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

This year, 2020, marks the 700-year anniversary of the completion of the great Divine Comedy. The final part of Dante’s masterpiece, Paradiso, appeared the year before he died, in 1321. The poem is many things: a celebration of human qualities; a warning that this life matters; a path of awakening; an odyssey; a diatribe against the church of his day. But it was born of a crisis. Dante begins his journey by waking up in a dark wood. The air tastes bitter. He grows fearful. The way forward seems firmly blocked.

His predicament resonates with where we find ourselves now, in the middle of various emergencies, with a spiritual crisis underlying them all. Individually and collectively, we must see the world afresh and find ways to re-orientate ourselves. Alongside other divinely inspired texts, I believe Dante can help us discover how. In this piece, I want to pick one strand in the golden thread of Dante’s vision: the role of erotic love.

It is the type of love that tends to be viewed warily in monotheistic religions, particularly in their institutional forms. They are more comfortable when love manifests in other guises, like agape or friendship. Christianity provides an obvious case in point. Punitive attitudes towards eros 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 others’ 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. As Saint Augustine was later to teach, the one thing that erotic love reveals to us is that its surges of desire spring directly from humanity’s rebellion against God. At best, it is what you might call a necessary evil.

Eros as daemon

What is striking is that these worries and prohibitions stand in marked contrast with the attitudes towards eros found in mystical and visionary traditions. These tend to take a very different view, in the West reaching back to Plato. He taught that Eros is a go-between spirit or dynamic, known in the ancient world as a daimon, 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 clearly felt a tension between the two attitudes towards eros in his life. His early poems describe the agony of controlling sexual impulses. His muse was, of course, the young lady, Beatrice. Her image utterly, almost ruthlessly, seized his imagination. 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. He gradually found a way of harmonising the love she inspired in him with the ascent of the soul to the divine.

It required a combination of eros and logos, meaning the intelligence or insight that can discern the presence of God. This is because the divine image itself can be known as a combination of eros and logos. “Beatrice is Dante’s pole star for finding his way through love’s vicissitudes, in his search for what is constant and eternal in love and desire”, maintained Andrew Frisardi in his recent series of lectures at the Temenos Academy.

In short, the right use of eros is at the heart of Dante’s message and he presents a key moment of realisation during Canto 9 of Purgatorio.

Violent dreams

The moment comes after Dante and Virgil have emerged from the subterranean darkness of hell. The first part of The Divine Comedy, Inferno, relates how their journey begins with a descent into it. They witness the numerous ways in which human beings can become trapped by their desires. It is a crucial part of the journey for Dante because, when meeting these souls, Dante simultaneously encounters the darker parts of himself. Seeing the extent of these shadows is also to begin to open up to how they may be transformed.

This is what begins to happen on Mount Purgatory, in the second part of The Divine Comedy. The setting of Canto 9 is the end of the first day of ascending the mountain. During the day, Dante has been finding his bearings in the second domain of his pilgrimage. Exhausted, he now falls asleep and as he sleeps, he dreams.

He dreams that he is snatched from the mountain by an eagle. It carries him into the high heavens, much as Jove abducted Ganymede, lifting him into 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.

Then, Dante wakes with a jolt. He is dazed, “feeling the freezing grip of fright”. It takes some comforting words from Virgil to calm him down, and what Virgil tells him is a revelation. In fact, his guide explains, whilst he slept, a lady from heaven appeared. She is Lucia and, as the day’s climb had been hard going for Dante, she had carried him a little further up the mountain. She told Virgil that she wanted to “speed him on his journey up”.

Much ink has been spilled over the meaning of the dream, but it is pretty clear that the dream and what happened whilst he slept are in stark contrast. The dream was a nightmare of barely disguised sexual violence, an insight that is underlined by several allusions to uncontained lust that Dante makes in other parts of Canto 9. The reality, whilst he slept, is of love coming to his aid.

Lucia is significant because she is one of three beautiful souls who keep a benign eye on Dante from the celestial heights. The other two are Beatrice and the Virgin Mary, and note: he has not one but three beautiful ladies loving him. This is one indicator of how eros’ passion is transformed. What might be judged almost as a kind of promiscuity becomes an excessive desire and power to help.

As to the dream, I think what it implies is something like this. If inwardly, Dante had experienced the outward actions of Lucia as a kidnap, almost a rape, as he awakens he realises how profoundly mistaken he is. She was actually speeding him on his journey towards divine love.

