Could the goodies lose?

I’m sure that one of the formative influences of my life was watching Westerns on the new medium of TV. You know the story. It was always about the goodies and the baddies. The baddies got together in gangs, and got more of their share by force, imposing their will on the goodies, who were well meaning but ineffectual. Then along came the hero(es), who sorted out the baddies and gave them their just desserts. The goodies won.

Can the goodies win in real life? If we look at history who were the goodies? The indigenous peoples who lived a sustainable life over thousands of years in sympathy with nature? They lost bigtime, their lands and precious artifacts, even their lives, stolen by Europeans over hundreds of years, who look suspiciously like baddies.

The winners of wars against the likes of Napoleon and Hitler? So many baddish acts to rid the world of the worst sort of baddie. Hardly goodies.

The creators of political systems out of the ashes of wars – the American constitution, the UN, the welfare states, the German constitution, the Marshall Plan. Yes, these look very much like goodies.

The thing is, this is not a symmetrical polarity, as might appear. Goodies are, well, good. They do the right thing in all their dealings. They are driven by conscience and abhor bad acts. They are even inclined to give baddies the benefit of the doubt. They recognise the bad in themselves.

On the other hand, baddies are bad, and have no conscience. Baddies always do what will benefit themselves and those who profess loyalty. And they will do whatever it takes. They have no self insight, nor any desire for it.

So, in a straight contest, the baddies will probably win. Putative heroes are driven out of town, or worse.

But the thing is, goodies are more numerous, and more co-operative. Given the right political system, such as democracy, the goodies can and do win. Welfare states thrive.

However, in the wrong political system, the one-party state, the corruptible democratic institutions, the ruling junta, the baddies can rule the roost for a long time. So many countries seem to be in this state at this moment. Name your own examples.

This is why democratic institutions and the rule of law (and I would add limited terms of office) are so important, and why they should never be allowed to be undermined, which is precisely what populist leaders and beneficiaries of the status quo try to do.

My conclusion – the goodies can win, but eternal vigilance is needed from the heroes within the people, to sustain the institutions that are their defence against emerging baddies.

Featured image is shootout from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Irredeemable?

Kerry McAvoy has written an interesting post on evil What Evil People Have Taught Me, which came to my attention because she referred to my earlier post on People of the Lie. She poses an interesting question, can evil people be ‘saved’ or redeemed, and suggests that this may not be possible.

To recap, my post picked out three major characteristics which give warning signs of evil:

refusal to face the evil within, denial of one’s own guilt, often means projecting onto others and scapegoating.

an extreme narcissism, termed malignant narcissism by Erich Fromm.

a strong will to control others, leading to manipulative behaviours, demanding loyalty,…

We tend to think that all people with evil characteristics can be redeemed, a speciality of Christianity. But what if the characteristics are so strongly built in that they are effectively caught in a world of their own, surrounded by the courtiers willing to go along with them? Adolph Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Napoleon come to mind.

As Kerry suggests, we can face them with the truth:

Our defense against such people is to stand firm in our convictions. To refuse to bow and tremble in fear. Truth is our best weapon.

Reality is the other corrective. Such as when a UK cabinet minister was sent to prison for his misdeeds and emerged from the experience a changed man, redeemed. Redemption has to be a possibility, but is difficult to envisage in cases such as Hitler and Napoleon. It would seem that there are degrees of evil.

Any thoughts on redemption?

Reincarnation

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of reincarnation, despite its been scoffed at by much mainstream thought. At first this came from the attraction to Eastern religions, particularly Buddhist and Hindhu. But science has been catching up, and in this article (limited access via Medium) Deepak Chopra gives a nice summary of where things are, sprinkled with his own imagination.

He quotes Jim Tucker’s summary of research that shows that a significant percentage of children, up to the age of six, who have credibly reported experience of previous lives, and where that has been checked out. “There has been no serious questioning of the validity of this research.”

To cut a short story even shorter, Chopra summarises a plausible extension of current science:

What Nature presents, from the level of subatomic particles to the level of DNA, is an endless recycling. Just as physics tells us matter and energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed, the same is thought to apply to information and, going a step further, to consciousness. Everything in Nature is about endless transformation, and in the cosmic recycling bin, ingredients are not simply jumbled and rejumbled like balls in a Bingo cage.

