From Ulro to Eternity: William Blake’s fourfold vision

This is the second half of a talk given to The Integral Stage as part of its series, The Future Faces of Spirit.

The complete talk, along with links to others, is online here.

What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity’s ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

In episode 14 of The Future Faces of Spirit, Mark Vernon, a psychotherapist and the author of A Secret History of Christianity, invites us to consider the gifts of William Blake’s “four-fold vision” and the power of an integrated imagination for bringing forth an integral religion of the future.

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An introduction to Plato’s dialogues – online course

An Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues with Mark Vernon and Tom Hodgkinson

We’ve all heard of Plato, Socrates and the dialogues, particularly the Republic.

But who exactly were these brilliant Greeks? How did they live and what did they teach? What was each dialogue about?

In this thorough course, Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson quizzes Plato expert Dr Mark Vernon on each of six dialogues, in an attempt to understand what Plato was trying to get across.

Together with Tom we learn about the fascinating life and death of Socrates, and discover what made him the founding father of the new science of philosophy.

We look at who Plato actually was before going on to discuss and explain six dialogues: the Apology, the Symposium, Phaedrus, the Republic, Timaeus and Phaedo.

The course is fact-filled and will allow you to hold on your head up high when the subject of Plato is mentioned.

But more than that, this course will help you to live your life well. You’ll get a deep insight into the life and teachings of Socrates, the genius of the human spirit who wrote nothing down, and his pupil Plato, who started life with aspirations to be a playwright and who channelled his considerable creative energies and intellect into his writings.

The course and further information is online here.

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What would Plato do in a pandemic?

What did he do? He’d treat it not only as a problem to solve but as an experience to understand. And what might be understood? “Modern people are attempting to live knowing only a fraction of what it is to be human.”

A piece at The Idler, launching our new Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues.

How might Plato address the pandemic events that now dominate our lives? It might help, first, to identify a route he wouldn’t have taken. It’s a thought experiment, beloved of modern philosophers, called the Trolley Problem.

Imagine a runaway train carriage that is about to kill six people. You are a guard with the power to switch the points so that the carriage is diverted. The catch is that this would result in the death of one. Should you do it? Should the one death save the many?

Philosophers today like it because it appears to mirror the ethical dilemmas that politicians and doctors are apparently facing. But the approach begs a far deeper problem.

Plato would have seen that treating life as, at base, a series of calculations is flawed. It’s not that there are not pandemics, that life isn’t agonizing and tragic, that death does not exist. Rather it’s that we’ve lost sight of the highest and widest horizons with which we’re capable of participating.

Modern people are attempting to live knowing only a fraction of what it is to be human.

He signalled a richer view with his invocations of “the good, the beautiful, the true.” He showed how the world’s soul and transcendent sight can be experienced intimately, by following the dynamics of love and longing. His most inspiring teachers were not logicians or debaters, figures he despised as sophists. They were geniuses of the human spirit, like the eccentric follower of the god Apollo, Socrates, and the adept in life’s mysteries, Diotima.

His dialogues contain lots of arguments, for sure. But don’t imagine that they are what is nowadays called “Socratic dialogue”, meaning the abstract quest for coherent definitions. The dialogues are weaves of inventive myths, everyday encounters, divine invocations and troubling experiences. When Plato deploys reason, it is used to take people to an edge where they are forced to let go of what they think they know, and discern something more tremendous, more surprising, more life-giving.

Plato’s aim is to use whatever life throws at us to show that there’s always more to life than meets the eye. He knew about plague and war, by the way. His life was affected by truly horrific incidents of both. But because he didn’t see life as a problem to be solved, but as an experience to be understood, he was able to inspire not only his generation, but generations for millennia.

There are some modern philosophers who understand the difference. Take Albert Camus, though it’s telling that he denied he was a philosopher.

His best-known works are novels and The Plague is clearly the one for now. It imagines an African city cut off from the world by bubonic plague. It addresses the crisis by telling stories, describing reactions, illuminating psychology, testing meaning. It is brave, direct, honest. It concludes: “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

To know such truths in your soul is to start to share Plato’s perception. He would help us have it once again. I hope that the new online Idler course, introducing Plato’s dialogues, can be a guide towards this alternative, the original, vision for philosophy.

An Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues with me and Tom Hodgkinson is now available at The Idler.

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Our spiritual future, a talk featuring William Blake

What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? This is my contribution to a conversation hosted by The Integral Stage.

My sense is that we need to feel next steps, rather than design new systems that will inevitably be limited by current perceptions, and that William Blake offers imaginative tools for discernment as we listen into the future.

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How Socrates can teach us to die

This article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of the Idler magazine. Order a copy or subscribe here.

I’m going to talk about death. There are two reasons why you shouldn’t stop reading. First, death is the ultimate idling. “Rest in peace” we say. It’s one moment in life when we actually mean it. Second, all the great wisdom traditions insist that, in spite of appearances, death is the pathway to life. It offers liberation, transformation, regeneration.

Death has come a lot nearer in recent months, so I want to ask: what can this conviction possibly mean?

A good way into the question is with Plato. One of his dialogues, the Phaedo, doesn’t just talk about death. It features a death, that of Socrates. It’s a short work of genius. It’s had a massive impact upon how people in the West have approached death. It aims to offer not just consolation but a radical conversion of sight.

Plato begins by stressing that he really is talking about death. He’s not trying to go over it, or under it, or around it. He’s going to take us through it. That’s crucial. The dialogue opens with the eponymous Phaedo being asked by a friend whether he was there when Socrates “drank the potion in the prison”. You’ll recall that Socrates had been sentenced to death. This is now the day, in 399BC, when he is going to imbibe the fatal hemlock.

It sets up a tension. We know that by the end of the discourse, the poison will have done its work. Socrates will no longer be talking, breathing, blinking. A cold, waxy body will dominate the final scene.

I stress the fact because feeling into the presence of death is a crucial dynamic. When we feel death drawing close, all sorts of novel feelings and thoughts become possible. Plato wants us to sense this energy because he knows, by some alchemy, that it can change us.

He is not alone in this recognition. The Death of Ivan llyich, by Leo Tolstoy, tells of an antihero who had lived an empty, bourgeois life. Now, as his mortality becomes real, his vanity burns way. It leaves exposed a radically different, entirely unexpected perception of life. “He searched for his old habitual fear of death and didn’t find it,” Tolstoy writes.

What Ilyich found instead is the subject of the Phaedo. Plato wrote his dialogue in order that we might find it, too.

It moves through a series of arguments. Each of them is offered as evidence that there’s more to life than its termination at death. However, each of them fails to do so.

An early suggestion is that the soul is separate from the body and so capable of floating off at death. Not if a soul is to the body as the music is to a lyre, Socrates says. No lyre, no music.

Isn’t life cyclical, another person asks? The sun sets and rises. The seasons pass and return. Why would life be any different? Not if our individuality disintegrates, Socrates says, and lives on as an echo or memory for others.

A third possibility they consider is how we experience eternity in the here and now. To quote the famous lines of William Blake: on occasion, we see heaven in a wild flower and hold infinity in the palm of our hand. Doesn’t that mean we have something of the deathless in us? If we didn’t share in divine life, how could we possibly know about it?

There is much in what you say, Socrates affirms. But maybe we need a body to experience it, unlike the gods.

By this point in the dialogue, his friends are starting to panic. Remember, Socrates is going to die. That much is certain. What if the last utterance of the greatest philosopher is an admission that he couldn’t answer the biggest question?

Socrates goes quiet. In deep thought, he tousles Phaedo’s hair. And then he has a new thought. The deaths of all their arguments is precisely what they needed, he says. The failures clear the way for a new truth to shine through, which is what death itself does.

The point is that we don’t possess life, any more than we possess evidence that life survives death. Giving up that delusion makes way for something else. Life is bigger than death in the same way that life is bigger than us.

Put it like this, Socrates continues. Ask yourself, why is he in prison awaiting the hemlock?