The implication is that the transformation of eros from its dark manifestations to its true character requires him to work on his perceptions. He must hold in mind both images – one of violent and lustful snatching, the other of divine embrace and carriage. In so doing, the possessive character of eros that currently dominates his mind is revealed by the dream, and it might give way to the dominant character of divine love, which is of dynamic participation. As it is summarised by the famous last line of Paradiso, this is “the love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Using Eros

The shift is key to Dante’s transformational erotic spirituality, and it seems to be confirmed by what happens next in Canto 9. It turns out that Lucia has carried Dante, with Virgil walking alongside, to a gateway. It marks the start of purgatory proper, which Dante is now ready to enter, having oriented himself and gained a first taste of the dramatic changes in him that the ascent will demand. Dante sees that the gateway 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.

The steps are usually interpreted allegorically by commentators, but I feel a more natural and penetrating way to explain them arises from the experience he has just had. He sees his image in the first step of glass, much as he has seen an aspect of himself in the dream. This is represented in the second step, which he is now able to step onto because he can tolerate the cracked and troubling erotic impulses inside him. And because that disturbance is born, a third step up becomes possible, when this flaming passion, now in the process of being changed, can bear him to a threshold.

You might say that the dream, the carriage and the gateway are an initiation. Dante still has a long way to go and his erotic desires will require further work. As he follows the path, he learns much more about how his ambivalence about eros has to do with human ignorance and youthful experience, as well as the painful struggle to align his desires, his perceptions, his knowledge and his will so that he can become capable of paradise.

But Canto 9 conveys a central element: that which seems monstrous, feels dark, frightening, possessive, wild – like an uncontrolled rape of life itself – is something remarkably different. If we can bear ourselves, and allow ourselves to be borne, then we will become able to enjoy a free, indulgent and delightful participation with what is beautiful, good and true. Eros can be transformed, not condemned. It is a love to befriend, not reject. It can energise our steps up Mount Purgatory and then our flight into paradise.

Dante said that 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. It offers a pathway to liberty, which speaks as profoundly now as it did 700 years ago because Dante charts how the arts of love can foster 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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Easter And The End Of Christianity

If Coronavirus turns Christian leaders into exemplary citizens, the gospel is lost

Will Covid-19 change our way of life, our politics, maybe even our civilisation? Personally, I doubt it. Business and political leaders are already charting a course back to familiar waters.

But Eastertime is a festival of novelty. It celebrates spiritual liberation not social success; eternal life not the prolongation of this life. It offers a different take. So, for a season, whether or not this world changes can be a secondary concern.

Let that go, and a fresh light dawns. It’s possible to realise that the effort to find happiness, the guilt at living wastefully, the frustration of powerlessness, brings us to our wits end. And that’s good. It’s a chance for something else. Visionaries have called it eternal life.

The insight is shared by great wisdom traditions alongside Christianity. But it’s become harder to see and trust nowadays because, in my view, those who might preserve the hope of it no longer have sight of it, in large part.

Preaching futility

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon this year is indicative. (Justin Welby gave advance warning of it on social media during Holy Week.) “We cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal. There needs to be a resurrection of our common life,” he proclaimed, adding, “We have faith in life before death.”

The message sounds commendable, the words of a civic leader fulfilling his responsibilities. But it’s quietly disastrous. It turns bishops into exemplary citizens, not heralds of another country that’s already here.

It’s fairly futile, too. The archbishop feels he must inject hope into the Coronavirus crisis. As the pendulum of fear swings up, he believes the Christian task is to push it back the other way. But, of course, the upshot is that the pendulum keeps swinging. The dread of death that has become so horribly evident in recent weeks is perpetuated. The unconscious message is that there may be no way out. No wonder his gospel wanes.

What’s forgotten is that Jesus did not preach a better life, but the eruption of spiritual life, upon which humdrum existence depends anyway. He’s remembered as promising that what he knew of divine life would be known by others, too.

In fact, he said others would know it more so, were they to follow him and not adulate him. This is the end, as in aim, of the gospel he taught.

Eternity now

It’s the awareness of eternal life now. This is not about having hope for the future because there is no future in eternity. There is no past either. Instead, it’s the level of reality at which everything is always new, always verdant, always realised.

When Dante travels through the Inferno, in the Divine Comedy, he realises that one of the things that keeps souls in hell is their preoccupation with the past and the future. It distracts them from the present, which is the moment of change because it’s the only moment that’s real. And what a brilliantly light reality it turns out to be.

