2013 round-up: well that was a weird year

Well, that was a weird year. 2013 was the year I became a Christian, or rather ‘committed my life to Christ’ as Christians put it. What does that mean? How did I get here? Am I really a Christian or am I kidding myself? Let’s re-wind and play the tape again.

I ended Philosophy for Life with an appendix called ‘Socrates and Dionysus’, in which I suggested there is an alternate way of approaching life to Socratic philosophy, which is less about self-knowledge and self-control, and more about losing control and opening yourself to what I called ‘the wilder gods of our nature’.  I felt that Stoicism, while an enormously helpful philosophy, is perhaps too rationalistic, that it misses out some important parts of life, like music, poetry, dance, the imagination, grace – in a word, the ecstatic.

Why was I interested in the ecstatic? Partly because I love the arts, and partly because I’d been profoundly healed by a weird sort of near-death experience which happened to me back in 2001, which I wrote about at the end of last year. I felt that was an encounter with…Something Else….and it was Good and Love…and I felt a debt to Him / Her / It / Them for having saved me, when I was lost in suffering.

The Mountain Moment ™ gave me the insight that, often, it’s our thoughts which cause us suffering and our thoughts which hold the key to liberation from suffering (I know, not a very profound insight, but it was helpful at the time!), an idea I tried to communicate in my book and talks. But now, a year after the book came out, I wondered…what was that experience? Have others had similar experiences? What are we to make of them? Like William James, I was interested in the fact that such ecstatic moments are often very healing, yet we have no real place for them in our atomist-materialist culture. Indeed, we sometimes pathologise such encounters with the Numinous as psychotic delusions – something I wrote about last year in an article in Wired.

More than this, I was interested in whether there really is a God, and if so, how we should live in accordance with His / Her will. Are ecstatic moments a window beyond the paradigm of materialism, a way to connect with God, or are they just nice feelings? Is there a way, as Rudolph Otto hoped, that we can find a balance between our non-rational experiences of ecstasy and the more rational aspects of human thought?

I had also become interested in the role of the ecstatic / sacred in creating and cementing communities – something Emile Durkheim famously explored. I’d spent the second half of 2012 researching philosophy clubs, and come away with a sense of their limits. I felt communities based on rational inquiry were probably weaker than communities based on love and self-sacrifice – a belief  influenced by my meeting Tobias Jones in December 2012 (you can listen to our conversation in this Aeon podcast, from 28 minutes in).  I was hungry for deeper community than I could find in philosophy clubs.

In December 2012,  I was dating a Christian girl, and I met some of her friends, and was impressed with their sense of community, how they listened to each other and honoured each other. One of them was a curate at Holy Trinity Brompton, where he was in charge of the Alpha course. So, in January, I decided to do the Alpha course.

I really enjoyed it – particularly the communal aspect of it, although I have to say the theology of the course didn’t really persuade me. The course begins with CS Lewis’ contention that either Jesus was the Only Son of God, as he claimed to be, or he was a liar or lunatic. In fact, as Anthony Kenny recently pointed out in a review of a new biography of Lewis, ‘even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity’.

The Alpha course also makes a lot of the belief that Jesus died for us to pay the debt incurred by Adam’s fall. But does that mean that to be a Christian, to understand the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, I have to believe in Original Sin? I find that idea far less convincing than the evolutionary alternative – that our violent, flawed and stupid nature comes not from some poisoned apple, but from our animal origins (although this raises the question of how we developed any capacity to transcend our flawed nature, and whether that capacity is God-given. I think it is.).

The Alpha course is great on the Holy Spirit, on God’s love, and gives spiritually-starved westerners some sense of that love. But – as in a lot of charismatic Christianity – the shadow of that faith in God’s love is a strong belief in the Devil’s power. I met various Christians over the course of the year who believed every other spiritual tradition, with the possible exception of Judaism, is demonic, that secularism is demonic, that everything except their particular culture is demonic. Even other bits of the church are demonic…perhaps even other bits of their congregation are demonic. This is not a broad, generous and expansive vision of human existence – it’s narrow, fearful, suspicious. It is a worldview that implies God is content to let most of his children go to Hell (and why not – He killed off 99.9% of creation before, in the Flood).

So, by about April or May, I’d made an initial attempt to find a place in Christianity, but found myself repelled by aspects of its theology. I was still interested, however, in humans’ desire for the ecstatic. I became very interested in the cultural and spiritual role of pop music, in how pop music emerged from Pentecostal and Baptist churches in the 1940s and 50s and was a form of secularized ecstasy – a point made brilliantly in a book called Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick,  one of my favourite books of the year.

I also loved Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy and Acid House Culture by Matthew Collin, and wrote about acid house as an ecstatic popular movement. I interviewed my old landlady, Sister Bliss from the group Faithless, about how rave music was a sort of church for the unchurched. I also interviewed Brian Eno, producer of some of pop’s great ecstatic anthems, about his theory of how we seek the experience of surrender through religion, drugs, sex and music. And I interviewed Imperial’s Robin Carhart-Harris about his research into psychedelics as a healing therapy.

By spring-time, I was wondering how to organize and communalize this interest in ecstatic worship (after all, even if I couldn’t accept Christian theology, I still believed in God and wanted to worship Him / Her with other people). At one point I even considered starting my own non-conformist church, which would bring together philosophy and gospel music! Then I saw that a new humanist church called the Sunday Assembly was looking for a drummer for their house band. So I signed up, and played in a couple of their services. It interested me as an attempt to create a more ecstatic humanism – but ultimately it didn’t have enough spirit for me.

I was then ill for the whole of May, and feared I might have chronic fatigue syndrome or something like it – in fact I was diagnosed last month with a genetic blood defect called haemochromatosis, which leads to very high iron levels and a weak immune system. It’s known as the Celtic Curse, because it mainly affects Celts, and is treated by a somewhat medieval treatment involving weekly blood-lettings! But I didn’t know what it was back then, and that month in bed, feeling like a ring-wraith, coincided with a sort of spiritual doldrums. Where was I to go? What was I to do?

I went to a Christian folk concert in May, and sat surrounded by passionate and chirpy young Christians, and said to a Christian friend of mine: ‘I could never be a part of this’. He told me about a Christian retreat in Wales called Ffald-Y-Brenin, supposedly a ‘thin place’ – a place where the Kingdom is close. I read a book called The Grace Outpouring, by the guy who runs it, Roy Godwin. I was also, at that time, researching the Welsh revival of 1904, when a wave of Pentecostal fervor swept through Wales. All that reading about Welsh ecstasy perhaps primed me for what happened next.

In mid-June, I drove down to Ffald-Y-Brenin, to their summer conference, spending three days in a church filled with ecstatic pensioners. For the first day and a half I wondered what in hell I was doing there. Then, on the final afternoon of the conference, I visited the retreat, this supposedly ‘thin place’ , and I guess it had affected me somehow, because in the evening service, I found myself quietly dedicating my life to God – just quietly committing whatever gifts or talents I had to God. And then I felt this force blowing into me, filling my chest, pushing my head back, a sort of painful joy which took my breath away. It lasted for, I don’t know, twenty minutes or so.