A strict materialist would say it’s because his legs moved in a certain way and his brain fired in a certain way. That’s part of what’s happened but it’s not the cause. A cause might be that the Athenian judiciary found him guilty, which is to say that justice and morality are the reason he’s there. They are bigger than his life. That’s true. But there’s something bigger than them as well.

Socrates could have gone into exile. It was standard practice to pay a bribe and self-isolate. He didn’t because his life as a philosopher had led him to see that his soul received its vitality from what holds us in life: the good, beautiful and true. That’s why he is in prison now. He trusts what is true.

Put it like this. He knew that his intelligence is part of cosmic intelligence. His consciousness shares in the consciousness of the gods. His being springs from Being itself. We don’t own life, it owns us. Much as the sun can only admit light, so life can only admit existence. With death now moments away, he sees it.

The same realisation came to Ivan Ilyich. “Where was death?” Tolstoy has Ilyich ask with his final breath. “What death? There was no fear, because there was no death. Instead of death there was light.”

Phaedo reports that Socrates died beautifully, calmly. He stopped wrestling with arguments about life and death because he realised something profound. By facing death, we can find more. Life is not a moment in death. Death is a moment in life.

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Barfield, Coleridge and the Imagination

On Friday 1st May, I presented at an online gathering of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism, with Douglas Hedley, Malcolm Guite, Jacob Sherman, Owen A. Barfield, Gareth Polmeer, Jacob Sherman, Maria Shaskolskaya and Jake Grefenstette.

The discussion is now online.

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Dante, Erotic Love, And The Path To God

Erotic love tends to be viewed warily in monotheistic religions. They are more comfortable when love comes in other forms, like agape or friendship. Christianity provides an obvious case in point.

Punitive attitudes set in from its earliest days, explains the historian of late antiquity, Kyle Harper, in his brilliant book, From Shame To Sin.

For example, Saint Paul felt that sex provided a test case for how the new freedom to be found in Christ differed from the old freedoms of Roman citizenship. For the Roman freeman, a key demonstration of liberty was doing what you willed sexually with your and other’s bodies. But Paul preached a different liberty. It was not civic but spiritual, known through belonging to Christ. Sexual acts, of any sort, were therefore interpreted as an implicit rejection of divine grace. 

“I wish that all of you were as I am,” he writes to the Corinthians, which is to say, celibate. He reached an uneasy accommodation only with those who were married.

Eros as daemon

What’s striking is that these worries and prohibitions are very different from the attitudes towards eros found in mystical and visionary traditions. They tend to take a very different view, in the West, reaching back to Plato.

He taught that Eros is a go-between daemon, whose embrace widens and deepens perception. In the Symposium, he tells of how the priestess and prophet, Diotima, taught Socrates that the “arts of love” can lead to the highest mysteries of sight, ultimately catching glimpses of what’s good, beautiful and true.

Dante Alighieri clearly felt the tension between the two views. His early poems describe the agony of controlling sexual impulses. His muse was, of course, the young lady, Beatrice. She utterly, almost ruthlessly, seized his imagination.

However, he reached a pivotal moment in his spiritual and poetic struggle when he realised that exulting the beauty he saw in her could be an end in itself. It’s the Platonic insight, too. In the Divine Comedy, which celebrates its 700th anniversary this year, Dante reveals that Beatrice herself yielded the insight, on his heaven-bound journey. 

Henceforth, he was to write “for the benefit of the world which lives badly.” The right use of eros is at the heart of his message.

Violent dreams

In fact, of the many things that his miraculous work achieves, no small task is showing how erotic passion brings divine realisation. Canto 9 of the Purgatory offers one of the crucial moments.

It features one of Dante’s three dreams as he ascends Mount Purgatory. This one is a nightmare of sexual violence. The disturbance is underlined by the poet’s allusions to various acts of uncontained lust scattered throughout the canto.

He dreams that he is “rapt” by an eagle. It carries him into the high heavens, much as Jove abducted Ganymede, to a burning fire. In Mark Musa’s translation:

I saw him circle for a while,
then terrible as lightning, he struck down,
swooping me up, up to the sphere of fire.

Dante wakes with a jolt. He’s dazed, “feeling the freezing grip of fright”. Virgil’s intervention and comforting words calm him down.