It comes like a thief in the night, Jesus remarked. It takes a cut with a subtle knife, an awakening, a release, a crack through which the light comes. It’s when the doors of perception are cleansed and everything is seen as it is: “infinite”, celebrated William Blake.

Only by daring to sense the truth of these perceptions is it possible to make sense of other things that Jesus said. “Be perfect!” “Take up your cross!” “Let the dead bury the dead!” “I came to bring a sword!” “Gouge out your offending eye!” “Sell your possessions!” “Hate your parents!”

Jesus’s injunctions are utterly incomprehensible to the gospel of amelioration, and probably offensive. They only begin to make sense when seen as attempts to catapult you into a different kind of life altogether.

Death is the path

That said, the really revolutionary part of Christianity is more disturbing still, though again, it is an insight shared with other great traditions. It says not that resurrection can inspire the masses, bring consolation or comfort, prove Jesus saves or that there’s an afterlife.
Rather, it’s that death is itself the path to life. Jesus, along with other geniuses like Socrates, realised that it’s only when death is encountered that it becomes possible to see it as a pivotal moment in life.

Death insists that we let go of what we’ve grasped and understood, because this is the crucial step to realising there’s much more that is always reliably there. It’s an awareness, perceived with intuitive eyes; a step into the timeless.

Death is the right word because, as the adepts also report, the paradox is that doing nothing and braving everything is the moment spiritual life reveals itself. In Daoism it’s called wu wei, in Buddhism emptiness, in Christianity the cross. It’s not inactivity or quietism. It is the hard task of giving up getting, and instead letting.

In psychotherapy, you see how the struggle to reach this point may take years and then, one day, it begins to happen. I think the awakening works like this because it’s only when you’ve seen who you are that the ego’s grip eases. Seeing is understanding, and that leaves you much less in thrall to your neuroses and delusions. They may or may not go, but they are deposed. As the teacher Jack Kornfield puts it, “You’ve got to be a someone before you can be a no-one.”

More life

It’s the release of death that those on their deathbeds report. It’s the realisation described by those who undergo Near Death Experiences, such as Elizabeth Krohn who was one day struck by lightning. “As I hovered over my body, I suddenly got it,” she writes in Changed In A Flash, a book that’s particularly interesting because it’s co-authored with the psychologist of religion, Jeffrey Kripal.

“I went from ‘Shit, my shoes are ruined’ to ‘I was so wrong about so much.’ It was an understanding that came to me instantly, suddenly, shockingly. I looked at my body on the ground and knew that whatever had just happened to me had given me an insight that the woman lying there could never have grasped on her own, even seconds earlier.”

Death is the gateway to more life. It’s a truth that shapes much of life in nature, from the seed dying to the summer turning, as well as in us, psychologically. Many people feel they don’t grow up until their parents die, because then they can take life and make something of it. Alternatively, it’s why life’s transitions are so poignant, from the child’s first day at school to the adult’s last day at work. They are little deaths. They enable further steps in life.

Death’s sting

Sleeping and waking echo dying and rising, too. I wonder how often insomnia is linked to a fear of death. But if you get used to the idea that many moments of most days follow that pattern, then death as the end of bodily life loses its charge and sting. It’s happened myriad times already.

“The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now,” explained Meister Eckhart. He also realised that “My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”

The Coronavirus crisis may or may not prompt societies to change. It may or may not avert further disasters. I hope it does. But for now, there’s another hope to see. Our humanity is a road to divinity. It’s a road less travelled these days, but remains to be discovered.

So, Happy Easter! And I’ll give the last word to Jesus, in a typically punchy summary. “The one who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

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Inferno – discussion invite

I’m proposing to have a discussion about Dante’s Inferno on Saturday 11th April at 5pm BST.

If that’s of interest, do email me, mail@markvernon.com, and I’ll get back to you.

Posted in Blog

Zoom fear and Skype fatigue

What we lose in online meetings and how to survive them.

Zoom drinks and Skype dinners were fun at first. And essential. Office life now revolves around online meetings.

But as the coronavirus crisis lengthens, and the lockdown extends from days to weeks or more, what might we lose to virtual communication?

At one level, that’s easily answered. For we humans, the meeting of bodies as well as minds clearly matters. We’re sensing, breathing organisms whose bodies actively and intelligently respond to what’s going on, in more ways than we can imagine. We aren’t machines. Feelings matter as much as functions. Skin doesn’t only contain pulsating organs but rippling emotions too.

We think with our hands, see with our stomachs, touch with our hearts. “I can hear people smile,” David Blunkett once remarked.

