Pilgrimages at Perspectiva

I know of no better method for guaranteeing a personal revelation than walking a pilgrimage. Even a short one of an hour or two will do. It must be why they’re booming as a spiritual practice. “Bring your own beliefs” is the strapline of the British Pilgrimage Trust, one organisation doing much to spread the word.

Pippa Evans and I have been working on how Perspectiva might adapt such walks to offer brief, felt introductions to our work of engaging with the soulful, social and systemic dynamics that so powerfully shape our lives. A half day pilgrimage through London, for example, is not just a way of learning about the city. It’s a way of learning how we might relate differently to the city.

That also means its about change in yourself. When we reconsider a place, our participation in its life shifts, and so does our life to some degree. The moment of encounter is a moment of reassessment and so also an adjustment of our connection with it.

Pilgrimages pack a lot of punch, but how do they work? In a word, it’s your body.

You commit to do a walk that will take you from one chosen place to another. This modest pledge shifts your consciousness just a bit from the everyday awareness of the mind to the often surprising awareness of the body. The effect is amplified by setting an intention for the walk – maybe it’s to glimpse something new about that tricky project or to hold in mind this dear person. Maybe it’s to see something new.

It’s knowing in a different way. There’s the pace of a pilgrimage; the walking pace that resonates with the heart. There’s being outdoors and feeling the elements on your face and the ground through your feet. There’s its perspective: turning a corner will unveil an atmosphere or render a familiar building unfamiliar.

This embodied knowing arises from feelings in your guts. It may be a slight modulation but the great thing about such interior swells and surges is that they touch your soul. Your inner vitality responds to the inner vitality of the moment. You may be uplifted by a handsome tree, puzzled by a ruin, intimidated by an imposing slope or wall. All bring a sense of meaning.

This soul element has to do with the kind of people or creatures who have inhabited that space, which is why embodied knowing also brings a different sense of society. That community may have flourished in a previous age and echoes back upon encountering a Roman wall or gothic arch. It may be contemporary and reflected in the shiny glass of an office. Or it may be strange: I recall first seeing that a stately beech tree was surrounded by younger beeches like courtiers around a monarch, and being told that they are the offspring of the mature tree who controls their growth through networks of underground communication. I never knew arboreal societies existed.

We also want to capture the third element that interests us at Perspectiva to see how pilgrimages offer an experience of the systems that shape places. If the soul is the inner life of a person or space, and the society is its outer manifestation, then the system might be thought of as the intersubjective element. It’s the dynamic third that the relates soul to society and society to soul; me to you and you to me. It’s the relationship between the two, which has a life of its own. This, too, can be experienced through embodied knowing.

When we tried out a short pilgrimage in London, we made one stop at the Bank of England and felt this systemic side. It has imposing walls and strange symbols on monumental doors that are presumably supposed to keep you out. We stood before it and asked what the experience invoked. We walked around it and saw it from another side. Is the bank there to serve us or to keep us in place? Who has access to it? Could we be invited in? Is it like a giant battery charging up the economy or a secret laboratory of monetary alchemy?

We could imaginatively feel into the “in between” dynamics of the place by testing out what it felt like to look at it head on, turn a back to it, stand together before it, move around it as if in search of a different side. The experience is not resolved for me but it has stayed within me.

Pilgrimages are powerful. In 2020, we hope to start offering our own short walks. We sense they will prove invaluable as a felt introduction to Perspectiva’s work, which is also an adventure. Because if pilgrimages reveal, they might also remake me and you.

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Trinities – latest discussion with Rupert Sheldrake

Aristotle called three a perfect number. We offer three cheers of praise. Christians envisage God as triune.

In this new episode of The Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, Rupert Sheldrake and I ask why three is associated with completion, creativity, dynamism and divinity. The discussion ranges over the patterns of three that are revealed in nature; the relationship between being, consciousness and bliss; the links between a third position and transformation in psychotherapy.

