Sunday, July 27, 2014

William Blake and Tradition

When I was bored in the sixth form at school, I would occasionally feign an oncoming cold and go home for the afternoon. This would often coincide with double periods of physical geography (apologies to the appropriately named Mr Holland).

One of the things I used to do on these happy afternoons of granted idleness was to try and read William Blake. As T.S. Eliot advised, I was reading for language and rhythm long before I could make any sense of what I was reading!

I needed help, so off I went to my local library to see what I could find. There I saw a book by Kathleen Raine, a series of essays entitled, 'Blake and the New Age,' that appealed first because a friend had been waxing lyrical on Raine's three volumes of autobiography (that I was soon to read and wax lyrical on my part) and second for the reference to 'the New Age' that resonated with my meditating Aquarian self (though the New Age in this case was the one declared by the Swedish seer, Emanuel Swedenborg: a judgement in heaven that had initiated a 'new church' - and happily coincided with Blake's own birth date of 1757).

I read the essays with abounding enthusiasm - partly for giving me a key to open Blake and partly for their own content, giving a structure to what I naturally believed, most notably that as Berkeley argued consciousness was prior, the vessel that contained all, and that its continuity was grounded in the fact that it was the gift and reality of a unifying being, God. I was, I discovered, an 'immaterial realist' (to use the philosopher, Stephen R. L. Clarke's phrase) as I remain happily to this day.

Kathleen's masterpiece on Blake was her two volume study, 'Blake and Tradition' and, after a significant interval, I have just finished reading the first volume. These grew out of her A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, given in Washington in 1962 and they are a masterly exploration of Blake's indebtedness to Neo-Platonism, Boehme, alchemy and Swedenborg. It is her abiding argument that Blake was a writer immersed in a 'forgotten' tradition and that reading him against this tradition makes many of his mythological themes, once obscure, illumined and illuminating. Much of the then, and subsequent scholarship, was not equipped to evaluate this - either because it was aligned with precisely the materialist values that Blake waged war on or, more narrowly, because it did not have access to the long won familiarity with the tradition that Raine so arduously equipped herself with (reading her way through everything that we know or could intelligently surmise, Blake himself read) with both a poetic and spiritual intelligence.

However, as another close poetic reader of Blake, Czeslaw Milosz, remarked though he thought Kathleen's reading was the most intelligent he knew yet like any reading much is left outside its scope, often determined by the author's own blind spots.

Kathleen was a Platonist with an eye firmly on eternity and its archetypes, so, for example, Blake's obvious and abiding political interests, radical and challenging, simply tend to evaporate. The fact that a poet's symbolism can work on many levels, and here does, tends to be flattened out. Time and history - even seen from the view of the politics of eternity - get short shrift!

But, more importantly, you get a sense, to which I think Milosz is eluding, that what you do with your sources, traditions, is as important as what they are, and that Blake was an original thinker, not simply a clothier of tradition in new poetic garb. You need a deeper sense of what Blake has done with his borrowings.

Here the difficulty is that Raine was writing under the auspices of a commitment to 'traditionalist' thinkers - for whom there is no originality in thought other than to deviate from the path of a legitimate religious tradition that bears witness to the 'sophia perennis' whose terms are 'fixed'. All you can do is find new ways to present these eternal realities. I am unconvinced that is what Blake imagined he was doing - for Blake 'revelation' remains an open category and Jesus the Imagination as the living principle, free and creative, who might offer something yet new in the possibilities of the Spirit's journey not yet codified by 'traditionalist' hands. It is a view Kathleen herself later came back to - the Spirit blows where it listeth and the creative unfolding of the universe is not so easily categorised.

However, the texts remain as a monument of literary scholarship and faithful fathoming and as an account of some of the ways of seeing and thought from which Blake worked an extraordinary gift.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

War in Heaven

A dead body is found under a desk in publisher's office. A chalice is fingered as the Grail cup in a book published by the same company. The two are connected and thus starts Charles Williams' 'spiritual shocker'  - 'War in Heaven' - that with suspense, mystery and humour - explores deep themes wrapped in a thriller's mantle as the characters wrestle for possession of the Grail and for the power or the grace it may bestow.

