Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I and Thou

Having read, from my university library, a short, introductory book on Martin Buber by Aubrey Hodes, I decided to read his seminal text, I and Thou, choosing (of two) Walter Kaufmann's translation because I knew his work in philosophy and theology and regarded it with a dual sense of appreciation and sceptical questioning. 

In passing, I note that Kaufmann's translation is the one that most Buber scholars openly (or subtly) devalue. Since I do not know German I cannot come to my own determination but I notice that in this 'devaluation', there is more than a little resistance to seeing Buber's text as iconoclastic when it comes to 'religion' or a 'religious perspective on the world', an iconoclasm that Kaufmann relished, and which, I think, Buber respected. He was, after all, delighted that there was no word for religion in the Hebrew Bible! You get more than a 'whiff' of the followers not wholly appreciating the 'master'!

I remember sitting in a basement room of our library, warmed by a single bar electric fire (as it was an eccentric university) trying to fathom the meaning of Buber's dense yet alluring text. A text that Buber himself confessed was written under the pressure of ecstatic urgency.

Ironically it is a text, as was Buber's life direction, that sets its face against 'ecstasy' in favour of a concrete, embodied presence in the world.

At it's heart is an invitation to recognise that we come to the world with a twofold attitude. The one, usually dominant, is to treat of the world as a means, a matter of experience and use, and this is necessary. The second is to treat of every particular person or object in the world as an end in itself, of a value that touches infinity. This is rarer but ought to be the disposition that enfolds, directs all our meant actions. 

Put like this the book is incredibly simple but it goes forward to explore all the barriers and opportunities for bringing this twofold attitude into a right relation. It is an invitation to a dialogical relationship with reality that keeps checking against our urgency to use, interpret, manipulate, a profound question of to what end, in what presence.

For ultimately for Buber, the relationship of I and Thou is a relationship framed by the only reality that can never become an 'It', an object of usefulness, that reality being God. 'I and Thou' ultimate direction is to have one recognise that we live in a transcendental reality where the givenness of everything is not arbitrary or accidental but a gift, continuously created out of a divine ground.

This recognition can never be objectified - made into a 'religion' - for all 'religion' is of the attitude of 'It', a fabrication for our use. 

God is not useful, God simply is and like everything that is, is to be enjoyed as such. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Neil Gunn goes to Davos

'The Well at the World's End' was the first of Neil Gunn's novels that I read and I found it magically suffused with the recognition that there is another world, wholly enfolding this one, a world of light. This world reveals itself when you stop seeking and allow yourself to look, looking you step into the way of things and the barrier between yourself and unfolding reality dissolves, if only for a moment (but then how long does a moment last?) and you are at one - within your self integrated, with the world joined.

"A Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil Gunn" is a beautifully lucid exploration of how this coming into oneself through belonging with the world's unfolding is expressed in Gunn's art. It was present at the beginning and deepened through time in a way that, sadly, made his novels appear less accessible to his wider readership. Those that came expecting the social realism of his works, woven with the fabric of communal Scottish life, and nationalist concern, were surprised by yet something other, latent at first but slowly accumulating to the fore. This was the recognition that, at the heart of things, there is not the time bound social and political realities, however important, but the recognition that we are spiritual beings in a purposeful cosmos. That cosmos unfolds within and around us and harmony comes from intuiting how to swim.

This central intuition was confirmed for Gunn in his encounter with Taoism and Zen in the second half of life. It is not, as John Burns' book shows, that he was 'influenced' by these 'Eastern' traditions but that he found in them a deepening confirmation of what he had recognised out of his own experience. While we, the reader, can get a better understanding of what he perceived in being shown the parallels between his pattern of seeing and that of Zen.

Reading it, like any good literary criticism, the first desire is to revisit the texts (and indeed add new ones) but also I found myself thinking about Davos, whose last day was today.

This global meeting of the 'great and the good' is one that, conceivably, I could now grant myself the excuse to go to (and indeed was asked, more than once, whether I would be there). At the simple, psychological level, I can hardly imagine anything more off putting as a hardy introvert, all those opportunities to 'network', constantly looking over one's shoulder (or more likely having one's shoulder looked over) to see who else is more important! But reading Burns, and through his lens, Gunn, I found myself thinking what is the point?

