F1.large100 years ago this year, James Joyce published Dubliners, his first book, in which he explored the lives of characters through what he called ‘epiphanies’. He’d been experimenting with epiphanies for some years, and even started to write a ‘book of epiphanies’, which he intended – with customary modesty – to send to every library in the world. You can read some of them here.

Epiphanies were, for Joyce the lapsed Catholic, a way to retain a sense of the sacerdotal in everyday life, while still throwing off the ponderous moralisms and barbarous superstitions of the Catholic Church. And many other writers and readers have found in the epiphany a way to retain a sense of spirituality beyond any institution or dogma. In that sense, the literary epiphany is a precursor of the ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ movement of today. And I think it reveals some of the limits of that movement.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek epi-phanein, meaning ‘to show forth, or manifest’. In Christian theology it usually means a revelation of God – in western churches, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the recognition of Jesus by the Three Magi, while in the orthodox church, Epiphany refers to the moment St John baptises Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes down and anoints him.

Joyce was particularly influenced by the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the 12th century philosopher, who described epiphanies as moments of realization, where you see a thing’s claritas (radiance), and its quidditas (whatness). The artist, like the mystic, sees something, hears something, tastes something, and is suddenly struck by its incredible luminous quidditas.

This can happen sometimes when you’re on magic mushrooms or LSD – you become completely transfixed by a packet of crisps, by their incredible crispiness. Or you may suddenly see a mate of yours, Jimmy, and be almost overwhelmed by their extraordinary Jimminess.

However, because we’re not being artists, we would struggle to communicate this sudden epiphany to other people. It would just sound weird. The artist, by contrast, has the ability to describe the thing in all its quidditas and to help us achieve a mini-epiphany too. They can capture the epiphany in language, like a lepidopterist capturing a butterfly.

A famous example is Gerard Manly Hopkins’ vision of a windhover:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king
-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

An epiphany is not necessarily positive or spiritual – especially not in Joyce. It might be a moment where a person suddenly has an insight into the fatuity and wretchedness of their condition, like a flash of lightening suddenly illuminating how lost you are. This is the negative epiphany, in the sense meant by William Burroughs when he described the phrase ‘naked lunch’ as ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what’s at the end of their fork’.

Or an epiphany might be a moment where a poor unsuspecting stooge in the street accidentally reveals their true character to the piercing, pitiless eye of the artist. The author and theatre critic Henry Hitchings occasionally posts these sorts of epiphanies on his Facebook page. For example:

Overheard, Shoreditch: “Do I look contained? Man’s gotta look contained if he wants to find sweet connections.” Somehow I’d take this more seriously if the speaker wasn’t carrying a golf umbrella.

or

Brick Lane. The first thing I hear is ‘Yo, Django, is the Moog at your place or Fabrice’s?’

Wordsworth and the Romantic epiphany

But literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is also replete with more positive epiphanies, in which the artist is struck by something, and seems to see in it a ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time’ (as TS Eliot put it). A thing catches the light, and suddenly seems a window to eternity.

That thing might be a wild flower, as it was for Blake, or a cat, as it was for Christopher Smart, or a couple walking down the street laughing, as it was for Marilynne Robinson.

Yesterday I read some of a book called The Poetics of Epiphany: nineteenth century origins of modern literary moment, by Ashton Nichols, which suggests the key influence on the literary epiphanies of modernism was Wordsworth. He tried in his poetry to capture what he called ‘spots of time’:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds -
Especially the imaginative power -
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood

WWordsworthThe revolution of Wordsworth’s poetry was to find epiphanies and spiritual revelations not in the typical epic subject matter of Greek myths or the Bible, but in the everyday objects and encounters of his neighbourhood. The most ordinary and common thing – a cliff, a tree, a leech-gatherer – becomes illuminated and holy when it strikes against his consciousness.

Wordsworth then tried, in The Prelude, to make an epic poem of his spiritual autobiography, by weaving together these epiphanies, like a rosary stringing together prayer beads.

Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters' consciousness.

Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters’ consciousness.

This would inspire 19th and 20th century novelists to try and use the novel as a way of exploring the spiritual history of their characters, and how the kairos of their consciousness intersected with the chronos of history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, explores both the grand sweep of the Napoleonic Wars, and also the spiritual history of Prince Bolkonsky – his moments of epiphany when wounded on the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino, when he looks on the infinite sky or feels the flower of ecstatic pity unfolding within him (Bolkonsky is constantly having epiphanies when wounded – he sounds a most impractical soldier).

Both DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf also tried to make the novel an exploration of the foldings and unfoldings of consciousness.  This is what DH Lawrence explores so beautifully in The Rainbow – the struggles of the souls of Tom, Lydia, Will, Anna and Ursula to come into being, to unfold into fullness, and their struggles with each other, how friendships and sexual relationships can either help our unfolding or prevent it.

Sometimes the novelistic epiphany involves a sudden sense of a hidden pattern behind the characters’ history – they run into an old love (as in Dr Zhivago) or an old enemy (as Bolkonsky does in War and Peace) and think – why them? Why now? Is this a coincidence or evidence that our lives are somehow weaved together, like works of art, if we could but glimpse the hidden pattern?

The epiphany as narcissistic self-glorification

Now here’s the key point. The literary epiphany was in some senses an evolution of a religious idea or experience in a post-religious age. But the epiphany in Wordsworth and his descendants is quite different to religious experiences in, say, Augustine, John Bunyan or John Wesley.

As Ashton Nichols explores, in religious epiphanies, the experience is very much tied to an theological explanation – it is a revealing of God and the nature of God. The theology is the trellis for the flower of the experience.

Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without 'an irritable reaching after fact and reason'

Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without ‘an irritable reaching after fact and reason’

In the Romantic and modernist epiphany, by contrast, ‘the powerful perceptual experience becomes primary and self-sustaining. Interpretation of the event may be important but it is always subject to an indefiniteness that does not characterize the powerful moment itself’, in the words of Ashton Nichols. He goes on: ‘the visible reveals something invisible but the status of the invisible component is left unstated. Its mystery becomes part of the value of the experience.’

So theology is abandoned and there is the raw experience, the raw emotion, and the encounter with…something, we can’t be sure what. Call it God, or the World-Soul, or perhaps some private deity of one’s own imagining (Blake’s Albion, Graves’ White Goddess, Allan Moore’s Glycon, Philip K. Dick’s Valis).