Instead, as viewed in human perception, Nature exhibits evolution through three linked processes: memory, creativity, and imagination. Memory keeps the past intact, allowing older forms to contribute to new ones. Creativity allows for novelty so that recycling isn’t mere repetition of the same forms over and over. Imagination allows for invisible possibilities to take shape, either in the mind or the physical world.

If everything in Nature is recycling under the influence of memory, creativity, and imagination, it seems very likely that human consciousness participates in the same recycling. Or to put it another way, if human consciousness doesn’t recycle/reincarnate, we’d be outside a process that includes everything else in the universe but us. Is that really probable?

So maybe reincarnation is just cosmic recycling of consciousness. Nice thought.

Featured image is summary from Jim Tucker’s article linked above.
Thanks to SciMed‘s New Renaissance Newsletter for bringing this to my attention.

Pettiness

Another great poem by Steve Taylor, from his latest newsletter. We’ve all been through this, it’s part of growing up. Many soaps and political cultures, including the current US presidency, are full of it.

The World of Pettiness

Keep outside the world of pettiness, if you can.

If you step into the world of pettiness
you may never get out again.

The world of pettiness is like a soap opera
where people act out endless episodes
of falling out and reconciling
of resenting and retaliating
of comparing and competing
with their minds full of judgement and prejudice.

In the world of pettiness
life is a tournament, and every day is a game
where people show off their skills
and compete for each other’s respect.
They’re always ready to take offence and to take revenge
if they feel slighted or devalued.

The world of pettiness may even seem exciting
full of drama and stimulation
like the center of a city at rush hour.

But if you step inside the world of pettiness
you’ll lose yourself in the noise and stress.
You’ll lose touch with your essence
and lose sight of your purpose.

So live quietly and simply, away from the crazy city.
Be still and self-sufficient
so that your ego doesn’t hanker for attention
or feel wounded by disrespect

Keep your mind above the madness around you.
Let other people think you’re aloof.
Let them hate you if they will.
But only give them love in return.

The featured quote is by Frederick Nietsche, via Goodreads.

Inside out

Looking at myself I see an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer’, dualism. Similarly I see this in my dog, perceiving the ‘inner’ reflected in the dog’s ‘outer’. I have no reason to believe this does not apply to every living being, and even to beings that we would not regard as ‘living’ according to certain criteria.

I can call this ‘inner’ mind or soul or spirit or elan vital or etc. The ‘outer’ is what I perceive through the senses – which is the subject matter of empirical science. So there it is for each of us to see – two aspects to reality, subjective and objective.

I understand that this ‘ontology’ (idea of the nature of reality) was common among advanced thinkers in medieval times, such as Roger Bacon in 12/13C. It was also common in the East, such as the Indian Vedanta.

Then came the Renaissance, Reformation and establishment of Science. In the early days of science, pioneers such as Newton and Kepler shared the same dualistic ontology. Somewhere along the way, in the development of science, some of its exponents began to identify that which was the ‘outer’ domain as the true reality, measured by mathematical models, dismissing the ‘inner’ as something science would eventually explain in terms of the ‘outer’, without any justification. This was the ontology of materialism. Of course, the great thinkers such as Einstein, Pauli, Schrodinger… knew better.

The materialistic ontology succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its proponents because mathematics gave the tools to control the ‘outer’ of nature – and there was no recognition of the ‘inner’ of nature. It also, incidentally gave the tools to manage people, in ways that did not need to take account of ‘inner’ factors such as justice, sanctity of life, beauty, goodness and truth even. The result is before our eyes, the ‘inner’ screaming for recognition as never before.

Yet it’s all ideas that are clearly not valid, if you just look at your self and your dog (or other living being).

Time to go back inward, individually and collectively to refind that beauty, goodness and truth.