At the heart of Gunn's writing is a two fold (and related) movement. The first is the recognition that what essentially matters are communities sufficiently rooted to their places that they are able to navigate the challenging complexities of being in the world - and that destruction always emerges out of a forgetting of that rootedness (and Davos, sad to say, is more likely to represent the forces of rootlessness than rootedness).

Second that community is only possible when it is centred on the realisation that its health depends on people's ability to intuit both the transiency of their lives within an unfolding whole and to step out of time and its concerns, into a taste of the lighting of eternity. It is out of this realisation, savoured within the fabric of everyday life, that leads us to treat all things as ends in themselves, in their unique particularity, not only as means. Life both starts and ends in an appreciation of the mystery of this realisation (and mystery and eternity are probably not high up on Davos' agenda either)!

This recognition is both universal within the 'mystical traditions' of the world, has always and ever been true, and is more true than ever, now, as the complexity of the world deepens, the idea that 'you' can control it (or that your 'leaders' can for you) implodes. There is no escape from taking upon ourselves a transformation of how we learn to navigate the world (unless we wish to invite destruction). It is a transformation that sees everything as interlinked, as mutually arising, and which can only be addressed compassionately - and which calls forth new solutions rooted in actual communities, aware of their particular places, connected in a deeper wholeness (so if Otto Scharmer is at Davos at least there may be a taste of what is increasingly necessary: https://www.presencing.com/theoryu

This undoubtedly sounds 'utopian' but, of course, as Gunn recognised, it is stepping into the reality of 'nowhere' (the creative void at the heart of things and from which form emerges) that gives you the wisdom of insecurity to be one's self.

One of the key themes at Davos is 'inequality' and the need to address this is evident - myriad are its bad consequences - so, for example, one can only commend Indonesia's presidents new income transfer schemes to address it - but ultimately, which is Gunn's point - you cannot truly address the social realities of inequality until you recognise it is a ego bound 'fiction', until you can see that, at heart, our oneness is real and felt to be so.

This should never stop you from seeking the provisional goods of change but the true task ahead for each individual is yet somewhere other.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Religion and violence

Father Joseph was born into the minor aristocracy in France in the sixteenth century and chose the path of a Capuchin friar. He was both schooled and versed in the art of mystical prayer and founded an order of contemplative nuns. He was known for his contained and gentle manner as well as his continuing aura of an erudite and accomplished gentlemen, behind his simple, ragged robed exterior.

He was, however, also the right hand man of Cardinal Richelieu, effectively France's foreign minister and spy chief, and, had he not died would have been Richelieu's successor. One of his key policies as foreign minister was to deliberately set out (successfully) to prolong the Thirty Years War, weakening France's encircling enemies (ironically) Catholic Austria and Spain. This was a notoriously brutal war, especially painful to the ordinary citizens of Germany, many of whom were reportedly reduced, in desperation, to cannibalism!

He did so, believing that France was the providential actor of God's designs. A Europe, united under Bourbon France, could launch a crusade against the Turk and restore the Holy Land to its rightful proprietors. Apparently this justified any amount of diplomatic perfidy and brutal conflict!

Trying to reconcile these two 'Father Josephs' is the task that Aldous Huxley sets out to do in his 'Grey Eminence'. This is both a biographical study of Father Joseph and a study on how religion if not singularly directed at its essential task of replacing the selfishly directed ego with the reality of a unifying presence of God, can, and often does, go horribly wrong!

Huxley is at pains to lay out the very real nature of Father Joseph's mystical credentials. He is no mere hypocrite, feigning holiness.  The path by which he goes awry is intrinsically bound up with his interpretation of his religious mission. First by supplanting the true object of contemplation - the God who passes beyond all thought, feeling or imagination - with an imaginative fixation on the crucifixion. Second by translating this into an overvaluation of vicarious suffering. Third by succumbing to a nationalistic interpretation of the providence of God (born out of a very real aversion to the conflicts of religion that attended his childhood and youth that could only be amended, in his thinking, by a robust and unitary state).

The overvaluation of vicarious suffering was, quite literally, deadly because what suffering could not be borne (and excused) to achieve the noble aims of peace. The fact that Jesus has already suffered for us so that our suffering (and need for it) has been radically transformed does not appear to gain much traction here. Presented with the image of the suffering Christ, this imagination assumes we must suffer with him. This in itself would be innocent except that it projects itself outwards imagining that others should suffer along to (and sometimes instead of me). (You might immediately see its contemporary relevance - jihad as my moral struggle, internalised, might be a permissible approach to transformation but to impose it on others is not)!