In fact, one could say that what is revealed in the moment is not God, but rather the God-like mind of the artist. Wordsworth wrote: ‘To my soul I say / I recognize thy glory.’  Shelley said of Wordsworth: ‘Yet his was individual Mind / And new created all he saw.’  There’s a kind of grand narcissism to the Romantic epiphany – it reveals not the greatness of God but the greatness of the poetic imagination. The poet becomes the Creator, the Animator, and all they see in nature is their own beautiful reflection. Where Milton tells the epic narrative of the human race, Wordsworth sings only the Infinite Me.

This narcissism, this pride, goes back perhaps to Petrarch, and beyond that to Gnosticism. Petrarch wrote that he had learnt from the ancient philosophers that ‘nothing is great but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself.’ Well…how nice for you Petrarch.

This, I think, is the risk of the modern epiphany. Firstly, there is little sense of how to achieve them through practice, prayer and discipline – the Romantic poet scorns all such discipline as deadening routine. Instead they wander around, perhaps on drugs, hoping for the moment to strike.

Secondly, there is little sense that such experiences are only valuable if they genuinely transform you and make you a better and more loving person. They become an end in itself, which culminates in Walter Pater’s dandyish aestheticism. The poet may be a complete bastard, as long as they have the occasional exquisite epiphany.

Thirdly, there is no sense of beliefs and theology as the trellis around which religious experiences become structured. The experience becomes paramount – and the poet may well hang any old theoretical nonsense around that experience. It leads ultimately to the incoherence and banality of much modern spirituality (one thinks of Paulo Coelho and The Celestine Prophecy, and their deification of coincidences as revelations).

Metamorphosis_of_NarcissusFinally, such moments become excuses not to glorify God, but to glorify one’s Self, one’s own incredible Mind. This is the Gnostic tendency – I am God, I am the Over-Soul, I am the Creator of Heaven and Earth – which one finds in Romanticism, in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Emerson and Nietzsche, and which blossoms in the New Age movement of today. This is a dangerous error, because it can become a puffed-up egotism which actually cuts us off from God.

We have forgotten how to pray, how to create routines, habits and practices to carry us through the dry spells and to integrate the epiphanies. And we have forgotten how to kneel.

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Cover-ScrutonToday I’m going to a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London, on music and well-being. It’s one of the best things about being a sort-of-academic – you get to hang out for a day with experts in a field. Today, that includes Roger Scruton, who is the British philosopher I most respect, although I have a love-hate relationship with his work.

What I love about Scruton’s writing is that he talks about the importance of beauty, transcendence and the soul, in a way that is sorely lacking in our culture, and especially in humanities academia. Scruton has a deep Platonic sense of the role of beauty in educating our emotions and taking us beyond our little egos. He’s written wonderfully on Wagner, especially, and how art transforms sexual desire.

We don’t talk about beauty and transcendence enough. In the humanities, we either replace Beauty with Theory, and end up obscuring the art beneath our own pretentious neologisms. Or we talk in mealy-mouthed terms about the economic impact of the arts, or its community impact, or its health impact – all of which are important, don’t get me wrong, but they miss the real magic of the arts, which is its ability to take us beyond ourselves and into the mystery of being. It’s the spiritual impact of the arts that is really significant, though very hard to measure.

However, what I don’t like about Scruton’s wiring is that he’s so utterly dismissive and contemptuous of pop music. Here he is in his new book, The Soul of the World:

In disco music, the focus is entirely on repeated rhythmical figures, often synthesized digitally and without any clear musical performance, in which musical arousal is brought to an instant narcissistic climax and thereafter repeated. There is neither melody nor harmonic progression but merely repetition…If you want an example, try Technohead, ‘I want to be a hippy’.

Now first of all, that song is not disco, it’s really bad house. Disco was a music in the 70s and early 80s. Get it right Roger! Secondly, to sum up the entire history of dance music by such an extremely dire example of it would be like summing up Wagner by only referring to his anti-semitism. It’s a Straw Man argument – using an extreme example to dismiss a whole category. Or here Roger is talking about Nirvana, REM, the Prodigy and Oasis in his book Modern Culture:

In the music of such groups the words and sounds lyricise the transgressive conduct of which fathers and mothers used to disapprove, in the days when disapproval was permitted.

Really? What transgressive conduct do Nirvana, REM and Oasis lyricise? Making love, having fun, feeling sad, feeling good – is this so transgressive? What in REM is nearly as transgressive as anything in Wagner’s Tristran, Strauss’ Salome or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?Oasis, Scruton goes on, are ‘trapped in a culture of near total inarticulateness’, which he exemplifies by their lines:

Damn my education, I can’t find the words to say About the things caught in my mind.

Again, no one would hold up Noel Gallagher as any kind of exemplary lyricist, as opposed to say Bob Dylan or David Bowie or Jarvis Cocker, or Morrissey, or Ray Davies. Gallagher is indeed pretty inarticulate, perhaps there’s even something sweet about his attempt to express emotions and his endless ‘maybes’ – but what he is very good at is creating catchy and occasionally moving songs. There’s also a lot of really bad poetry around from the 18th and 19th century – the good stuff is rare, nothing unusual about that. So focus on the good stuff rather than the ephemera.

When he dismisses a century of pop music as totally mechanical, totally soulless, totally without merit, Scruton slips from being a careful philosopher to being basically a Telegraph polemicist, smiling to himself as he imagines the offence his non-PC remarks will cause. There’s a nasty snobbery to it, a sneering at the masses with their bestial pleasures, which perhaps he feels he can allow himself as he himself rose from the working class.

big06716571511-1This sneering at the masses and at pop music goes back to Theodore Adorno by way of Allan Bloom, who like Scruton was a Platonist (he believes the arts have a crucial role to play in educating our emotions and forming our souls). Like Scruton, he thought pop music has basically deformed the soul of western culture since the 1950s. He similarly found a mass appeal by dismissing mass culture in unconsidered generalizations designed to appeal to the prejudices of angry newspaper readers. Take this, from his bestseller The Closing of the American Mind:

I believe [pop music] ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education…Rock music provides premature ecstasy…[If young people listen to it too much] it is as if the colour has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end…Their energy has been sapped and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living’.

Yes, pop music makes zombies of us all! This description reminds me of how the Church used to talk about masturbation, warning it would turn people into hollow-eyed empty shells.

