William Blake’s therapy for the soul

This article was written for The Idler.

The new William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is tremendous. It features three hundred of his works, any of which on their own would command a room. Together they present an extraordinary energy.

It’s a rare chance to be immersed in the images of the prophet and poet, and could hardly be more timely as Britain convulses over the trauma of Brexit. Blake is arguably the greatest modern mystic these islands have produced. The show gives tangible form to his spiritual sight. I feel like we need it. But what is he telling us in 2019?

Blake is well known for being a commercial failure in life. One section of the new show reconstructs an exhibition that he put on in 1809 when he felt he might be recognised by his peers. It was a flop. He was shattered.

But I like to think that after the disappointment, he realised once more that his vocation was to live in the turbulent hell of London, supported by a few patrons and aided by his wife, Catherine. This was the crucible within which he must strive to bring heaven to earth; to manifest his vision in watercolour and ink.

He was in the right place because unlike the successful artists of his day, whom he decried as flatterers and sycophants, he was free. He could make the breathtaking illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy; the vivid plates to accompany Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; his now most famous single work, Ancient of Days.

So his message is freedom and the vision it allows. But still, it’s a confusing communication because his freedom is so unlike the freedom that’s routinely pursued today.

Ask people now what liberty means and they might say freedom to determine your own laws or make your own choices. But Blake’s freedom is not at root the liberty to do this or that. It’s founded first on something more substantial: the glorious capacity to see “a World in a Grain of Sand”; “Heaven in a Wild Flower”. It’s a liberty based upon perception. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” he remarked.

The doors of perception are cleansed by the sight that is found and fostered in the struggles of life. They put you between heaven and hell, innocence and experience, eternity and time, friendship and opposition, nature and the supernatural, vision and labour. He embraced this zone because contraries are liberating. They lift the mind. They refuse to leave you settled and still. Sometimes exhausting, it’s also thrilling.

Above all, such opposites facilitate the imagination. They power an ability to see through surface appearances. They glimpse the fuller reality of which the mundane world is a reflection or echo. “Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence,” he explained.

His near contemporary and fellow romantic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, called it “polarity”. He recognised that the dynamism of life arises out of the way things hold together when they are in the correct tension. Much as electricity is produced when a wire passes through a magnetic field strung between north and south, we are productive when we traverse the lines of force polarity creates. The trick is to learn how to be in the flow.

It’s for this reason that Blake railed against “single vision and Newton’s sleep”. He believed that the scientific worldview that was emerging in his day was losing sight of one pole of existence.

It would insist all is material, instead of material and spiritual. It would claim to have grasped nature in general laws, and lose touch with the infinite variety of her manifold instances. It would become so enamoured with its empirical measurements that it would deny the measureless, and so build “dark Satanic Mills” and bind people in “mind forged manacles”. He wasn’t wrong.

The Tate exhibition is a chance to feel the fuller energy. I’d advise ignoring the tendency amongst some critics to say Blake is unfathomable or incomprehensible. Rather, allow yourself just to dwell in the show.

Enjoy the loveliness of his portrayal of a friendship. Feel the fear embodied in the figures bound in chains. Let your mind rise with angels as their feet leave the ground. Experience the agony of the traumatic moments from Biblical stories and myths. Feel his dark clouds, starry vistas, lithe figures.

Another Romantic writer, Owen Barfield, discovered how to access this life in poetry. He realised that the trick is not immediately to try to explain a poem but to let the words work on you. Let them speak as your imagination runs. There’s no right or wrong; no mere fantasy. Amplify any feelings and you discover that the words have soul. “I kept my attention on the experience itself and was not attracted by the rhetorical explanations which led away from it,” Barfield says.

What’s experienced is the inner power of the art. If it’s submitted to with fewer preconceptions, it can prepare the mind for new sights. The imagination is reignited. Feeling is charged. It’s this thrill that Blake brings and why he inspires. He offers a therapy for the soul that restores its capacity for vision.

That said, reason has a part, too. It can be bought into play when it has something to work with. Having made contact with reality afresh via the imagination, reason can sketch its maps and offer its links. It can serve to deepen, discern, direct.

The point is that reasoning becomes unfree when it believes it is sovereign; when it forgets what Einstein caught in his remark about imagination being more important than knowledge: imagination is in touch with the world, whereas reason abstracts from it. The prison of reason alone is what Blake famously represents in his images of Urizen, Newton and the Ancient of Days. They assume that all they have is the measuring rod and compass.

The same mistake is made by the overbearing empiricism and reductionism of our times. The intellectuals who judge everything by logic and treat the cosmos as a machine have forgotten that they can only think because the world already contains intelligence. They can only understand because there is wisdom.