Williams was one of the quartet of writers who formed the core of 'The Inklings' with C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield. A publisher by living, a poet and novelist by vocation.

At the heart of 'War in Heaven' is an exploration of the difference between religion and magic - and if that strikes you as too esoteric, you quickly realise that this unfolds into issues of freedom and power, grace and control, good and evil.

The hero is the mild mannered Archdeacon in whose parish the Grail is discovered - an unassuming cup, recently replaced as the mainstay chalice - and he is heroic precisely because each and every of his actions is determined by his attempt to freely dispose himself to God's will and in his recognition that the Grail, however significant, remains but a symbol of yet someone other. The arch enemy is Gregory Persimmons, the semi-retired owner of the publishing house, who is the servant of a darker lord. Herein lies one of Williams' many paradoxical contrasts - the Archdeacon's power comes in willingly surrendering it - even unto the possibility of death. Gregory's comes from a willed servitude to the devil (though he is never named as such) that disguises itself as an autonomous freedom. Religion offers an opportunity to navigate the world in a liberating freedom. Magic offers to bind the world to one's power but in truth it is never a power that one owns.

Power is legitimate and necessary but only when it is navigated in grace.

These themes, and their supernatural background, all unfold against a commonplace backdrop and it is an element of William's genius to make you feel that everything is perfectly 'natural' - that, as Barfield wrote, 'Charles William's firm conviction that the spiritual world is not simply a reality parallel to this one, but rather its source and its abiding infrastructure, is explicit in both the manner and the matter of all he wrote'.

It enables the books to be read as both thriller and theology (and the latter may be more implicitly noticed depending on the reader) and with humour. Not for the first time in the thriller genre are the police clueless where the 'amateurs' are knowledgeable (think Sherlock Holmes) and Williams gently satirises his milieu (publishing) and the Church. The Archdeacon has in the Revd Batesby a locum priest straight from stereotypical central casting, replete with a tendency to wholly inappropriate Biblical quotation.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind

Ben Shephard's latest book is as masterly competent as his previous ones (on medical psychiatry in the twentieth century, on the aftermath of the relief of Belsen and on the refugee crisis that engulfed Europe after the end of the Second World War).

It traces the intellectual journeys of four Englishmen at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century in their search for a deeper understanding of the human mind, its relation to the brain, its evolution and what makes for its healthy, adapted functioning. It was a journey that took W.H. Rivers, Grafton Elliott Smith, Charles Myers and William McDoughal - through multiple disciplines and diverse experiences - and, like his previous books, Shephard gives both a vivid account of how learning actually takes place and of the personalities, major and minor, involved.

Learning is never linear. If political history is written, as Churchill wrote, by the winners, this is equally true of the history of science written as a Whiggish progress from triumphant discovery to triumphant discovery usually achieved by a solitary hero (the occasional heroines, as with the discovery of DNA, tend to get airbrushed out). Shephard shows brilliantly that this is not so - science advances, if it does, hesitantly, messily and with much blundering into blind alleys and laying of false trails. Though these too are seen to both inevitable and, over time, potentially productive. Nor is science free of overweening egos convinced of the rightness of their theory in search of evidence to 'prove' it and blind to evidence that does not. Nor, on the other hand, from the cementing of key relationships, and friendships, that too serve to delineate where people will look and how they will look and how ideas will build one upon another.

Nor is it free of being conditioned by the wider society in which it sits. All four of our scientists were men of their age, and shared assumptions about the importance of race and the superiority of theirs. It deeply conditioned their research - especially in anthropology - and led more than one into eugenic speculation about improvement of the race(s) that, too their credit, they were teased away from partly because their research showed no evidence of inherent difference and later because the eugenic cause was taken up by powers, most notably Hitler, that revolted their inherent liberalism (and, in the case of Myers, his Jewishness).

