What is Philosophy for?

Mary Midgley was 99 when this book was published. This was also the year she died. What was so important as to keep this English philosopher active to such a great age? She had seen generations of academics come and go, and observed the follies of many thinkers in varying disciplines, who even denigrated the purpose of philosophy itself. She’d probably fought many battles. And now she had the clarity to write in a small volume what was the essence of the need for philosophy, in the process pointing out its wide range of applicability and the limitations of its critics. This is a wonderful, clear and refreshing book, remarkable for one of such advanced years.

So what is philosophy for? Midgley has a simple answer, in the spirit of a whole line of philosophers since the time of Socrates: “it is surely the effort to examine our life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its big confusions and resolve its big conflicts.” She goes on to ask why people need to study philosophy at all: “because it explains the relations between different ways of thinking”, suggesting that new developments in thought largely come from seeing across the disciplines, rather than from following tracks within them.

Midgley lived through the times when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and academia in the UK was required to become more ‘relevant’. Many traditional philosophy departments were forced to close and what were left focused on the business of ‘research’. Her attitude to such research is well expressed: “…I don’t do any, because I’m certainly not organizing any static mining operation of this kind. I suppose that instead I try to follow the argument (as Plato said) wherever it runs, and I may finally catch it in a territory quite far from the one where it started.”

Why did she write the book?

What makes me write books is usually exasperation, and this time it was a rather general exasperation against the whole reductive, scientistic, mechanistic, fantasy-ridden creed which still constantly distorts the world-view of our age.

This gives a good clue as to the content. I will pick out a few areas where Midgley’s views are far from the mainstream, but largely accord with the ideas you have read in this blog and elsewhere on the needs for a New Renaissance.

Read More »

Ethics reduced to economics?

Over the years I’ve listened to many of BBC Radio 4’s short talks entitled Thought for the Day. I always found one of the most profound speakers to be Jonathan Sacks, then Chief Rabbi, who died recently. I am indebted to David Lorimer’s New Renaissance Newsletter, published by SciMed, for bringing to my attention the significant speech given by Sacks in his 2016 Acceptance Address for the Templeton Prize. The following extracts key points related to our current Western predicament. It could almost be his manifesto for a New Renaissance. Or you could just read the original at the above link.

“We have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in 16/17C and the new birth of freedom that followed. A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.

At some point the West abandoned this belief. When I went to Cambridge in the late 60s, the philosophy course was then called Moral Sciences, meaning that just like the natural sciences, morality was objective, real, part of the external world. I soon discovered, though, that almost no one believed this anymore. Morality was no more than the expression of emotion, or subjective feeling, or private intuition, or autonomous choice. It was, within limits, whatever I chose it to be. In fact there was nothing left to study but the meaning of words. To me this seemed less like civilization than the breakdown of a civilization.

It took me years to work out what had happened. Morality had been split in two and outsourced to other institutions. There were moral choices and there were the consequences of our moral choices. Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics.

The consequences of our choices were outsourced to the state. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes: failed relationships, neglected children, depressive illness, wasted lives. But the government would deal with it. Forget about marriage as a sacred bond between husband and wife. Forget about the need of children for a loving and secure human environment. Forget about the need for communities to give us support in times of need. Welfare was outsourced to the state. As for conscience, that once played so large a part in the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

It seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone. To mention just a few: The structural unemployment that follows outsourcing. The further unemployment that will come when artificial intelligence increasingly replaces human judgment and skill. Artificially low interest rates that encourage borrowing and debt and discourage saving and investment. Wildly inflated CEO pay. The lowering of living standards, first of the working class, then of the middle class. The insecurity of employment. The inability of young families to afford a home. The collapse of marriage, leading to intractable problems of child poverty and depression. The collapse of birthrates throughout Europe, leading to unprecedented levels of immigration, and the systemic failure to integrate some of these groups. The loss of family, community and identity, that once gave us the strength to survive unstable times…

Why have they proved insoluble? First, because they are global, and governments are only national. Second, because they are long term while the market and liberal democratic politics are short term. Third, because they depend on changing habits of behaviour, which neither the market nor the liberal democratic state are mandated to do. Above all, though, because they can’t be solved by the market and the state alone. You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away.

When you do, you raise expectations that cannot be met. And when, inevitably, they are not met, society becomes freighted with disappointment, anger, fear, resentment and blame. People start to take refuge in magical thinking, which today takes one of four forms: the far right, the far left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism. The far right seeks a return to a golden past that never was. The far left seeks a utopian future that will never be. Religious extremists believe you can bring salvation by terror. Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there will be peace.