Right after it happened, Roy Godwin asked if anyone in the church wanted to commit their life to Jesus.  Which was strange, because everyone in the church, except for me, was already a committed Christian, and I don’t think he could see me, having a moment at the back of the church balcony. So, I don’t know if he had spiritual insight or what. He said, ‘you don’t need to come forward, just raise your hand, no one will see’ – we all had our eyes shut. So I raised my hand. Cripes, I’d gone and committed my life to Jesus!

At the end of the conference, I bounced up to Roy Godwin to thank him (having not spoken to him before or said who I was). He turned to me immediately and said: ‘Sure. Listen, don’t be offended but God says you can stand on the outside analysing, but He is here, waiting for you’. Which struck me as an interesting thing to say, considering I’d spent the year academically researching ecstatic experiences.

Was I rationally persuaded of all the main points of Christian theology? No. I still don’t know what the afterlife holds, or what the future of the multi-verse is. This was a non-rational encounter with a spiritual force which I took (and still take) to be good. Perhaps it also came from within me…perhaps it emerged from a deep psychological need in me for there to be a transcendent meaning to life (although it felt more powerful, somatic and involuntary than that). Some people don’t feel that need: I do. I think our culture desperately needs a window to open to the transcendent.

The West seems to be losing itself in triviality, which we cover up by calling everything ‘awesome’. New iPhone? Awesome. YouTube video of a dancing cat? Awesome. The words of the year, according to the OED and Collins dictionaries, are geek, twerk, binge-watch, selfie and onesie. We’re a dying culture, an autistic culture, taking refuge in gadgetry and infantilism. We’re heading for environmental death and, like Theoden in The Two Towers, we don’t have the spiritual strength to face it.

I became more and more convinced of the limitations of scientific materialism. I read Max Weber, and agreed with his account of our society’s disenchantment, but felt that his vision of scientific rationalistic bureaucracy was deeply unappealing – even to him! Mechanistic materialism, I argued in August, failed on the ‘three Cs’: community, creativity and consciousness.

I found William James much more sympathetic, and his Varieties of Religious Experience has been a key influence on me this year. I admired his attempt to bring together the rational-empirical and the sacred-numinous, and his attempt (like Jung) to find a new and positive language for such experiences in psychology. His work led me to a rich contemporary literature on ‘the science of religious experience’, including work by American religious scholars like Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann and Jeffrey Kripal, who all happened to come together at Esalen in California in October for a conference on the paranormal.

Kripal, who I met at a conference on altered states of consciousness at Queen Mary last month, is a particularly challenging thinker for me, because he points out that spiritual experiences happen to many people, in many religious traditions and outside of any religious tradition. We need to be open, he thinks, to the marvelous and fantastic aspects of such experience, without trying to shoe-horn them into either a fundamentalist religious interpretation or a scientific materialist interpretation. They are weirder than that. OK, I said to him. But what do we do with that? How do we know what’s out there and whether it’s benevolent? How should we live?

While I like Kripal’s skeptical paranormality, and share his interest in superhero comics as an ecstatic art-form, for me, traditional religion seems a decent working hypothesis about the spiritual realm and how to live in relation to it – as long as one doesn’t become a self-righteous fanatic.  ‘Organized religion’ is such a pejorative term now, but the alternative is a completely individualised relationship to the Divine without any real community or collective myths and rituals.

Meanwhile, in October, I joined up with the RSA in a project of theirs to discover a scientifically credible form of spirituality, one which doesn’t demand a metaphysical leap into the dark. The project is organized by Jonathan Rowson, and has enabled me to learn from some fascinating thinkers about spirituality and the ecstatic, including the psychologist Guy Claxton (here’s a talk he gave last month on spiritual experiences) and the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. The latter’s magnum opus, The Master and the Emissary, was one of the most interesting books I read this year – it suggests that the split between rationality and the imagination is, in fact, neurologically-determined. The left hemisphere of the brain is more prone to rational, abstract and conceptual thinking,  he argues, while the right hemisphere is more intuitive, holistic and imaginative. McGilchrist argues that western culture has become more and more dominated by the left brain’s view-point, and ever-more deaf to the right-brain’s alternate world-view. OK then, what is to be done?

McGilchrist suggests we can perhaps find liberation from the tyranny of the left-brain through the body, through the arts, and through the spirit. I have come to a similar conclusion (although I leave the hemispherical neurology to him). The arts are one way we can still go beyond the rationalistic and access the Sublime or Ecstatic, although like McGilchrist I worry that we’re becoming more and more deaf to this alternate world-view. I wrote about art as an ecstatic transporter here, and this month I interviewed a wonderful poet-priest, Malcolm Guite, on poetry as a ‘door into the dark’. I also became interested in horror as the opposite of the Ecstatic (ie you encounter a spiritual presence, and it’s evil), and I wrote a piece on Kubrick’s The Shining as a tour-de-force in the Uncanny.

I’m increasingly interested in artistic inspiration as an ecstatic experience, and in how gifted people can tap into alternate voices or what James would call alternate centres of consciousness in their psyche, and then shape them into art – have a listen to novelist Marilynne Robinson talking about how she hears a voice telling her about her novels here, or Johnny Vegas talking about how he created his comic alter-ego to body forth a voice in his head. Artists, it seems to me, are still doing what shamans used to do – channeling voices in order to connect us to altered realities – although these alternate selves can take over the artist’s personality in damaging ways.

I summarized some of this year’s research into the Ecstatic in a talk I gave at the Free Thinking Festival in November.

It has been a strange year, and I still find Christianity rather like an uncomfortable and scratchy jumper, which chafes as much as it warms. I find Christian community likewise both warming and also occasionally alienating. I love many of the Christians who have befriended me this year, but I really don’t know if I can be called a Christian in any orthodox sense, in that I still love and admire other spiritual traditions, and don’t feel I have a very close relationship to Jesus, like many of my female Christian friends seem to do (maybe it’s easier to have a passionate romance with a male deity if you’re a woman?)  Prayer still feels strange to me, like talking into a stubborn silence. I still struggle to know the extent to which God cares about human suffering, or why He lets things like the Holocaust happens, and I have yet to hear a convincing Christian answer to ‘the problem of suffering’. As I wrote back in June, I’ve had some experience of personal grace, but such experiences raise the question of why other innocent people are not saved from awful, awful suffering? You could follow Plato and the Buddha and say ‘everything evens out in the cycle of reincarnation’ -  that makes a bit more sense to me.

Tom Bombadil: ‘not much interested in anything that we have done and seen’ according to Gandalf

It seems hopeless, sometimes, to ask these metaphysical questions. How am I, with all my cognitive limitations, meant to make out what is going on in the multiverse? I have a keen sense of the limit of our knowledge of what is going on ‘out there’, and I don’t think the simplistic Protestant hypothesis of God versus the Devil adequately explains the sheer mess, joy and suffering of human experience. I think it’s more likely there are many spirit-entities / beings of higher intelligence in the multiverse, some of them benevolent, some of them malevolent, some perhaps serenely indifferent to human concerns (like Tom Bombadil!) but all ruled by one Logos, one Energeia, one God. At least, I hope they are. These various entities are (perhaps) hungry for our consciousness, our attention. Some suck it out of us and kill us, others we can engage in a symbiotic loving relationship that enhances and enriches our life and the life of our species.

Well, who knows…I…er…don’t have any bar-graphs to prove these speculations.