Shephard, also, shows how that though at one time all of them were lauded by their peers for their contributions to science, it is difficult now to exactly delineate what that was. Their contributions were diffuse and were disassembled and radically reassembled by those that came after them (as they had no followers as such). It was as much about who they influenced as to the what - many scientists owed them a debt of encouragement rather than of content.

In a compelling aside on McDougall, it is apparent that part of this diffuseness was their fundamental empiricism (with the exception of Elliott Smith) and their unwillingness to promote overarching theories (as too simplifying). Bolder souls had more immediate success - Watson and behaviourism for example or Freud.

Thus, Rivers played a key role in fostering the development of psychoanalysis in the United Kingdom yet was critical of Freud and stayed outside the (admittedly) very narrow fold. Elliott Smith's diffusionist theory of the origins of civilization - all from Egypt spread by Phoenicians - dissolved with carbon dating - though the core intuition proved more durable - populations were diffused from an African core, in several waves, and so cultural exchange was a real feature of the development of apparently diverse cultures. And so on...

Perhaps their greatest collective contribution was building a body of knowledge around the care and treatment of what Myers unfortunately called, coining the phrase for the first time, 'shell shock' - a body of knowledge forged in the bitter conflict of WW1 and rediscovered and reshaped in World War 2 and finally coalescing in the Vietnam War. Here again they were not themselves the originators - much work had been done by French psychiatrists - but they codified, shaped and handed on in a way that was, eventually, potentially deeply helpful.

The book is a beautiful slice of cultural and scientific history, a penetrating view of how science is done and how it is influenced by its wider society; and, a compelling biographical portrait of four differently appealing men in all their messiness as human beings.

One slighting error, however, deserves a comment -in a passing remark at the end of a chapter, trying to capture the inherent racism of the age, Shephard says, to the effect, that after all it was the age of Rider Haggard. This is unfortunate, not because Rider Haggard did not share his ages racial presumption but he was one of the first authors to imaginatively contradict it (whatever his opinions might be) by creating characters from other races, in his case usually Africans, who were precisely that 'characters' in their own right seen beyond any superficial stereotyping. (Of his friend, Kipling, one could say the same). We are, thank God, not always of our own opinions, and imagination can find its way to places well before cultures catch up (if they do).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What makes you not a Buddhist

When I was thirteen, I bought in a bargain bin at WH Smith a book entitled 'The Compassionate Teachings of the Buddha' and read the first sermon that the Buudha gives after his enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath including to the five ascetics who had formerly rejected him when he broke the rigor of his fasting, taking milk from goat herder, and set out on discovering the 'middle way' between denial and the sensuous. The attachment to either being a delusion of permanence and control. It left its mark upon me.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's book, 'What makes you not a Buddhist' is a pithy, if not punchy (if that were 'allowed' Buddhists) restatement of the core truths of Buddhism (from a Mahayana perspective) that seeks to take the reader beyond the trappings to the heart of things - the four seals of Buddhism - without some understanding of, and experimental faith in, you cannot see yourself as treading the Buddhist path.

They are the impermanent nature of all reality - there is nothing to hold onto, everything arises connected in a web of mutual causation, all passes away. All emotions are pain - they all encourage, seduce you into attachment and the imagination, for good or ill, that they will last forever, they don't. Nothing has an inherent existence - everything is constructed, everything will be deconstructed, even God. Nirvana, liberation, true freedom, is beyond all concepts, the truth of all experience, to be experienced, not to be grasped or 'understood'.

Read off like that it does strike one as a all a bit gloomy - what is left? But it is the exemplary skill of the author to show it as the Buddha saw it and show why, as it sinks in, it may, in truth, be a liberation.

Think for a moment how recognising that we are constructed out of a myriad interweaving causes makes us likely to become slowly both looser in condemning ourselves or others behaviour, more compassionate, and if all things are impermanent more open to the prospect of change.

If the only time I am going to enjoy this particular cup of tea is now: why not simply enjoy its unique particularity now rather than compare it to past cups of tea or expected future cups?