Huxley's exploration of Father Joseph is subtle, complex and challenging but the core message is do not believe those who tell you that this or that violence is an aberration of religion. It is simply politics or ethnicity or economics that is using religion for its own ends distorting an essentially 'peaceful' religion. Bad theology is as a good a driver of violence as any other man hallowed system of seeking to organise the world for its own good. Theology (like anything else) badly handled becomes fuel for our decentring egotism.

Thus, beware of any peddler of an assumption of control and note there is nobody who does not wish for this (however well tempered) except the saint, who being at the still turning point of the world, knows how to navigate the world without controls.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The ecology of consciousness

Seth entombing Osiris

Though the New Year's resolution holds - a moratorium on book buying - the post person on their very efficient tricycles and trailers (would that UK post persons were so blessed) keeps up the flow of 2014 orders (that probably accelerated as a result of the forthcoming moratorium)!

Today arrived 'The Philosophy of Emptiness' (Gay Watson) and 'Waking, Dreaming, Being: self and consciousness on neuroscience, meditation, and philosophy' (Evan Thompson). This illustrates one of the challenges of the modern age - the ability to buy books at any time of day or night, from anywhere and, thus, the possibility that one bought them when not wholly sober! This is not to say that both are not excellent texts (and they certainly look like it) but only to note that my ability to digest philosophy is limited (and slow).

This I discovered (and periodically need to rediscover) when I went to university to study philosophy and theology. This was a mistake! This was not because one's raw intelligence could not make something of it (eventually), nor that the underlying questions were not of the utmost, indeed existential, importance but because I realised (slowly and painfully) that my brain works in image and story, that I am most persistently drawn to painting and poem, literature and history, though undoubtedly seen through a spiritual lens. (Also, I will admit that the way philosophy is taught is fundamentally awry with the assumption that knowing and being are sundered when, in truth, any true realisation requires a change of being. This is a construction of philosophy intelligible to all in the 'East' and was to all in the 'West' before the onset of Yeats' 'three provincial centuries').

So if I manage both books in 2015, it will be an event not least because I realise I must tackle a 'really big' (and probably unclassifiable) book in Jean Gebser's 'The Ever Present Origin' on the evolution of consciousness. I know beforehand I am going to cheat and read Georg Feurstein's 'Structures of Consciousness: The Genius of Jean Gebser: An Introduction and Critique' (that I, also, await, having purchased it at great expense, it being out of print) hoping that having done so, I maintain an appetite for the main course!

Oddly the final pitch for Gebser has come from reading Willian Irwin Thompson's 'Coming into Being: Artefacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness'. (W.I. Thompson being ironically E. Thompson's father). A more polyvalent text would be difficult to imagine. It is an erudite, insightful and creative examination of key artefacts (such as prehistoric sculptures) and texts (such as the Tao Te Ching and the Iliad) within the context of revealing what they might have to show about the state of consciousness of their shapers - both the individual maker (where knowable) and the ecology of mind in which their intelligibility is set. And, critically, how that ecology passes (arguably) through 'phase shifts'.

Thompson is an heir to Gebser and sees these unfolding shifts as both an opportunity to deepen the potentials of what it means to be human and perilous in that they are not necessary - evolution though luring one on, does not define or control. We may at any moment abort, regress, go off the rails. God, in A.N. Whitehead's terms, may be the 'lure of love' but a luring is an invitation to adventure and one with implied risk. God is not a puppet master and in love there is no inevitability and in human beings, God has invested the responsibility of being 'caretakers of the cosmos': a responsibility we may irresponsibly decline! Or so this tradition or set of traditions has it.

I have never quite known what to make of this except to sense there is something important here; and, if there was one moment in Thompson's book that made this clear to me, it was a discussion of Isis and Osiris. Here Thompson remarks that the unfolding dynamic of the story rests with Osiris as Lord of the Underworld. He rests in death. Thompson makes (as he often does) a virtually 'off the cuff' parallel comparison with the life of Jesus. Here the underworld is entered, transformed and Jesus returns with a promise (forestalled or at time when time is ripe) of a resurrected, renewed life. The stories share an archetypal pattern yet it is a pattern that moves on, develops, deepens. The spirit plunges yet deeper into matter transfiguring. A phase shift has occurred in the ecology of conscious possibility or so it might be seen.