Some pop is better than others…

I am a poster-boy for the Zombie generation. I grew up singing in a choir, then was lured away by indie and hip-hop in the 1990s. Then I discovered LSD and ecstasy, got into dance music, and before I knew it I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a couple of bad trips. I was a creature from Bloom’s worst nightmare – the colour drained from my cheeks, my eyes lifeless, expecting no more great things from the remaining decades of my life. Burnt out by 21.

However, I got out of this pit by discovering the great philosophy and culture which Bloom and Scruton think is the heart of liberal education – particularly Plato, the Stoics, Aristotle and others. Pop music hadn’t somehow made me spiritually incapable of engaging in that great conversation. And judging by the popularity of Greek philosophy today with ordinary punters, other people’s souls are still capable of enjoying philosophy.

And I also still love pop music. I still love dance music, even if I don’t take E anymore. I am slowly discovering classical music, beginning with the comfortingly repetitive beats of Ravel, Stravinsky and Philip Glass, before slowly making my way back to Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart. But I still love pop music. I love the folk of Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes and Boniver, I love the hip-hop of Public Enemy or Kanye West, I love the electronica of Orbital or Bjork, I love the rock music of the Pixies, David Bowie, or the Flaming Lips, I love the yearning of Arcade Fire or Kate Bush, the melancholy of Otis Redding and the Smiths. I love the ecstasy and transcendence of it, the sexual vitality of it, the release of it, and above all the beat of it.

Blur-livePop music emerged from the popular traditions of folk, blues and gospel, it spilled out of the Pentecostal and Baptist churches of America, and the Methodist churches of England, Wales and Ireland, and gave ordinary people a window to ecstasy, and a release from the daily grind of work. Anyone who thinks pop music is a hymn to the machine has never listened to Bruce Springsteen. It is a rage against the machine, a desire for freedom, for release, for dignity, for a connection to something bigger than your tiny corner of the factory.

Scruton argued in Modern Culture that high culture became a substitute for religion. Well, only for the tuxedoed few, sitting rigidly in their chairs at Glyndebourne and Bayreuth. Even then, it’s not much of a substitute – where is the community, where is the coming together except in the pure idealism of the music? Where is the caritas, and the connection with the common man which Jesus preached?

For ordinary people, pop music was our equivalent of Jacob’s Ladder. It was our way to climb up and see beyond our lives, to connect with the deeper and darker emotions which the shiny world of capitalism did not allow us to express during the week. Our way to express our loneliness and longing for togetherness, our way to express our hope for a better world. Pop music, not classical music, kept spirituality alive in the dry decades of the 20th century, and (to quote Dylan) it ‘got repaid with scorn’.

And yes, there was a lot of sex in it too, and a fair amount of swagger and booty-shaking. But I imagine there has always been a lot of sex in popular culture, if Chaucer’s poetry is anything to go by.

James_Brown_Live_Hamburg_1973_1702730029Popular folk music has, down the centuries, always been about dancing, It has been music to dance to. As classical music took itself ever more seriously, the dancing stopped, and even energetic toe-tapping would be frowned upon at Bayreuth. But Plato understood the power of dance, as a way of releasing pent-up emotion and getting people into ecstatic trance states. That’s why he legislated for communal dancing (done naked) in his Laws. Dance music helps us shake it out, work it loose, lose our minds, free our souls.

Let me put it as baldly as I can: pop music kept spirituality alive in western culture, when high culture had retreated into arid intellectualism. It tended the flame. And we have African-American music, culture and religion to thank for that, – although African-American culture was itself shaped by Jewish and Christian culture – and rhythm and blues was then shaped in new ways by white artists.

Yet guardians of high culture like Scruton despise precisely the aspects of pop culture that it got from African-American culture – its beat, its syncopation, its emotional honesty, its sexual candidness.

The war between mysticism and commercialism

The_Flaming_Lips_-_At_War_with_the_Mystics-1Having said all that, Scruton is not entirely off the mark that pop music has always had a tendency to commercialism. Debbie Harry said in 1979 that there is a war within rock and roll between mysticism and commercialism. At the moment, the commercial industry is winning that war. The music of the biggest stars at the moment – Rihanna, Pitbull, David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Justin Bieber or that death-vamp Lana Del Rey – reminds me of the line from 1984, about a boot stamping on a face for eternity. It’s so brutal, so materialist, so joylessly hedonistic. It sounds lost. There is no transcendence in it, no mysticism.

Perhaps the problem is that pop music was expected to shoulder an enormous spiritual weight from the 1950s onwards. Pop musicians became the unexpected legislators of the world, and they were just teenagers. Look at Bob Dylan in his London interviews in 1965, being constantly asked what his message is. He looks utterly freaked out by the spiritual expectations thrust upon him.

Pop music was always ‘spilt religion’, as Hulme described Romanticism. And a lot of the young musicians got lost in the spiritual and libidinal energy that their fans directed at them. The medium became the message. The artist – who should be a vessel for transcendence – became the God. That led to a few decades of Nietzschean rock posturing, with David Bowie in particular exploring the ‘rock star as God’ archetype, before various artists died or went mad, and Kanye West ended up screaming ‘I am a God, hurry up with my damn croissants’.

Kanye West: he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy

Kanye West: he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy

The deification of rock stars was not good either for the rock stars or the music. If pop music is going to return to health, we need to stop expecting it to be our religion, because that puts too much expectation on the rock stars. Let God be God, and let artists be vessels for the Spirit, rather than trying to be gods themselves.

Let them be broken and vulnerable, rather than trying to be 100 foot colossi. Because it’s in their brokenness and vulnerability that the Spirit comes into them and radiates out to us. ‘There is a crack in everything’, sang Leonard Cohen. ‘That’s how the light gets in’.

Another problem, finally, is that pop music has become the background beat to everything – blaring out in shops, in cafes, from other people’s headphones and our own too. There is a danger that it does indeed become the beat of consumer capitalism, the anaesthetic we use to drown out our weariness and pain. Is it possible that, to create a space for new talents to emerge, we need to rediscover silence?

Anyway, I am going to try and convince Scruton of the joy of pop. Come on Roger, you gotta lose yourself to find yourself!

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11-10-13-mwc-1-1This year I’ve developed and trialled an eight-part course in practical philosophy, called Philosophies for Life. The pilot was financed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via Queen Mary, University of London.  I trialled the course with three partner organizations: Saracens rugby club; New College Lanarkshire and HMP Low Moss prison; and Manor Gardens mental health charity.