If my God is the one and only true God and all the others are just delusions, am I not myself deluded? If all raids on the infinite are conceptually bankrupt might I not wait until the infinite comes a visiting - though there may be practices that prepare for its arrival - like meditation or the practice of generosity?  (And that is how 'God' ought to be approached as the Dalai Lama said of the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, 'if that is what is meant by God, I can be a theist'!

And so on, and so forth...

Yet ultimately I left myself out of the fold, maybe I remain to attached to my ever subtle ego (which is undoubtedly true), but there is something missing in an account that does not account for memory - not in the practical sense of whether or not I have put the cat out as I stumble into bed - but the sense that each and every moment is cradled in consciousness as infinitely precious and that ultimately there is something irreducibly beautiful in each and every identity that is itself. This is probably the fault line between a theist - where everything is ultimately gift - and an atheist - where everything is ultimately given.

In being ever more vulnerable to the reality that is presence/present (another fault line) perhaps ultimately we will find there is only one song running through all reality.

In the meantime, we must be faithful and compassionate on our journeys (and learn from one another as we go).

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A March for

I was walking back through central Lyon this afternoon and came upon a large demonstration wending its way through Republic square, waving Palestinian flags, and chanting or whistling in waving unison. I do not encounter demonstrations often, instinctively shying from them, and have never been on one. This was peaceable but you felt its anger, heard it in the chants of 'Israeli assassins  ' and on the waved posters that a had a bloody hand hovering over an image of Gaza.

The anger is wholly understandable - the systemic, structured violence of the Israeli state towards the Occupied Territories has now flared into hot brutality.

Meanwhile, this hot response is justified by Israel as being to meet the violence of Hamas rocket attacks and of other groups' terrorism.

Which came first is the eternal chicken and egg question to which in truth there is no answer. For which 'the Father of Lies' that is violence is heartily glad.

I watched the people pass and to my great surprise found myself actually weeping. I took myself away to a quiet side street, embarrassed, though no one had noticed and sat on a bollard and tried to fathom why.

The closest I could come was being assaulted by the sheer, overwhelming sadness of 'it' - the conflict itself, the continuous sorry fantasy that violence is ever, anywhere a solution to anything. The gap between who we are - the beautiful faces of each and every person marching past - and our self woven disfigurement out of fear, anger, hatred - our sin. And my own sense that there is everything still to do, to be, how little I have contributed to the world, how much more to pray for, work for. It was a strange, hallowing, harrowing moment, where the seriousness of the world presses in on you and makes a claim.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Love and gastronomy

I am in Lyons that projects itself as the gastronomic heart of France. So it was with happy expectation that I tried my first restaurant last night. It was one of the best rated in the city and being early I slipped in without a reservation (necessary I subsequently discovered even on a Thursday evening).

The food was excellent especially the fish cooked to firmly crumbling perfection on a purée of green beans with a frothy white onion sauce. The service was crisply professional if a touch too keen.

But how striking it is that a meal abroad never, however exemplary, seems to match the quality of home cooked fare, cooked by or with friends, offered with love?

Only rarely does it even come close and then the origin of the enjoyment appears to come also with the way it is offered as much as by the what. I think of the restaurant in Sansepolcro where the owner insists on recommending the wine and charges you exactly by the quantity drunk with a friendliness that seems to transform his admittedly wonderful food. Or the grilled fish cooked to order at a lonely spot in Northern Cyprus, you the only diner.

I remember a yoga teacher who attended our first ever Prison Phoenix workshop who always prepared his own food, citing the importance of the spirit in which it was done. He was from the Brahma Kumari and I thought it rather eccentric at the time (though done with a grace that did not make it seem excluding) but I can see the gem of real truth here. Akin to my prior point about George MacDonald's Lilith (see previous post), everything can be transformed by the hallowing through which it is offered. It is this 'kavana' (to use the Hasidic term) that does liberate the nature of the gifts we offers one another and can never be professionalised.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I had a very short lived (freelance) career as a publisher's reader. My task was to digest 'borderline' texts and suggest why they might be published. The reason for their borderline status usually related to the fact that though the content was potentially very interesting, the texts construction, feel and quality of writing left something to be desired. Would the triumph of the former win out over the latter's faults?