In fact, his guide explains, whilst he slept, a lady from heaven appeared. She is Lucia and she had carried him a little further up the mountain, as the climb had been hard going for Dante. She told Virgil that she wanted to “speed him on his journey up”. Dante is reassured.

Possession and participation

Now, much ink has been spilled over the meaning of the dream, but it’s pretty clear that the dream and what happened whilst he slept are in stark contrast.

Lucia is one of three beautiful souls who keep a benign eye on Dante from the celestial heights, the other two being Beatrice and the Virgin Mary. On occasion, they speak harsh truths to the pilgrim, but they have only his wellbeing in mind.

I think what the dream implies, therefore, is that, inwardly, Dante had experienced the outward actions of Lucia as a kidnap, almost a rape. Then, as he awakens, he realises his misperception. 

His task becomes clearly. He must hold in mind both images, one of violent and lustful snatching, the other of divine embrace and carriage. In so doing, the character of eros that currently dominates his mind as revealed by the dream, which is of possession, might give way to the dominate character of divine love, which is of participation. It’s “the love that moves the sun and other stars”.

The shift is a key to Dante’s erotic spirituality. It seems to be confirmed by what happens next.

The pair are now at the gateway that marks the entry to purgatory proper. Dante sees that it can be entered by ascending three steps. The first looks like glass; the second like cracked pumice; the third like flaming blood spurting from a vein.

Using eros

The steps are usually interpreted allegorically by commentators, but I feel a more natural and penetrating way to explain them arise from the experience he has just had.

He sees his image in the first step of glass. The second step up is to tolerate how cracked and crumbling that image appears, not least because of the troubled and troubling erotic impulses that he sees inside him. But if that disturbance is born, a third step up becomes possible, when flaming passion can carry him to a threshold.

The threshold is the gateway into purgatory, and Dante and Virgil cross it. An angel shows them the way. 

Dante still has a long way to go. His erotic desires require further work. But in time they are transformed, not simply expelled. They are not rejected, but befriended. They energise his steps up Mount Purgatory and, then, his flights through paradise.

He wrote for the benefit of a world which lives badly, not least in its poor use of the divine gift of erotic love. Contemplating each step of his journey might foster the transformation of our own mixed passions. They do, in fact, offer a pathway to liberty. Dante charts how the arts of love eventually bring the highest mysteries of sight.

My canto by canto commentary on the Divine Comedy can be found on my website, Buzzsprout and YouTube.

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Sacred spaces, with Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake and I have published the latest in our conversations, this time examining sacred spaces.

Cathedrals are increasingly welcoming novel explorations of their tremendous interiors. They offer powerful experiences that come with feeling free in sacred spaces. The conversation looks at how to access the sense of presence they hold, from lying on the ground to sitting in silence, noting that how you approach a building or shrine affects the spiritual qualities revealed.

This is also about the rediscovery of invocation and ritual, gesture and stance, and how they yield difference dimensions of reality. It can happen without words, too, in subtle forms of search. The Coronavirus and lockdown only underlines the blessings received by visiting sacred places. We also ask how sacred places can be made at home.

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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“Eloquent, accessible, & richly stimulating work”

This review of my book, A Secret History of Christianity, is in the latest edition of the Journal of Inkling Studies. Huge thanks to Jacob Sherman for engaging with it so fully. And I agree: here’s to Owen Barfield’s vision!

In ‘Philology and the Incarnation’, one his most provocative and theological essays, Owen Barfield describes the shock that a philologist might feel when investigating the mutations of meaning that occur in the history of our languages. Barfield’s own etymological investigations led him to believe that the honest researcher would conclude that somewhere between Alexander the Great and Augustine of Hippo a powerful shift in the human comportment to language and meaning-making must have taken place. Barfield goes on to describe the surprise and delight that such an investigator would feel upon discovering that

“at about the middle of the period which his investigation had marked off, a man was born who claimed to be the son of God, and to have come down from Heaven, that he spoke to his followers of ‘the Father in me and I in you’, that he told all those who stood around him that ‘the kingdom of God is within you’, and startled them, and strove to reverse the direction of their thought—for the word ‘metanoia’, which is translated ‘repentance’, also means a reversal of the direction of the mind—he startled them and strove to reverse the direction of their thought by assuring them that ‘it is not that which cometh into a man which defileth him, but that which goeth out of him’.”