Looking down here on Earth, and specifically at the Anglican church, I don’t have a sense is there is a hugely vibrant tradition of the sort of generous, culturally-open, arts-loving, body-loving, ecstatic Christianity that I admire, a Christianity that is charismatic without being fundamentalist, that believes there is good in many different traditions, including humanism, a Christianity like William Blake or Owen Barfield or Thomas Merton imagined. But there is enough out there to give me hope.

Meanwhile, the old work, of promoting ancient philosophy, has continued with its own momentum this year. At the beginning of the year, I ran a Philosophy for Life course at Queen Mary. I’ve also done philosophy workshops at Saracens rugby club, in libraries and mental health charities, and in Scottish prisons. I’ve done a lot of free talks, including a TEDX talk, and wondered if it’s possible to make a living from street philosophy. In December, I helped to organize Stoic Week, and took part in a big event on Stoicism for modern life, a panel of which you can watch here. I hope next year to do more practical philosophy events in prisons and in schools, and perhaps even to help develop a new curriculum for Religious Education, which includes some practical philosophy in it. Oh, and Philosophy for Life came out in the US, and was picked as a Times book of the year this weekend!

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s ecstatic explorations, and that you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. See you in 2014,

Jules

Comments:

  • Stephen says:

    Thank you Jules for what is a cracker of a post. It certainly resonated with me in what I perceive is your search for the answer to the big question: meaning of life/belonging/what’s out there? Certainly this is an ongoing journey that I experience.

    I thought the key paragraph in your post was …
    “”I summarized some of this year’s research into the Ecstatic in a talk I gave at the Free Thinking Festival in November. It has been a strange year, and I still find Christianity rather like an uncomfortable and scratchy jumper, which chafes as much as it warms. I find Christian community likewise both warming and also occasionally alienating. I love many of the Christians who have befriended me this year, but I really don’t know if I can be called a Christian in any orthodox sense, in that I still love and admire other spiritual traditions, and don’t feel I have a very close relationship to Jesus, like many of my female Christian friends seem to do (maybe it’s easier to have a passionate romance with a male deity if you’re a woman?) Prayer still feels strange to me, like talking into a stubborn silence. I have a keen sense of the limit of our knowledge of what is going on ‘out there’.”””

    I’m not sure what your other readers think, but I think it is here where you get to the heart of the issue. I feel you want to belong and believe but that you can find no credible and rational evidence to support the leap into becoming a paid up member. I think in my own instance, this is because I don’t want to defraud myself. I want to live an honourable life where I can honestly feel comfortable with my decisions. I don’t want to feel that I have given in or that I have succumbed to the seduction of community and togetherness. Those things are magnetic yet if I reflect, I know that there are so many reasons to stay on the outside.

    Bertrand Russell articulates well the societal and environmental conditions that lead us to follow a faith. I sense in a way that your focus on Christianity ties in with what Russell writes that your choice of religion (generally) lies mostly in your parents’ background and what society and place you come from. This raises huge questions for me on the credibility of organised religion. It does not undermine any thoughts I might have on deism or pantheism of course, but it calls to question why in England people will be looking for belonging in Christianity whilst in Indonesia they might be seeking fulfilment in Islam. Coupled with the problematic relationship these religions have with each other and their theological differences, I shudder to think I would commit myself to the ‘wrong’ one.

    I wonder Jules have you been challenged by others on Pascal’s Wager? But this too for me is a shallow and ultimately unauthentic passage into that community of belonging and meaning that we yearn for.

    And through your interview with Fr. Guite, I have returned to Tolkien and his circle. It unsettles me a little that I am drawn to Tolkien (and others outwith that circle like Waugh) and I know reflectively it is as Russell would point out that it is because of our shared background. So as I read the work of the various Inklings I feel that I am being seduced but the attraction is akin to a moth to light, that I am compelled to continue, almost desperately hoping I can be rationally convinced. Lewis shared similar experiences I believe as he struggled with the rational versus imaginative hemispheric imbalance.

    He says in Surprised by Joy…
    “”Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.””

    I know Russell was aware of this and concluded that we need to build our lives upon the grim reality of “unyielding despair.”
    I will continue to read Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, Williams. In a sense I think this is intelligent and is a defence against taking a dogmatic atheistic position, but yet I know that I am also being seduced.

    • Thank you Jules and others who have commented on the post and I very much appreciate you sharing your story and your experience. From reading this I went out and bought ‘Grace Outpouring’ which I found very insightful. I now live in Australia and minister as an Anglican priest and in my ’50s its many years since I became a Christian aged 17 in a ‘breakthrough experience’. In midlife partly I think from a whole range of experiences serving as a NATO chaplain and then through pastoral tragedies and the ‘grind’ I lost the intellectual foundations for faith and left ministry. It was a decade ago when I came to read ancient philosophy especially Stoicism and then went on to read Pierre Hadot and then to Plotinus where I have read extensively into the Neo Platonic tradition and from there into the Christian Neo Platonist tradition that faith reignited. Your post reminded me of how the ecstatic thirst in me is not being met and so I bought the book, received the laying on of hands from a Pentecostal Pastor and now find in fact that my reading of Plotinus has ignored that ecstatic grace element in his writing. Thanks again for your post and may you wear the generous cloak of Justin Martyr and others with pride. May I also suggest that there is a meeting point with great integrity in Plotinus in whom Stoicism is also enfolded with generosity within the ‘regrowth’ of wings to return to the all.

      Fr. Gregory

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Stephen,

    You wrote:

    ‘I feel you want to belong and believe but that you can find no credible and rational evidence to support the leap into becoming a paid up member. I think in my own instance, this is because I don’t want to defraud myself.’

    It’s not quite that. I *do* believe in God, I’m just not sure I believe in all aspects of Christian theology (or, to be precise, I don’t), and I’ve been trying to work out this year if I believe in enough to call myself a Christian…In Judaism, I believe, there is much more flexibility about what one can believe about God and the afterlife while still being Jewish, I think perhaps there was such flexibility in Christianity up until the Council of Nicaea, when the new imperial-bishop complex insisted ‘right, THIS is what Christians believe, and if you don’t, you’re a heretic’. I, basically, am a heretic.

    As to wanting to belong, yes thats true…but I think if you’re genuinely searching for God you will always find companions on the road. It’s more that I think Christianity might be the way forward for my society as well as for myself – that I think our society and culture is not well, that we need more transcendence in our life, and the revival of Christianity might be one way towards that.

    As to your interest in the Inklings…I wonder if we have two sides to our nature, two hemipsheres, the rational and the imaginative. Why insist that the rational is more true than the imaginative? Why insist it is the only truth? I don’t think one can get values from rationality alone.

    I saw a quote from Tim Minchin today: ‘I think humanism is important because having a non-superstitious world-view allows you to go about your own business, making ethical choices based on a general desire to do the most possible good.’

    OK, but where does this ‘general desire’ come from? What is the rational basis for it?

    A humanist might reply: ‘well, that’s just how I feel’ – which is basically how I feel about God / the ecstatic – I feel that God is there.

    Or a humanist might say ‘it’s rational to do good for others because it makes you happy’. But believing in God and belonging to a religion also makes you happy, so why not do that?

    I guess my point is, I don’t think rationalism is enough of a basis for ethics, and that our ‘general desires’ to do good are always to some extent non-rational. So we shouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed of the non-rational, and we shouldn’t dismiss it as merely ‘superstition’.

