It was a shock to learn in early December that Chris was terminally ill and then that he passed away on 9th December 2016. I’d just been rereading the last communication I had from him a year ago, when he was very positive about moving on to a new stage of life in Didsbury. Another contemporary has moved on, from a world that begins to look increasingly strange.
A GP in Horwich, Bolton, Chris turned up at just the right time in 1994, when we had started our New Renaissance lectures in Knutsford, but needed more experience and more hands to keep moving on. Chris was a vital part of the operation from thereon, looking after the finances and playing an increasing role helping to get good speakers as we moved on to the series of Manchester Schumacher Lectures.
In the later years we shared chairing the sessions until waning energies led us to close down the lectures in 2004.
For me personally Chris was a great sounding board and a good friend. It was Chris who got me interested in the work of Ken Wilber, one of the most advanced thinkers of the time. We had many a chat over the phone mixed up between discussing the latest lectures crisis and the most exciting philosophical books and ideas we’d come across.
Chris also introduced me to the Scientific & Medical Network, which I have been glad to have been a member of ever since. He became SciMed Treasurer, a post he held until fairly recently, so he was evidently closely involved in their affairs.
Recently I sensed a certain disillusion in Chris, with SciMed, with the reality of mysticism and non-material phenomena. A great shame that I never got to really explore this with him. The end just appeared out of the blue for me.
Thank you so much, Chris, for helping to spread the light around.
Featured image shows Chris Lyons introducing the afternoon session at Manchester Schumacher Lectures 2002
Struggling through the brainache of what is it all about soon leads you on to the subject of God, and what constitutes a good life. This is another source of brainache, but fortunately there is a guide, in the form of Keith Ward’s book God, subtitled A Guide for the Perplexed.
Why did I read such a book, published as it was in 2002? It was actually a posthumous present from friend Chris Lyons, who died 3 years ago now. A wonderful part of Chris’s funeral was the opportunity to select one of the books from his extensive library as a gift. Browsing through the books available I was drawn to this one by Keith Ward, who is variously described as priest, philosopher and theologian. I had some years previously seen Keith give a stimulating talk at a Mystics & Scientists conference.
Keith Ward has made a valiant effort to take us through and help understanding of some of the many contradictory strands and threads in the Western understanding of God over more than two millennia. Most major prophets, philosophers and theologians are there.
This is not easy reading. but rewards the effort taken to understand. There is no final answer to the question ‘what is God?’ Ward stresses that “thinking about God is not just an intellectual exercise. It is thinking about the best way to live as a human being, and about the deepest understanding of the world in which we live”.
I’ve found this book a helpful guide, but it’s in the nature of the subject of the mystery at the core of human existence that, although somewhat enlightened, I am no less perplexed than I was before reading it!
Also perplexing is the insistence of materialists in regarding the ‘hard problems of science’ as a more helpful concept than ‘God’.
Overview of the content
How does Keith go about this exploration into God? It is impossible to give any sort of summary, but I will at least give his chapter headings and some idea of the topics covered and the luminaries involved.
1. A feeling for the gods,
Once the world was seen as full of gods, such as in Homer’s Iliad. These gods are now seen as symbolic constructs of the human imagination, representing creative energies and deep powers. This was a world of the poetic imagination, that we struggle to understand today, and that poets such as Blake and Wordsworth tried to reconnect with.
2. Beyond the gods
Then came prophets and seers who spoke with inspiration from deep within. They saw beyond the world of the gods, culminating in the second Isiah who came to the concept of the one God, unknown and unknowable. Monotheism. This idea of God, adopted by the Christians when they came along, culminated in the work of Thomas Aquinas in 13C. This God of classical Christianity could not be defined or described: “We cannot know what God is, but only what he is not.” This unknowability of God lies at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other traditions. There was no old man in the sky.
3. The love that moves the sun,
God is said to have passed down to the Jews, via Moses, the (ten and more) commandments, included in the Torah. Two great commandments were emphasised – to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. These were later adopted by non-Jewish Christians who renounced the Torah around 7C but retained the spiritual essence. In 17C Calvin developed this to such a demanding ethic that it could not be fulfilled, so required the forgiveness of God. The rationalist Kant actually retained a religious approach to morality, contrary to how he has been sometimes reported.
4. The God of the philosophers,
Plato’s (3C BC) philosophy of love of wisdom turned from the world of appearances to the inner vision of goodness itself, and beauty and truth – the true home of the soul, as in the Upanishads. Platonism was largely adopted by Christianity, notably through Augustine in 4-5C. God was the creator of matter and of the form of goodness. Aristotle’s vision was slightly different, but God was still there as the perfect being, acting as an attractor to all beings. In 11c Anselm defined God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’.
5. The poet of the world
The classical view of the timeless immutable God dominated European thinking about God for 1000 years, culminating in Aquinas. The Protestant revolution introduced God as entering into human history. Rather than turn towards the eternal, man would shape the material into perfection – the world of science and technology. Established authorities were challenged and in 18C came the American and French Revolutions. The incomprehensible Hegel proposed that the whole of temporal reality was the self-expression of Absolute Spirit/God, seeking to realise its own nature. (Marx and Darwin turned things round, and matter was at the centre of existence – nature evolved and history was a dialectical process). Pantheism and panentheism are perhaps the ultimate expression of Hegel’s view. In 20C Whitehead’s process philosophy sees the world comprising countless millions of agents each making their own moral choices towards the good, guided by love – all experienced as part of God.