The subject was prompted a Cambridge University conference, New Trinitarian Ontologies, which featured leading theologians such as Rowan Williams and David Bentley Hart. Their talks can be found online.

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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A Secret History of Christianity – hear the introduction

You can now listen to the introduction to A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness on youtube or audio.

Do consider buying it as an audiobook!

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Psychotherapy and the evolution of consciousness

This is a talk I gave at WPF Therapy on how Owen Barfield’s ideas about the evolution of consciousness might help shape psychotherapy’s sense of itself.

The youtube shows the core part; the audio is the full talk including my personal introduction and the questions.

In short, psychotherapy can be said to have emerged to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Christianity’s wisdom about inner life at the Reformation.

It offers not only clinical insights but a spiritual practice that suggests new ways of participating in life and the inside of the world world.

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Divine transports

Excerpts from my essay on trance states and the origins of religion in human evolution published at Aeon.

Dunbar believes that a few hundred thousand years ago, archaic humans took a step that ramped up this capacity. They started deliberately to make music, dance and sing. When the synchronised and collective nature of these practices became sufficiently intense, individuals likely entered trance states in which they experienced not only this-worldly splendour but otherworldly intrigue. They encountered ancestors, spirits and fantastic beasts, now known as therianthropes. These immersive journeys were extraordinarily compelling. What you might call religiosity was born. It stuck partly because it also helped to ease tensions and bond groups, via the endorphin surges produced in trance states. In other words, altered states proved evolutionarily advantageous: the awoken human desire for ecstasy simultaneously prompted a social revolution because it meant that social groups could grow to much larger sizes via the shared intensity of heightened experiences…

The suggestion is, therefore, that higher-order intentionality helped our ancestors consciously to incorporate visionary dimensions of existence into the complex interactions of their lives: it meant that humans could forge more organised sets of shamanistic practices and develop animistic worldviews.

It took a long time. There’s archaeological evidence that this kind of systematisation reaches back some tens of thousands of years. The evidence is found in the form of deliberate burials, ornamental artefacts and cave art. How to interpret such prehistoric remains is widely disputed, of course, but if Neanderthals possessed perhaps four orders of intentionality, and so engaged in simple burial practices, our closest ancestors possessed more. From these more sophisticated cognitive capacities flowed complex rituals, increasingly elaborate burials and the making of objects such as the Olduvai handaxe, the significance of which is that its design far exceeds the requirements of its function, something not seen in earlier handaxes…

You might say that religions are caught between the Scylla of socially useful but potentially dreary religious rites and the Charybdis of altered states that are intrinsically exciting but socially disruptive. It’s why they bring bloody conflicts as well as social goods. This way of putting it highlights another feature of the trance theory. It interweaves two levels of explanation: one focused on the allure of spiritual vitality; the other on practical needs.

It’s a crucial coupling because other research indicates that these vertical and horizontal dimensions of experience need to be brought together to account fully for what makes us human…

Of course, science cannot decide whether the claims of any one religion are true. But the new theory still makes quite a strong claim, which brings me back to the role of the supernatural, transcendence and religious gods that today’s secularists seem inclined to sideline. If the science cannot confirm convictions about any divine revelations received, it does lend credence to the reasonableness, even necessity, of having them. Where the big gods and false agency hypotheses seemed inherently sniffy about human religiosity, the trance hypothesis positively values it. As Fuentes writes: ‘Meaning-making, the transcendent, and openness to revelation and discovery are core parts of the human niche and central to our evolutionary success.’..

It’s often said that many of today’s troubles, from divisive political debates to spats on social media, are due to our tribal nature. It’s added, somewhat fatalistically, that deep within our evolutionary past is the tendency to identify with one group and demonise another. We are destined to be at war, culturally or otherwise. But if the trance theory is true, it shows that the evolutionary tendency to be tribal rests on an evolutionary taste for that which surpasses tribal experience – the transcendence that humans glimpsed in altered states of mind that enabled them to form tribes to start with.