    Am also exploring the work of Owen Barfield by the by, what an interesting man.

    All best

    Jules

  • Mark says:

    Jules, I enjoy keeping up with your adventures. I’ve commented here before about your experiments with Christianity. As fulfilling as it would be to finally find my place among an active and faithful group of believers, I have been (since losing, at about age 20, the Catholic faith I was born into) consistently unable to make the required leap(s). There are simply too many details and obscurities of doctrine and dogma that I can longer believe, much as I’ve tried over the years.

    I also seem to be nearly immune to the kind of ecstatic experience that might–in the absence of a convinced intellect–draw me in and keep me in. And this after nearly half a lifetime of searching, praying, learning, going on retreats, etc. I believe the ache for community and ecstatic experience that some (not all) of us feel is a valid response to something in us that arises from beyond mere biology. I’m perfectly happy to consider that “something” the soul. I am also perfectly happy to regard the soul as belonging, ultimately, to God–whether it is a “piece” of God, or something that he created and that he will eventually draw back to himself.

    For many reasons the existence of God (as creator and source of our moral yearning) has always seemed to me to be self-evident. It has also seemed evident to me (since my early 20s) that each of the world’s religions is a culturally-bound attempt to come to grips with enigmatic, ineffable realities that defy and deflect anything like a head-on approach. I see religious doctrine, of whatever stripe, as necessarily metaphorical. The rub, then, is the impossibility of settling into weekly worship with any particular sect, Christian or otherwise, built on specific doctrinal details. My wife is an active believer, and I get some communal benefits by hanging around with her and her church friends and participating as much as I can in the “good works” portion of their program, but there’s always the sense of alienation caused by my inability to embrace the community as a fully believing participant. It’s frustrating.

    I wonder–you don’t say much (or at least I’ve not seen it) about eastern religions, metaphysics, and cosmologies, some of which seem, to me at least, to be more suitable to you (and in some ways more in line with Stoic thought) than your rather attenuated version of Christianity. Have you done much exploration in eastern ideas?

    In any case, well done in 2013. Thanks for sharing your journey here.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Well, I wonder how many people in your wife’s community also have quiet doubts about this doctrine or that doctrine…but there’s still a value in trying to build or join a community to worship God and follow the good, no? And yes, these communities are culturally-bound, and if I was born in the Middle East I’d probably be a Muslim – but I hope I’d find my way to something like Sufism, an Islam of love and joy, rather than Wahabbism. I think within every religious tradition there are people who follow love and joy and people who follow self-righteousness and hate.

    I have explored Eastern religions and philosophies fairly deeply, and I love and admire them, but something probably nationalistic in me says, why bow to a Tibetan guru when you have such a rich religious tradition here? All the art and literature that I love comes from the Christian-Hellenic tradition, and I think it may be easier for me to find my way to God through that – for others, perhaps it’s easier through Taoism or Buddhism.

  • Stephen says:

    Hi Jules and Mark
    Thank you for your replies and input. Jules, you ask an interesting question about the two hemispheres. I’m not even sure scientifically I’m convinced about what is going on in each and whether or not they can be easily apportioned ‘jobs’! But to use them metaphorically is helpful and it is a real tension in my life; the conflict between rational and imaginative thought (I note your comment on prioritising importance). I remember on my undergrad degree, doing a course lead by Mike Beaney (Imagination and Creativity) and I have been trying to recall what work I thought through on Descartes, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein etc (to no avail). Nevertheless, I am stuck on trying to come to terms with on the one hand, whether or not monism/materialism is as solid as I think, given that it might seem a little arrogant to state that we have conclusive proof that all observable phenomena can be identified either directly or indirectly, and how all of that pans out for implications on concepts of consciousness, monism/dualism, soul etc. On the other hand, I am also beginning to see a possibility of consciousness being pervasive in all material within our universe (chemical elements) which in certain circumstances and the right conditions allows self awareness. If I resist a dualistic leap of faith and rely on a purely material position, something like reductive physicalism, then these thoughts, conscious phenomena, imaginative incidences are quite real in a rational sense. (I’m appealing to the rational hemisphere again)
    Anyway, I’m stabbing around in the dark here, but essentially trying to come to terms with imagination as a real physical instance.
    If that is so, it leads on to many interesting possibilities and absurdities. I’m looking forward to understanding more about how all of this ties into ‘myth’ and Christianity’ by way of ‘reading more of the Inklings.
    Mark, I also come from a RC background and certainly miss the community elements but find it difficult to comes to terms with accepting a little and rejecting lots: sort of like Jules’ notion of being a heretic. I am aware this might be more of my problem: too uncompromising and not enough elbow room. I wonder if I am being too much of a purist or am I right to dig in on a position of authenticity and credibility (evidence position basically).
    The search continues.

  • Jules Evans says:

    By the by, no matter how fundamentalist he was in his apologetics, CS Lewis’ imagination was far weirder and more syncretistic – Prince Caspian, for example, is basically a Jesus-Bacchus fusion. Check out the original cover! http://www.eq5.net/img/lewimg/n-sett/1stEd04pc.jpg

  • Mark says:

    Good thoughts, gentlemen. In practical terms, I pretty much follow the line you mentioned, Jules–that is, I appreciate the value of what my wife and her friends are doing, in terms of community building and ethical action in the world, and I try to make a positive contribution. Participation in the worship is another matter, particularly in the RC church, where creeds and specific statements of belief are integral to just about every part of the ritual. When I do attend Mass, which isn’t often, I usually end up feeling hypocritical and a little depressed (about my loss of faith).

    I, too, have explored Eastern traditions a fair amount. But I know what you mean about Western-centric notions (particularly our Hellenistic patrimony) having a strong claim on our Western souls. I feel that very sharply–and my reading these days is heavy on Hadot, A.A. Long, and their sources, particularly the Romans. Eastern traditions, though, don’t seem as worried as we are about driving participants toward assent to specific creedal formulations. It may be my simplistic reading, but many of the Eastern religions/philosophies seem to have more capacious, less fretful, cosmologies than do we–they seem more comfortable with myth and metaphor (recognized as such) and open to absorbing and learning from other traditions. I suppose I’m thinking mostly in terms of Vedanta here, though certainly not exclusively. I, too, share your aversion to putting myself in the hands of a guru or lama–no thank you. Although, there was certainly an aspect of that in the Hellenistic schools, unless I’m mistaken.

    Stephen, the search does indeed continue. And I’m finally (at 54!) beginning to understand that the search is never finished, at least for chronically unsatisfiable people like me. And I don’t claim that distinction as some kind of badge–I wish I could find a faith and just settle down. Sometimes my spiritual journey calls to mind a pertinent line from Captain Beefheart: “Somebody’s had too much to think!” Perhaps the most useful advice on all this comes from Marcus: “Stop worrying about what a good man is, and be one.”

    A side note: This discussion brought to mind a poem by the wonderful, but often quite dismal, Philip Larkin, Church Going. If you’re interested, here ’tis:
    http://www.artofeurope.com/larkin/lar5.htm

    Cheers, fellas. And a Happy Christmas to all.

  • Stephen says:

    Jules: The cover. Seen that dozens of times and never twigged! Lovely.

