Uncle Will

“‘He that followeth me walketh not in darkness,’ said our Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are taught how we must imitate his life and virtues if we wish to be truly enlightened and freed from all blindness of heart. Let us make it, then, our constant practice to meditate upon the life of Christ.”

I just came across a tiny (just over 4inx2.5in) copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, and those words form the very first paragraph. The book came from the residual estate of Uncle Will some years ago (not really my uncle, but that’s another story). Of course, this is a famous book in Christian circles, and I even have a paperback copy on my bookshelves, untouched for many years.

The thing about Uncle Will was that he was an essentially good man – very devout and proper, but always cheery and often exhibiting an impish sense of humour. Some found him ‘churchy’ and pompous, but the more I got to know him the more I understood that foundational goodness, a positive example to us all.

On reading that first paragraph of the book, I was suddenly struck that this was literally what Will had tried to do throughout his life – to follow the example of Christ – and with much success. Thomas à Kempis was one of his guides along the way.

Not so many people are drawn by such devout Christianity these days, but it is clear that its fruits can be rich indeed. I recall Will with great affection.

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True science and religion are complementary

I was struck by this post by Aperture of Brahma. It says in a few words the relationship between science and religion.

“True science and true religion are twin sisters. Where the one goes, the other necessarily follows.

“True science” refers to our role as an observer of experience.

“True religion” refers to our role as a participant within experience.

Non-Duality refers to the unity of the polarizing concepts; the ability to observe and participate at the same time. Mindfulness trains us to become an observer of our experience while being a participant within it.

I think I have spent many words saying something similar, but here is the essence.

Pan-what’s-it-ism

Because of the sort of books I read, I keep coming across these words and have never really understood the difference (or it doesn’t stick): panpsychism, pantheism and panentheism. Fortuitously, Christian de Quincey explains in his book Blind Spots. I’ve added links to Wikipedia, which has good definitions and background.

Pan is an ancient Greek word meaning ‘whole’ or ‘all of’.

Panpsychism is a philosophical belief about mind, meaning that all of nature possesses mind. Consciousness is in every thing.

Pantheism is a theological belief about the nature of God or gods. It argues that God and nature are essentially the same. God is immanent in nature.

Panentheism takes pantheism a step further – God is in all of nature, but also beyond nature. God is both transcendent and imminent in nature.

Panpsychism is consistent with pantheism, but less so with panentheism because that transcendent God lies beyond its concept.

As de Quincey points out, the important thing to take away is that God/nature is an ongoing, evolving, neverending creative process, and we are each a co-creative part thereof. Materialism is a dead duck, and atheism seems somehow irrelevant.

Are Humans Special?

Most characteristics of human beings are shared in different ways with other species. Humanity is special in its ability to dominate all other species and in its capacity for abstract thought. Other species are special, each in its own way.

Because that abstract thought has become increasingly dominant, humanity has increasingly lost touch with the rest of nature. The tragic phenomenon of today’s many threatened species and rapidly changing climate, still substantially ignored by our ‘business as usual’ political mindset, is leading in a clearly unsustainable direction.

In Blind Spots, Christian de Quincey suggests that the roots of this modern crisis lie in this presumption of human specialness – and squarely places scientific materialism and religion in his sights as substantial causative agents.

  • Materialism treats the matter of nature as ‘dead’, insentient and of no intrinsic value – (in this view) only creatures with consciousness have intrinsic value and that comes from brains, especially that great human brain. Doubts exist on the consciousness and sentience of various species, because of course you cannot measure consciousness.
  • In the previously dominant paradigm of Christian religion, biblical scripture reinforces the myth that ‘only humans have souls, or consciousness’.

We cannot do without science and religion; we do need them to eschew this crazy materialism and habit of perceiving human specialness, and forge a new path that sees humans as an integral part of nature, perhaps with a special responsibility to just not screw it up.

 

 

Faith

As a teenager, I read William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience, and was quite enthralled, coming as I did from a strong scientific education with a lukewarm smattering of Methodism. So I was delighted to read the following James quote from Alister McGrath in his book Enriching our Vision of Reality. It is the best definition I’ve seen of that elusive word ‘faith’.

“Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible… Faith is synonymous with working hypothesis.”

This is not faith as dogma, which is a common association used to denigrate. It is faith ‘sensitive to reason, experimental in nature, and therefore susceptible to revision.’

McGrath’ s context is in the bringing together of science and Christian theology, but we could apply his reasoning to any religion, different sciences, and other ways of looking at the world, such as astrology.

His point is that both science and religion are ways in which we strive to understand the mystery of life. Both develop hypotheses to live by, but are subject to change where they do not correspond with lived reality. Both use story/metaphor/analogy to point the way; science adds the use of mathematical models, where it can. Perhaps it is this wonderful use of mathematics that encourages the common misperception that everything can be rationally described, but this is clearly not the case – as was concluded by, among others, Einstein, Newton and Darwin. There is always the mystery beyond…

In particular, materialists can lay no claim to a privileged context. Their faith in materialism and objective knowledge is as much a working hypothesis as is the Christian doctrine of the trinity. The so-called New Atheists are simply asserting their particular faith.

Cistercian Simplicity

I’ve long found inspiration and sustenance from the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian abbeys, still found in various states of repair across Europe. For me their simplicity of form is unfailingly beautiful.

In this context I’ve also been aware of the towering spiritual figure of St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the main instigators of the Cistercian movement, and wondered what sort of person he might have been.

spirit of simplicitySo I couldn’t resist the book ‘The Spirit of Simplicity’, being translations of classical French texts by that modern spiritual seeker Thomas Merton. The book is in two parts. The first part is a text with the book’s title, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Chautard in the mid 1920s. The second part contains selected texts by St Bernard himself on Inner Simplicity. Could this explain what lay behind the beauty of those old Abbeys?

The original Cistercian movement was one of renewal, aiming to return to the Rule of the monastic life originally established by St Benedict (c. 480-550 AD). Inner simplicity was a founding principle, and from this flowed the external simplicity of the forms created. The fathers of the first Abbey at Citeaux in the early 1100s were dedicated to this.

Chautard suggests that there was a golden age of 150 years for the Cistercian movement, when this simplicity was effectively maintained. This was followed by a silver age of another 100 years when it was not so effectively maintained and embellishments crept in. After the middle of the 14th century decline set in – with several causes: the Black Death, religious wars, and then the Reformation. (Paradoxically, Protestantism saw a return to simplicity in the form of religious buildings. Many of the older decorated Gothic buildings now show an almost Cistercian simplicity.) Another renewal movement at the end of the 19th century ensured that there are still some Cistercian Abbeys operating today.

St Bernard himself is regarded as the finest exemplar of the movement. The second part of the book contains his reflections on that simplicity, the need for humility, and obedience in the context of the monk’s life, the importance of the monk knowing himself – so actually quite modern psychologically – the overcoming of pride and dedication to the love of God.

I was quite struck by one particular quote:

And what greater pride is there than that one man should try to impose his own opinion upon the whole community, as if he alone had the spirit of God?

Modern dictators and populists please note. Pride always comes before a fall.

So the outer simplicity of the Cistercian abbey is a reflection of the inner simplicity of the monks. The evident beauty is a reflection of the inner beauty of their souls.

I would not suggest that the life of a monk is right for everyone, but it is clear that this dedication to inner simplicity produces this wonderful contribution to the beauty in the world. Go see some of these superb buildings for yourself – Fountains Abbey in UK, Fontenay, Senanques, Silvacane, Fontfroide, Pontigny and many others in France, Orval in Belgium. There are far too many to list them all. Here are just a few random selected photos.

For most, you must travel to less frequented parts of the country. The communities were built to be self sufficient, away from centres of population. These journeys provide a scenic mini pilgrimage in themselves. Even the less well preserved abbeys, such as Abbeycwmhir in an isolated valley in mid-Wales, once one of the largest abbeys in the UK, have a special atmosphere about them.

abbeycwmhir
Abbeycwmhir

And the book is certainly very readable if it aligns with your interest. Merton knew his stuff.

 

Metta

Some years ago I participated in an interfaith course studying the different major religions. Two features of Buddhism particularly stick in the memory. One was of course mindfulness, the other was the practice of Metta, the subject of this post.

