting patterns in the data, spiritual intelligence is the ability to recognise that the human face is a mirror or reflection of a lively, vulnerable soul.

It is not an object merely to manage by tracking its movement around the city. It is the tangible manifestation of a unique, feeling subject, who may be anxious about their identity, concerned for their future, or thinking about how delicious the pie just purchased will be to eat this evening, when shared with another unique, feeling subject whom they love and value.

Such joy fills our good days. Such experiences are self-evidently meaningful to anyone who has them. And yet, for an age in awe of algorithms, the meaning of faces – along with everything else that makes us human – needs to be recalled and celebrated, explained and explored. That felt vitality must buzz in our minds, because as that keen awareness fades, there is a real risk of it drowning in a deluge of demands for more efficiency, more monitoring, more utility-driven science.

It’s about maintaining a vivid sense of what makes life worth living, and contemplating that distinctiveness when it comes under threat. Becoming a Luddite is not an option because it’s already too late for ignorance to be bliss, which the original Luddites recognised too. They may have partly fought back by trashing machines, but their deeper hope was to grasp more fully what it means to be human. They sought to lead, not be led by the automated tools proliferating around them. After all, many were skilled machine operators. They understood looms and stocking frames. But they recognised what Thomas Carlyle described: “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”

The philosopher, Ivan Illich, put the challenge in this way. The problem is when devices and machines stop being a means to the end of human flourishing, and start to become an end in themselves. They cease working for us and we start working for them – not that they know it, because they don’t know anything.

Illich worried that politics then ceases to be the activity in which we ask about the good life, and becomes the activity of commissioning more technology. He feared that people no longer say, “I want to learn”, but instead mutter, “I must get an education”. What might be transformative becomes transactional. What should be an opportunity for self-cultivation becomes another economic calculation.

Machines are not inherently bad, Illich stressed. The question is whether we have made them hospitable to our humanity, or capable of harming it. And they harm it most when we forget that they aren’t even dead, and that we are radiantly alive.

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The fractal consciousness of Dantes’ Divine Comedy

I’ve a piece on Dante just published at Aeon.

Dante Alighieri was early in recognising that our age has a problem. He was the first writer to use the word moderno, in Italian, and the difficulty he spotted with the modern mind is its limited capacity to relate to the whole of reality, particularly the spiritual aspects. This might sound surprising, given that his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is often described as one of the most brilliant creations of the medieval imagination. It is taken to be a genius expression of a discarded worldview, not the modern one, from an era in which everything was taken to be connected to the supreme reality called God. But Dante was born in a time of troubling transition. He realised that this cosmic vision was being challenged, and he didn’t seek to reject it or restore it, but to remake it.

Continue reading…

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Dante and the Divine Masculine

Categories like feminine and masculine can constrain as much as illuminate. But there is no denying that men and male entities play a major, often surprising part in Dante’s journey through the Divine Comedy.

This talk complements my look at Dante and the Divine Feminine, now considering Dante’s encounters with figures such as Belacqua and Statius, Bernard and Cacciaguida. Archetypal qualities such as the warrior, magician, lover and king assist.

The talk ends with the figure of Beatrice, who might be said to integrate the feminine and masculine, and so be the guide Dante needs to understand the human-divine connection.

For more about Mark’s work on Dante, including his book, see – https://www.markvernon.com/dantes-divine-comedy.

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