The results were very positive -  the coaches of Saracens said the philosophy club was ‘the most popular thing we’ve done this season’; the participants at Manor Gardens philosophy club reported feeling more socially supported, more capable of coping with adversity, and much more interested in philosophy. And the participants of the prison philosophy club said they found the club more enjoyable and useful than the prison’s CBT courses, and became more interested in philosophy as a result.

I now plan to launch commercially, working with businesses, NHS mental health services and other organizations, and also developing an online course for the retail market.

The wisdom approach

I tried to develop a model of well-being education that balances evidence-based techniques with ethical discussion, approaching questions of the meaning of life in a pluralistic way.

At the moment, well-being courses in schools, mental health services, and businesses tend to be purely scientific / psychological. They teach evidence-based techniques for well-being, usually from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is very useful from a practical perspective. However, a purely scientific approach either leaves out any questions of values or the meaning of life, or it simply assumes one definition of the meaning of life (for example, individual subjective well-being), and then imposes it uncritically and scientistically on participants. A purely scientific approach to well-being education easily becomes ethically illiberal and culturally insensitive.

On the other hand, the ‘critical enquiry’ method used by most philosophy clubs (and by organizations like SAPERE and the Philosophy Foundation in schools) is very good at facilitating group discussions of values and meanings, engaging people and respecting their perspectives. But it is perhaps too open and undirected -  it ignores the fact that ancient wisdom and modern psychology have discovered reliable hypotheses about how the mind and our emotions work, which it’s helpful to learn from the point of view of wisdom and cultural literacy. It leaves people adrift to rediscover wisdom from scratch, and does not teach any spiritual practices people can use.

And both the scientific and the critical enquiry approach to well-being education fail to teach people about the history and cultural variety of the pursuit of the good life, and how different wisdom traditions from various cultures have come up with differing answers to the question of the meaning of life. The Religious Education curriculum in England and Wales ticks this box – but RE tends to be entirely theory and dogma, rather than teaching spiritual practices people can use in their lives.

Philosophies for Life tries to combine the best of all these approaches. It teaches people evidence-based coping skills from modern psychology, and explores their roots in ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, humanism etc). Rather than just teaching instrumental ‘thinking skills’ emptied of ethical content, as CBT does, it gives people space to consider and discuss the original philosophical context for these skills, and the higher ethical goals they were designed to reach, such as inner peace, happiness, justice or oneness with the Tao / Logos / God.

Each session focused on a different ancient philosopher (Socrates, Epictetus, Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and others), exploring one or two key ideas of theirs that we can use in modern life, and also whether evidence from modern psychology supports or undermines this idea. The session on the Buddha, for example, explores the importance of habits and training to the good life, and how CBT supports the Buddha’s claims about human nature and how to change it.

Then the second half of each session is a group discussion, both of the practical usefulness of the techniques we discussed, and of the philosopher’s broader ethical philosophy and the moral goal they were trying to reach (happiness, Nirvana, justice etc). The group discussion enables participants to accept or reject aspects of each philosophy, and to share their own stories and wisdom strategies. And it enables the course to cover various ethical life-goals and meanings without imposing any particular meaning onto participants.

I call my method the ‘wisdom approach’ and use the ‘wisdom tree’ as a symbol, because the course explores various wisdom traditions and how they share certain ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature, while then ‘branching out’ into various different life-meanings (happiness, social justice, Nirvana etc).

Tree_CM

Psychology now has good evidence for some of these ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature (like the belief we can use our reason to know ourselves and change our habits). However, when it comes to higher life-meanings, science can’t prove them or disprove them. It can’t prove that happiness is the proper goal of life, for example. That’s why we need philosophy to help us reflect, discuss and choose our own life-philosophy.

Results

Manor Gardens philosophy club

Manor Gardens Welfare Trust is a charity that works for the well-being of people in Islington. Our club met every Tuesday evening throughout March and April, initially attracting 15 people, which dropped to 12. Three quarters of the group were women, from their 30s to 50s, and were mainly Anglo-African and Anglo-Caribbean. The participants were mainly ‘mental health champions’ who do volunteer work for the charity.

I gave the participants a well-being questionnaire before and after the course, which asked them the extent they agreed to various questions, scoring their answer on a seven-point scale (with one being ‘strongly disagree and seven being ‘strongly agree’). This allowed me to get some sense of the impact of the course, however imprecise. It found the following

‘I lead a purposeful and meaningful life’  +12%
‘My social relationships are supportive and rewarding‘    + 21%
‘I am engaged and interested in my daily activities‘      + 6%
I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others   0%
I have control over my life and can move towards my goals   +6%
I am optimistic about my future  + 28%
When bad things happen to me, I can take steps to deal with them  +27%

The most significant impacts seemed to be in participants’ sense of social support, in their optimism, and their belief in their ability to cope with adversity.

I also asked participants for their own comments about what they liked and disliked about the course. Their comments can be grouped under four headings. Firstly, community: comments included ‘Tuesdays have been the highlight of my week for two months’, ‘a great sense of community, sharing, friendship’, and ‘great subjects taught and discussed in a very conversational manner that encouraged everyone to get involved.’

Secondly, the participants said they enjoyed learning about practical wisdom which they could use in their life. Their comments included: ‘I will take time to think about the bigger picture’, ‘relating theory to practice is what makes this course powerful’, and ‘the tools I have learned in this course and my belief in God will enable me to make major changes in my life’.

Thirdly, participants enjoyed the pluralism of the course – they felt they could learn about differing philosophies of life, without feeling their own faith or philosophy was threatened or undermined. This was a key aim of the course – to give participants a respect for various wisdom traditions, whether they are theistic, atheistic or agnostic. Participants’ comments included ‘Variety works well. It was interesting to hear how different people use different ideologies to guide their lives and how these ideologies can work well for different problems.’

Finally, all the participants said the course made them much more interested in philosophy – most of them having never read any before the course. Comments included: ‘I found the entire course inspiring; this motivated me to include more philosophy books in my reading list.’

Participants said they would have liked more of a range of philosophers, including black philosophers and female philosophers. They also said they would have liked the course to be longer, and to have a way to stay in touch with the other participants. Finally, they would have liked more materials to take away with them.

HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I taught the course over four Fridays in March to a group of 11 inmates in HMP Low Moss prison outside Glasgow. They were all male, mainly in their 30s and 40s, mainly white Scottish, and mainly long-term prisoners. The participants were already in a philosophy club run by Nikki Cameron of New College Lanarkshire, and my course benefitted from the thinking culture Nikki has created over the last year and a half. Nikki’s philosophy club explores questions through philosophical enquiry. I tried more of a ‘wisdom approach’, teaching practical ideas for life, and exploring their connection to modern psychology, particularly CBT.

CBT courses are already widely available in Scottish prisons and in other prisons around the world. However, these courses are usually compulsory, and either leave ethics out or include them in a quite dogmatic and non-criticizable form. I was interested in whether the participants would respond better to similar ideas presented in the context of philosophy, in which participants are not treated as malfunctioning brains to be fixed (low status), but as autonomous free-thinking philosophers (high status), who were not there just to take onboard ancient wisdom, but also to share their own wisdom. My sense was this made it more likely participants would engage with the course.

Feedback from HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I gave participants a questionnaire after the course, which gathered quantitative and qualitative feedback. It found that 66% of the participants said they found the course more useful and more enjoyable than the prison CBT courses (some of the group hadn’t done the CBT courses). When asked what they liked about the course, participants emphasized knowledge, wisdom and community. They liked learning about ancient philosophers and their relevance to modern life. They liked learning ‘coping skills’ to help them with the stress of being inside (Stoic philosophy was particularly popular). And they enjoyed the community of meeting up each week with the same people to hear each other’s views.

While I was doing the course, Kristine Szfiris, a University of Cambridge criminologist who is doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons, interviewed some of the participants. Here are a couple of quotes from them. The first shows one of the coping skills participants learned from Epictetus:

Jules Evans was in doing something about philosophy and he was talking about how we can jump to conclusions, and I do that when I play chess. I just look at the board and I’ll jump to conclusions and then I make a move and it’s been the wrong move kinda thing. I think it gave me a better understanding. I think it’s just about focusing on things I can control and not focusing on things I can’t control. I find philosophy really interesting and worthwhile being taught in prison.

And the second shows the benefit of a pluralist approach which doesn’t impose any particular ethical philosophy onto participants:

With Jules coming in, his views and opinions are set one way but he talks about all the different philosophers which we can disagree with or we can agree with if some of their points are valid. It allows you to take  snippets from each one and take something away from it. It’s impossible to take it all in, not in such a short space of time but if you can take a little bit of it away and practice it for yourself, it benefits you greatly.

Participants said they’d like more materials to take away and study in their own time, as well as suggestions for further reading that is available in the prison library. It’s also interesting to think about how ideas from prison philosophy clubs can be extended out into the rest of the prison, and also beyond the prison walls once prisoners are released (via probation organizations and community groups). Sometimes the group discussions were fractious, and discussion topics could sometimes have been better picked and facilitated by me.

Saracens philosophy club

Saracens FC are one of the world’s best rugby clubs. This season, they broke the record for most points scored in the Premiership, but sadly lost the Heineken European Cup final and the Premiership final in back-to-back weekends.

I ran the Saracens philosophy club as part of Saracens’ ‘personal development programme’. Saracens is unusual among professional sports teams in having an explicitly ethical mission, of focusing not merely on external results, but also on the internal goods of the well-being and character of players and staff. Saracens also have a willingness to try the new and unusual, hence the remarkable feat of getting 12 players and staff to attend and enjoy monthly philosophy sessions.

In fact, ancient philosophy seemed to me very applicable to professional sports – if you search ‘philosophy’ or ‘Stoicism’ in Google News, most of the results will be from sports. While many people in education are wary of talking about values, coaches are more prepared to do it. However, there can be a culture clash between an internal focus on character and virtue, and an external focus on ‘winning at all costs’. One even felt this clash at Saracens, despite their unusually ethical culture.

The timing of the sessions and the participants in the sessions were all somewhat fluid, due to the team’s schedule and fixtures. The philosophy club regularly attracted 12 or so participants, including first-team players and coaching staff.

Feedback from Saracens philosophy club

Feedback was quite haphazard from Saracens, as the players were very focused on two cup-finals at the end of the season (both of which they sadly lost), and then immediately went on holiday. However, the coaches, when interviewed in the Telegraph before the Premiership final, were kind enough to speak at length about the philosophy club. Alex Sanderson, the forwards coach, said “it has been the most popular thing we’ve done this season”.

Paul Gustard, the defence coach, said: “We spoke about the art of friendship, a higher calling – that could be faith or family – and it was nice to hear people speak openly about how they have changed along the journey that we are all on and where they sat on the ‘Golden Mean’. It was pretty cool.”

Kevin Sorrell, the backs coach, said: “It was an open forum for players to bounce ideas around. It was pretty enlightening to hear about how players felt individually about certain incidents over the last 12 months. Everyone left the room with a better understanding of what made that person tick and how they react to certain situations.” And Neil de Kock, Saracens’ scrum half, said: “I took an enormous amount of value out of Philosophy Club by having open and having frank discussions with colleagues on various topics very applicable to our game.”

As an organizational method, the philosophy club improved communication within the team, and also improved communication between the players and the coaches, helping them to see each other’s perspectives.

Again, the course would benefit from having more developed teaching materials, such as a handbook which participants could take away with them. Within an organization that has a very strong team-culture, like Saracens, it’s interesting to think of finding ways not just to reinforce that culture, but also to let people challenge it – otherwise group discussions just become ‘group-think’, rather than enabling people to think and speak for themselves.

Conclusions and next steps

The pilot was more successful than I expected. I initially wondered how philosophy would go down in these various communities (particularly the rugby club), and also how I would go down, as a plummy-voiced southerner. I think I went down OK, because I was open about my own vulnerabilities and flaws and didn’t claim to have all the answers. And the wisdom of ancient philosophies turned out to be very accessible to people from varying educational backgrounds, for many of whom this was their first exposure to philosophy.

The group discussions in the second half of each session worked well – people don’t want just to listen, they want to share their own ideas and experience. However, I think these group discussions were balanced well by the wisdom teachings of the first half of the course – people don’t just want to hear each other’s opinions, they also enjoyed learning about the ideas of Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Epictetus and others.

The course worked particularly well with a demographic that is traditionally wary of group therapy – young men. Opening up about your inner life does not come particularly naturally either to rugby players or long-term prison inmates. However, both Saracens and Low Moss philosophy clubs were places where men could talk about what really mattered to them, and share life-strategies for coping with stress and adversity, without feeling ashamed or broken.