With thanks to Maylinno’s post on the mind body connection
and Harald Walach’s paper on Inner Experience – Direct Access to Reality

Presence

Another great poem by Steve Taylor in his newsletter, deserves sharing:

Your Being Belongs to the Present

Your ego-mind belongs to the past.
Like a museum, everything in it comes from the past –
beliefs that were handed down from your parents
ideas you absorbed from your culture
thought patterns that formed when you were young
old traces of trauma that still cause you pain
and random memories that keep replaying.

And your thoughts keep dragging you back to the past
like old friends who are jealous of your new life
and keep making you revisit
the haunts you’ve left behind
and the habits you’ve long outgrown.

But your being belongs to the present.
It has never known anything but the present.
It only knows the past and future as ideas
that pass through its nowness, like clouds through the sky.

So untangle yourself from thoughts and concepts.
Give your full attention to your experience
until the structures of your mind grow soft
and you feel the calm wholeness of being
seeping through your inner space
and bringing you back to presence.

Slip outside your ego-mind
and leave the past behind.
Then your life will be an adventure –
an exhilarating voyage of discovery
through the endless spacious freshness of presence.

Our Story

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

In the beginning, after the big bang and the formation of the earth and living beings, human beings emerged embedded in the dream of nature. There was no differentiation.

Gradually there emerged language and groupings of people.

There were some societies where the connection with nature remained strong, where language worked in consort with the one, where men and women each brought their own strengths to that cooperation with others and with the one. They developed wonderful creativity in their cave paintings, and a wonderful science that enabled them to comprehend and relate to the cosmos through great stone constructions. They told stories that passed through the generations, passing on archetypal knowledge, lessons of experience to each new generation.

With the coming of written language, some feared that the knowledge of connection would be lost. They wrote it down, hidden away for when ignorant barbarians came, which surely they did.Read More »

Polarity – Balance and Synthesis

I was inspired to build on an earlier post on polarity by these thoughts from a free pdf in the Psychosynthesis Centre: Balancing and Synthesis of the Opposites by psychologist Roberto Assagiol. Quotes are from that document.

Polarity is a universal fact; it is inherent in cosmic manifestation… From the very moment that cosmic manifestation begins to unfold, duality is born. The first fundamental duality is precisely that between manifestation and the Unmanifest. In the process of manifestation the fundamental polarity is that of Spirit and Matter.

We could see existence as the dance between spirit and matter.

… all polarity is a relationship between two elements… as such, it is never absolute, but relative even to a particular pair of opposites: the same element can be positive in its relation to a certain “pole” and negative in its relation to another. An instance of the relativity of the “polar relationships” exists in the fundamental polarity between Spirit and Matter.

Read More »

Covid-19 – why now?

Why did covid-19 emerge now, at this particular point in history?

Rational mind might start to argue about the possibilities – the wet markets in Wuhan, an escaped virus experiment from the nearby Chinese research facility, an act of sabotage in the US/China economic war…?

I suggest the real reason lies in the world of meaning, not in the world of facts. In bringing the whole world to varying degrees of lockdown the virus has choked off economic activity and forced a slowdown in the consumption of fossil fuels, those same fossil fuels that are bringing about climate breakdown, which we know represents an existential threat to current human ways of life across the globe.

This is synchronicity, not coincidence, it has meaning. The warnings are getting louder and louder, the floods, wildfires, refugees, collapsing countries. And now covid-19.

Read More »

Has neo-liberalism reached use-by date? Ayn Rand and the failure of philosophy

It has long been evident that the extreme neo-liberalism that followed Ayn Rand’s views has had a malign influence on the world economy leading to massive inequality. And the system is now like an unstable house of cards. Matthew Wright explains in this super post.

Matthew Wright

A good deal of what I’ve been seeing of late on social media – but also in mainstream journalism – revolves around the notion that the Covid-19 pandemic will be the trigger for a shift away from the neo-liberalism that has characterised leading western economic policies since the early 1980s.

That might be right. Back then this ideology was trumpeted as a ‘more sophisticated’ approach than the liberal democratic western policy mixes of the mid-twentieth century. When the eastern bloc fell over in the early 1990s its triumph seemed complete. History, Francis Fukuyama declared, had ended as a result. From then on, The Future would consist of a changeless neo-liberal nirvana.