Two historical phenomena have long fascinated me. One is the strange fact that, having lagged behind China for a thousand years, the West overtook it in 17C, creating science, industry, technology, the free market and the free society. The second is the no less strange fact that Jews and Judaism survived for two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, having lost everything on which their existence was predicated in the Bible: their land, their home, their freedom, their Temple, their kings, their prophets and priests.

The explanation in both cases, is the same. It is the precise opposite of outsourcing: namely the internalization of what had once been external. Wherever in the world Jews prayed, there was the Temple. Every prayer was a sacrifice, every Jew a priest, and every community a fragment of Jerusalem. Something similar happened in those strands of Islam that interpreted jihad not as a physical war on the battlefield but as a spiritual struggle within the soul.

A parallel phenomenon occurred in Christianity after the Reformation, especially in the Calvinism that in 16/17C transformed Holland, Scotland, England of the Revolution and America of the Pilgrim Fathers. It was this to which Max Weber famously attributed the spirit of capitalism. The external authority of the Church was replaced by the internal voice of conscience. This made possible the widely distributed networks of trust on which the smooth functioning of the market depends. We are so used to contrasting the material and the spiritual that we sometimes forget that the word credit comes from the Latin credo, I believe, and confidence, that requisite of investment and economic growth, comes from fidentia meaning faith or trust.

What emerged in Judaism and post-Reformation Christianity was the rarest of character-types: the inner-directed personality. Most societies, for most of history, have been either tradition-directed or other-directed. People do what they do, either because that is how they have always been done, or because that’s what other people do.

Inner-directed types are different. They become pioneers, innovators, survivors. They have an internalized navigation system, so aren’t fazed by uncharted territory. They have a strong sense of duty to others. They try to have secure marriages. They hand on their values to their children. They belong to strong communities. They take daring but carefully calculated risks. When they fail, they have rapid recovery times.

They have discipline. They enjoy tough challenges and hard work. They play it long. They are more interested in sustainability than quick profits. They know they have to be responsible to customers, employees and shareholders, as well as to the wider public, because only thus will they survive in the long run. They don’t do foolish things like creative accounting, subprime mortgages, and falsified emissions data, because they know you can’t fake it forever. They don’t consume the present at the cost of the future, because they have a sense of responsibility for the future. They have the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct. They do all this because they have an inner moral voice. Some call it conscience. Some call it the voice of God.

Cultures like that stay young. They defeat the entropy, the loss of energy, that has spelled the decline and fall of every other empire and superpower in history. But the West has let it go. It’s externalized what it once internalized. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. One day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?

Every observer of the grand sweep of history has said essentially the same thing: civilizations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. Sure signs are: falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence of the rich, hopelessness of the poor, unintegrated minorities, failure to make sacrifices for the sake of the future, loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These danger signals are flashing now.

There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. It means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away. 

We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.”

Featured image of Sacks by cooperniall via Wikimedia Commons

New humanity rising

Do you sometimes wonder at the larger number of do-gooding organisations in the world? How come there are so many, many people willing to dedicate part of their lives to improving the lot of others and our connection with nature. Their name is legion.

Of course, many of us despair at the dark forces of personality and greed that apparently lead many major governments and businesses. But behind this there are so many forces moving in a more enlightened direction, and changing the nature of political debate, slowly but surely.

I believe that we see here the symptoms of genuine progress of humanity, away from the strong attraction of charismatic and fear-driven personality/ego forces, towards a deeper and genuine connection with, for want of a better phrase, spiritual values such as truth, beauty, goodness, compassion. Humanity is evolving, not least because of the demands being placed on us as a result of recent materialistic blindness,

I was much struck by the words of Simon Marlow in the recent Arcane School full moon talk for the sign of Sagittarius:

“Let us be clear in our assertion of the reality that over the course of history humanity has displayed a real trajectory of spiritual progress and development. This view causes not a few eyebrows to be raised, especially these days, when there is so much apparent evidence to the contrary. The conventional scientific and sociological view is that humanity has not really changed at all for thousands of years; that the great civilisations are but superficial veneers which temporarily paper over the permanently present and serious cracks or flaws in the character of humanity; that humanity is in fact fatally flawed. All apparent progress is only notional, to use Stephen J Gould’s striking phrase.

If we just existed as the form, as separate selfish personalities, as forever warring nations and competing power blocs, I think we would be quite justified in holding this view. But the point is we are not just personalities. The personality is, if you like, only the tip of the iceberg, the visible bit. Deeper than that, perhaps hidden to many but always present, are far more extensive, holistic and loving dimensions of our being. These dimensions are now demanding a widespread recognition. And did we but know it, the very flaws and deficiencies within humanity are forcing us all to become discoverers of these dimensions of conscious living that lie hidden within us all. And the guarantee of their existence is their revelation in the lives of the increasing number of spiritual giants and geniuses who have emerged from the womb of humanity over time.