The imprint was, at that time, owned by Routledge, publishers of Jung, who was always my model in arguing for the publication of a fascinating, worthwhile text badly written. Sometimes world changing thinkers, not, I confess, that I discovered any of those alas, cannot write (or, in the words of the poet, Kathleen Raine, they are compelled writers rather than compulsive ones).

C.S. Lewis alludes to this dilemma in his foreword to George MacDonald's fantasy novel, 'Lilith'. MacDonald is not a great writer judged by the quality of his prose (or even more so by the quality of his poetry which is frankly dire). It veers from German Romantic excess (sometimes on steroids) to the prose of a seed catalogue; however, none of this matters in the least because (as Lewis acknowledges), you are in the presence of an imagination of precise and guiding force, squeezing itself into inadequate containers. He raises the level of the writing by conferring on the reader a gift of insight and enjoyment that simply transforms everything it touches (except possibly the irruptions of the dire poems)!

The story involves the journey of Mr Vane, an orphaned man of leisure, to discover his ability to die to his egotistical self and discover his true life, resting in Him who has fashioned him and of Lilith's, the evil princess, and Adam's first wife's, path to redemption. A path in which the actions of Mr Vane are critical if not always conscious to Mr Vane!

It is a book replete with striking set pieces and arresting images. Most notably in the latter an image of a Protestant purgatory where hallways of the sleeping dead dream themselves into new, redeemed life.

At the heart of MacDonald's vision is the truth of the white stone that in the Book of Revelation is given to each person on which is written their unique name, known only to God. Each person is called to die into the reality of that name, shedding his or her mortal confusions and being reborn into the unique personal self they were gifted by God to be. In the course of exploring this vision, MacDonald reminds us of many of the distorting pathways we might seek that lead us away from dying into life and offer only a living death, wrapped in often compelling images - such as the city presided over by Lilith where the people live only by extraction (of gems) and eschew all creation so that creation itself has withdrawn into itself, becoming dry and barren.

Like Tagore, he reminds his audience that we must keep alight the candle of our better selves, hoping and ultimately knowing that this will dispel the darkness, even if on the way we stumble and are temporarily lost.

He is a most wonderfully gifted and visionary 'bad' writer - all faults of sense and construction swept away by his imagined, precise enthusiasm and his knowledge of souls.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Birthing a new psychology: Jung & Steiner

Gerhard Wehr's 'Jung & Steiner: The Birth of a New Psychology' is an illuminating 'synoptic' account of Steiner's and Jung's fundamental approaches to psychological transformation, grounded in their 'image of the human' (our identity and destiny).

It aims to compare and contrast these so that each can query and deepen the other. Steiner's approach was 'from above' from a profound and detailed sense of what comes to us from the spiritual world and how we might transform our consciousness so that we could bear those revelations and shape them in action towards the common good. Jung's emerges out of the empirical encounter with patients, seeking health, that require him to find 'good enough' containing and shaping descriptions of what might be the case in the realm of psyche.

Steiner was a theoretician in search of application. Jung was an empiricist in search of theories. Both though, as Wehr admirably shows, wanted to use the 'scientific frame' as their jumping off point (though differently envisaged) and both suffered from this not being widely recognised or allowed.

Both knew of the other, and geographically were proximate, but both ploughed their furrow independently - though, very tangentially, were critically engaged with one another, without, it must be admitted, having a very deep knowledge of the other's work!

Emerging from this reading was the sense that Jung was deeply thwarted by not having an epistemology that allowed him to separate 'psychic' from 'spiritual'. Having absorbed Kant as a young man, 'the things in themselves' were fundamentally unknowable (and yet, like Kant, had to be postulated as an 'existing' reality) so that any sense that consciousness might develop and deepen (beyond an enrichment of its contents and the way it was navigated by our present consciousness) had to be denied (at least theoretically). Jung gets stuck and his 'unconscious' piles up with both sub and super conscious contents, that a skilled practitioner of analytical psychology differentiates in practice but with little or no help from Jungian framing.