Well, quite. It was an absurd statement, curiously built on the same faulty assumption that Karl Marx had applied to his thinking in the 1840s: that societies, by nature, move towards an ideal end-point – a meaning summed up…

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In Tune with the Infinite

“There is a golden thread that runs through every religion in the world. There is a golden thread that runs through the lives of the prophets, seers, sages and saviours in the world’s history, through the lives of all men and women of truly great and lasting power.”

Ralph Waldo Trine

in tune withI sometimes like to reread and reflect on books that have resided on my bookshelves for many years. Ralph Waldo Trine‘s book In Tune with the Infinite was inspirational when I read it in 1987. Here was a philosophical and spiritual exposition in readable form that I could relate to and that seemed to make sense. The pages of my copy are now yellowed at the edges, but the text still makes absolute sense. Since its publication in 1899 sales of this book number in the millions, so clearly many agree with this assessment. Notably it was said to have been very influential on one Henry Ford, who created the Ford motor company.

Academically, Trine is now classified as part of the New Thought Movement, which Wikipedia characterises as holding that

  • Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere
  • divinity dwells within each person, people are spiritual beings
  • the highest spiritual principle is loving one another unconditionally
  • thoughts are carried forward into manifestation and become our experience in daily living.
  • sickness originates in the mind, and “right thinking” has a healing effect.

The magic of Trine’s short (208 pages) book is to bring this down to simple language that is easily comprehended, a true popularization of psychology, philosophy and spirituality. Along the way he explains important concepts such as

  • the importance of optimism,
  • the effect of mental attitude and faith in focusing thought into fruition,
  • the effect of fear as the enemy of life forces,
  • the effect of thought on healing,
  • the importance of love,
  • the finding of one’s own inner spiritual centre,
  • ignorance and selfishness being at the root of all error,
  • the corrosive effect of negative thoughts,
  • living by example,
  • the importance of the inner guide – conscience, intuition, wisdom,
  • it is the truth that makes us free,
  • the refreshing power of sleep,
  • living according to inner soul direction – not to suit others,
  • as we sow, so shall we reap,
  • being a friend to the highest within us.

The basic philosophy and psychological/spiritual guidance in this book are, I think, just as valid today as the day they were written.

Trine’s book continues to give and give to each new generation of readers.

In the 80s I also read Prentice Mulford’s book Thought Forces, which was on similar lines, shorter but less readable.

 

Rumi’s way of the heart

In these frightening and changing times I was called to the words of the 13C poet/scholar/mystic Rumi. Wisdom is not a prerogative of our times; indeed we are much in need of it.

Love

“Love is the bridge between you and everything.”

“Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction.”

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Soul

“What you seek is seeking you.”

“When you do things from the soul,
you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

Self

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise so I am changing myself.”

“It’s your road, and yours alone,
others may walk it with you,
but no one can walk it for you.”

Gratitude

“Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.”

Fear

“Ignore those that make you fearful and sad.”

“Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.”

Letting go

“Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.”

“Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.”

“When you let go of who you are,
you become who you might be.”

Tagore Grove

Where The Mind Is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore

tagore ray millerRay Miller Park is a smallish urban park just by the busy Eldridge Parkway in Houston. In a quiet corner of the park it is a delight to come across Tagore Grove, established in memory of the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). A calming space on the midst of all that busyness.

The featured image shows a panel containing the words of Tagore’s poem, shown in full above – a call across the ages, so relevant to these times.

Taking Appearance Seriously

The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

by Henri Bortoft

taking appearance seriouslyThis challenging book explains where Western thinking went wrong, and points the way towards the revolution in thinking that is needed to get back on track.

I read it on Kindle some time ago, probably not wise for such an erudite work, but it did make it easy to recall a lot of key points by downloading my highlights.

Almost by definition, this is difficult reading, because it does not ‘come from’ the place where Western thinking habitually does these days.

Henri Bortoft has a good shot at making this understandable to such as myself, with an interest in philosophy but no great training or professional expertise. It is of course inspired by the thinking of Goethe, one of the giants of our intellectual history.