We do not perhaps hold sufficiently in our minds the reality that it is our recognitionof these problems that is so encouraging. The fact is that millions of people all over the world are facing up to this reality and are now working and serving to heal, to remedy injustice, to resolve the urgent environmental and climate problems, to hold new images of beauty before the eyes of everyone, to penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of the unknown, and to attain to new heights of achievement in every single field of human activity without exception.”

Full Moon Talk Sagittarius, November 2020, London,  Simon Marlow

Humanity is rising to new heights of being, to more conscious living. Each of us has a part to play…

Featured image shows hidden dimensions of an iceberg in Svalbard, its underwater surface structures.
from Andreas Weith, via Wikimedia Commons

Making the Human Race Whole

Steve Taylor writes some wonderful poems that really strike a chord. This one is from his latest newsletter, and his latest book The Clear Light. It brings the universal down to the personal.

Making the Human Race Whole

Make as many connections as you can 
so that this broken world can become whole again.  

It’s your responsibility 
to radiate benevolence to everyone you meet
to be reckless with your friendliness
and surprise strangers with your openness 
on behalf of the whole human race.  

It’s your responsibility 
to turn suspicion to trust, hostility to sympathy 
to expose the absurdity of prejudice
to return hatred with implacable good will
until your enemies have no choice but to love you
on behalf of the whole human race.  

It’s your responsibility 
to free yourself from bitterness
and harness the healing power of forgiveness
to repair connections and re-establish bonds 
that were broken by resentment years ago
on behalf of the whole human race.  

It’s your responsibility 
to make as many connections as you can
to open up channels of empathy 
through which compassion can flow 
until there are so many connections
across so many different networks
that finally, like the cells of a body, 
billions of human beings will fuse together, 
sensing their common sources 
and their common core.  

Then a new identity will emerge, an overriding oneness,
a human race that is truly whole, at last.

Psychology and Astrology Models

Two of the major themes in this blog have been

  1. the interconnectedness of all things and the implications of that for the modern world, and
  2. the need for development and growth of the individual psyche, from both psychological and spiritual perspectives.

These themes come together in a subject called astrological psychology, which I will briefly consider by describing their basic models of the human being.

Psychosynthesis

Psychosynthesis is a transpersonal or spiritual psychology, which considers not only the personality or ego, but the higher spiritual faculties. Psychosynthesis was developed by Italian psychoanalyst Roberto Assagioli, a contemporary of Carl Jung. Both built on the work of Freud and developed psychologies with a spiritual dimension.

Assagioli’s view of human nature is encapsulated in his ‘Egg model’. The psychological ego lies within the dotted egg shape, in its conscious and unconscious guises. The transpersonal (spiritual or higher) self lies at the top and just outside the egg itself. The boundary of the egg is dotted, to illustrate the permeable nature of this relationship, i.e. that this higher self can be connected with.

It is easy to see that the stronger the ego becomes, the more materialistic the person becomes, the less she is open to the higher self, the less permeable is the shell of the egg. In the extreme case the habitual ego is effectively encased within a hard shell. The possibility of higher connection has all but disappeared. It is not difficult to identify individuals in the world where this is apparently the case. Their name is legion.

For most of us the shell is permeable, but the layer of habit is quite strong. Some effort and perseverance is required to connect to our higher faculties. This is where the addition of astrology can help.

Astrology

Now consider the fact that all is interconnected. We are each part of the one whole, which includes the heavens. Not surprising then, that the configuration of the heavens at the moment we are born tells us something about ourselves. The connection is brought alive by astrology.

Swiss astrologer/psychologist Bruno Huber studied this connection while working with Assagioli, and eventually came up with a workable synthesis of the two disciplines. He identified correlations between the psychology of the individual and the astrological chart of their birth time, in the process creating an entirely new form of birth chart, which is beyond the scope of this brief article. His system was termed astrological psychology.

Huber’s Amphora (simplified)

Huber developed his model of the Amphora, which takes Assagioli’s Egg and extends it into an astrological model of the psyche.

The Amphora relates the Egg to astrology, and shows a way upward towards our spiritual nature. The ego lies, as before, within the Egg, reflected by the personality planets [Sun, Moon, Saturn – glyphs in red] supported by the tool planets [Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter – lower white glyphs]. The Egg has been opened out at the top, where lie the top three transpersonal planets – the lowest, Uranus is the planet which helps ‘break through’ the shell of the ego, the middle one Neptune represents the universal love at the ‘neck’ of the Amphora, through which we must pass before the spiritual transformation with Pluto at the top.