As well as being a subject for meditation, the practice of Metta essentially involves projecting ‘loving kindness’ or ‘universal love’ or ‘benevolence’ out to others. In its ultimate essence Metta is beyond ego and concerns of the individual self; its concern is the wellbeing of all, of life itself.

An exercise of my course was to practise Metta while walking, projecting this benevolence to all you meet. This practice does first require you to be mindful.

It is not surprising that the response of people you meet is more positive than when you are immersed in your own concerns. This is, literally, spreading goodwill around the world.

Worth a try, don’t you think?

Featured image is a Japanese representation of Buddha.

 

 

The Bird of Joy

“The Mundaka Upanishad presents a beautiful way of understanding duality. Two identical birds who are eternal companions perch in the same tree. One eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other, a bird of joy, watches.  Both make up the dualistic reality of the individual. Union comes through detachment from identification with the bird who eats the fruit and attachment to the bird of Joy who watches with love. True personality detachment only comes with increasing attachment to the soul within all forms, and an ability to observe one’s self and others from the viewpoint of the bird of joy … always remembering that, in the Upanishad story, the two birds are identical and eternal companions.”

This striking quote by Steve Nation comes from the newsletter of the Lucis Trust, corresponding with the recent Gemini full moon.

“I recognize my other self and in the waning of that self, I grow and glow.”

Seed thought for the sign of Gemini.

Featured image of two gannets by By Al Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

Isaac Newton, Mystic

Isaac Newton is generally seen as a key founder of modern science, via his major work Principia Mathematica and theory of gravity – which led on to the theory of the ‘clockwork universe’ and much of the modern materialist/atheistic world view.

Newton was indeed a great polymath. What is less known is that his work was inspired by his studies of religion and mysticism, which were at least as important to him as the natural sciences. The idea of a clockwork universe would have been anathema to Newton, as would the idea of atheism.

This is all explained in Edi Bilimoria’s well-researched article ‘Newton’ in the current issue of Paradigm Explorer, magazine of the Scientific and Medical Network.

Interestingly, Newton’s gravity and its attraction were ‘a purely mathematical concept involving no consideration of real and primary physical or mechanical causes’ – which is why his book is about ‘mathematics’ and not ‘mechanics’.

As Edi explains, Newton’s religious ideas were well developed and have little in common with the Christianity of the time, being more related to the view that God is everywhere immanent and transcendent. Quoting Newton himself:

[God] endures forever , and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. In him are all things contained and moved…

Of course, many modern scientists have come to a similar viewpoint on the importance of religion. For example, that more modern polymath Albert Einstein:

“Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Edi’s article is well worth reading.

How the Renaissance Began?

the swerve coverHow did the Renaissance begin? If we knew that, it would surely be useful in understanding what is needed for a New Renaissance. Well here’s a book that claims to give an answer: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt.

In a way, it does, although I suspect this is a gross over-simplification. Roughly, the story is that a very clever man Poggio Bracciolini, one time right hand man of a disgraced pope, discovered and had copied key texts that had been preserved over the centuries by monks regularly copying manuscripts.

The key text, De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things), by Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius contained explosive ideas that, once they began to circulate, overcame the stranglehold of the church on European ideas and led to the explosion of creativity that was the Renaissance.

In particular they directly influenced men such as Marsilio Ficino, Botticelli, Raphael, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Dryden,  Isaac Newton, Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on…Read More »

Conques

The village of Conques in Aveyron, France, has been a target of pilgrimage since medieval times, lying as it does on the route from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. The isolated position of Conques in hilly terrain means that it has never been subject to much modern development, so the medieval streets are essentially as they were.

conques rainbow

This view is the first the pilgrim coming from Estaing sees of Conques, nestling in the treed valley. We were lucky on our recent visit when, after a day of rain, the sun came out as we reached Conques. The dramatic welcome became spectacular when this rainbow appeared over the village.Read More »

Le Puy en Velay

I first visited Le Puy en Velay nearly 30 years ago, with Alf, as we traced the steps of pilgrims on the route from this starting point to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain – one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. What a special place to begin a pilgrimage.

st michel aiguilhe

This area of the former county of Velay, in the south western Massif Central, is volcanic. As well as numerous dead volcanoes, it contains various strange landscape features, notably several isolated plugs of rock pointing skywards. On one of these is the chapel of St Michel d’Aiguilhe. The well-formed stairway up this rock brings you to wonderful views over Le Puy and the tiny Romanesque chapel at the top. Linger a while in here and it provides an experience of perfect peace before the start of the journey.