Seeing what this might mean (if anything) seems like an intriguing invitation.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All Hallows' Eve

A painter has completed two pictures - one is of a London transfigured by an inner light, the second, a commission, of Father Simon, a prophetic leader, being attended by his adoring flock (or by bowing beetle like figures, depending on your perspective). Both paintings will prove prophetic - London will be seen through the eye of the dead, the day to day city accompanied by a parallel waiting place for the newly dead, held in an encompassing light. Father Simon's gospel of love will be unveiled as a narcotic for the masses for he is a magician bent on world domination.

We are in the familiar territory of a novel by Charles Williams - 'All Hallows Eve' - where a person (or object) is manipulating (or being manipulated) to achieve power over the world (or some portion of it) and is thwarted by a thrown together group of people who have seen through the mask and the disguise and through love and sacrifice restore balance to the world.

This, I think, is his most accomplished novel - the set pieces of drawing magical power are genuinely horrifying and the counterbalancing clarities of chosen grace beautifully drawn and, what is most important, both spiritually and psychologically valid (and realistic).

There is the moment when Father Simon is admiring his self-portrait in the artist's studio and is flattering its painter with thoughts of commissions to come and Jonathan, the painter, even through he has, through his art, intuited the true nature of Simon, allows himself momentarily to be seduced. Richard, Jonathan's friend, is rescued from a similar seduction by his healthy agnosticism that skeptically assess everything and the love he bears for his (deceased) wife, Lester. Both of which Williams suggests are an anchorage in the real.

Meanwhile, in the parallel world of the city of the dead, Lester and the dreadful Evelyn, slowly learn the meaning of love and hate as they respond, across the barrier between worlds, to Father Simon's machinations. It is the drawing of this world - a vestibule to heaven and to 'hell' - that is Williams finest achievement. You feel the way the two young women respond to their being dead with the resources, the direction, with which life has equipped them. I was reminded of Swedenborg's account of how the dead are drawn inexorably towards the kind of world their deepest interest, whilst living, allowed them. Lester, passionate, intense, loving if often irritable, gravitates towards the need to seek forgiveness and to more deeply participate in love. Evelyn, argumentative and envious, falls into a gnawing fearfulness, and seeks out a comforting, autonomous, hate.  As you read these sections, you automatically fall to wondering, reflecting on what precisely is one's own 'deepest interest' and whether you have the resources to ask forgiveness of all whom you have wounded, slighted, ignored?

But what if you do not? Is there no ultimate hope for Evelyn (or for that matter for Father Simon, undone, at the end, by his own magic)? We are left wondering as we should be perhaps by a work of art.

There is, however, a hint. The reality of hell is not a punishment here, it is a self made enclosure. The helping hand extended remains. It may not be Lester's but there is here a deeper promise - the one who offered a sacrifice for all and whose hand reaches out, extended to all.

When St Silouan of Athos, the twentieth century Russian saint, was asked if, at the end of time, hell would be occupied, he replied, 'Love could not bear it'. We may, like Evelyn, continue to resist but the resistance has a shorter shelf life than the hand of love.



This new report from a two year research program at the RSA (based in London) is a compelling attempt to discuss spirituality and its relevance to the public square in a non-religious context.

I liked it for its 'metaphysical openness' as it judiciously refuses to enter the debate about the ontological status of the embodied experience that is seen here as spiritual whilst granting the conversation a robust and elegant status.

It argues that 'spirituality' is a useful category that needs definitional boundaries but not 'a definition' that relates to our core concerns for love, our relation to our own death, our identity as selves and a reality to our language and usage of being souls (that carries the qualitative, indefinable qualities of our life). It does an excellent job of summarizing what in recent scientific research anchors this discussion of the ground on which we are (rather than simply the places we inhabit), a distinction that is rooted in Buddhism, but not exclusive to it.

It reminds us that spirituality is as much about how we hold to our beliefs, how we fashion them and live with them, as it is about their content; and, that holding them differently, more reflexively, even compassionately is a major goal, with transformative effect.