    Mark: I’m not too far behind you in age; turned 46 this month. The term Stoic Sage sprang to mind when you mentioned, separately, guru and Romans. I have been doing some reading of late specifically on Stoicism and formalised it by working through the Faculty course on NewStoa http://stoicscollege.com/college_ses.php

    I am quite openly non-committal and not claiming to be a Stoic, but am happy to learn about their world view with an open mind.
    Another nod to Jules as I discovered them through Jules’work and great finds like the work of Guite etc.

    I had not come across that Larkin one before, love it..

    “For, though I’ve no idea
    What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
    It pleases me to stand in silence here”

    Best wishes to you all for the holiday period.

    Stephen

  • Jim says:

    Hi Jules,

    I am happy for you that you had a euphoric spiritual experience. In principle an atheist such as myself has no problem with people wanting to get together and have such experiences. The problem I have is when those people start calling themselves Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Orphics because of all the baggage these terms carry.

    By calling yourself a Christian, you are tacitly giving power to those sects of Christianity that really believe in every letter of the bible. People who think that the final word on spirituality, morality, indeed all aspects of life, was handed down to mankind in the first century and that every step forward from that barbaric ignorant worldview is a step towards damnation. People who, given the opportunity, would thrust society back to the dark ages, stone children to death for leaving the faith, and burn witches at the stake as outlined in the Malleus Maleficarum.

    If we are to build a global civilization, which we surely must if we are to survive as a species, tribalism needs to stop. Religion is a major source of tribalism, where people who look the same, speak the same language, and have a shared history will nevertheless line up to murder each other over rival interpretations of the faith.

    No one is seriously suggesting that subjective experience does not exist. When Pinker says that “traditional sources of belief … should be dismissed as sources of knowledge,” he is talking about the claims to certainty about things which no one can be certain of. He is frustrated (like I am) with people who claim to know things, with absolute certainty, that they can not possibly know. There is no reason to believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have meaningful, even life changing, subjective spiritual experiences.

    • Jules Evans says:

      What you got against Orphics?!

      By calling myself a Christian, I don’t see myself as giving power to any sect…I mean, you could say that by calling yourself an American, you are giving power to Neo-Cons, say, or that by calling myself British I am giving power to the English Defence League. There are good and bad elements within every label. Also I don’t know any contemporary Christians who stone children to death for leaving their faith – in fact, I don’t know any examples of this from history either, so I think you went a bit overboard on that example!

      I agree that we need to come together as a species, but seeing as most of the species believes in God, I don’t think simply saying ‘religion must stop’ is going to achieve that.

      If you’re frustrated with people who claim to be certain about things which no one can be certain of, does that mean you don’t like atheists…and that we should all be different varieties of agnostic (some with an inclination to think there is a God, others with an inclination to think there isn’t)?

      OK, on a different note – thanks for your openness to my and other people’s subjective spiritual experiences. I know that atheists have such experiences too – have you had one? Im curious what people make of them.

      all best

      Jules

      • Jim says:

        The problem with your analogy is that you are comparing a nationality (that which I am) with an ideology (that which I believe). You wouldn’t be tempted to replace the word “American” or “British” with “Human.” Now to draw a more appropriate analogy, by calling myself a Republican do I tacitly give more power to Neo-Cons or Tea Party extremists? I certainly do. In American politics 66 people in the House of Representatives effectively have ground the legislative process to a halt. If there was no Republican party, or one that distanced itself from these lunatics then they would have much less power than they currently posses.

        You’re right, I don’t know of any contemporary Christians who stone children to death. But it says to do it right here: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy%2021:18-21 . If you think Jesus repudiated any of the Old Testament nonsense you are mistaken. While most pious Christians have recognized the immorality in this commandment, there are many other sources of suffering they can take a bow for. Abortion clinic bombings, prevention of stem cell research, and preaching the sins of condom use in AIDs riddled African nations are a few. Not to mention the massive state of ignorance of basic facts in the US on purely religious grounds. 31% of people here are young earth creationists, with another 22% in the intelligent design camp.

        If we continue to allow the major religions of the world to persist, we will almost certainly never come together as a world society. The basic problem is, if you don’t believe in *MY* religion, you are damned. It says it in every holy book. Not only that, you are a danger to my children because you might try to convert them. Muslims in countries all over the world would kill you for that. Every single Muslim is taught that the penalty for apostasy is death. This is a major obstacle to a world society.

        When pressed in such a fashion, most atheists I know easily admit that they cannot be absolutely sure there is no god. But they will be quick to point out that they are not the ones making the positive claim. What they explicitly deny the existence of is the god of Abraham. Jesus rose bodily into heaven, walked on water, turned water to wine. God gave Moses the 10 commandments on tablets on top of Mt. Sinai. God created the world in 6 days. These are, in principle, testable claims to knowledge about the world which are in direct opposition to the laws of physics, geology, and cosmology. It is almost certainly true that they are all false. Can I be absolutely sure? Of course not. But I also can’t be absolutely sure that tomorrow fire will be hot. Is the god of Deism true? Maybe, but there aren’t any good reasons to believe in that god, let alone worship it.

        On the other note, not anywhere near the level you expressed in your post. But subjective experiences are part of the human condition, some people just don’t label them as such.

        • Jules Evans says:

          Well, according to the laws of physics, who the hell knows what’s going on…Jesus could be both alive and dead…or alive in several multiverses. Anyway, the point I’d like to make is that physicists are aware quite how limited our knowledge of the universe/multiverse is. Doesn’t mean Jesus really did walk on water, but compared to, say, string theory it doesn’t seem that bizarre to me.

          Anyway, if you’re happy with your world-view, good for you, I wish you all the best with it. It doesn’t fit with my experience and I guess I hunger for something more. But if I lived in the States and was surrounded by so many foaming-at-the-mouth evangelists I’m almost certain I would reject Christianity and become a Buddhist / transcendentalist / anything-but-Christian. Organized religion is indeed often a very ugly business. But I think that ugliness comes from us, and we won’t get rid of it by wiping out religion (even if we could do that, which I don’t think we can). Organized skepticism, last time I looked, was not a Utopian society – it also has its problems, its divisions, its feuds, its animosity. As Kant said, out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

  • Stephen says:

    It’s an interesting point about labels. Atheism is a word I have been comfortable to carry as something that I am identified with. As I read the posts above though, considering the original Greek meaning of ‘not’ god’, then Atheism becomes rather dogmatic and hypocritical does it not? If I can claim to be atheistic then I’m claiming certainty. Without getting into hard and soft versions, the layperson surely is certain or not certain or at a certain degree between. The retort ‘prove it’ comes to mind. I can’t prove there is no god. I can’t prove there is, so I suppose I am some kind of agnostic. But then again, what do I mean by god? This is where the waters become muddy. It is all well and good to be an atheist and be certain that the Christian god doesn’t exist (how certain?) but what about any God or first mover, or what type of god? We tend to be suckers for anthropomorphism when we attack notions of a god. I’m sure Dawkins has admitted that Deism is a possibility but like Jim above (Hello Jim!) is atheistic in the sense of contemporary heno/poly/monotheistic religions. So really is he not agnostic? And again conceptual problems arise: there are many Christians I’m sure who are pantheists but are happy to be Christians as their current cultural baggage is so.
    I’m increasingly moving away from hard atheism towards agnosticism. It’s not that I have found any evidence of a god, but more that I cannot be sure that I am 100% definite that ‘any’ god/intelligence does, has or will exist in the supranatural sense.
    And this is the problem with labels. Calling myself atheistic leaves the door open to the challenges (perhaps not as many) that theists face.
    All the best.