The science of sensing calls it “cross-modal linking”, which is to say that communication is embodied. But during the Covid-19 outbreak, when people will suffer from social distancing, it’s worth teasing out the ways in which communication is embodied. Then, we can prepare ourselves for the losses of this time, consider some remedies, and be better able to cope.

Sights and scents

First, some good news. Cyberspace is an embodied environment too. Moreover, neuroscience suggests that the magic of mirror neurons mean we experience virtuality in ways that often match the way we experience physicality. In both cases, the same neural pathways may activate.

However, virtual embodiment is also different. Your body is in the room with you. An image is not. It’s floating elsewhere, like the reflection in a mirror. It’s also probably 2-D not 3-D, as well as being stripped of its smells. That may seem like a detail until you read about how anosmia can make people feel lonely, as well as well as leaving them longing for a sniff of scent.

There is also evidence that during gatherings in cyberspace, our experience of sight and sound works differently. It becomes hierarchically organised. For example, if an individual decides to see as well as hear their online interlocutor, they will still mostly focus on the audio during an exchange. The visual element becomes a place holder, like the carrier wave of a radio transmission. It’s less a primary source of information and something is lost.

These differences begin to show up as the days go by. An early realisation is that speaking online is tiring. This is because you have to work harder to stay in touch with a person down the line. You have to capture what’s said, rather than resonating with it across the rainbow spectrum of experience. Subtler frequencies are harder to pick up.

One result is that limited meeting times are suggested. The aim is to mitigate Zoom and Skype fatigue.

Cognitive science offers another take on the exhaustion. It’s to do with how we select from the signals that bombard us and screen out the ones to ignore. The ability is called relevancy testing. It’s a skill that is carried out unconsciously with access to a rich array of indicators from physical reality, which may be compromised when the environment is denuded, as it is online. That makes it harder to tune in and easier to become distracted.

Research on brain lateralisation is illuminating too. The right hemisphere is more open-minded than the left hemisphere, neuroscientists have shown. It enjoys an intuitive, imaginative take on the world, whereas its companion prefers focus and specifics. Further, the right hemisphere is far more connected to the body via neural pathways. It draws on the body for its breadth.

So, if you take the body away, the right hemisphere may have less to go on, and an individual may suffer tunnel-vision or find it harder to understand. The intuition that some decisions can only be made in person is right.

Feeling held

A different dimension of the loss concerns the role the body plays in our earliest communications, as infants. Sigmund Freud observed that the first ego is the body ego. He meant that the body alone provided our earliest sense of I-ness in the world. It’s in the body that we first gain a sense of who we are.

Watch a parent and child and you see it immediately. Touch and gaze provide rich channels of exchange. The youngster explores itself in another’s eyes and finds security in another’s arms.
These are the “primitive” emotions, as psychotherapists call them, meaning the ones that bed down inside us when we are young, all being well. When present, they generate security and resource a sense of being understood. They support the conviction that communication is worthwhile and life can be trusted.

Conversely, when communication becomes disembodied, hidden insecurities may start to creep in. Having to repeat yourself may precipitate frustration. Being unable to match the rhythms of another and so feel in sync can generate anxiety. Did I say it right? Did I cause offense? Did I misunderstand?

If you notice yourself thinking you might skip the next meeting, or not bother to call back, it may be because factors like this are at play.

Disembodiment can also be intense. Rather than feeling seen or heard, the screen can precipitate the sense of being watched, looked at, or scrutinised. Again, early experience illuminates the difficulty. Babies will often turn their heads away from a parent when they feel overstimulated or overwhelmed. They know how to give themselves a break, whilst keeping the parent in peripheral view. They want to feel the presence of the other and have space. That’s harder to do down the barrel of a screen.

Remedies

In summary, the move to online gatherings may throw up much, particularly when it lasts for some time. But they are part of life now, so the question arises: how to live well with them?
There are at least three steps to help navigate the enforced, if necessary, adoption of meeting technology.

First, name that it’s different. Saying that you are not sure how virtual gatherings will work gives people permission not to have to pretend it’s business as usual. It also creates the chance to share what’s unexpected and, possibly, not wanted. That can be embraced with less anxiety.

Second, reflect for yourself. How do you find online meetings? What do you enjoy and dislike? The point is that Skype and Zoom test people’s psychology. The digital atmosphere is thinner and some find it harder to breath.

Which suggests a third tip. Ensure that you’re receiving plenty of embodied experiences elsewhere. In particular, this means going outside. That’s where nature’s broadband is. Daylight, soundscapes, breezes, smells. This is the total immersion, cross-modal living that the body adores. So, after the meeting plug in your phone, but also plug in your life. Make sure your psychosomatic batteries recharge.