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Mr Stanniforth

Although most of the main adult influences on my life growing up in 1950s Lincoln came from family members, this was by no means all. Mr Stanniforth lived near us and was a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist chapel. At a very young age my brother and I had laid foundation stones for the new Swallowbeck chapel, overseen by my grandma, a staunch Methodist. So we were duly sent to the service on Sunday morning and Sunday School in the afternoon.

To be honest, the services were a bit boring, apart from once a year when an evangelical circuit preacher gave us stirring sermons and a good singsong. At Sunday School, I guess I learned quite a lot about the bible and bible stories, useful background in later life. And I loved playing table tennis at the youth club when I was a bit older.

Mr Stanniforth was a jolly, balding, portly middle-aged man, always reminding us about next Sunday whenever he saw us. My biggest memory is of him repeatedly telling us that ‘alcohol is evil’. Even my young mind thought, can alcohol be evil, when many of the adults I know go to the pub from time to time? Maybe this set in train doubt about religious organisations from an early age, probably the opposite of what was intended.

 

Heirs to forgotten kingdoms

forgotten kingdomsAs we know, the war-torn Middle East is in a bit of a mess today. Gerard Russell was a British diplomat in various countries of the region for many years, and took a particular interest in some of its minority religions. His book of the above title reflects on these: Mandaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts, Kalasha.

The remarkable thing is that communities practicing these religions have survived for thousands of years, including long periods of Islamic dominance. Russell points out that in fact Islam has proved to be more tolerant in the Middle East than has Christianity in Europe,  where heretical and the so-called pagan religions were all but eliminated, notably through the Catholic Inquisition (e.g. Cathars).

Today, however, in the current environment of conflict, the survival of these communities is very much in doubt – for example the recent problems of the Yazidis and Copts have had wide publicity. Russell finds evidence that some members of the communities have found sanctuary in the US, but cultural dilution seems almost inevitable in such cases.

This readable and interesting book is written very much from the author’s personal experience, and is all the better for that. Worth reading if the subject appeals. I learned a lot about the various faiths. Russell has captured a picture of a disappearing world.

The message of the need for tolerance of the faith and beliefs of others is never ending.

Astrology and Religion

OK, so there’s no conflict between astrology and science. Is there one between astrology and religion?

Let’s trace it forward from the origins.

Evolutionary theory tells us that we emerged from a state of immersion into the world, as are the animals. The world was alive and meaningful, and every night we witnessed the full glory of the cosmos in the night sky. It was all one. We made sense of patterns of meaning, calling them what became known as gods. The sun was clearly the most important.

As we developed language and began to be more self aware, religions emerged based around these gods, pantheistic. Astrology was part of seeing patterns of meaning in the cosmos, and very much a part of this. I believe that the Hindu religions today are similarly pantheistic, and astrology flourishes in India.

From the so-called axial age onward, a series of monotheistic religions emerged from the austere Middle Eastern deserts, in turn Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and spread worldwide. From here on, I’ll stick to Christianity, the one I know most about.

When Christianity became a political project, in the time of Constantine, it became necessary to absorb the symbols of pantheism into that Christianity – politicians know they need to carry the people forward with them.

So you will find pantheistic and astrological symbols in most of the Christian churches – most notably in those wonderful Romanesque churches on the routes of the great European pilgrimages, such as that to Santiago de Compostella in Spain – and also notably in that great flowering of the Gothic cathedrals from the 12th century. See the stone signs of the zodiac, stained glass windows, the four elements of the fixed cross (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the wise men following the star, the green men, and so on.

amiens zodiac 2So, certainly at this time, the church was happy to incorporate aspects of pantheism and astrology into its very fabric, their great archetypes enriching the religious experience. Look for it when you next visit one of those amazing religious buildings.

Of course this is all just circumstantial evidence and not a proper analysis. I’d be interested in any evidence that contradicts the suggestion that there’s no conflict between astrology and religion.