Of course this is a symbolic representation, whose meaning in the context of any given individual and their birth chart can be teased out by the seasoned astrological psychologist.

Astrological Psychology

This is just a taste of the rich astrological psychology that was developed by Bruno Huber with his wife Louise. The fascinating story of how this came about and the enormous dedication and effort of these two remarkable human beings is told in the recently published biography Piercing the Eggshell, edited by myself and Joyce Hopewell.

Featured image shows Roberto Assagioli and Bruno Huber.
Amphora diagram is an extract from the cover of Piercing the Eggshell.

Which Jesus?

Stories of the origins of Christianity and the myths of Jesus are an ongoing fascination.

There are two competing visions of Jesus, well articulated in this post from Medium (limited free access).

There is the Jesus of Faith, which was created by the Roman Church when it became an institution linked to political power through the Emperor Constantine. Personal salvation comes through faith.

Then there is the Jesus of Wisdom, understood by many early Christians, suppressed as heretics by Church dogma, leading to inquisitions and crusades. This Jesus was rediscovered through the Gospel of Thomas, found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, probably of earlier origin than the canonical gospels. Personal revelation comes through seeking within. This ‘gnostic’ Jesus shows the spiritual possibilities of a Christianity that was and could have been.Read More »

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.

Acceptance

Here’s the concluding part of another insightful poem from Steve Taylor.

Life can be frustrating and full of obstacles
with desires for a different life constantly disturbing your mind
or life can be fulfilling, full of opportunities
with a constant flow of gratitude for the gifts you have

and the only difference between them is acceptance.

Old age may be a process of decay
that withers your body and mind
and poisons you with bitterness
as you yearn for the freshness of youth
Or old age may be a process of liberation
that enriches you with wisdom
and makes you more present as the future recedes
and lightens your soul as you let go of attachments.

And the only difference between them is acceptance.

Death may be a cold, black emptiness
that mercilessly devours your ego
and makes everything you own seem valueless
and everything you’ve achieved seem meaningless
Or death may be a perfect culmination
a soft twilight at the end of a long summer’s day
when you’re filled with heavy tiredness and ready to sleep
and know that you will wake up again to a bright new dawn.

And the only difference between them is acceptance.

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 »

Dalai Lama’s message

I remember seeing the Dalai Lama speak at an event in North London around 1991/2. He was an inspiration then, and remains one now. How unfortunate that political leaders refuse to interact with him due to fears of upsetting the Chinese government. The following wise words reflecting on the current world situation and our personal response are an edited version of the Dalai Lama’s 30 March message, from the newsletter of the Charter for Compassion.

My dear brothers and sisters,

…[A]ncient Indian tradition describes the creation, abiding and destruction of worlds over time. Among the causes of such destruction are armed conflict and disease, which seems to accord with what we are experiencing today. However, despite the enormous challenges we face, living beings, including humans, have shown a remarkable ability to survive.

No matter how difficult the situation may be, we should employ science and human ingenuity with determination and courage to overcome the problems that confront us. Faced with threats to our health and well-being, it is natural to feel anxiety and fear. Nevertheless, I take great solace in the following wise advice to examine the problems before us: If there is something to be done—do it, without any need to worry; if there’s nothing to be done, worrying about it further will not help….

…[I]understand that as a result of the necessary lockdowns across the world, many people are facing tremendous hardship due to a loss of livelihood. For those with no stable income life is a daily struggle for survival. I earnestly appeal to all concerned to do everything possible to care for the vulnerable members of our communities.

I offer special gratitude to the medical staff—doctors, nurses and other support personnel—who are working on the frontline to save lives at great personal risk. Their service is indeed compassion in action.

With heartfelt feelings of concern for my brothers and sisters around the world who are passing through these difficult times, I pray for an early end to this pandemic so that your peace and happiness may soon be restored.

With my prayers,

[H.H. Dalai Lama]

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.

 

Finding ourselves

With UK and many countries now isolating or socially distancing many people, maybe we should focus on the opportunities this presents.

This poem from Steve Taylor‘s recent newsletter is along similar lines to the Rumi quotes in my last post.

It’s time to drop our masks and roles
so we can rediscover our true selves.

It’s time to stop accumulating
so we can appreciate what we already have.

It’s time to let go of future plans and goals
so we can embrace the present.