Posted in Blog

The plague that changed the world

For some, probably most, the Covid-19 pandemic is a question of massive mitigation. The aim is to learn lessons and return to business as usual, as soon as possible. For others, it’s different. It’s not just a disaster to get through, but a moment to seize and change the world.

The latter response interests me. It raises the question of what it takes to reimagine life along all its variables: economic and political, educational and existential, ecological and social and spiritual. It’s no mean undertaking.

However, history provides case studies. There have been moments when civilisations have pivoted. The one I have in mind, moreover, seems to have shifted because climate change and pestilence were grim catalysts of transformation.

The gods of Rome

In the third century CE, Christianity emerged into history. It stepped out of the shadows to become a mass phenomenon. There may have been 100,000 Christians in 200 CE. By 300 CE, there were probably around 3,000,000, which in some territories meant Christians accounted for up to 20 percent of the Roman empire’s population. And the rest is, indeed, history.

But what did it take to precipitate that transformation? And what does it suggest about the possibility of civilizational change now?

It’s a complex question, of course, one that can only spark debate, not admit easy answers. But I think there’s good evidence that one element was key. Christianity had what it took to seize the moment and change the world because it offered a new sense of what it is to be human. Moreover, that sense was accessible to the masses.

Part of the story has recently been retold by the historian of antiquity, Kyle Harper. In his brilliant book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017), he presents the case for factoring in the devastating impact of climate change and plague on the Roman system. He gathers the evidence and shows that the moral degeneracy highlighted in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and the bureaucratic overstretch favoured by more recent historians, probably weren’t the key drivers.

Rather, it’s a case of nature thwarting human ambition. Solar cycles and volcanic eruptions, pestilence and viruses, were the ruinous agents. They were felt as an environmental stress that eventually defeated pagan Rome’s longstanding hold on the Mediterranean world.

But that is only half of the story. Collapse is one thing. Regeneration is something else entirely. Here is where the genius of Christianity comes in.

A world’s old age

Consider the most important church figure in the century of Christianity’s appearance. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage from 248-258 CE. A prolific writer and gifted rhetorician, he read the moment and deployed the weapons of critique that he had in his arsenal.

He could see that the fabric of empire was stretched, if not crumbling. Along the frontiers of the Danube, Euphrates, Rhine and Nile – which is to say, north, south, east and west – emperors faced potentially catastrophic threats. The moment of weakness became Cyprian’s opportunity.

He preached about living in “an old age of the world”. He was drawing on the medical wisdom of Galen, which interpreted old age as the gradual evaporation of warmth and vitality. The implication was that Roman civilisation had become decrepit.

It lacked spiritual vitality, for all that emperors tried to conceal it behind the exercise of power. It was out of ideas, which leaders tried to paper over with pageants of games and grandiose building projects. It lacked joy in its soul, which is why people became addicted to peak experiences and carnal pleasures. To instil order and discipline, Rome relied on law not friendship, the army not loyalty, and compulsory cult practices not the natural love of the gods.

Cyprian also spoke of the skies turning grey, the earth becoming thirsty, and the rains failing, which he probably literally felt, along with his listeners. The evidence now is that the climate did change during his lifetime. For example, in 244, 245 and 246 the Nile flooded weakly or not at all, compromising the productivity of Rome’s breadbasket, Egypt.

And then there was the pestilence, now known as the Plague of Cyprian. From the descriptions that survive, it seems most likely that it was caused by a filovirus, from the family of pathogens that includes Ebola. Disease spread across the empire in two years and raged for about fifteen, from 249 CE. Cyprian described it: “the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow, a fire that begins in the inmost depths burns up into wounds in the throat, the intestines are shaken with continuous vomiting, the eyes are set on fire with the force of the blood, the deadly putrefaction cuts off the feet.” At its peak, 5000 people died in Rome every day.

The combination of pestilence and crop failure was a religious as well as civic crisis. Harper describes how emperors minted coins calling on “Apollo the Healer”. The Sibylline books were inspected. It seems likely that in 249 CE, the emperor, Decius, required all citizens to share in a civic act of sacrifice. It was an early response to the outbreak. Some Christians who refused were charged with defiance and grotesque social irresponsibility.

“The combination of pestilence and persecution seems to have hastened the spread of Christianity,” Harper writes. But that brings me back to my initial question. What did Christianity have that enabled Cyprian and others to turn a moment of hideous suffering and dire threat into an opportunity for growth?