6. The darkness between the stars
In 16C Francis Bacon heralded the coming science and its practical impact in ‘bettering’ the human condition. In 19C Kierkegaard went in a different direction ‘subjectivity is truth’. Faith in God is a subjective matter, a commitment of the self despite objective uncertainty. In 20C Ayer and logical positivism took things to ‘logical’ extremes – all meaningful statements must be verifiable, talk about God was meaningless. Even he later admitted this was going too far. For Sartre life is absurd, except for the meaning we give it for ourselves, there is no God. Tillich is more traditional, seeing God as the power and ground of being, the ultimate symbol of the good we strive for. Wittgenstein said little about God: “Whereof we cannot speak, therefore we must be silent.” Modern spirituality tends to emphasise the good rather than God.
7. The personal ground of being
There is an interesting discussion of the problem of evil, with thinkers Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietsche. God needs to be in some way transcendent to avoid being tarred with the inevitable evil. Tillich suggests that God is the personal ground of being, but not a person.
Featured image fresco Creation of Adam from Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada via Wikimedia Commons
We were having coffee at the Beans Cafe (again). There in the local free paper was this announcement of public lectures by the Association for Global New Thought, which reminded me of our initiation of lectures in the North West of England from 1993 to 2004.
Our local town of Knutsford in Cheshire, England had just established a new Civic Centre with a then-modern cinema hall. We speculated one day that this space would be ideal for public lectures similar to the Schumacher Lectures that were (and still are) run annually in Bristol by the Schumacher Society. We realised that this would only happen if someone did something about it, so we did, with a couple of local friends. Fortunately the hall was available on suitable evenings.
The first series of six ‘Knutsford Lectures’ was held, one evening per month, in the autumn/spring of 1993/4. We learned the ropes as we went, including booking the hall, arranging speakers, selling tickets, audio recording, and initially primitive publicity – hand-delivering leaflets, informing local media and developing mailing lists.
The overall series theme was ‘Visions of a New Renaissance’, which remained the theme for all our lectures. The scope of change necessary in our thinking was indeed of a magnitude that implied the need for a New Renaissance, and vision was needed to set the direction (this is even more true today). Proverb 29:18 “Without vision the people perish” seemed apposite.
Individual speakers chose their own subject within that context. We even had a logo.
Our first speaker was Rt Hon David Ennals, one-time Secretary of State for Social Services in a Labour administration, also known as Baron Ennals – although he was obviously totally disinterested in titles and had a charming personality, as indeed did most of our speakers. Ennals accepted our invitation with alacrity, subsequently explaining that he was delighted to see such an initiative, knew how hard it is to get things off the ground, so wanted to support it. Despite being obviously somewhat handicapped by the ailments of age, he gave an entertaining talk which was much appreciated. Sadly David died a couple of years later.
We eventually ran three seasons of lectures, building up a small organising committee of enthusiasts. I think Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski probably hit the nail on the head when he said to me that I was involved in organising the lectures because that was my process of educating myself. I hope it also helped others.
Our speakers included Jonathon Porritt, who gave us a taste of the problems organisers face, when he arrived over twenty minutes late with a ‘full house’ audience waiting. Other speakers included scientist Rupert Sheldrake, the Schumacher Society‘s own Satish Kumar, Stephan Harding from Schumacher College, and Peter Harper from the Centre for Alternative Technology. In conversation, Satish subtlely challenged us with ‘why not set up your own Schumacher Lectures?’, thus planting the seed that led us to start annual Manchester Schumacher Lectures in 1996, where Satish was our first speaker.
The Manchester events took place over a full day, with usually three speakers followed by a panel session, chaired by myself or Chris Lyons. Here we managed to attract sponsors, including the Ecology Building Society, who faithfully supported us throughout. And there was the provision of music, bookstalls, refreshments etc.
Memorable speakers included Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, novelist Lindsay Clarke, scientists Mae Wan Ho and Brian Goodwin, ex-bishop David Jenkins, activists George Monbiot and Ann Pettifor. Many speakers joined with the organisers in a post-event evening meal, which was usually enjoyed by all.
We also had a fair share of problems. Two well-known international ‘green’ speakers cried off late after committing to come; maybe Manchester was not prestigious enough for them. Fortunately, Herbie Girardet of the Schumacher Society was very helpful in finding late replacements. Also, two well-known UK speakers excused themselves from the agreed panel session, two others behaved in a rather ‘precious’ and demanding way, and there were often problems with the sound/AV systems. It is not always fun organising such events!
I think the stresses and strains eventually took their toll, and the energies of our committee reduced, without the renewing emergence of new blood. Eventually, after the 2004 lectures, we closed down the Manchester Schumacher Lectures, bequeathing our remaining resources to the Schumacher Society. But the spirit did not die; almost immediately new Schumacher events were set up in Leeds, and continue to this day under the banner of Schumacher North.
The need for new ideas showing up the inadequacy of current thinking is ongoing and will never die out – so there will always be the need for initiatives such as this, changing the world’s thinking one person at a time…
PS Success of our New Renaissance lectures was dependent on the voluntary energies and good will of many people, but perhaps worth special mention are those who at different times formed the core of our organising committee: Joyce Hopewell, Annabel Burton, Chris Lyons, Mary McGregor, Joan Poulson, Mike Lowe, Esther Austin and Chris Wright.