“There is no natural religion,” Blake proclaims in one of the books on display at Tate Britain. He means that spiritual life exceeds what can be captured by the natural sciences. It feeds the religious impulse because it spills in from the divine life in which our lives are embedded.

Blake believed he had a mission. It was to help his fellows regain spiritual sight. When feeling as well as reason, intuition as well as sensing, imagination as well as deduction are operative, it’s not actually that hard to find. Stay with the contraries. Stay with the images.

“I give you a golden thread, Only wind it into a ball, It will let you in at Heaven’s Gate Built in Jerusalem’s Wall,” Blake promised. This exhibition is a chance to take him up on it.

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BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief on God

I was a panelist for the latest edition of the long-standing BBC Radio 4 religious discussion programme, Beyond Belief. We discussed the nature of God.

“God is a presence that runs in and through all things that’s quite quiet and still but there’s something very powerful and strong in that presence and stillness.”

“You can wake up to the inside of the whole world and not just your own inside.”

Listen online here.

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Talk at Watkins Books online

What is the meaning of the disenchantment of our age? Is the ego a clue to a way forward, not a hindrance? What might the next steps in the evolution of human consciousness look like?

These questions, and more, were explored by Owen Barfield. He was a member of the famous Oxford literary group, the Inklings, and the one whom C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were said to have had the most innovative ideas.

In this talk, drawing from his new book A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness, I outline Owen Barfield’s ideas and what they tell us about ancient philosophy, mystical Christianity and our spiritual flourishing today.

Barfield studied how the meaning of words changes over time, and saw that they were fossils of consciousness. The evolving human perception of ourselves, others, nature, the cosmos and the gods can therefore be traced and, moreover, its meaning understood.

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A Secret History of Christianity out today!

A Secret History of Christianity seems to have had a good first day in the world. I hope it opens up the genius insights of Owen Barfield for readers.

I’ve also written an article published in The Tablet outlining his take on Christianity.

And there’s a discussion with Jules Evans on the Church Times podcast about the need to rediscover the mystical side of faith which Barfield helped me do.

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Big histories and the new need for meaning

In this new episode of The Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, Rupert Sheldrake and I discuss Big Histories – the books that present long range narratives of cosmic and human evolution.

They are big sellers. Noah Yuval Harari, David Christian and Felipe Fernández-Armesto are among the authors attempting to tell a deep story of the universe and humanity. Rupert and I ask how they work and what’s at stake.

I’m is particularly interested in this question as my new book, A Secret History of Christianity, adopts a different worldview to show how spirit and soul drive life.

The conversation ranges over fascinating questions from the nature of information and emergence to what, given the current sense of crisis, we hope for the future.

The many previous discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake can be found on youtube, streamed, Spotify, iHeartRadio, as a playlist on SoundCloud, and on iTunes.

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“Beautifully written and artfully constructed”

Nicholas Colloff reviews A Secret History of Christianity at Golgonooza.

“Mark Vernon, in this beautifully written and artfully constructed book, uses Barfield’s key insights and amplifying historical and literary scholarship, to trace the development of Christianity’s two founding traditions – Athens and Jerusalem – articulating how they embarked on similar journeys from original participation to an individualizing break to a new sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos. No longer inhabiting a field in which the gods pulled the strings of fate into a world governed by a unitary, ordered universe in which recognizable persons could, in freedom, respond either to Yahweh as person or in law or to the ordering Good or Logos. These two traditions, Vernon argues, merge in Christianity and give birth to a new dispensation, a new reconciling participation, witnessed to and embodied in the person of Christ.”

Read full review.

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From postmodernity to final participation: talking Owen Barfield

Michael Leighty asks me, Mark Vernon, a range of questions from Barfield’s attitudes towards postmodernism to his understanding of the power of story. We explore how language is an embodied activity and what Barfield meant by final participation. We ask what he has to say to readers of Plato and what he has to say to people seeking new grounds for faith in felt experience.

In short, it’s a wide-ranging and I hope far-reaching conversation.

For more on my book, A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness click here.

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The faith of the Inklings, with Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite and I join Justin Brierley on Justin’s Unbelievable radio show to talk about how the Inklings, the group of Oxford intellectuals including CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Owen Barfield, made sense of Christian faith.

Mark Vernon shares how he draws on Barfield’s approach in his new book ‘A secret history of Christianity’. Theologian-poet Malcolm Guite responds.

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Human evolution and soul

“Without soul, there would be no tools,” I write at the Perspectiva blog. “The human niche is one marked by an openness to the transcendent.”

Narrative accounts of human evolution are big right now. You may well have read Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and its follow up, Homo Deus. And there are others, such as the “big history” of David Christian, related in his book, Origin Story.