I now plan to launch the course commercially, by selling it to companies, to individuals, and to charities. It could either be sold as a full eight-part course, or as a one-day workshop, or as a two-hour session focusing on, say, Stoic wisdom.

There are two questions I need to answer: where would the course make the most money, and where would it do the most good?

Clearly, the most profitable way forward is to sell the course to businesses, business-people and entrepreneurs. Since the courses finished, I ran a workshop at a conference of business coaches in Spain, and the very positive feedback from that strengthened my sense of the commercial potential of running workshops on practical philosophy, resilience and flourishing for organizations. I’ve also joined the faculty of a school for entrepreneurs in London, called Escape the City School.

However, it would be an ethical mistake if the course was only taught to affluent businesspeople. I also think it has great potential to help people in schools, in prisons, in mental health services, and in the general population. I can afford to work with these groups if I subsidize it by working with business-people, and if I use technology to increase my impact.

The next steps, then, are firstly, building a strategy for the commercial launch of the course. I plan to work with a mentor and business coach to develop this in the next two months. Secondly, design and create teaching materials, such as online videos, handouts and activity sheets, and a website. I also plan to do this by September. Thirdly, expand my roster of clients and improving the course as I go on.

The best way to reach the biggest number of people is via the development of an online course. It will be important to find a technological infrastructure that can support this and take payments from participants. I may need to raise capital to design an online course and will discuss this with technology partners and possible funders in the coming weeks.

To read the 13-page report on this project, click here. If you’re interested in me running Philosophies for Life at your organization, as a workshop, a one-day event or as the full eight-part course, get in touch at jules dot evans @ mac.com

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bullyingThis week, I met Nataline Daycreator, a wonderful coach and author who works to help victims of spiritual abuse. She is herself a survivor of 14 years in an abusive Pentecostal community. She told me her story and the lessons we can draw from it.

Hi Nataline. First of all, how do we define spiritual abuse?

An organization called INAASA defines it as ‘a form of abuse that manifests when those in religious authority/leadership manipulate and use control tactics to undermine, disempower and subjugate those who look to them for guidance and advice in a religious capacity’. Most people who go into religious communities are trying to get close to God, not their leaders. Some leaders abuse their authority for power, money or sex.

What got you interested in this subject?

I experienced spiritual abuse for 14 years in a Pentecostal community in North London. I say community rather than church – a lot of places of worship may call themselves churches but often they’re not regulated by the Diocese of London or any ecclesiastical body. They use the term to validate themselves.

How did you become part of this community?

I grew up in Jamaica. Although I wasn’t brought up religious, growing up in such a beautiful place, I always had a sense there was some higher Being or orchestrator. My family moved to London, and I got pregnant when I was 18, and readily accepted the fact that I was a mother. I felt I needed support and God’s help. I thought if I got to know God He’d show me how to be the mother my child needed.

Nataline Daycreator

Nataline Daycreator

So I went on a quest to find God. I went to a shop near the Finsbury Park mosque, because I was interested in Islam, but the man in the shop was so rude and dismissive towards me that I walked straight out. Then I tried the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whenever someone invited me to a faith community, I went, but I always asked questions – who was the Holy Spirit, who was Jesus? I had heard these terms but had no understanding of their relevance to who God was.

Most people answered these questions like they were trying to sell me a car. But I met one man, he was quiet, dressed rather shabbily, he answered in very simple and plain language. He seemed very humble and unassuming – they’re the worst ones! That was the pastor of the Pentecostal community I ended up joining for 14 years. I met his wife who was also a minister as an Evangelist, and I met their children. Then I went to hear him preach and talk. Initially it was just 12 people or so. We met in a church in Haggerston East London, the services were held there on Sunday afternoons. They rented the space from Haggerston church to have its sunday meetings, shortly after I had joined we moved to Edmonton Methodist Church, where again we hired the church on Sundays. This is common practice for smaller communities.

What did you like initially about the community and the services?

Well, I didn’t like the fact that they were quite long – it was usually from 2 until 5 every Sunday. But I loved singing in services and later started the choir. Though I was very new at learning this religious life, I had a sense of connection to God. And a sense of peace, in the early days, and of community, belonging and security, because you felt you were under God’s protection, and ‘in the right lane’. In hindsight I wish I had realised that connection was free and could be experienced anywhere, without terms and conditions.

Then, in my second year in the community, people started telling me what my purpose was, what my personality would be. I was given all these responsibilities – I was choir director, Sunday School director, the pastor’s personal PA. I wasn’t given any training, or  support or financial budget – I believed this was a part of my service to God and I paid for this out of my own pocket, although I was really struggling as a lone parent. Unfortunately these is not uncommon in some small unregulated churches.

Spiritual-AbuseGradually, I lost my sense of identity, my self, my passions and desires, I became a mechanism for the community. It felt like a treadmill, where I was always trying to please the pastor and his wife, so that I would win one of their public displays of affection and approval. For example, if you brought a soul ( a person you had invited ) to church, that would win you some public approval in front of the church, and everyone in the congregation would want that approval too. I was never praised for who I was, only for what I did for the ministry.

So you met your husband in the community. Was it an arranged marriage?

Not arranged, but it was certainly officially approved. We had a genuine connection, we were into similar things, we were both quite entrepreneurial. I don’t think the pastor and his wife liked the fact that, after marriage, I was more loyal to my husband rather than the church. So the first week we came back from our honeymoon, they gave my husband the Brotherhood leadership role. He was never asked, he was told that’s what he would do and he did it, with this came many responsibilities that drew him away from our marriage and further into ministry roles. They got their claws into him. Sometimes, when he got angry and lost his temper, I heard him repeating things the pastor had said to him.

Your husband was abusive, but the domestic abuse was closely connected to spiritual abuse by the pastor?

