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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,


Materialism, spirituality, and the three C’s

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive linguist, would not make a very good ambassador. In his latest diatribe, he attempts to reassure humanities scholars that science is not their enemy. Science is good, and humanities scholars should stop complaining about ‘Scientism’. Unfortunately, he says this in such a tactless and, er, Scientistic way that it’s guaranteed to annoy not just humanities scholars, but no doubt many scientists too.

Right from the get-go, he patronizes the humanities, giving his essay the sub-title, ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’, which makes everyone in the humanities sound like losers. Just to make sure of offence, he then claims that Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and Smith were ‘all scientists’, and all materialists to boot. Even I know that’s wrong – Descartes, Rousseau, Liebniz, Kant and Smith all used spiritual ideas like the soul, providence, God or the General Will in their philosophies.

I don’t care about inter-departmental bun-fights. I am all for cross-disciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences, like the Stoicism and Therapy project I’m working on at Exeter University. The Scientism I object to, which Pinker expresses, is the shrill insistence that science has ‘proved’ materialist utilitarianism and any other world-view is ridiculous. I think that type of Scientism, besides being tactless, leaves out important aspects of human experience.

Materialism’s rejection of subjective experience

According to Pinker’s Scientism, ‘most of the traditional sources of belief – faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty – are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge’.

Dismissed entirely? That would mean ignoring subjective experience, our mental states and emotions. Surely our inner experience is a useful source of knowledge about ourselves – otherwise how would we have any basis for psychology? Certainly subjective experience can mislead – whole shelves of philosophy and theology have been written on the art of discernment – but it seems extreme to dismiss all inner experience as a source of knowledge.

Religious traditions claim that our consciousness, and subjective experiences like emotions, are useful sources of knowledge about how to live

Pinker goes on, ‘the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person requires a radical breach from religious conceptions of meaning and value’. How does it require that? William James understood that the foundation of religions is ‘religious experience’, our attempt to make sense of our consciousness, emotions and relationships, and to discover the wisest way to live. Many ‘scientifically literate’ people still find religious traditions useful guides.

Pinker insists that scientific progress has exposed and debunked the truth-claims of the world’s religions. This is true – some of the truth-claims of Genesis, for example, have been debunked, and it’s unfortunate that many fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the discoveries of evolution or geology. But Pinker over-eggs his materialist pudding. He says: ‘We know that the laws governing the physical world have no goals that pertain to human well-being’.

No, we don’t. We know that the laws of the physical world led to consciousness, and that consciousness apparently gives humans the ability to think, discuss and philosophize, and to choose better and wiser ways of living which enhance our well-being. A strict materialist might claim that talk of consciousness and free will is ‘woo woo’, but I think the scientific evidence supports the above claims.

We don’t yet know how consciousness works, and whether it’s confined to our individual brains or is connected with other sentient beings and the cosmos. Until then, scientists don’t know if things like prayer, prophecy and revelation have something to them or are delusions (although we can test out the truth-claims of particular prophecies or revelations, and see for ourselves if we think prayer works).

Does science ‘prove’ secular humanism?

Pinker’s right that scientific progress has undermined many religious truth-claims, and in the process undermined people’s values and sense of meaning. But has science led to positive values or meaning? Pinker says that though ‘the scientific facts do not themselves dictate values…[they] militate towards…principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings’. This ‘humanism’, he says, ‘is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies’.

Is it? The fact that modern democracies are doing nothing to prevent climate change suggests that we don’t care about the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. Rather, the ruling value system of modern democracies would seem to be consumerism, and the flourishing of all sentient beings is way down our list of priorities.

Like Christianity, Humanism is an expression of hope and faith in the face of contrary evidence.

I’m not blaming this failure on scientific materialism – the Christian majority of America seem just as consumerist as the atheist minority. I’m merely saying that Pinker’s faith in secular humanism is just that: a faith, something that flies in the face of the abundant evidence that humans don’t care about the flourishing of others, that rationalism alone is apparently not enough to help us. He speaks of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of secular humanism, much like a Christian longing for a more just world.  Humanism, like Christianity, involves faith (which according to Pinker makes it ‘unscientific’ and therefore unworthy of respect).

Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism ignores the three Cs

Like Pinker, I believe that our ethics should be connected to what psychology tells us about human nature. But I would argue that religious traditions have a better understanding of human psychology and how to develop it into ethical conduct than Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism. I want to emphasize three aspects of human nature where materialist utilitarianism falls short – creativity, community, and consciousness.

First, creativity. Pinker discusses at the end of his essay how ‘new science’ has discovered humans are not ‘rational actors’. Instead, as social scientists like George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have researched, we’re moved by metaphor, image, and narrative-frames of purity, heroism, justice and other ‘moral emotions’.

Shelley, kicked out of Oxford for preaching atheism in the streets, still claimed poets were the ‘hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration’.

That’s what religious thinkers from Carlyle to Chesterton have been warning utilitarians since the Enlightenment. But materialism has undermined our myths or ‘sacred narratives’, which is why poetry has gone from being at the very centre of human society to being at the margins. Poets (even atheist poets like Shelley) drew energy from the Platonic idea that they are prophets, mediators to the spirit world – this is true all the way up to Ted Hughes, our last great poet. Once we stopped believing in things we couldn’t see, our poetic imagination dried up. Poetry became a sideshow: amusing but of no substantial import.

As TS Eliot warned, the loss of collective myths led to a loss of meaning and a flattening of emotion, because materialism failed to come up with new sacred narratives that light up our moral emotions, other than the rather toxic narrative of nationalism. Photographs from the Hubble telescope are awesome, but they’re not a guiding myth like, say, Lord of the Rings or Paradise Lost.

Secondly, community. Religious traditions are not perfect at community-building – most of them still struggle with misogyny and homophobia, and secular humanist communities are much better in that respect. But religious communities typically have stronger and more emotional ties, because they have at their heart collective experiences of the sacred, which social scientists from Emile Durkheim to Robert Putnam emphasised as the key to community cohesion.

The most nurturing religious communities have the idea of a loving God at their centre. This allows people to be vulnerable, to care for each other and for their communities, and gives them a common identity at a deep level – deeper than the secular humanist idea that what connects us in rationality. The problem about communities connected only by rationality is they easily become snobbish cliques of the cognitive elite, rather like the Edge Foundation to which Pinker belongs. Secular humanist communities need to learn the art of being vulnerable – that’s why Brene Brown’s work is so valuable.

Thirdly, consciousness. Rather than dismissing subjective experience, religious traditions are storehouses of wisdom about it, and in particular about the emotions, and how to transform them. Secular therapy owes a great deal to these traditions, from mindfulness meditation to prayer in the 12 Steps Programme. This wisdom seems to me at least as valuable as the materialist approach to our inner worlds, which is basically to look for chemical solutions to chemical problems. Religious traditions are also open to ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ like visions, trances and ecstasies, which scientific materialism can often dismiss as ‘psychotic-like symptoms’.

Of course, the materialist hypothesis may turn out to be right. Our minds may be confined to our brains, there may be no God or higher beings communicating with us, the universe may not care anything about us. But it remains a hypothesis, to be challenged and criticized rather than turned into dogma. As Pinker says, ‘the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today’.