    • Jim says:

      Hi Stephen,

      Dawkins is careful to use the words “almost certainly” in his polemics. So while Deism is a possibility for him, he wants to shake off the typical agnostic baggage and say “How likely is it that the god of Deism exists?” Since all of the arguments for its existence are flawed, and there is no evidence for it, he says not very likely.

      The problem with a word like “atheist” is that it implies an ideology where none exists. As has been pointed out in many books, we don’t have words for non-astrologers. Is astrology false? Almost certainly. But you wouldn’t be tempted to say you are agnostic on the topic of astrology unless pushed into a technical discussion with an apologist for astrology. “But Stephen, you can’t possibly prove that astrology is false. It sounds like you are the one making the positive claim!” This is a game that is played by charlatans the world over.

      In his “Letter to a Christian Nation”, Sam Harris said “Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This is dead on. If you want to say I am agnostic then I would certainly be a weak agnostic. I don’t think its a 50/50 shot god exists. I think there is an infinitesimally small possibility. And there would need to be extraordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim, not crying statues and body marks.

      • Stephen says:

        Hi Jim
        Yes, I agree with you generally on the astrology example, but perhaps that’s because it’s not a widespread phenomena like religion.
        Now I know I’m splitting hairs but if pressed you would technically have to say you were agnostic on astrology too wouldn’t you? Or can you prove with complete certainty that it’s all nonsense? I think it is nonsense in the highest degree but the skeptic in me tells me that nothing is certain, only that I can work with a working hypothesis based on probability.

        • Jim says:

          I would never feel tempted to say I am agnostic because I know I am arguing with a pernicious or ignorant individual, and that other people’s worldviews on the subject might very well depend on my response. If pushed to “prove a negative,” which we all know is a bogus thing to have to do, I would start asking hard questions. Why does astrology accept the precession of the equinoxes when saying that it is currently the “age of aquarius,” but not when casting horoscopes? Why is the list of supposedly significant celestial objects limited only to naked eye objects known to the ancients? Why don’t identical twin’s lives play out the same way since their horoscope input is identical? The ignoring of lat/lon of birth, atmospheric refraction, asteroids… the existence of major differences in horoscopes cast from different astrologers… All of this should tell us something. What is the evidence this works any better than random chance? None you say? Hmmmm…

          It wasn’t that long ago that everyone believed in astrology, and questions like the above could land you on trial for being “impious.” Religious apologists try to use the whole “nothing is certain” line of reasoning to try and teach creationism in schools. Should I relent, throw up my hands and say “oh well you’re right, nothing is certain,” or should I ask the hard questions and demand rigorous proof when people try to fleece my children and me?

          In the US we have this show on the “history” channel called Ancient Aliens. The men on this show are professional charlatans, who make their living with the words “I’m not saying this happened, but its possible and you can’t prove it didn’t.” Do we really have no choice but to say “You’re right, continue promoting superstition and pseudoscience good sir” ? I think that would be profoundly immoral.

          • Stephen says:

            Thanks for your points Jim. I’m not condoning throwing your hands in the air and succumbing to paralysis. The ancient skeptics had to deal with this accusation. As I mentioned above, I suppose you have to try and live with a working hypothesis based on probability and evidence. Yes and this does not help win arguments when faced with a weak willed and malleable audience, but scientists have to do this all the time. If they don’t, and they go further than what their evidence shows, they risk attack from being exposed as pushing an agenda and their credibility disappears in a puff of smoke. The irony is, their adversaries are those who normally rely on rhetoric not evidence and do exactly as you say; twist, manipulate, confuse, complicate.

            But as I see it they have no choice.

            We have a textbook example of this going on here in Australia presently. Recently we have had a general election and a far right neo-conservative party now hold the keys to Australia. This party makes the British conservatives look like left of centre progressives.

            Their policy has been among other things, to shut down debate, which is an astute political move in the short term. (morally reprehensible too) Because of this they have been highly successful in dismantling public institutions, public awareness and public debate around many issues but most worryingly Climate Change.

            Their policy on climate change is basically, it’s all a lie. you cannot prove it etc. The issue that science has, firstly stems from the fact that they are not good at communicating, or should I say are not good at getting a collective voice out there. The second issue is around the can’t prove it part. When pressed they will not lie, unlike politicians. They have to remain unprofessional and scientific, unlike politicians. Following from this and edited through a collaborative Murdoch empire of media in Australia, the climate change deniers are winning hands down.

            So, faced with the issues, I’m not saying “You’re right, continue promoting superstition and pseudoscience good sir”. The solution goes beyond evidence as I hope my points have shown. I welcome debate and credible skepticism, far removed from agenda driven policy making.

            In religious matters, there are real questions to be answered that overlap the boundaries of psychology, science, sociology. And like you we should be highlighting the nonsense and dismissing it in a much better way, but by doing so you might really be feeding the fire.

            Finally, I accept that there are some things that scientists will never explain well: love, faith, cricket etc.

  • Jules Evans says:

    So what are your positive beliefs, then? I mean, what is your ethical world-view? Materialist-utilitarian?

    • Jim says:

      Utilitarianism is too unsupported for me. “Something is only good if it is useful.” Says who? What is the evidence for this claim? With regards to Materialism, I again don’t like labels like this. Call me simple, but I just want to ask some very basic questions. What is the evidence for what you are saying? At some point we have to bootstrap ourselves, and this is where I choose to do it. And I don’t believe this is an arbitrary spot because it definitely works in many fields to great effect.

      Say you’re going to go out on a boat, and you’re afraid you’ll be seasick. You go to the pharmacy and you pick up a magnetic bracelet and a package of dimenhydrinate. You pop a pill and put on the bracelet and find that you don’t get seasick. Was it the pill, or was it the bracelet that cured your motion sickness? Most people won’t care, and will happily continue using both as long as they can enjoy their day out on the water. It takes a disinterested third party, ready to do some rigorous work to mine the truth here.

      I hope you will not find it too presumptuous to draw some parallels to your ecstatic experience. Is it god or Christ that reached out and touched you to cause your feeling of ecstasy? Or can humans, under the right conditions, feel bliss from no more than a verbal cue? Native Americans would go on “vision quests” in the forest, where after days of sensory deprivation and solitude they would see a vision, most of whom would likely describe it as “ecstatic.” We know these sorts of things happen under similar conditions all over the world. Indian Yogi’s spend days, months, even decades in a cave for these sorts of subjective experiences. Even the most sober minded of individuals, like Ernest Shackleton for instance, report hallucinations under duress.

      So is it a state of mind, a configuration of chemicals and neurons dancing across the microstrucure of your brain which causes this, or God? Again I ask, what is the evidence?

      • Jules Evans says:

        Well, it sounds to me like your ethics / philosophy is mainly negative – demanding that other people provide evidence for their ethical beliefs. How do *you* decide what you should do with your life? Evidence can certainly help us to decide which medicine is more effective, but not all of life is like that – in particular, ethics is not so open to evidence-based thinking, because you still have to decide, what should I measure, what should I value, what is my definition of flourishing.