Like Lewis and Tolkien, both of whom he deeply influenced, Barfield’s Christianity was at the centre of his literary and scholarly work, but his faith has received far less attention than that of any of the other primary Inklings. For those interested in Barfield, then, the appearance of Mark Vernon’s new eloquent, accessible, and richly stimulating work is cause to celebrate.

What kind of book is this? It is notable that Vernon’s A Secret History of Christianity does not mention Barfield by name in its title or subtitle. This is fitting, for Vernon’s volume is not a study of Barfield so much as it is an attempt to think with Barfield about the changing nature of faith in the light of what both Barfield and Vernon refer to as the ‘evolution of consciousness’. It is also a surprisingly personal and even urgent book. Vernon states at the outset that this book is occasioned by a kind of crisis both within Christianity and within the West more generally. Where others might look to sociological, political, economic, or even philosophical reasons for the collapse of Christianity in precisely those cultures over which it once held such powerful sway, Vernon argues that we need attend equally to the interior, even mystical dimensions of this event. This is why Barfield and his vision of Christianity are so important for Vernon’s project: Barfield provides Vernon a way to think a living Christianity without collapsing it into either a dogmatic confessionalism and an extrinsic guarantee of salvation, on the one hand, or a liberal project for the amelioration of morals and the achievement of justice, on the other. This mystical, interior element is the secret aspect of the history that, with Barfield’s help, Vernon recounts: a history of the transforming consciousness of human beings in their relationships to the world, one another, and God, a history whose centre point is found in the life of the one who was known as Son of Man and Son of God.

Readers of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry will recognise much of that seminal work in Vernon’s own book and in the above description. Indeed, one might be tempted to think of Vernon’s Secret History as a commentary or even a continuation of Saving the Appearances. Vernon himself describes the project this way:

The aim of my secret history is to show how, through imaginatively engaging with him, as well as testing his ideas against the findings of recent scholarship, [Barfield] offers an invaluable diagnosis of the malaise of or our times… . I believe his insights can help make sense of Christianity not only to those who faithfully, if somewhat uncertainly, still go to church, but also potentially to the many who increasingly recoil from it. (5–6)

This dual aim of imaginative engagement and rigorous testing in the face of contemporary scholarship characterises every chapter of Vernon’s work, and, for those interested in Barfield, it is deeply rewarding. Throughout his varied corpus, Barfield had sketched an account of the Western evolution of consciousness that moved from original participation—an experience of being in which one is immersed and porous to a kind of sea of meaning proceeding from the world itself, a world that bestows enchantment but for that very reason also to some extent bondage—through a developing sense of personal interiority that eventually leads to a more pronounced conception of the self, including the dignity and freedom of human selfhood. The paradox of all of this is that the emancipatory achievement of a sense of human individuality and worth coincides with a scouring of the world of its own interiority and importance. The historical achievement of human dignity involves a kind of robbery in which the meaning of the world is exclusively concentrated in the privileged interiority of human selves. So we proceed from original participation through a middle period that Vernon calls ‘reciprocal participation’ to the alienation and putative, if not actual, disenchantments of modernity and our own epoch. But for both Barfield and Vernon, this is not a declension narrative, for the disenchantment we supposedly experience at present is only an epochal phenomenon, an episode along the way towards a renewal of participation that will reconcile our newfound sense of humane selfhood with the interiorities of the world itself: this is what Barfield calls final participation, but Christians might speak of more traditionally as new creation or the redemption of all things (cf. Romans 8).