Images show the signs of the zodiac and tasks of the year on the cathedral in Amiens.

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Thank God for Atheists?

I was intrigued by the title of Simon Marlow’s article in the Oct-Dec 2016 issue of the magazine The Beacon, published by the Lucis Trust. Marlow explores the ‘new atheism’ of modern times, exemplified by authors such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, putting them in [what is for me] a helpful context.

There are three facets, which I will cover under the following three headings.

Atheism as an expression of materialism

There is a contrast between two views of materialism:

  1. that of those such as Helena Blavatsky, who see all as one, encompassing spirituality, so that “Matter is spirit at its lowest form of manifestation and spirit is matter at its highest”.
  2. that of many modern scientists, who see matter as what we can perceive with our physical senses and equipment. Matter is primary and consciousness is an effect of material activity.

Whichever view is adopted, Marlow notes that there is still a strong ethical and empathetic focus in many professed atheists, such as Bertrand Russel, philosopher Peter Singer. However, the second perspective can lead to a rather bleak outlook on life as being without meaning.

Atheism as an antidote to religious superstition and scriptural realism

It is observable that religions have often in history, and today, become distorted from their original inspiration to regarding the religious institution and its scriptures as of paramount importance, rather than how people live their lives. Such fundamentalism has caused or contributed to many wars over history, obviously including much modern terrorism.

It was the time of the Enlightenment and the rise of science that put forward reason as a counterweight to the unhealthy state of religions at the time. This has done great service in breaking the hold of religious traditions on the mind of humanity, leading to the modern explosion of technology, social interaction and knowledge.

Modern atheism lies within this tradition, so the debate initiated by them is of value, so long as their atheism in variant 2 does not seek to discredit all that is not within this limited paradigm.

Atheism from an esoteric perspective

Esoterically, we are in the process of a great transition from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius. The new atheism is undoubtedly part of this process in helping to release humanity from the hold of the old religions and their fundamentalist aspects.

But again this must not replace the old fundamentalism with a new one of its own – a new atheism that denies the inner world of human beings. Marlow quotes one of the ‘new atheists’ Sam Harris: “there is a place for the sacred in our lives”.

There seems to be a sort of convergence with progressive elements of the modern religious world whose “religious life is not one of dogmatic assertion, rather an exploration and journey into new truth… their natural home  is the core value… of service… beauty… sacredness…”.

Conclusion

I’ve just given an idea of what’s in Marlow’s article. You need to read it to understand more.

The point is that maybe the atheists and the religionists could reach an accommodation in their common search for truth, so long as both avoid the fundamentalist pitfall.

 

Restoring the Soul of the World

restoring_soul_of_worldReview of the book by David Fideler, subtitled:
‘Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence’.

This is a story that cannot be told too often – our story from the beginnings to now, in the tradition of such a magnificent telling as Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind first published in 1991.

David Fideler’s great breadth of knowledge and understanding is on show in this tour de force, as he traces human development and our relationship with the natural world over millennia.Read More »

Defences of Atheism 

My previous post on atheism provoked quite a lot of comments. Atheists are obviously very attached to their position.

A lot of the discussion came from my asking, what is this god you don’t believe in. It seems to come down to not accepting that there is some superior being, a sort of philosophical Brexit, taking back control by the new god science from sclerotic old religion.

This still appears to me a rather limited perspective. What about the mystery that always lies at the heart of existence – such as the uncaused cause that came before the big bang. What about the reality of spiritual experience, attested by the personal experience of so many over the ages. What about the inner of things, eg consciousness, that cannot be explained by materialistic outers.

An immanent and transcendent one God offers one perspective that would relate to all these. I’m not saying I believe or have faith in this perspective, but it does appear a valid position. I’m more inclined to the view that consciousness is as much part of reality as matter, ie everything has inner and outer, the whole being a mysterious evolutionary  emergence (see eg Steve McIntosh’s book in recent post). I’m still open/agnostic to the concept of the one God.

I’m not clear whether atheism has anything to say here, other than cling to its scientific materialistic certainty. But no doubt I’m misrepresenting atheism and some kind person will enlighten me!