I’ve included my edited notes in the following, which may help to give an appreciation of the staggering scope of this book and of Goethe’s thinking. But there is no escape from the effort of reading the book itself if you want to understand its quite revolutionary message.Read More »

When the dog looks

The dog who shares our lives has a hobby. He sits in the garden and looks, just looks. Why would he do that?

Waiting for cats, birds squirrels to appear, to be chased? Maybe. But I think there’s another reason. He’s just assessing the situation, awaiting the inspiration for action.

Take the time he became obsessed with the cat at the back. The vegetation, fencing and screening between the two gardens had deterred two dog generations from venturing into the back neighbour’s garden. But this dog was different. He sat and looked. One day he disappeared, until the back neighbour called and handed him back. He’d bitten a hole in the previously impregnable defences.

More defences were erected. The dog looked. Another day he disappeared, and was handed back again. This became a regular contest, and there was only one clear winner – the dog.

After a summit discussion, a new wooden fence was erected. That would spike his guns! The dog looked, for a long time. Then one day we heard him barking at the cat through a window – in the neighbour’s garden. He’d tunnelled under the fence. Bricks, logs and concrete variously deterred further digging.

The dog looked again. Another day he was barking in the neighbour’s garden again. He’d managed to squeeze through the gap at the end of the fence, which had surely been too narrow for a dog!

The gap was barricaded. The dog looked for a long time. Then went off to look at another fence, which was by now more promising. But that’s another story.

What really struck me about this episode is that the dog’s ‘looking’ is very similar to my own approach to gardening. I have a sort of overall picture of what sort of plants should go where, and when they need feeding or pruning, but the actual decision on what is ripe to do next is done by looking. As I look, it becomes clear what is to be done next.

So really, what’s so different about dog- and human- consciousness? Have we become confused into thinking that language plays a major part in our decision making and our rationality, so we must be so much cleverer than the animals? Maybe we are not so different from them after all.

All about the numbers

When a particular subject lights something up inside you, it’s worth taking notice. For me, one of those is the numbers – specifically the whole numbers, or integers. Thus was I from childhood drawn to mathematics, and later to Greek philosophy via Pythagoras. The former gave the outer mechanics of numbers, the latter suggested that numbers had a more mystical and imprecise meaning, leading to later interests in subjects such as numerology, and to astrology, where the numbers lurk in the background.

So I was a sucker for these two books which approach the numbers in completely different ways:

  • Music by the Numbers by Eli Maor
  • The Archetype of Number and its Reflections in Contemporary Cosmology, by Alain Negre

music by the numbersFor people such as me, Eli Maor has written an engaging book about the relationship between music and mathematics. The development of musical scales from Pythagoras to the early 20th century is an interesting story, reasonably well explained, from Pythagoras’s whole number ratios through the equal tempered scale exemplified in the work of JS Bach to the experiments of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

The fascination still seems to lie in those magical simple ratios of musical resonance: the octave 2:1, the fifth 3:2 and the fourth 4:3, from which are derived the Pythagorean Scale, which is nearly ‘right’, but in the end not adequate for use in orchestras with different sort of instruments, as Maor explains. Always the whole numbers are beautifully simple, but prove too limited to describe the real world, hence the subsequent invention of all the panoply of mathematics, irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, the calculus and on and on.

And in the end, always and tantalisingly, the maths cannot fully describe the real world, which we know thanks to the insights of Kurt Gödel.

archetype of the numberAlain Negre’s book is about number as archetype – the qualitative aspect of number, which was revived in the 20th century by psychologist Carl Jung and physicist Wolfgang Pauli. All begins with 1,2,3, and 4 – just as with the Pythagorean scale. The qualities of these 4 basic numbers are explored and particularly related to the work of Jung, and to the triplicities and quadruplicities of astrology.

There are rather incomprehensible (to me) chapters relating the numbers 3 and 4 to current theories on the evolution of the cosmos – rather speculative, I think. Negre goes on to suggest that the astrological zodiac with the 12 signs is another projection of these number archetypes, including discussion of the axis crosses and the oppositional polarities in a chart of the 12 signs.