If we long to belong, we also long to be in touch with ‘the more’, as the great pioneer of the study of religious experiences William James called it. That more will be envisaged in numerous ways. But it might help us by prompting new visions that exceed our herd instincts and binary thinking, and ease social tensions. If it helped our ancestors to survive, why would we think we are any different?

To read the complete essay click here.

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Tutankhamun’s spell and the lure of ancient Egypt

The artefacts of ancient Egypt fascinate because they touch a half forgotten experience of being in the world. Hieroglyphs do something similar. As Tutankhamun comes to London, what participation with life do they convey?

Susan Brind Morrow, a translator of the writings known as the Pyramid Texts, argues hieroglyphs are best read as poetry, in her book, The Silver Eye. They show rather than tell; are felt as much as heard. They are written in pictograms composed of daily objects, animals and plants that mirror life to an extent that abstract letters, such as our own, can’t match. We can only capture some sense of this mingling of the symbolic and material, Morrow suggests, in onomatopoeic words like “hubbub” or “ruckus” or “pepper”. These are words that perform what they’re about as well as saying what they’re about and, interestingly, are often Arabic in origin, which is to say that they are indirectly ancient Egyptian.

Consider the hieroglyph abbreviation for “say the words”. It’s written as a snake and a walking stick, with the stick below and pointing up at the snake. It’s a phrase that often comes at the beginning of lengthy texts to indicate that what follows should be uttered. Morrow shows how the snake-stick hieroglyph provides a good example of the ability to be simultaneously specific and evocative.

Consider first the snake part of the symbol. It would bring “life” to mind for ancient Egyptian priests and kings as the word for snake is also the word for life. Life was felt to be an inner snake, often linked to the snake-like spinal cord that winds and undulates inside, as well as to things that that can happen suddenly and unpredictably, like the rearing up of a cobra. Then, second, consider the walking stick. It introduces another set of associations. As an object it has to do with words because, in a land of sand, a stick readily doubles up as a writing implement. But also, when set beneath a snake and pointing at it, the stick recalls the snake handler, who dealt with the cobras that nested in houses by pulling them out as they wrapped around his stick. The stick attempts to tame the snake much as words might be said to attempt to tame life. Then, fourthly, there’s another link between the stick and the snake because a stick looks like an inert snake, and further, in some stories, comes to life by morphing into a snake, as when Aaron cast his stick before Pharaoh turning it into a serpent. The stick might attempt to tame the snake, but it can also itself come alarmingly to life.

The snake that is like life; that might be tamed by words written with a stick; that could itself spring to life; as the words that follow the snake-stick will if uttered, as the hieroglyph commands. In the pictogram, “say the words” is both an instruction and a talisman. Seeing it would bring the reader into the presence of what they were about to enact. Though different from the Paleolithic aurochs and bears, it’s another kind of psychosocial participation.

More generally, Morrow concludes that ancient Egyptians were not much interested in abstract questions of enquiry and explanation, and this explains why they never thought to abstract the letters of their language, but deployed hieroglyphs for 3000 years. She cites another translator, Alexandre Piankoff, who put it like this in his Wandering of the Soul: “For the Egyptians, every so-called physical fact of life had a symbolic meaning, and every symbolic act had a material background. Both were equally true and real.”

It’s what Owen Barfield called original participation and so hieroglyphs are a type of writing that is not about something, poised at a dispassionate distance from a subject. They, rather, contain something. They are embedded in the cosmos, in Ma’at.

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Life after death. A Halloween thought from Socrates.

Socrates was at the start of a revolution in the perception of death. It had been experienced as a return to the ancestors. It became the way to discover the life beyond this life. This is an edited extract from my book, A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness.

Our distant ancestors appear not to have felt that the difference between life and death was absolute. The dead lived with their ancestors and living people believed they would join them when they died. However, they had this sense because they did not feel themselves to be isolated individuals. Their life was always already intimately tied up with the life of others. Death was a transition, therefore, rather than an end, because at death someone was felt to be returning to the life of their kin or tribe with which they had, all along, been sharing.