        As Max Weber pointed out a century ago, evidence-based thinking can’t tell you what the goal of your life should be (achievements, happiness, inner peace, spiritual fulfillment etc). To do that, I believe, you need faith, you need to say ‘this is how it feels to me, this is what feels right to me, this is what I think constitutes a flourishing life’. At that point, you can try to look at the evidence and say ‘OK, but what have been the fruits of this ethical direction in my life?’

        As to your point about my spiritual experience, I think that’s a fair point. As I said, I’m not quite sure what the experience was, I just hope it leads to good fruits in my life. Yes, as you say, it seems other people have similar experiences in various spiritual traditions – and I believe atheists also have such experiences sometimes.

        Such experiences clearly happen in my body – my brain, my nervous system, my emotions etc. But that doesn’t mean that’s all they are. When you fall in love with someone, you could say ‘love is the release of serotinin and dopamine etc’…but thats not all the experience is, it’s a lot more than that. So I think part of the ‘evidence’ that we need to look to is first person experience – what does it feel like, what did it seem to say to you, what insights did you draw from it, and to what extent are those insights useful to your life and your society?

        Have you read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience? It discusses some of these questions with more eloquence than I can muster.

        • Jim says:

          I haven’t read “Varieties of Religious Experience,” but it’s on the reading list now. If this conversation becomes tedious let me know. I realize this is a blog and not a forum.

          “How do *you* decide what you should do with your life?”
          I decide what I should to do with my life based on what I *want* to do. How do I determine my wants? I don’t. They just exist, and arise from the background of past experiences.

          You may say “But wait a minute. Sometimes I really want to do something, like eat an entire tub of ice cream, but I stop myself because I know I’ll get fat. This is what I am talking about when I say ‘How do you decide what you should do.’” The thing is, you didn’t really *decide* that you don’t want to eat ice cream. You had one moment in which you wanted to eat ice cream, immediately followed by another moment in which you wanted to not eat ice cream. You rationalize it after the fact. One of your wants unconsciously prevails.

          With all respect to Max Weber, ethics is indeed open to evidence based thinking. If you concede that one set of ethics can be superior to another, there must be some standard with which you are measuring the difference between systems. The only way to prove one theory over another is by examining the evidence. Yes, we do need to decide on a definition of flourishing life. But I think this will have be done incrementally. Given a definition of “flourishing life,” something I don’t propose to do here, how does one set of values perform over another in achieving that life? This is an answer that cannot be obtained by sitting in an armchair and thinking really hard. You need to see how it performs in the real world. Philosopher A says “Treat thy neighbor as you would treat thyself.” Philosopher B says “Treat thy neighbor as you would treat thy enemy.” How do we determine which of these helps us achieve our definition of flourishing life? We can argue all day, but evidence will be the final arbiter.

          I completely agree that “love” has real meaning for you. It makes you happy, helps you achieve your flourishing life. But there is no need to appeal to supernatural being to talk about all of the things you outline above. As Douglas Adams said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

  • Cate says:

    It’s funny, you and I seem to be on the same wavelength this year. Many times I’ve read your posts and I’ve been going through something similar at the same time. I too became more Christian this year, but like you, tried to join a Christian group and found it lacking. I still consider myself a follower of Christ, but don’t identify with a lot of the framework of Christianity, or many Christians. I need both Reason and the Numinous. Like you, I balance Stoicism and Christianity and am open to other wisdom traditions. Like you I have been ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or something) though I’m still fighting it.

    Something I found is that some medications I was given to help with sleep issues and anxiety, after being on them awhile have cut me off from my higher self and God. I have had ecstatic experiences and feelings and could feel God, but haven’t been able to for a long time now because of the meds (which I’m now tapering off of, even though the problems I went on them for remain) and it’s a terrible empty, lonely feeling.

    I wish you the best on your journey and I’m glad your book got the notice it deserves.

  • Jules says:

    Thank you Cate

    I think I’d find any human community lacking in some respect…but I’ve found much to love in Christian community (and in humanist / philosophy communities too…).

    I love your sense of following Christ rather than being a ‘Christian’, that seems a MUCH better idea. Though I think the communal is important, of course.

    Re oscillating between stoicism and Christianity, William James did that too, so we’re in good company. Check out an article my colleague Emma Sutton wrote on his Stoicism, it’s on the net.

    Well, very happy Xmas and hope both our health improves in 2014!

  • Cate says:

    I’m reading the Emma Sutton piece now, it’s very good thank you. Merry Christmas and yes good health to us both!

  • Jules Evans says:

    Heres a link to it if others want to read it:

    http://williamjamesstudies.org/4.1/sutton.pdf

  • Artemis D'Arcy says:

    Hi Jules, great read!! I also gave my life to Jesus in 2012.. and was wrestling with similar questions at the beginning of my walk with God but have been so overcome with His grace that I can’t even try and look back :) I hope you have are having a great Christmas and happy new year!!

  • Stephen says:

    As this thread has evolved I have come to think that as animals, albeit higher primates, we are still just a cog of nature away in difference from cats and dogs etc. We are endowed with reason, self awareness and consciousness. However ethics, I believe more and more, is a cultural expression varying through place and time, thus there is no preordained way of behaving. It would be nice to think otherwise but I cant see it.
    I wonder then that for materialists, which I believe I am, what difference do I make of an ethical code that a society has grown that is secular in nature and one that is religious? Aren’t both just ways of getting along in the world? I mean what inherently is problematic with say being a Christian atheist? That is, one who is agnostic at best on the supernatural but is committed broadly to the ethical code of a religion with it rules of living?
    Think of it as living in a cold unfeeling world, accepting that, but still having the choice to wear Levis or Wranglers, whilst your here walking about.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Re the word ‘supernatural’ – I don’t think you need to believe in the supernatural to be a Christian. What seems supernatural to us is surely just something beyond our present physics – just as a plane would seem supernatural to a caveman.

    Jim, I’m not sure your ethics – as you describe them – are a good guide for an individual or a society – they don’t sound like any sort of ethics at all (I do what I want, and it doesn’t matter what I reason ethically because I’ve already unconsciously decided what I want to do anyway). Surely that’s not enough?

    But I agree with you that, once you decide on a definition of ‘flourishing’, you might then be able to use evidence to see how well a person’s life fits with that ethics. But science can’t measure everything – it can’t measure how meaningful a person’s life is, or how kind they are to other people, can it? So I still insist there is a limit of scientific evidence. However, you can still rely on other forms of evidence, ie ‘how does a person treat the people around them?’ As someone said, you can judge a tree by its fruit…

    Stephen, why say we live in a cold, unfeeling world? Is that how nature seems to you? Doesn’t it seem to brim with life, love, laughter, joy, wisdom, consciousness and dance, as well as suffering, ignorance and violence? It’s not cold and unfeeling at all, it’s hot and passionate!

    Happy Christmas all

    Jules

  • Stephen says:

    I want to feel nature in that way: warm, loving etc. However beyond our cultural ethics I see a world that is pretty savage – I might see a robin by a trickling stream and smile, spend a moment or two contemplating the beauty of nature and even conjure up a Hardy poem from my memory. But what does the robin see or any other non human animal? A desperate search for food, a wary eye out for a hawk, another cold night coming at dusk?
    Beyond our constructions of ethics I see a cold unfeeling dispassionate planet of atoms. I know, its horrible and I wish I had another view but I’m presently stuck with it. I think that is why I’m attracted to Stoicism. Perhaps I want to avoid despair.
    I am open to suggestions. I’m currently engrossed in Tolkien in no small part to you this blog and subsequently Guite’s Inklings’ talk. I’m trying to get my head around what Tolkien means by sub-creators and myth and reality. I am interested in Lewis’ conversion as a result of ‘reason’ though I believe he was badly shaken by Anscombe’s arguments on that matter (which I might add I know nothing of the content as yet as it is on my to be read list).