This is where Steiner steps in. His was a mind always attuned to precision and he creates a possible framework for such a differentiation. He remains always alert as to which experience emerges from where and the boundaries of what is psychological and what spiritual and how they interrelate always remains to the fore.

There is here the potential for a fruitful dialogue if, as Wehr notes, both men's 'unwanted' disciples, could recapture the exploratory nature of both men's work! Jung needs an epistemological frame that grants objectivity to the forces of the 'psyche'. Steiner needs a greater emphasis on empirical enquiry, grounded in the unfolding histories of individuals, so as to ensure his own vision does not reify into dogmatic certainties.

Wehr is, also, fascinating about the similarities and contrasts in both men's biography. One similarity haunts (quite literally) in that both men at the age of four were initiated into the realities of death. Steiner saw the ghost of a distant relative appealing for help, only learning latter that the unfortunate woman was taking her life, in a distant location, at the exact same time. Jung had his first conscious memory of being excluded from a funeral conducted by his pastor father where Jesus was mysteriously taking a relative to himself. Both were marked (traumatised) by the experience and jolted into a realization of their being more than one world deserving of exploration. Their life quests were set.

However, there was one chapter that I personally found very difficult - this was the one on 'Contrasts and Similarities in East and West'. This shows its age (including that of Wehr's own writing in 1960). Both men were over fond of speculating about the differences between 'West' and 'East' as if these reified entities actually exist (or existed). They are both cautious about the simple adoption of 'Eastern traditions' in the West (which is a truism) but assume that this is because they are both inherently untranslatable and (though highly valuable and indeed noble) completed or transformed by something only the 'West' has (or has developed) and for both this was signalled by the 'Christ event'. This way of thinking is rooted in their notion (explicit in Steiner, implicit in Jung) that there is an evolution of consciousness (and that this evolution is teleologically towards an ever deeper expression of the truth). This may be so, but on the way its understanding cannot be built on wholly misleading caricatures of other traditions - here, most notably, Buddhism, where the Buddha turns up as a world denier in contrast to the incarnate world affirming Christ - or where traditions are lumped together under the rubric of an Oriental mind as if their individuality and differences do not matter!

This aside Wehr offers much food for thought of these two 'outliers' of our culture who have yet been deeply, persistently influential and might be yet more so if the traditions they founded learnt more deeply from one another.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A short artistic life

On Wednesday I went to the Dulwich Art Gallery to see 'Art and Life: 1920-1931' an exhibition of the works of the Nicholsons (Ben and his first wife, Winifred), Christopher Wood, Arthur Wallis and the potter, William Staite Murray. The exhibition explored their friendship and mutual influence.

All were remarkable artists - from the self-taught, 'primitive' Wallis to the highly sophisticated Ben Nicholson, touched and touching all the then currents in modern art, that, as an 'abstract painter' he was later to so greatly influence and impact.

Like any exhibition, some part of it, at that particular time, arrests your attention. I bathed in Winifred's paintings, realising again that, in fact, it was she who was the deeper artist than her husband. The poet, Kathleen Raine, once turned on Ben, who was a friend, and accusingly told him that he had been married to two remarkable women, neither of whom he had treated in a wholly exemplary fashion. 'Yes, yes,' he replied, oblivious to the criticism implied, 'from Winifred I learnt all about colour, from Barbara (Hepworth) all about form.' I suppose it requires a certain necessary egotism to survive marriage to not one but two artists who are a deeper in their vocation than yourself!

However, Winifred aside, whose mastery of colour and brilliance with its shaping form is undoubted, and yet still awaiting full recognition, on Wednesday, what most moved me were the works of Christopher Cook (a self-portrait of whom is above). His life was sadly shortened by a suicide (conscious or unconscious we do not know) propelled by an opium addiction. Yet, in that short life, he created works of a completion and beauty that are remarkable, and like any 'early' death, you ponder on what might have come in time's fullness.

