Archive for April, 2017

We cannot merely pray…

April 28th, 2017

In the course of editing a book by Bob LaRochelle (thanks, Bob!), I came across the quotation of a prayer by Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, and need to share it:-

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
So that all of us must find our own path to peace,
Within ourselves and with our neighbors.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end hunger;
For you have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out our prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all people,
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end despair;
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If we could only use them constructively.

Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and courage,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish

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The (very) long view of history.

April 24th, 2017

Many moons ago, my son was presented with an essay title for his History GCSE, which was on the causes of the First World War. He decided to talk to me about it.

The immediate cause was, of course, the network of alliances which had grown up between European powers which was intended to create a sort of detente, a situation where no-one could afford to be aggressive because of the likely invocation of alliances bringing in the then “big players”. History records, of course, that an agression by one of the more minor players, Serbia, via a terrorist act, resulted in the whole structure being mobilised – as were troops all over Europe. This is beautifully lampooned in a joke comparing the whole thing to a bar fight. Current commentators worry, not without reason, about minor players like the Baltics and Ukraine drawing Nato into a world conflict in the same way.

Looking to expand his appreciation of the broad sweep of history, I encouraged him to think about why there were competing ethnicities and religions in the area, and we traced that back by stages. His eventual essay (which got him an A*) stopped at Trajan’s Dacian wars – he was probably sensible in not going all the way to where our discussion ended, something like four hours after we started.

However, we didn’t stop there in conversation. The Dacian wars were at least in part caused by population pressure from the east. It was thus one of a series of waves of pressure on Europe from that direction, as tribes moved west over the whole area from Mongolia to the borders of Europe, each pressed by those to the east of them. Sometimes, the more eastern tribes actually managed to conquer and form alliances well enough for their members to arrive in Europe itself; the Huns were the first, followed by the Mongols; the Turks were another. In Trajan’s time, however, the Dacian movement was a knock-on effect. The Dacians were pressed by those east of them, such as the Scythians.

Why, we asked, did this set of waves of migration actually occur, and why hadn’t they happened earlier in the history of the Roman Empire? My best guess at this rested on climate change. Where there was a relatively wet, cool period, the homelands of the more eastern tribes and their natural raiding areas (largely China) became more fertile, producing an increasing ability to support population. The period in question was marked by a set of cycles of cool wet weather followed by warm dry weather, though, and when it turned warmer and dryer, the population in the east couldn’t be supported there any more. At the same time, warmer, dryer weather dried out the immense areas of marshland along the Dnepr river (including the well known Pripyat marshes) and lesser ones along the Don and Vistula rivers. What was, in wet weather, a hostile landscape for horse-warriors became plains which were ideal for large mounted operations, and effectively created a highway all the way through to the Balkans in the south and Germany in the north. It wasn’t just Europe which suffered this way; the Middle East had its own waves, for example that under Timur Leng which ended the golden age of Islam, that under Ghengis and Kublai Khan which replaced the native Chinese empire with a Mongol one for centuries, and that under Babur which founded the Mughal Empire in North India.

The ultimate cause was, therefore, changes in climate, which interacted with the predominantly horse-oriented nomadic culture of the eastern part of north Asia to produce very massive population movements.

I’ve been reminded of this by reading a New York Times article on how climate change produces migration. We focus a great deal when talking about Syria or Yemen on political issues, but the map at the beginning of that article makes clear the unacknowledged fact that from Syria down into the Arabian Peninsula, climate change is affecting the ability of the land to support population, and that is going to produce increased competition for the increasingly scare resources, wars and both economic migrants and those fleeing war and civil disorder. The same goes for a swathe of land through Sudan to the horn of Africa, and for areas in central West Africa as well, those being the source of much of the migration trying to cross the Mediterranean from the more Western points such as Libya. Americans should notice the intensity of red dots in the north of South America and in Central America.