This had begun to change with the emergence of a more individualized consciousness. As a sense of gathered, personal awareness formed, so could a perception of psychic boundaries. There a difference between what’s me and not me, what’s mortal and immortal, what’s inner and outer. That becomes clearer. However, there’s a price for such individuality. At death, it could seem that life would be lost because the innate sense of connection with the flow of life had been broken, or at least eclipsed.

It’s why preparations for postmortem existence shifted. Socrates argued that the connection between life and death, without a loss of the gains of individuality, could be found once more if the individual could readjust their sight to appreciate eternal life in this life. In the Phaedo dialogue, for example, Plato portrays Socrates as ready for death because he has one eye settled on the side of life that doesn’t die, which he has befriended in the here and now. “Those who philosophize rightly make dying their care,” Socrates remarks. It’s another aspect of philosophy as a way of life. The philosopher steps back from the commonplace fears of frightened mortals and awakens to a forgotten ground. They’re facing death to discover life.

The realization is that readying oneself for the life beyond this life requires a practice constantly of letting go of the sense that you possess your own life. It’s not yours to have but it is yours to cultivate.

Plato summed it up with the expression that to philosophize is to learn how to die. He saw that death had come to be greatly feared by his fellows because of the tendency to cling to life as if an inalienable right. But that fear was also a clue. Instead of fighting death, the philosopher might use the ups and downs of every day to become conversant with the edges of life. The relationship between sunrises and sunsets, what’s understood and what’s not understood, what works and what fails, what’s temporal and eternal, can be consciously investigated. It is in the midst of life that we realize we participate in far more than just our own life. So, by understanding your humanity, you might understand how you share in what’s good, beautiful and true, insofar as they manifest in your humanity. The philosopher awakens as they gain a capacity to attune to life, which brings in its wake a gradual attunement to the divine. As Plato explained in the Timeaus, it is through contact with mortal life that the soul recalls its immortal life because it learns that what’s created and mortal is shaped by what’s eternal and immortal.

But there’s a paradox. This very conformation feels like dying because, in a sense, it is. It is dying to the narrow view that, unchecked, the individual spontaneously and tenaciously adheres to. We are inclined to imprison ourselves in a carapace of mortal fears and possessive desires.

The philosopher, A.N. Whitehead, noted that such “scenes of solitariness” haunt the religious imagination. It’s the central moment in any spiritual journey of weight and has subsequently been given many names from the dark night of the soul to having a breakdown. “It belongs to the depth of the religious spirit to have felt forsaken, even by God,” Whitehead said. But it is the forsakenness that opens up the depths.

In time, Platonists like Iamblichus were to agree. He affirmed explicitly that immortality is not gained by trying to escape mortal life but by conforming fully to mortal life, which in death can be recognized as replete with the timeless. The psychotherapist, Marion Milner, discovered a similar meaning to the crucifixion. She called it the “dramatization of an inner process of immense importance to humanity, a process which was not an escape from reality, but the only condition under which the inner reality could be perceived.”

The realization has been reiterated by multiple voices. By embracing human life, to the point of dying, we came to what is deathless in life. Meister Eckhart captures it joltingly: “The kingdom of heaven is only for the perfectly dead.”

To read more: A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness

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Owen Barfield and the power of words

This article was published in The Tablet.

I was once in a discussion about mission. We were a sub-committee, mulling over what we should do to spread the gospel and boost church numbers. An hour passed, as did various moods, from anxiety to optimism. And then someone said, “But wait. It’s not our mission that matters. It’s God’s mission.”

The thought fell on me like a revelation. We had got the question wrong. What we should be asking is, where is God’s mission happening?

It was only with reading Owen Barfield that I began to gain a proper sense of how to find out, as well as grasp what might be unfolding in our times of church decline. He was a lesser known member of the Oxford Inkling group, though the one whom C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien said had the most penetrating ideas.