Following Barfield, Vernon recounts this same general story but does so with some markedly different emphases while also bringing Barfield’s mid-twentieth-century scholarship into twenty-first-century conversations. The most notable difference lies in Vernon’s treatment of the Greco-Roman lineage. Trained in ancient philosophy (as well as theology and physics), Vernon’s easy familiarity with the primary sources here is evident and provides a far richer treatment of this period than Barfield ever did. Vernon’s readings of Socrates and Plato through to antique Stoicism are deeply rewarding and worth the price of the book alone. Not only of interest to Barfieldians, Vernon provides a richly participatory account of these originary philosophical traditions as spiritual paths in their own right. However, where much of the contemporary retrieval of philosophy as a spiritual practice takes a muscular Stoic shape, Vernon’s Barfieldian reading moves in a more Christian and grace-infused direction, thus providing a crucial corrective to one of the central ongoing debates in the history of philosophy today.

Vernon also updates Barfield’s scriptural scholarship and convincingly shows how Barfield’s theses have not only survived but have grown more salient and convincing throughout the decades. To my eyes, this is one area where Vernon could have, in fact, gone further, for he tends to draw largely upon authors associated with the so-called third quest for the historical Jesus, the heyday of which was in the 1990s. Vernon calls, for instance, upon John Meier, John Dominic Crossan, and others who flourished in the previous century, but his Barfieldian Christology might have been even more profoundly supported by what Crispin Fletcher-Louis has called the ‘emerging consensus’ of recent scholarship around the defence of an early high Christology à la Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and others. That said, Vernon’s treatment of prehistory, early Hebrew and Greek sources, and the medieval period are profound and add depth to Barfield’s own exploration of these periods. Vernon’s account and naming of ‘reciprocal participation’ throughout the Middle Ages, for example, is richly illuminating and builds upon what Barfield only suggested.

The final chapters of Vernon’s book deal with the elision of participation during the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the reaction to these historical events. In comparison with the chapters on pre-modernity, these chapters feel rather rushed, as does Vernon’s Romantic defence of a kind of mystical, imaginative renewal in the final chapter. Following Barfield, Vernon looks forward to a form of participation that would not abolish the individuality so delicately forged through the crucible of alienation. Vernon looks not for a return to a mystical past but for a properly mystical modernity or postmodernity. However, one might wonder, what parts of modernity remain essential as contrasted with those that are merely epochal? It has something to do with selfhood, human dignity, and perhaps a measure of autonomy, but these are rather abstract guidelines. In a similar vein, we might wonder, what is the nature of the mysticism to which Barfield’s vision and scholarship calls us? For that matter, what concrete practices and social transformations might lead us towards the renewed imaginative, participatory engagement with God and the world to which Vernon and Barfield are clearly inviting us? These are profound questions raised by Vernon’s compelling book, and the fact that they remain unanswered is no criticism. Vernon and Barfield, I suspect, equally aim to lure their readers into an existential, spiritual, and intellectual engagement with the world that presents itself more as a mystery to be encountered than a solution to be codified. For his part, Barfield himself, in an interview given late in his life to Shirley Sugerman, speculated that it would likely take another fifty years before his work would bear the fruit he wished for it. This was in the early 1970s. The appearance of Vernon’s rich volume half a century later suggests that on this point, as on so many others, Barfield was conspicuously prescient. If so, Vernon’s works marks the beginning—but by no means the end—of the assimilation of the radical Christian vision of history that Owen Barfield bequeathed to us more than half a century ago.

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Did Jesus Bungle the Resurrection?

His re-appearances were questioned by the disciples. Only, it wasn’t about proof at all.

One of the most initially perplexing moments described in the gospels comes from the morning of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene is in the garden and sees Jesus raised before he promptly says to her, “Do not hold onto me!”.

It must have been almost impossibly hard to hear. Imagine her shock: “Noli me tangere!”
And yet, this apparent rejection was her turning point. She realized he was her teacher. “Rabboni!” she replies.

Like all good teachers, he was not insisting she remain indefinitely dependent upon him but that she be free to live in the awareness of her own union with God. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” Jesus continues.

Other accounts of the resurrection present things similarly. Matthew describes the eleven disciples meeting on a mountain in Galilee after Jesus’ death. Jesus appears, resurrected, and some worship him. “But some doubted,” the verse adds. It’s all about spiritual perception. And some don’t yet have it.