Rome, of course, eventually collapsed in the fact of these waves of migrants, unable to stem the tide; the Goths, Vandals and Franks were pushed (largely by the Huns) westward, and took down the civilisation in the Western Empire; in the Eastern Empire it was the Turks in a later wave who dealt the coup de grace, though there had been an earlier Arab expansion (which I can’t connect to climate change, but which may well be another instance) which had done immeasurable damage first.

We’re a lot stronger than Rome was in Europe and America, of course. But we should perhaps wonder whether we can actually get away with merely building a wall along the Mexican border and fences along the long European border to the east. The Chinese had a frontier-long wall as well…

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Go in pieces…

April 15th, 2017

Back in the 1960’s, the then vicar of Selby caused a lot of controversy by preaching on the theme “God is Dead” at Easter, in a service which the BBC recorded. What he was engaging with was the then very young area of Radical Theology; in particular he referred to Nietzsche’s parable of the madman running through the streets shouting “God is dead – and we have killed him”.

I’m writing this on “Holy Saturday”, which is one day of the year when that would be the most appropriate sermon title – except very few churches do a service on Holy Saturday. Yesterday was Good Friday, when we would supposedly meditate on the death of Jesus (the death of God?) if we ever managed to forget that we knew the outcome of the story, tomorrow we will celebrate his resurrection, but today, perhaps, God is dead.

I’ve been doing Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course this year. The course seeks to challenge all of our preconceptions about God, to deconstruct our constructions and expose those beliefs we weren’t aware we had. Perhaps the ideal outcome would be to leave us with a child-like wonder, able to accept the pure experience of God without it being tied down by dogma and philosophy – but then, I’m a mystic, and I would say that!

Atheism for Lent is really situated between Good Friday and Holy Saturday, between the potentially violent destruction of ideas about God and the place arrived at once that has been achieved. Some of those taking the course (over 1000 this year, I believe) have found it too violent and have retreated, perhaps to have another go next year. That is much my situation with one of the daily “readings” for the course, which was to watch the 2016 film “Silence”. I still have nearly two hours of that film to watch. Some have stuck doggedly to our existing conceptions and improved our ability to defend them against all comers. Some have arrived at a place of anxiety, where nothing is certain any more, and some have arrived at the same lack of certainty and found peace there.

I am not completely certain whether I’ve merely improved my ability to defend preconceptions or have found peace in the storm. I feel fairly peaceful, to be sure, but there are those pesky subconscious instincts which may not be completely exorcised – I know, for instance, that there’s a bit of my subconscious which is apparently a five-point Calvinist (despite the fact that I’ve never consciously espoused Calvinism or, since I first actually thought about it, the salvation mechanism which leads to it). Happily, it doesn’t make itself known very often, but it’s still there…

I’ve been aware of the course for a few years now, but haven’t actually done it previously. I’d thought that as I was already well aware of the criticisms of the “Masters of Suspicion” (Freud, Niezsche and Marx), and  had read widely in the mystics and dipped into some of the Radical Theologians such as Rollins and Caputo, the course would not offer me much I hadn’t already looked at. In addition, I “am not now and have never been” a fundamentalist or “Evangelical” Christian – unlike, as it seems to me, the vast majority of people taking the course, I started (after some years of Sunday School which at least apparently “didn’t take”) as an atheist, a confirmed rationalist materialist, and have moderated my position the minimum possible consistent with having a language of expression which would accommodate and express my mystical experience. Somehow the statement “it was a brain fart” which an atheist friend came up with after we’d knocked down all the more usual reasons for the kind of symptoms I described, such as drugs, physical or mental distress or psychiatric or neurological disorders, didn’t “do it for me”.