It’s time to turn down the noise
so we can hear the soothing voice of silence.

It’s time to stop losing ourselves in activity
so we can find ourselves again, in stillness.

And once we’ve let go of everything, we’ll realise
that we already have enough

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.”

A Berlin Wall Moment?

It seems that the more progressive UK media, including the BBC, have finally taken on board that global warming/climate change, pollution, species extinction, population are major issues of our time that need to be urgently addressed. Many of the issues aired at our New Renaissance Lectures in 1993 onward are becoming mainstream, covered in ‘the news’ almost every day. But they’re not yet ingrained. There are still many news media, corporates and governments in denial, actively blocking change because of their perceived self-interest.

Yet can they resist the surging tide of realism? It feels like a ‘Berlin Wall’ type of time in history. The ice floes are melting. Humanity is turning to face reality, startled at where it has come to, as it followed the materialist dream and for half a century largely ignored the problems being created. The spectre of floods, fires, wars, epidemics, on a scale hitherto unknown, haunts us all, especially the young.

But there is an aspect of those lectures that is less mentioned, less easy to popularise – that of inner spiritual renewal. The outer is a reflection of the inner. Until our compassion for others and for the natural world rises to meet the occasion, and our conscience is heard and acted upon, we may alleviate but not resolve the problems we have created.

Featured image: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 (at the Brandenberg Gate).
By Lear 21 via Wikimedia Commons.

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

The One Reality

If you’re following the plot of my philosophically inclined posts you will see my dismissal of materialists as modern flat earthers. So what basic philosophical stance do I regard as more appropriate? In his book The Flip, Jeffrey Krittal suggest five possible perspectives, as follows.

  • Panpsychism. Everything has mind/ has some level of consciousness/ is alive.
  • Dual-Aspect Monism. Mind and matter are aspects of a single underlying reality.
  • Quantum Mind. Quantum mechanics applies at a level of real world objects; mind is an expression of the quantum wave function. (Alexander Wendt)
  • Cosmopsychism/ panentheism. All conscious subjects are partial aspects of the more fundamental whole.
  • Idealism. Mind is fundamental and matter is a manifestation thereof.

This is all very interesting as theory, and no doubt enthusiasts of the various viewpoints could spend many an hour debating their differences. But in essence, if you don’t mind my saying so, it doesn’t matter!

The essential point of all of these perspectives is that matter/mind are indivisible aspects of reality, the one reality. Everything has inner and outer, indivisible. We are each aspects of the whole, interconnected with all others.

So much flows from that.

  • Materialism is a misleading diversion.
  • Science/technology has a limited domain if it restricts itself to outers.
  • At best, religions provide paths towards realisation of this underlying (spiritual) reality.
  • Politics must recognise that all humans and other living systems are co-sharers of our world. Having reached the earth’s limits we have become responsible for the future of the whole earth’s ecosystem.

The Modern Flat Earthers

Modernity likes to decry those following an outdated paradigm as ‘flat earthers’. Ancient cultures believed that the earth was flat, and this is said to have been superseded by a spherical model around 6th century BC by the ancient Greek philosophers, and more recently in other parts of the ‘globe’. The old model had lost utility and become an impediment to progress.

I would suggest that the modern scientific, technological and managerial culture now operates to a similarly outdated and now-dysfunctional paradigm. And many people will protest loudly if this is pointed out.

What do I have in mind? Well it could be any of a number of things, but I believe that at the heart of many of these is the fundamental ‘modern flat-earthism’ of ‘materialism’. Why so?

Materialism and its bedfellow reductionism basically sees a dead world of ‘outer’ appearance without being able or willing to come to grips with the ‘inner’ of life and consciousness. These are seen as ‘hard problems’ that of course science will eventually come to understand… some day. In the meantime, the natural world is exploited to the maximum by an ever-expanding humanity by the related gods of capitalism, self- or state- glorification and minimal regulation. The result: the climate breakdown, species extinctions and massive pollution that we see today, and a paradoxical strong attachment to ‘more of the same’.

What if we had a paradigm that accepted that reality consists of not just the outer material world, but the parallel inner world of life/consciousness. And that inner world is fully interconnected. We are an integral part of the whole and through our inner empathy/love we know and feel responsible for it all. Our hearts are breaking at what we are doing to the natural world – as seen in the public response to David Attenborough’s programmes.

The job for the New Renaissance is to achieve just such a change of paradigm and move beyond the modern flat earth theory of materialism. One day a critical mass of people will share this insight, and all will change.

Featured image shows the revived flat earth map produced in 1893 by Orlando Ferguson in South Dakota. From Wikimedia Commons.