Born in 1898, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, he died in 1997, a few months after Tony Blair became prime minister. He saw one world die and another world born, and also witnessed the two world wars that erupted in between.

He faced periods of acute depression, too, and major disruptions in his career. Unlike Lewis and Tolkien, he was never employed by Oxford University, though at first, it looked as if he would be the first of the Inklings to become famous. In 1925, he published a mythopoetic story for children, The Silver Trumpet, over a decade before The Hobbit, and his first non-fiction book of lasting significance, Poetic Diction, came out in 1928.

He gathered supporters from the start. W.H. Auden wrote a forward for another early book saying it should be “required reading in all schools.” But the early promise failed to produce sustained academic employment with the upshot that he spent most of his working life with the family law firm in London. Long decades passed until 1957, when his magnum opus, Saving the Appearances, was published. Then, when Lewis died in 1963, he embarked on lecture tours in America to talk about his “oppositional friend”, and the transformative nature of his own ideas began to spread. The Nobel Laureate, Saul Bellow, noted that Barfield’s aim is not just to be interesting but is “to set us free.” The Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr, describes Barfield as “a paradigm-busting Christian thinker”.

The radicality was discovered when, aged 21, he recovered from a bout of depression. He felt that he had been cured of a disease of the soul. Although it could threaten to return, and further had spread like a miasma throughout the modern world, the experience was a kind of spiritual awakening. He had found a way out of the existential catastrophe Nietzsche called “the death of god”. It never let him down.

Two things happened. First, he fell in love with the woman who would become his wife. Love may be the painful realisation that someone else exists, as Iris Murdoch, another Oxford philosopher and writer was to remark, but he no longer felt alone. And that was not all.

He also fell in love with poetry, and it was this love that took him further. He noticed that poetic words are powerful, even magical. They are a source of delight because their resonance, vigour and colour channel worlds of experience that, in his depression, he doubted were there. Like a shaft of sunlight on a cloudy day, they illuminate what he came to call “the inside of the whole world”.

The awakening did not stop with that but led to his big idea: words have soul, an inner vitality that, when embraced, is transformative. They reveal a storehouse of treasures that is permanent and keeps giving. They echo the activity of the divine Word at work in the cosmos.

The idea is close to that of Tolkien’s theory of “subcreation”. Indeed, Barfield contributed directly to Tolkien’s formulation. This is the insight that imagination is “a higher form of Art” because it brings worlds into being. Words channel reality; they wake us up to it. This soulfulness is felt when a successful novel, like The Lord of the Rings, is experienced not as telling you about another world. Rather, it’s experienced as being another world.

Barfield pursued the revelation further. If words have soul, he continued, then they can also tell us about the human minds who deploy them. In particular, they can tell us about how worlds change because it’s clear that words change meaning over the course of time. They are “fossils of consciousness” and the fossils reveal a pattern.

To simplify slightly, Barfield discovered that in earlier times, words tended to carry meanings which spoke of outer and inner realities that are woven together. Then, in more recent times, the use of words shows that these two dimensions of existence have tended to split apart.

Take a case central to Christianity, the Greek word, pneuma. For example, in modern translation, John 3:8 reads: “The wind [pneuma] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of Spirit [pneuma].” Two different words for pneuma are used in English that represent what we assume to be separate spheres of reality. “Wind” is an external, tangible phenomenon. “Spirit” is internal, intangible. But the writer of these verses did not have to make a distinction and turn one into a metaphor for the other. “Wind” and “Spirit” were two aspects of a continuous experience: pneuma.

The same pattern repeats time and again in language. Over the course of his long life, Barfield was occasionally presented with supposed counterexamples, though they all proved false alarms. So what does the pattern mean? It reveals how worlds change.