Yes. My husband was verbally and psychologically abusive to me and physically abusive to our children. But it was backed up by spiritual abuse. He and the pastor would twist scripture – they’d take a small verse like ‘the wife must submit to the husband’ and would leave out the rest ‘and the husband must submit to the wife’. If my husband was abusive, I would call the pastor (we could never call the police, who we were told were ungodly, worldly and secular – the advice of the pastor must come first), and the pastor and his wife would come round and tell me not to make my husband angry. His behavior was totally undermined as abusive, I was made to feel responsible for him and they would pray over us accordingly. I was warned to never call the police.

criticize-voltaire-550x414I believed if I went against the pastor, I was going against God. There was a sense that our religious leaders were higher than the state – higher than the police, judges or doctors. After five years in the community, I wanted to leave. But I was terrified that if I left, I was leaving God and would be open to demonic attacks. The pastor and his wife insisted that I was not spiritual enough, and if I had any doubts, it was the Devil trying to lure me away, and I should fast and pray until the doubts left. We were on an endless treadmill to win God’s approval and it seemed it only came through the mouth of the Pastor or his wife.

They tried to exert huge control over their congregants – the mind control was very extreme. They’d even say the Lord had given them power to come into our houses in the spirit, meaning their spirits would leave their bodies and watch what were doing in the privacy of our homes. Its seems crazy talking out loud about it now. When I think back now, yes some of it was sheer craziness.  We also gave contributions  to a trust to buy a church building, and were given permission by London Underground to fundraise at their stations but in fact, the money from the trust went to buy a house in the pastor and his wife’s names. But if you questioned any of this, you were giving in to the Devil and seen to be moving away from God.

Towards the end of my time there, I realized I really did know myself, the real me and that gave me a core of strength. I knew I couldn’t just leave physically, not yet, but I could leave mentally. So at services, I’d look out of the window at the seagulls. Or at worship, I wouldn’t try and win their approval. I’d shut down so it was just between me and God. I prayed to God that the pastor’s wife wouldn’t lay hands on me during prayer, and she stopped. I detached myself from the church, mentally, and realized the real truth that I wasn’t in danger of the Devil. I was building the strength to say no more.

Then one year I went to a Hillsong conference in Australia, on my own. I needed to get away from it all and have the space to think clearly. This was an act of rebellion in itself, as our ministry had a conference at the same time. At the Hillsong conference, I met a policewoman, and we talked and opened up to each other. She told me ‘you’re going through domestic abuse and spiritual abuse’. She gave a name to what I had been experiencing through all these years. It was an incredible wake-up. When I went back, my husband became angry over something. This time I told him to leave, I rang the police, and my husband rang the pastor. He left before the police arrived, and went to live at the pastor’s house. I never went back to the community after that. My ex husband wasn’t perfect, but I believe he could have got better if he’d got therapy. Instead, he only turned to the community and sought their approval.

But they made it extremely difficult for me to leave. They would turn up at a new church I went to and demand that the church give me back. I had to take out an injunction against the pastor. But I got out. I jumped ship, I and my six children, and landed on safe ground. I found freedom and peace and a stronger connection to God. I also read the Bible afresh, and before where I just saw condemnation and shame, I saw love shining out. When I was leaving the community, I was terrified of displeasing God. But I thought, if He’s really the God of Love, He’ll know I’m trying to do right.

How common is spiritual abuse?

Watchman+Profile+buttonIt’s extremely common. It happens in Christian communities, in Muslim communities, in Buddhism, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses. I met someone from a safety agency, she said it affected perhaps one in four people in churches here in London. It’s very prevalent in African and Caribbean churches. In Nigeria, for example, Bishop Oyedepo, who runs a church with some 35,000 members, publicly slapped a girl in the face in the front of the congregation and called her a witch. In these countries, there are no women’s rights. And when these churches come to the UK, they often bring that culture with them.

What can be done about it?

The first thing is the government could introduce a national register of all places of worship. There’s a complete lack of accountability and regulation. Every Sunday, the most vulnerable people in London walk into places of worship – people with mental health issues, people who have been sectioned, alcoholics, people who are hurting immensely looking for some relief. And they’re placed in the hands of people who are not at all trained, qualified or accountable. The English judiciary also needs to be less deferential to ecclesiastical authorities in law cases – if someone has committed a crime, it shouldn’t matter if they call themselves a pastor. Finally, if people think they may be suffering from spiritual abuse, they can also contact me directly or organizations like the Family Survival Trust.

Did the experience put you off religion entirely?

I’ve redefined religion. It should have this meaning: something that brings well-being to the whole person. If it doesn’t do that, it shouldn’t be granted the status of religion. If it is intended to harm then it should classed and treated as an act against humanity. Personally, I have a very strong relationship with God, but I’m still wary of organized religion, and all these labels we put on people: Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Catholic or whatever. They just close people off from each other. That’s not who God is. Religion has taught me I that I carry that a sinful nature, while being in love with God has taught me that I carry the inherit blueprint of who He is. One of these beliefs sets me free, the other enslaves me. Religion led me to a life of beating up this self that God the artist carefully and mindfully crafted to be unique and diverse from my millions of kin, and yet still one with Him.

So you don’t miss the community of being in a church?

I have community that I fellowship with all over the world. Through Facebook, for example, I have developed a network of like-minded people, who have faith but are also free thinkers. It’s been very healing. I’ll still go to church too at times, when people invite me, and I enjoy it. I’m sure there are healthy churches, but I don’t seek it anymore, I am no longer led by fear.

Nataline is now writing a book about spiritual abuse, and can be contacted through her website.  She’s also on Twitter @daycreators

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence no newsletter last week. I feel like I am spinning plates at the moment. Luckily I’m off to Cornwall tomorrow to take it easy with some good friends. In the meantime, here are three insights I have taken from this weekend’s wild adventure.

Bo3qukaCIAAVK7wThe weekend started with a flight to Madrid, on Thursday evening, for an AECOP conference – AECOP is the Spanish association of business coaches. I have never met a business coach before, but a member of AECOP, Winni Schindler, reads this blog and was kind enough to invite me to give a key-note. On Friday morning, I gave a talk about how we can use ancient Greek philosophy in modern life, to a room full of 150 business coaches. An interpreter translated my talk as I went along, but I was a bit over-caffeinated up so the poor lady was exhausted by the end of the hour!

The coaches really liked the talk, I think. For the last question, a lady asked me ‘how can we learn about your approach, where do you do courses, and how much do they cost?’ I replied ‘well…you can just read the books of ancient philosophy, they’re all free and easy to read!’ Then I sat down at my table, and this Israeli business coach shook her head at me in wonder and said ‘you just missed a huge opportunity’. It turns out I should have had a Philosophy for Life training workshop ready to pitch to the room of business coaches, and lots of them would have signed up. I realized then: I need a business coach to tell me how to make money!