They’re well written, packed with detail, and offer a sense of place in time. But I finish them feeling a fundamental element is missing. There’s a hole at the centre of their explanations. If there were a single word to capture that lack it might be the word, “soul”.

By soul I mean the energy that animates the human species. It’s not the struggle to survive. It’s not the drive of replicating genes. It’s the existential need to discover something of worth; to have something to live for.

The big histories of Harari and Christian write a lot about meaning, of course. Pivotal to Harari’s account is that our ancestors learnt to tell stories to one another. These fictions were useful because they helped bond large groups. That they were false, in Harari’s view, doesn’t matter because their value was instrumental. They enabled homo sapiens to survive by bringing them together, sometimes to outwit predators; sometimes to share know-how.

I’ve no doubt that stories were helpful in this way. What I do doubt is that stories became a key feature of our species solely because they were adaptatively advantageous. Rather, I suspect that they had an intrinsic value of their own and that our ancestors were as delighted by them as we are by ours, now. Myths capture meaning, speak of purpose and express feelings of soul.

It’s crucial to highlight this element for at least two reasons. First, because our crises today are, at root, existential crises: I fear that soulless accounts of our evolution deepen and exacerbate the problem. Second, and more importantly, because there’s good evidence a soulful account of human evolution is true.

In other words, there is an alternative big history of our species and it puts transcendence and belief in the driving seat.

One place it’s being worked out is in relation to the evolutionary origins of religion. I recently attended a meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion. The conference was held to discuss research led by the evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar. He has proposed a new source for the religiosity tendency that’s so distinctive of we humans.

It’s wellspring was the discovery of trance. It seems that archaic humans of the middle paleolithic realised that they could induce altered states of consciousness. That developed into animistic gatherings and shamanistic practices. With trance, entirely new worlds populated by spirits and ancestors opened up to them. The quest for meaning became multi-dimensional.

The evidence for this development ranges over archeological remains such as cave art and burial sites, studies of modern hunter-gatherers, and the role endorphins play in our physiology. The last factor is particularly striking. Large surges of endorphins are released when we execute synchronized activities, be that dancing, celebrating or performing rituals. These opioids have a useful by-product, Dunbar argues. They ease the tensions that build up in large groups, which unchecked would destroy them.

Dunbar also has evidence that transcendent experience is particularly powerful when it comes to spawning such adaptive advantages. For example, religious groups tend to grow larger than purely secular ones, and also hold together for longer. It may be that transcendence has the peculiar property of being only partly amenable to description. It has an ineffable quality, with the corollary that it’s an infinite source of fascination and soul, healing and bonding. It is, therefore, deeply satisfying and especially useful. If Dunbar and his colleagues are right, soul and survival go together.

Another, and related, alternative to the soulless big histories is being told by the anthropologist, Agustin Fuentes. Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being will be published by Yale University Press later this year. (If you want a sneak preview, the book stems from his 2018 Gifford Lectures that are online.) In it, he relates the rich and complicated story of our evolution drawing out elements that other accounts sideline – which, in my view, makes it a gamechanger.

The difference can be put like this. Fuentes realises that the development of technologies rests on the reciprocal interaction of material and immaterial factors. Consider the business of making stone tools.

Clearly, you need suitable stones, agile hands and big enough brains to make flint scrappers and arrow heads. That’s the material side of the story. But you also need imagination and insight to see how a rock might not only crack nuts, but be transformed into something entirely new, like an ornamental hand axe. This is the crucial immaterial element. And it doesn’t stop there.

To gain such insights, you need an ability to contemplate your environment and, because such awareness must be sustained for long periods of time to yield insights, you also need beliefs and meaning to keep the contemplation going.

This is to say that there are activities our ancestors must have experienced as having intrinsic value, and that these activities are prior to those that delivered the instrumental benefits. Early humans must have wanted to engage with reality in a quest for connection and truths. Only then could they become great devisors of technologies. Again, they must have had soul.

Without soul, there would be no tools. The human niche is one marked by an openness to the transcendent. It’s not an optional extra. “Human beings became simultaneously transactional and transcendental beings,” Fuentes writes. The two dimensions are woven together.

Fuentes goes on to argue that this leaves us “revelation ready”, which is to say that human beings – perhaps during the Neolithic period – also become capable of receiving the intimations of reality that were captured in sacred texts and doctrinal convictions. The science cannot decide whether these beliefs are true, of course. But it does show how becoming spiritual or religious emerged and why it was so necessary.