So the book is both familiar to me, in an astrological sense, and almost incomprehensible when relating to modern cosmology, which must be partly due to my own failure to keep up with this field. In fact, I had a similar reaction to an earlier work some years ago Number and Time by Marie-Louise von Franz. It feels like there is something important there, but the author has not quite managed to express it in a way that is easily comprehensible to me (of course this may be a commentary on me, rather than on the author’s work).

So yes, number still has that magical pull, but these books didn’t greatly enlightened me. Nor did they blunt that fascination with the numbers.

Music by the Numbers is much the more readable.

The benefits of reading (or studying) philosophy

I’ve always been drawn to philosophy, as the love of wisdom, read quite a few books over many years, but never been drawn to studying it in an academic way. This post by maylynno expresses well many of the benefits of reading or studying philosophy. In short, it makes us wiser.

maylynno

philosophie-780x440

When I am asked what I do for living and I answer that I am a philosophy teacher: usually I get rolled back eyes or some couple of seconds shock. These reactions are also followed by this question: do you read people’s minds? Can you analyze a person?

A philosopher is not a medium, nor a psychotherapist. Even the latter can’t objectively analyze a person from a glimpse. Let’s rewind and define philosophy and why it is needed urgently.

Philosophy is simple yet so difficult. It is a rational discipline that starts with astonishment which leads to questioning. The reason why I mentioned astonishment is because one is never able to question anything as long as everything seems normal. Questioning is critical thinking, bringing us all the way to conceptualization and redefinitions.

After this tiny introduction, here are the benefits of reading (or studying) philosophy:

  • Obviously, the first point would…

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Enantiodromia

Enantiodromia is one of those words you come across in a text and scan over because you don’t have a dictionary or search engine to hand. I keep coming across this word, a synchronicity which suggests I pay a little attention to it.

Enantiodromia is actually a very useful concept and deserves to be more widely known. According to Wikipedia, enantiodromia is a principle introduced in the West by Carl Jung, probably originally from Taoism, also attributed to the ancient Greek Heraclitus.

Jung defines enantiodromia as

“the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition is built up which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.”

The extreme position builds up a pressure in the unconscious, which eventually actually invokes its opposite. This archetypal process is clear in the reported conversion of the Christian-persecutor Saul into the evangelist Paul. This may also explain why extremists on the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of politics actually appear to be so similar.

In accord with the principle ‘as above, so below’, enantiodromia will surely apply to nations and to the global community. By this principle, extreme free market capitalism inevitably at some point ceases to be effective (eg it destroys communities and despoils the environment that enabled its operation) and invokes its opposite (which nurtures community and the surrounding ecology). I would suggest that we are witnessing just such a process at the moment.

Never despair!

Wordsmith gives the etymology of entiodromia as
from the Greek enantio- (opposite) + dromos (running). 

Kindness, compassion, and post-truth

In this post Jane Fritz highlights one of the most disturbing trends of my lifetime – that to ‘post-truth’. To me, this is an evil in the world, in that it enables the manipulation of populations, to the disadvantage of all but a few.

I would suggest that the world needs precisely the opposite – a dedication to understanding reality in order to effectively address it, which is the only way humanity can negotiate the potentially catastrophic world we have created. Post-truth is the precise negation of the true (outer) science and (inner) spirituality that is needed.

Robby Robin's Journey

My philosophy discussion group is “studying” Post-Truth this term. More often than not we’re exploring a philosophical topic where the ideas are so challenging (along with the writing) that we spend ages trying to make heads or tails of what the philosopher is saying. (It’s really way more fun than it sounds!) In this case, however, it is painfully clear. There’s nothing difficult to understand about what post-truth is; the difficult thing is figuring out just how we can get past it.

Post-Truth?! What is that, anyway, yet another catch phrase of our times, like fake news and hoaxes? When are we going to get past this strange world of alternate universes? Well, it turns out that Post-Truth really is an accepted and accurate term to describe the world we now find ourselves in. The mainstream news sources that people used to count on for thorough investigative reporting (the most…

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God and good

god coverStruggling 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.

My conclusion

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