  • Jules Evans says:

    Another book on this theme which you might find interesting is Mary Midgely’s Science and Poetry, which was an inspiration for Malcolm Guite. And also I think your view of nature as cold, indifferent and atomistic is pre-quantum – it’s much more integrated than that. We are all one, energy inter-flowing and transforming, and our consciousness is a part of that….

    Well, what do I know, I’ve barely read any quantum physics!

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Jules, I’ll look into the Midgely reference. I remember reading some of her work on my undergraduate degree set by Rosalind Hursthouse (a plug for Rosalind, what a wonderful teacher).

  • Barry says:

    Hey Jules – thanks for an excellent and always fascinating blog during 2013 and congratulations on getting a Times book of the year award – most deserved

  • Stephen says:

    Since reading this particular post, I have come across the work of Joseph Campbell which I have found to be really interesting concerning ways of thinking about the conceptualisation of religion and the interaction with earth, environment and society.

  • Vanessa says:

    Hey Jules – just read this epic. I haven’t read McGilchrist’s book yet, but I think ‘liberation from the tyranny of the left-brain’ will also come through the feminine getting in a healthier balance with the masculine. Women can be as misogynistic as men…and misogyny tends to despise/patronise what is intuitive/bodily/ expansive/spiritual/ creative in women….i.e. right brained. Women finding their voice, and men choosing to listen (though I don’t mean that men aren’t right-brained too), is key…in my rather cliched opinion! I will read the book and see what he says about that.

    And I agree with Stephen re Joseph Campbell and wonder if he might enjoy Wendell Berry too. If you’ve not come across him before, try: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays.

  • Vanessa says:

    And I didn’t know about your getting a Times book of the year award…that’s fantastic Jules…congratulations. x.

  • Gerard Mikols says:

    I must say I was a little disappointed to learn in the last month first about Jules book and this website(very excited) and then that this last year he has become a Christian(little disappointed). A bit frustrated to learn that his search for meaning was not adequately satisfied by philosophy and philosophy clubs. I myself don’t believe in god, but don’t want to put down believers. I see no data for god but understand that the search for community and making ecstatic experiences more meaningful provides some reasons to believe in god as well as accepting what you grew up with. Interesting for me to learn that the UK has less of the religious craziness than the US. At least in American I think the biggest negative bias is still probably toward those who don’t believe in god. We are probably more hated than even the Muslims. Having both angry atheists and religious people of all sorts to mainly choose from does not make community creation easy. Fortunately as an introvert, I am happy with a small community or at least mostly. Good luck and skill to Jules in his new pursuit. Not sure if this changes means less attention to this forum.

  • Stephen says:

    Hi Gerard
    I think one of the difficulties in discussing these concepts, positions and possibilities is that we have no universal consensus on what god is.
    As an atheist, I immediately think of a beaded monotheistic chap, and discuss and debate using those goggles, as

  • Stephen says:

    … Does Dawkins, Hariis, Hitchens etc. I have come to accept that as being problematic. Unless you are arguing against antediluvian old testament thumping fundamentalists, then the tools are useless.

  • Gerard Mikols says:

    Hi Stephen. So many things to comment on from above. For me being an atheist means that I have no data for god(what I mean by god is an intelligent something rather than nothing that came first and in some way either created or significantly influenced the nature of existence) and to me the reasons for believing in god in the absence of any data seem self serving and at least not honest for me. I don’t claim others don’t have experiences or reasons that making believing in god perfectly authentic. I actually believe in the metaphysics or conclusions about the underlying nature of reality that reason and data has no advantage over faith. I can not convince someone that she needs data to believe in god as explaining the underlying nature of reality or tell her her reasons or just plan faith is wrong. Maybe this gives the impression I am agnostic but using agnostic seems to act as if I am considering some data or reasons which I am not. I can never prove I am right there is no god, which is not exactly the same as being unsure in the sense I believe agnostic is used. If based on above someone said I was agnostic, I would not argue.

    What I do believe is that what you believe about the metaphysics should not influence your conclusions about the good and the true where I believe reason and data have an advantage over faith.

    I also believe that knowledge of the last especially 50 years makes it difficult to just use the ancients or even thinkers from 200 years ago. Also, I think science has made philosophy skittish about drawing conclusions more broadly because of the inability to meet the expectations of the scientific method or even prove statistically significant correlation.

    I do believe that beauty or what I label gydessness(relation of each human to themselves and the outside world other than other humans) is an important human experience that I think helps explain creativity, awe, curiosity, joy, ecstasy, and other such human experiences that are not easily explained through the good and the true.

    Anyway, it is great to see others who are bringing philosophy into the public sphere and trying to create some excitement around it.

    I have spent my last 30 years working at the University of Chicago so have been fortunate to be in an atmosphere where ideas and philosophy can be pursued. My concern is that even a place like the University of Chicago people get stuck in there thinking and lose an openness to being challenged.

    My overall view is that we are each stuck after reading the best stuff we can find to develop our own philosophy that we then put out in the public forum with others who have done the same to hear their critique of my philosophy and for them to hear my critique of theirs to see if we can develop some common ground about what we each believe rather than arguing what Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, or Diogenes believed or said. At the University of Chicago much of the argument if it is not narrow and technical is about what others believed or said. Accuracy here can help, but I don’t think it is enough.

    I do believe that the true and the good are not relative but understand like Socrates cautioned us that it is very difficult to find the true and the good and be certain of it.

  • britishaggro isles says:

    i can empathise with your new-found (relatively) belief, however, I find I cannot share it, for the reason I stated before (ie, insufficient pr/representation for the feminine – even if I look like the back-end of a bus).

  • Jules Evans says:

    There was a great comment by a Father Gregor – it hasnt shown up here for some reason so here it is:

    Thank you Jules and others who have commented on the post and I very much appreciate you sharing your story and your experience. From reading this I went out and bought ‘Grace Outpouring’ which I found very insightful. I now live in Australia and minister as an Anglican priest and in my ’50s its many years since I became a Christian aged 17 in a ‘breakthrough experience’. In midlife partly I think from a whole range of experiences serving as a NATO chaplain and then through pastoral tragedies and the ‘grind’ I lost the intellectual foundations for faith and left ministry. It was a decade ago when I came to read ancient philosophy especially Stoicism and then went on to read Pierre Hadot and then to Plotinus where I have read extensively into the Neo Platonic tradition and from there into the Christian Neo Platonist tradition that faith reignited. Your post reminded me of how the ecstatic thirst in me is not being met and so I bought the book, received the laying on of hands from a
    Pentecostal Pastor and now find in fact that my reading of Plotinus has ignored that ecstatic grace element in his writing. Thanks again for your post and may you wear the generous cloak of Justin Martyr and others with pride. May I also suggest that there is a meeting point with great integrity in Plotinus in whom Stoicism is also enfolded with generosity within the ‘regrowth’ of wings to return to the all.

    Fr. Gregor

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