In short, soul has always been at the centre of the human story. My sense is that it always needs to be, too. Without it, we fall into meaninglessness and purposelessness and find our circumstances unbearable, which shouldn’t surprise us. If spiritual needs drove our evolution, it’s only natural to presume they are needed to drive us, too. I look forward to new big histories being shared and told.

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Was Pascal right about belief?

This piece was published at Christian Today.

Pascal’s Wager has become a notorious reason to believe in God. The French mathematician and philosopher proposed that it’s rational to believe in God because if you’re wrong it won’t make any difference, but if you’re right it might make every difference as to where you spend eternity. It’s as if he was suggesting it’s better to hedge your bets and believe, only that seems duplicitous and inauthentic.

However, there is more to the wager than just abstract logic. Pascal simultaneously argued that what you do makes a difference to what you believe. “If you perform religious rites with enthusiasm… you will come to be devoutly religious,” he wrote.

In other words, when he talked about believing in God, he was talking about actions as well as words. He intuited the two were linked, and the striking truth is this insight is finding growing support in science.

I recently attended a meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion. Evidence that could be used in support of Pascal dominated the conference. The psychologist, James Jones, is a distinguished professor in the department of religion at Rutgers University. He discussed what it might mean, as he also does in his book, Living Religion: Embodiment, Theology and the Possibility of Spiritual Sense.

For example, if individuals look down when trying to remember something, their powers of recall are boosted. Memory also improves when associated with places, which is why recollections come flooding back when you visit an old haunt or home.

Alternatively, there’s good evidence that a sluggish body posture amplifies depressed feelings, whilst sitting up or standing straight gives a boost to self-esteem. Going for a walk enhances thought, too, with the implication that going on a pilgrimage to work out what you believe is very sensible.

Another experiment that shows the link between motion and mentation can be done at home. Try explaining something to a friend whilst keeping your arms by your sides. When you can’t gesture, it is very much harder.

The last point nudges towards harder evidence for the connection between body and mind. Consider the fact that blind people gesture when they speak to other blind people. Clearly, the gestures can’t be seen but they help the exchange, nonetheless. The reason is that parts of the brain associated with movement are also associated with communication. In other words, gestures are bodily correlates of thoughts, as well as actions that help us think. They are not an optional extra.

A parallel link is caught in language. Time and time again, the words we use associate physical and mental experience. Consider just one example. We can say that a lemon is bitter and that a departure was bitter. The word “bitter” makes perfect sense in both cases, which is why we might also remark that a difficult event left “a bitter taste in the mouth”.

To add more evidence may feel like labouring the point. (You may notice that the word “labouring” has a physical and psychological meaning.) But my purpose is to emphasize the richness of the connections between actions and cognitions. They can be almost magical.

For instance, if you imagine doing something, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to do it. A person who visualizes lifting a heavy weight stands a better chance of being able to lift it. “Thought is a whole body activity,” Jones stresses.

It’s why activity is part and parcel of religious life. Singing, dancing, standing and sitting; breathing, visualizing, bowing and hand-raising; sacred places, holy spaces, pilgrimage sites and special seasons. They are ubiquitous and they work with the connection between mind and body. Such rituals do not just support belief, they deepen belief.

But can they make you believe, as Pascal implied?

There is evidence that people who practice meditation in a wholly secular context for entirely secular reasons, perhaps to reduce stress, show an increased interest in the religious side of the practice, over time.

Similarly, doing something religious like going to church at Christmas is likely to make you less hostile or wary of Christianity. I wonder if this is why cathedrals remain popular in modern Britain when regular church-going has become a niche activity. Cathedrals enable people to perform a religious gesture, even if they’re as minimal as looking up at a gothic arch or walking thoughtfully along a cloister. Nothing need be said or affirmed, but the movement is itself a kind of wordless confession. It may be a first step, pun intended, towards more overt belief.

That said, faking it until you make it or simply going through the motions is not enough. Engaging with a religious practice in itself won’t make you believe. There is no ritual that guarantees conversion. For an action to precipitate change, it must bring together openness of mind and willingness of body.

But that is only to stress the main point. We are whole people, composed of body, mind and spirit. The mistake is to stress the intellect alone.

Neuroscience suggests what might be going on. It’s widely recognised that the brain runs two cognitive systems. Daniel Kahneman captured the model in the title of his bestselling book: Thinking, Fast and Slow. The fast system is the more embodied one. The slower one tends to reason. But exercising the fast one can help the slow one. Hence, practices can open up new possibilities for belief.

I think we can conclude that Pascal was, in fact, right. The error has been to take his wager as a piece of disembodied logic. But that doesn’t seem to be what he meant. He understood that belief is about what we do as well as what we say. “If you perform religious rites with enthusiasm… you will come to be devoutly religious.” In many instances, he was right.

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