I also come via having sampled a lot of other spiritual traditions. Peak mystical experiences are very good indeed, and I started out wanting more of them, so tried the methods of any tradition which produced accounts of similar experience for some years. Those often required you to adopt a mental posture involving some theoretical concepts, so I became fairly good at holding those lightly, in much the way as you’d “suspend disbelief” while reading, say, a work of fantasy, or think in terms of a wave or a particle when considering the behaviour of an electron. However, my culture is Christian (or at least post-Christian) and my basic language of expression was Christian (some of that Sunday School stuff apparently did rub off…) and other traditions required learning new concepts and new languages, and I’m lazy – so where I’ve ended up is with a largely Christian practice and vocabulary. That doesn’t preclude me asserting that “Atman is Brahman” or that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” or that we should practice the “Willow way” (which is not a long way removed from “al-Islam”…).

I was, however, surprised to find that this level of engagement with the texts, among a lot of other people giving their reactions, was particularly powerful. I re-engaged with issues such as the abominable history of persecution by Christianity and it’s encouragement of undesirable psychological traits and found that those still had the power to disturb me (though perhaps the most disturbing thought I had was “what if the five-point Calvinists are right?”).

However, perhaps the most worrying thing for me was watching the reactions of some others. I’ve been discussing spirituality and faith with others for nearly 50 years now, and on a few occasions have had someone complain that I’ve shaken their faith to the point that they lost it – and as one of those people was my mother (and she never really regained it, nor did she arrive at being entirely comfortable with its loss), I tend to be reluctant to press too hard in deconstructing concepts where I can’t provide a new framework which someone can be content with. Myself, I can flit between frameworks to suit the occasion, but not everyone can, and equally not everyone is able to be comfortable with an overwhelming lack of certainty. I’m probably not comfortable with an overwhelming lack of certainty myself, to be honest; I tend far more to the mindset of the revolutionary, who wants to take apart the existing order in order to construct a new one, who has something of a new one already in mind, rather than the rebel who just wants to take things apart. I may accept that there’s always going to be something not quite accurate, not quite complete about current concepts, but I want the next concept to be a better fit to reality, rather than abandoning any hope of a better fit – which is what I see the rebel as embodying.

Equally, I used to say “I don’t need to believe in God, I experience God”.  I may not be able to describe that experience adequately; as the week we spent looking at mystics indicates, it is perhaps impossible to do that, but nonetheless the experience is real. I experience God for some value of God unspecified, therefore. I’ve never found a way to make others experience God, however – I can’t have a mystical experience for you, you have it happen for you and in you. What I have found is that analysing what is going on is the best way to stop such an experience happening, however, so our concepts can only really get in the way. Should we therefore deconstruct those concepts in the hope that we will then  be able to have a peak experience? What of those who are left with nothing to cling to, with no consciousness of the presence of God? The closing benediction from Pádraig Ó Tuama ends with “And so, friends, the task has ended. Go in pieces to see and feel your world”.  Have some people been left “in pieces” but still unable to see and feel their world – or God, inasmuch as God is not already implicit in “their world”?

I hope and pray that they haven’t. “Pray?” you say – “what to?” I don’t know, to some value of God, I suppose. I doubt it can have any real effect, as the values of God which I can conceive and which might make that possible seem improbable to me. But I hope I’m wrong… and tomorrow morning, at silly o’clock, I will be affirming “Christ is risen”. For some value of “Christ” For some value of “risen”. May that be true for those now feeling cut adrift as well.

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The maddening thing about Mysticism

April 9th, 2017

… is, firstly, that it is possible that it might literally drive you mad. Karen Armstrong records in her autobiography the discovery that her own powerful mystical experiences emanated from her suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Peter Rollins identifies the collapsing of the boundary between self and other as being characteristic of psychosis and Robert Sapolsky talks in his Stanford lecture on the neurobiology of religion about shamans clearly suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.

Granted, those instances serve to show that people with certain conditions commonly considered as “mental illness” also sometimes have what appear to be mystical experiences, not that having mystical experiences can lead to mental disorders. My own peak mystical experiences did not stem from any of the “usual suspects” among mental illnesses, and I don’t seem to have developed any of those conditions in the nearly 50 years since my first such experience.  In fairness, however,  I have since developed diagnosed depression and anxiety, neither of which is linked with mysticism as such, though the “dark night of the soul” talked of by some mystics looks a bit like depression. So, perhaps, you can chalk up “might lead to profound depression” as a “maddening thing”.