Kindness of strangers

The standard answer is moral. In short, Christians cared. For example, Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity describes how Christians remained in afflicted cities when others fled and cared for the sick and dying. That was impressive and also had a real effect. Cleaning and hydrating sufferers increased their chances of survival.

Harper reflects this understanding, too. “Christianity’s sharpest advantage was its inexhaustible ability to forge kinship-networks among perfect strangers based on an ethic of sacrificial love,” he writes.

But this remark begs a factor that’s crucial to highlight. I think it’s determinative. It underpins the ethic of sacrificial love and makes its practice possible.

Put it like this. I don’t believe that the Romans were a heartless breed who cared nothing for human suffering. Contrary to popular opinion, they were not beasts. Many writers, such as Cicero, worried about the violence of gladiatorial games, for example, and the Roman world knew about caring for others. For example, in 212 CE, Caracalla had granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. It was no trivial offer. The relationship between manumitted slaves and patrons was upended. Woman claimed new property rights. Bread became the key handout of a massive welfare state.

What was different now was that Christianity was able to launch an existential revolution. The crucial shift is implicit in what Harper describes as its new networks of “perfect strangers”. This was the secret ingredient that enabled Christianity to seize the moment and launch a civilizational change.

The issue is what enabled those new networks to form. Previously, social networks had been based either on family and kin, or city and citizenship. Hence, the significance of Caracalla’s citizen-based enfranchisement. But Christianity developed the perception that the bonds of family and citizenship had been eclipsed. It did this by showing people that the human individual now had access to the deepest level of reality from within themselves.

The new self

Its innovation was to celebrate the life of one person, Jesus of Nazareth, and insist that his humanity, not his birthplace or status, was the locus of complete and unmediated access to God. As the philosopher, Larry Siedentop, puts it: Christianity “provided an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’.”

The new individuality was grounded in God, enabling individuals to demonstrate acts of sacrificial love for others rooted in relationships that had nothing to do with kin or state. Christians felt that they were spiritually sisters and brothers, and that they belonged to “another country”, a new ethnos or nation, metaphors that emerge early in Christianity.

Preachers such as Paul quickly realised that Jesus pioneered a new way. What was required was response. The individual could aspire to a sense of themselves based upon choice and agency, not fate and duty. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female,” he wrote in an astonishing passage. Instead, Christianity offered a freedom based upon a sense of self that didn’t erase older civic distinctions and religious markers but simply leapt over them. In their inner lives, the individual could transcend cult and position altogether.

As a result, notions such as individual free will and personal conscience emerge as subjects of dispute and discussion among early Christian thinkers. They also developed the idea of resurrection in the face of death. The new individual could hope for postmortem fulfilment, a spiritual body and religious satisfaction in the afterlife, not a dreary retirement to a land of shades. But to hope for these things in the world to come, you need a strong sense of individuality in this world. Christianity rewrote the implication that unless you are a hero or an emperor, you are a poorly differentiated player in the social collective.

Transformation and inspiration

The path to Christianity’s cultural dominance was not straightforward, of course. The persecutions of Diocletian, in the century that followed Cyprian, were fierce, though mostly because Christianity was now a force to be reckoned with.

Then, when the “new empire” bedded down after the crises of the third century, under Constantine, Christianity became the unofficial and then official religion in part because it best expressed how a majority now felt. People had caught onto its penetrating consciousness of human individuality. Whatever else led Constantine to adopt the new faith, it was a canny move. It secured him the longest reign of a Roman emperor since Augustus.

This is the lesson I learn from the civilizational change that is historic Christianity. As a case study, it suggests that to change the world and reimagine life takes more than economic decline or environmental disaster, war or plague, though these may rock societies and systems to the core. It also takes more than redesign or hacking, upgrade or reprogramming. It’s not fundamentally a matter of making sense of the emergency, or cognitively bootstrapping yourself out of the modern meaning crisis.

Transformation requires literal inspiration and radical vision: a new spirit. Civilisations change with a fresh perception of what it is to be human, a revolution of consciousness, and renewed awareness of humankind’s relationship to the interiority of the cosmos, natural and divine. It requires the makings of a new ethnos, anthropology, and probably religion.

That doesn’t happen very often in a way that lasts. But in these weeks of stress, these months of instability, we can attend to events and listen. We can be open. Of ourselves, we can’t forge a path beyond a return to business as usual. But we can keep watch for any signs of a new unveiling and align with them.

Posted in Blog