I honestly hadn’t imagined that coaches offer coaching to other coaches! I wasn’t even sure what coaches did – do they offer one-on-one coaching lessons or do big workshops or what? It turns out that business coaches do all these things. You can hire them one-on-one, or go to a workshop of say 10 to 100 people, or sign up for one of their online courses. All of which I can do, and I could actually get paid decent money for it.

This is a remarkable discovery. I’m so used to giving book talks for free, in the hope I’ll sell perhaps 20 copies of my book, and get 7% royalties for each copy (which means perhaps 50p a book). It’s quite a slog, as any writer will tell you.

Yes, but…would it be selling out to offer philosophy life-coaching or business-coaching? Wouldn’t this be like Michael Sandel, who charges $30,000 to do talks about his book, What Money Can’t Buy? Perhaps one should offer this stuff for no money, simply in the service of humanity (while living in a cardboard box under the Hammersmith Flyover). I think it depends how you do it. Many is the philosopher who teaches life-wisdom but has absolutely no idea about how to make ends meet. It’s important to me that I can make a living, otherwise I end up asking for handouts from relatives or needing to churn out books every year. So I have no problem with making money for what I do.

Ryan Holiday, Stoic business guru

Ryan Holiday, Stoic author

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that ancient philosophies were not simply about ‘getting ahead’. They were counter-cultural spiritual philosophies.  An entrepreneur called Ryan Holiday has just brought out a ‘Stoicism for Entrepreneurs’ book called The Obstacle is the Way . He comes from PR – his last book was a Machiavellian guide to PR called Trust Me I’m Lying – and his latest book has been well-promoted and is selling great. Ryan’s success shows both the opportunity and the risk of taking Stoicism into business coaching -  Stoicism is not really about being successful in a conventional sense, it’s about being a good person. All of us doing ‘Stoicism for modern life’ need to be clear that the ancients didn’t think of this philosophy as a formula for conventional success.

So, here is the first of this weekend’s three insights:

I could do philosophy life-coaching for organisations and individuals, as long as I used the profits to subsidize work with less rich and more disadvantaged groups.

I think it’s OK to offer workshops on wisdom and philosophy within organizations – in fact, there’s a noble tradition of adult education within companies, like my ancestors the Rowntrees used to do. But philosophers have a moral obligation not just to cater to the affluent or the elite. And we need to be clear about the end or goal of the education. We should never teach wisdom with the end of ‘getting rich’ or ‘being a success’ – that would be misusing the ancients’ advice. We should only use it with the end they had in mind, of helping people build good characters. Even at Saracens rugby club, even the week before a big final, we still focused not on ‘winning at all costs’, but on building good characters. Which brings me to my next insight.

rugby_2927613bAfter the conference in Madrid, I went to the Premiership final at Twickenham, where the Northampton Saints were playing Saracens. I’ve been running a philosophy club at Saracens this month, which the Saracens coaches were kind enough to big up in a piece in the Telegraph last week. Alas, the team lost the final in the last second of extra time, having put their bodies through a brutal ordeal for 80 minutes. And this was just a week after they lost a similarly brutal European cup final. So having led the Premiership league for the entire season, and won the most points, they came away with nothing for the second consecutive season.

The players coped with the defeat with great integrity, applauding the fans and shaking the hands of the opposition. They didn’t even complain to the referee, although he awarded the match-winning try despite not being able to see if the ball had touched the ground. That’s admirable – to show character in the face of galling defeat. They had done everything right, all season, and they still lost. This gave me my second insight of the weekend:

Sport is cruel.

Unlike pretty much every other profession, there is a tiny margin between victory and euphoria, and defeat and heartbreak. All season, we have been practicing philosophy and the idea that it’s not just about externals, it’s about integrity, values and character. Which it is. But in sport, it’s also, inevitably, about externals – the external of winning or losing. This makes me glad I’m not a professional sportsperson – though I hugely admire these people who can take such a physical and emotional battering, and get up and do it again a few days later.

BpDBCXMIMAI6YS6-1OK, final insight. On Sunday I did a talk at Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, on ancient philosophy and how wisdom can help us transform our emotions and improve our lives. It went well – in general I think humanism can be a bit shiny happy optimistic, and philosophies like Stoicism offer it something a bit grittier, which is all to the good. I wanted to offer a similar talk in the church I sometimes go to in Kings Cross, but the vicar basically stymied the idea. I’m not sure if he (a) doesn’t trust me (sensible fellow) or (b) doesn’t trust Greek philosophy because he sees it as a rival to Christ and St Paul. What a pity if Christianity has become so existentially threatened, like modern Islam, that it sees every other philosophy as a threat, even one that did so much to influence Christian culture. If that’s the case, it’s destined to become a cultural ghetto, and to disappear entirely.

After the Sunday Assembly, I went to a Christian service at a church in West London. The sermon was by a visiting New York pastor called Pete Scazzero, about how he had set up a church in Queens, only to suffer a breakdown. He’d decided that he was utterly emotionally illiterate, and it was holding back his church. So he read widely, from Thomas Merton to Henri Nouwen (two psychologically-literate Christian writers), and studied contemplation techniques from Christian monasticism. And he eventually wrote a book, Emotionally Intelligent Spirituality, summing up some of his ideas. It is ancient wisdom served up for evangelicals – and is precisely what born-again Christianity needs.

the-emotionally-healthy-churchIt seems to me that evangelical / charismatic Christianity does some things well. It does worship and music well – although its music tends to be really upbeat, unlike the Psalms, which are two-thirds lament. It does community well, although its communities tend to be full of people saying ‘amazing!’ and ‘awesome!’ and ‘Jesus!’ rather than honestly talking about their difficulties. It does evangelism and mission well, although it focuses intently on the ‘moment I came to Christ and everything got better’ rather than talking honestly about the continued difficulties of the spiritual life after finding Christ. And it does passion / ecstasy / encounters with the Holy Spirit well, but unfortunately ends up over-relying on such full-on encounters, and desperately imploring the Holy Spirit to do more, more, more.

Well, we have our reason as well, don’t we? That’s a gift too! And we have the centuries of tradition of Christian prayer and contemplation. That’s a gift too. So why not use them, instead of relying totally on outpourings of the Holy Spirit to do all your healing needs.

So this is my third insight of the weekend:

The extravert thrills and spills of charismatic Christianity needs to be balanced by a revival of the interior stillness and silence of contemplative Christianity.

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