His was an art that was always anchored in the particular and actual and yet stretched the possibilities of form and colour around a sense of emotional coherence, a wished for resting place that his own psychology would not ultimately allow him. He was at home in his art in a way in which he was not at home in the world.

He was, even until the end of his life, eagerly absorbing and transforming influences, as genius steals. Here, most evidently, from Winifred Nicholson, a simple container, holding flowers and yet the differences are striking too. Here there is an abstract, bounded setting, not the open domesticity of Winifred. Her flowers sit on a window sill, opening out into the natural world from which they have come, of which they are a hallowing representative. Here they are enclosed, beautiful yet possibly lost, definitive in colour yet with none of the translucency of Winifred's. But bold, individual, wholly themselves and utterly of distinct and definite colour.

You wonder at how we can carry such beauty of perception in a soul consumed by inner demons?

To close a painting by Winifred (from the exhibition).

Summer, a particular place (in Cornwall), flowers formed and coloured with precise perfection, opening out into a landscape of stilling calm yet real. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Four dimensional religion and being human

William Blake wrote that the core of the religion of Jesus the Imagination was the forgiveness of sins that liberates one into a commonwealth of love, freedom and equality. Walter Kaufmann in his provoking and beautiful text - Religions in Four Dimensions (existential, aesthetic, historical and comparative) would agree with Blake that our essential sifting criteria should be love and justice but Kaufmann would be hard pressed to find this in the Jesus of the New Testament who (in Kaufmann's portrait) is surprisingly unconcerned with either morality or justice and more concerned with whether people believe in him as a saviour. If one does so  believe, you get an eternal life (in an other worldly place remarkably undefined) and if you do not not, you get eternal torment. This is a picture of Jesus as morally repugnant and, as the great Zen Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki, suggested it would be the responsibility of every Buddhist to go to this hell and rescue souls from this 'god'!

Now Kaufmann's point here is not necessarily like a 'New Atheist' to reject religion per se but is to notice, as a philosopher should, that our pictures of religion (and it simply happens to be Christianity here) are often carefully selected portraits (or readings) of what we want to see (and many there are who are quite content with consigning myriad 'others' to eternal hellfire even now and every justification for seeing this in the Gospels)! It is to remind us, forcefully, that frankly in the historical unfolding of every religion (including in its origins) there is much that is doubtful and, frankly, rubbish!

We read out of our own state of being and consciousness and our loyalty to a religion helps to create readings that are genuinely inventive and supportive of that state of mind. Kaufmann rather interestingly (and compellingly) takes both the Jewish prophetic tradition and the Buddha seriously in questioning everything that has been revealed to us as 'truth' and testing it on the anvil of his own reasoned experience (including arguing with God when God fails our own notions of compassion and care). This undoubtedly carries with it his own limitations and yet he has the courage always to unpick his own, as well as others', convictions. Our own reading may be more compelling and will certainly be different but we must remain always aware that it is a reading, an enterprise after truth, not 'the truth' (a thing, the possession of which tends to legitimise all kinds of horrors)!

He has happily reminded me that it is more important to explore one's way into what it might mean to be a compassionate human being here and now, thirsting for a justice shared by all, than identifying oneself with a tradition and puzzling over whether your beliefs are 'correct'  (or indeed you have been saved) and that not all religions are 'the same' nor one better than another, what matters is one's humane humanness to the discovery of which religious insight can undoubtedly contribute.

But so to, as Kaufmann also reminds us, can picturing a human face or a natural or human gift of beauty. Kaufmann's book is hauntingly accompanied by hundreds of his own photographs, some of which are illustrative but most of which simply seek to illuminate facets of the world. His most compelling are of the poverty he sees (mainly in India) of beauty beheld in a child's face and defiled by their condition. It is a witness to the most necessary thing of all - a world lived in human dignity and the gift of creation - a world still far off .

Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  and resonant with this rece...