They think they are seeing a ghost

Alternatively, Luke has the story of Jesus appearing to two of the disciples on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. Jesus walks some of the miles with them, but without them recognizing him, even when he laboriously explains what had happened. Seeing him comes only with their communion, and even that assurance comes and goes.

Later, Luke describes another appearance that terrifies the disciples. They think they are seeing a ghost. It’s the depth to which you see that counts.

The clearest insistence that the resurrected Jesus is only fully seen by the eyes of the awakened soul comes in John’s gospel. He tells the story of Thomas refusing to believe in the resurrection unless he touches the empirical evidence of a man with nail marks in his hands and a hole in his side.

When Jesus appears a week later, Thomas gets his evidence, though Jesus comments: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.

The implication is that evidence might actually distract you from inward sight. Nail marks don’t prove anything.

Jesus’ entire message had been about developing the eyes to see

Seeing someone walking and talking after their death doesn’t prove anything either, as the gospel writers must have realized when they included three other resurrections in their stories, those of Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter and the man from Nain.

In short, if the resurrection appearances were supposed to offer empirical proof, and so provide a sure foundation for the future of Christianity, it looks as if Jesus bungled the evidence. It’s not as if someone with a smartphone, hurled back across the centuries, could catch the stone rolling away and stream the verification online.

And, of course, that is not the point at all. Jesus’ entire message had been about developing the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Nothing changes. That continues now.

Take the famously abrupt ending to Mark’s gospel, depicting in William Blake’s picture, “The Three Maries at the Sepulchre” (shown above). I think it is supposed to propel us to that moment and ask us what we see.

It’s a bit like the game of peekaboo

The last incident Mark records is the visit by the women to Jesus’ tomb. They are met by a young man, dressed in white, who tells them not to be alarmed. But they are. They flee, terrified and amazed, which Mark accentuates with a final, hanging sentence: “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It’s as if this is the point at which they let go of all they thought they knew, were bewildered and undone, were lost and fully human. But they were also expectant. They were on the cusp of divine life, which Mark lets his readers feel in the silence with which he finishes. It’s the space within which we might locate divine life in ourselves, too.

It’s a bit like the game of peekaboo that parents play with their children. It fosters the capacity to live without the parents constantly being there, standing reassuringly before their eyes. It facilitates holding the relationship within and making its truth and vitality your own. In short, you can grow up and live.

“It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus had told them. Inner eyes learn to see. This is why the resurrection appearances look like a game of “now you see me, now you don’t.”

Drop into the life of God

It also makes sense of how Jesus’s death is a kind of sacrifice. It’s not about the atonement of sins, as if on top of proving there’s an afterlife with the resurrection, Christianity is also about anxiously securing celestial benefits from God.

Better is another view that runs through the tradition, sometimes called the sign or exemplary theory. On this understanding, sacrifice is about cultivating a sacrificial attitude: the routine letting go and offering up of life.

It’s a rhythm of life that echoes the resurrection appearances. It fosters the inner habit, perception from within, and re-orientates the sacrificer to the kingdom, and lets them drop into the life of God.

It becomes a way of cultivating the detachment that enables the individual to be in the world but not entangled by the fears and distractions of the world. It makes sense of what Paul wrote to the Colossians. “Set your mind on things above, not on things on earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

“He who kisses the joy as it flies”

Material things are regarded as valuable but not invaluable; emotions are richly felt but not so as to damage and overwhelm; worries about identity go, as the possessive tendency to assume I am this or that loosens.

The risk of encasement in an isolated self erodes, reconnecting the person with the fountain of life, consciously to participate in what was its source all along. We shift from self-concern to the freedom of God. “He who binds to himself a joy does the wingéd life destroy. He who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise,” was Blake’s brilliant summary.

In this reading, sacrifice ceases to be an action and becomes a process of revelation and realization. It exposes the ground of life. It uncovers the incarnation of the divine within the soul. As the living Logos incarnate, it comes to know that Jesus’s vitality is the inside of the whole world, and that inside is there for us to know, too.

It’s the life that the resurrection invites us to see, because of its seeming oddness.

This article is based on an extract from A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness by Mark Vernon

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