However, there is, I think, one major weakness in the discussion and this revolves around the 'intentionality' of the spiritual life. The report weighs in on how we might pay more attention to our spiritual concerns - the how to - but the how to, in order to be truly effective, must be infused with the 'what for'. I was reminded of the story of Arthur Koestler visiting Eugene Herrigel, the author of 'Zen in the Art of Archery', a compelling text on the 'how to' of spirituality, only to discover that, even now, after the war was over, Herrigel was an unreconstituted supporter of National Socialism! As Buddhists would note wisdom is nothing without the accompanying pole of compassion! Likewise in discussions of 'mindfulness' or 'meditation' simply becoming more efficient or healthy is not, in itself, a spiritual goal.

Ultimately 'spirituality' needs to live within a broader, deeper, more encompassing cultural frame (with or without metaphysical objects) such as is provided by religion; and, working out a genuinely 'secular' and actually useful spirituality will have to wrestle with that reality too. Spirituality may have its own boundaries but these must be necessarily, and continuously, porous to other concerns (the ethical, the social, the religious) if it is to be of any genuine value.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

A day at the art gallery

A day of foggy melancholy dawned so off I went to the Kunsthaus in Zurich so that winter doldrums might be moved by art.

Nothing will persuade me that I ought to spend any time looking at Ferdinand Hodler whose multitudinous canvases bedeck every museum in Switzerland with their figures that always appear to be strangely performing to be figures in a painting and landscapes drained of colour and artificially lit. I am struck by how much I dislike him. I usually just skip paintings that do not speak perhaps since love borders, rather than opposes, hate, I will suddenly see him, but not without a Damascene conversion)!

However, since I have not spent much time with the permanent collection (for many years), there was so much else to explore. There is a perfect Fra Angelico (is there any other kind) of the Saints Cosmo and Damien and two by Hans Memling in a similar spirit. There are several Claude Lorrain landscapes for which I noticed that his figure work is much more accomplished when of realistic peasants than when of disporting sprites or gods. It is as if his suns are sufficiently supernatural to bork no competitors and his gods always look stilted, as if added by other hands. There is half a room of Edward Munch with their strangely dissolving landscapes of liquid expression as if the world is never quite stable and might, at any moment, yet become something other. There is even a Robert Ryan that is not wholly white - it has the figure 68 painted within its white waving surface (though that is painted in white too, with shading).

However, it was three 'symbolist' painters that today caught my attention (as they often do). One is technically a 'Romantic' painter, William Blake's friend, Henry Fuseli, with canvases saturated in stories of transformation - betwixt worlds - either of fairy or dream or nightmare. The other two Arnold Bocklin and Albert Welti are 'symbolists' (within those categories beloved of art historians and occasionally of artists) and knew each other at the turn of the nineteenth century in Switzerland when the pressures of a secularising materialism (and accompanying industrialism) sponsored a reactive/responsive 'interior' turn.

What struck me today, especially coming to them immediately from the medievals, was that though there are many beautiful images, repeating motifs, there is no stability of symbolic language. Fuseli overcomes this by participating in known stories - either classical or Shakespearian (or both)  But with Bocklin and Welti, you are in a theatre of dreams but without a handling guide (either Freudian or religious), even when the 'themes' are known, they appear to have shifted somewhat. The very pressure of external loss of meaning and fragmentation leads not to answering interior certainty but to a part soothing, part haunting phantasmagoria, whose meanings can only be pieced together, woven out of a wider mysteriousness. They are often very beautiful but somehow strangely insufficient and as a 'movement' or 'trend' hardly made it to the First World War whose rigours would require different responses.

This left me wondering why yet I love it so? Perhaps because it reflects the juxtaposition between my own daily world and the fragments of meaning that come at night, that make the world more deeply soulful, even as they do not make it any less anxiously and wondrously uncertain and mysterious.

Here is Albert Welti's 'The House of Dreams' which is deeply suggestive, open ended with its interpretative opportunities and beautifully mysterious. Does the sleeping woman summon forth the other characters? Do they wait patiently, out of their own reality, for what the sleeping woman brings forth (as at the shrine of Asclepius)? Is it simply a domestic scene from a remote time and place? You mind can happily run on and on whilst partaking of its atmosphere of tranquility fused with loss: the fragility of such spaces of repose. 

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...