But that is to take the title far too literally, and in religion, a literal leaning is a dangerous thing (to quote Dennis Norden, who was not talking about religion…).

The thing which tends to madden other people about mysticism is the apparent inability of mystics to talk in nice, simple to understand, concrete terms about their experiences. As Peter Rollins also says, mystics tend to be “slippery”; there’s a tendency to say something and then say “but it wasn’t like that”. Eastern traditions perhaps do it better, with “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” and “What is the Buddha nature? The sound of one hand clapping”.  I can cheerfully talk about experiencing being nothing and everything at the same time (and no synthesis seems available) and say that that was being “one with God”, so God is all and nothing simultaneously as well (side note – most mystics could cheerfully say “I and my father are one” were it not for an anticipation of straightjackets these days or impromptu bonfires in times past, without claiming to be a person of the trinity…).

Believe me, mystics find it maddening as well, or at least this one does, and not a few others have written about the difficulty of putting into words what is an ineffable experience.

I should clarify here that I am really talking of the full blown, falling off your horse version of the experience. Lesser versions, which I tend to refer to as having “an edge” of the full experience can be described much more easily; Peter Rollins refers to mystical experience as “oceanic”, which would be a good description of the edge – but not of the full spectrum experience. I do not remotely decry the “edge” experience – it is very good in and of itself, and has served well to assuage my feeling of needing the full version for long periods of time.

The full experience has only come to me on a very limited number of occasions, and while I’ve written of it that it is “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, that is pretty faint praise of something which, when it originally happened to me, changed me utterly and dictated a course of living which I’ve adhered to ever since, as best I could. It’s sufficiently good that many people have given over their lives to its pursuit, sometimes walling themselves up in small cells, sometimes taking themselves off into the desert, sometimes squatting on pillars. The edge is something which you can actually experience while, for instance, walking down the road or doing the dishes, while the full spectrum would result in you walking into lamp posts or needing a new set of crockery.

So another problem, which could madden at least an outsider, is that mysticism pursued vigorously can leave you pretty useless to humanity generally.

The full spectrum version can also be intensely scary – another “maddening thing”. If the overpowering impression of having your “self” extinguished, ground into nothingness in relation to the immensity of all that is were not sufficient, it also not infrequently includes a taking stock of what has gone before – a little like the suggestion that when you die, your whole life flashes past your eyes. My best imagery for it from Christian sources would be that you are judged on the spot, with as much of the attendant hellfire and brimstone as your subconscious has internalised (to me, the Last Judgment is today, yesterday and every other day in history, though most of us aren’t summoned on a regular basis). Relatively few people of my acquaintance are anxious to sit before the Judgment Seat of the Lord today (rather than at some point in the future) – though I can also attest that it comes with a side-order of complete acceptance and forgiveness, at least in my case. Even then, however,  there is an imperative to restore anything damaged by your actions – and I am not fond of making grovelling apologies or striving to repair things which may actually be irreparable. Having your faults and wrongs “burned out of you by fire” is not comfortable.

So there’s also a concealed price. It’s a little as if the best experience I could wish for someone was ringed with electrified barbed wire – you can, perhaps, reach in and grasp it, but you’re likely to end up shocked and torn up a fair amount as well.

Lastly, despite my best endeavours over many years, I can’t turn to you and say “do this and you will definitely have a peak mystical experience”; I can point to many contemplative traditions and say “these give you a very fair chance of having an oceanic experience (a lesser mystical experience) if you stick with them long enough”, but the full spectrum experience? No, that seems obstinately to be an “out of the blue” occurrence with little or no rhyme or reason about why it happens when it does.

And that maddens me, and has maddened quite a few people to whom I’ve waxed lyrical about mysticism as well.

Believe me, if I knew how it happened, I’d be encouraging everyone to give it a try, even with caveats about electrified barbed wire!

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