The separation of the inner from the outer meanings of words represents a splitting in the human psyche. It can be put like this. Our ancestors must have felt themselves to have been part and parcel of a flow of life that moved in, through and around them as easily as the wind-spirit moved amongst the trees. Barfield called it “original participation”.

One place it’s remembered is in Biblical stories such as that of Adam and Eve walking with God in the Garden. Before the Fall, they weren’t ashamed, which is to say, they weren’t aware of their separation from God and each other. But then comes the Fall. It rehearses a shift.

“It’s a story that remembers an increase in human beings ability to differentiate between things, such as good and evil, mortals and immortals,” explains Fraser Watts, the psychologist of religion, speaking about Barfield at a recent meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion. “But that differentiation comes at the cost of being able to integrate things.”

The immersive experience of life is lost, with the upshot that nowadays, we tend to feel that we are cut off from others, nature, the cosmos and God. Barfield called it a “withdrawal of participation”. But it’s not the end of the story.

A crucial detail in Barfield’s idea is that the withdrawal has meaning. It isolates people but it also fosters a sense of interiority and autonomy. That’s why the Genesis myth contains details such as Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the serpent. They have become defensive, they struggle, but you could also say that these are the signs they have become human beings with an independent subjectivity. They might also, therefore, discover new kinds of freedom.

In other words, the shift is also a gift, which brings us to the meaning of Jesus. He shared this tricky I-consciousness. But what he showed in his life is that human interiority, reflected in our capacity to say “I am”, can be the perfect receptacle for the divine I AM. A new state of being is possible: to own our humanity and to be fully transparent to God. We catch a glimpse of it when poetic words light up our inner life because in that moment we become actively transparent to the inner life of the world around us. It’s a moment when the Word becomes incarnate in us because we say, “yes”.

Such awareness comes on the other side of the withdrawal of participation because it’s only then that a possessed sense of interiority can form. Separation is a necessary stage.

It’s why the cross became the central Christian image, along with Jesus’s cry: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Such “scenes of solitariness”, as the philosopher A.N. Whitehead called them, are the central moment in any spiritual journey of weight and have subsequently been given many names from the dark night of the soul to having a breakdown. It’s a crisis that makes for a turning point.

A new kind of participation becomes possible, which Barfield called “reciprocal” and “final”. His spiritual awakening, fleshed out by his study of words, led him to a fresh account of the meaning of Christianity. Humankind has undergone an alienation from God that enables the return of a freer humanity to God. Felix culpa! Happy fall! It was Augustine’s discovery when he realized God as “more in me than I am in me,” and that God was “waiting within me while I went outside me.”

Mystics offer us a foretaste of it when they realise that their life mirrors divine life. “Our task now is to participate with an expanded sense of reality and learn to talk about it,” Watts adds.

I believe it was a parallel insight that led Karl Rahner to make his well-known remark, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” This is how to embrace our moment in history, which values the individual like none before. Education has become a universal goal. People are equal before the law. Everyone – women and men – have a vote. It is also a time that is stressed and conflictual, frequently deadly. But God is at work in this fall. In ways we don’t always understand, when we too can feel forsaken, a receptable of divine light and life is forged.

When looking out for God’s mission now, I seek signs of spiritual crisis, deepening interiority, renewed delight in nature, and articulate mysticism. Barfield is my guide.

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Barfield on Jung, Dante, Steiner, Lewis, imagination & meaning – a QnA

Part 1
Part 2

I was delighted to get the chance to range over a wide variety of key questions put by Michael Leighty, gathered from an online audience, to reflect on the relevance and thought of the Inkling, Owen Barfield.

The discussion includes the ideas of Dante, Jung, Kant, CS Lewis and Steiner, and thoughts on the crucial role of imagination in the meaning crisis.

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The re-enchantment of Christianity – a conversation

I hugely enjoyed this further conversation with Paul VanderKlay about Owen Barfield and modern Christianity. It ranged over the meaning of parables and the reality of miracles, the eyes that can see today and the ears that can detect what’s coming tomorrow.

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