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The revival of humanisms

I want to explore the idea of Greek philosophy as a meeting-point between various humanisms, including Christian humanism, atheist or agnostic humanism, Islamic humanism and Jewish humanism.

These days, I would describe myself as a Christian humanist. I mean ‘humanist’ in the Renaissance sense – someone who loves and wants to revive ancient philosophy and culture. And I mean ‘Christian humanist’ in the sense of believing that Christianity complements and even completes Greek philosophy.

Plato, Seneca and Aristotle given homage in a medieval manuscript

For many Medieval and Renaissance Christians, as well as for some Jewish and Islamic philosophers, the great Greek and Roman philosophers were prophets or saints. Their profound insights into human nature and the universe helped to lead people out of suffering, like Virgil leading Dante out of Hell in the Divine Comedy.

The revelation of Greek philosophy is this: much of our suffering comes from our thoughts, beliefs and values. We construct our own prisons. We can liberate ourselves from these prisons by learning to examine our souls and to be wiser in our thinking. We can use our reason to shine a light onto our unconscious habits, and to create new, wiser habits. We can learn to take care of our souls, to be the doctors to ourselves.

We cause ourselves suffering by caring for the wrong things, by putting our trust in the wrong things, by worshipping false gods (as Plato puts it), and building our houses on sand (as Jesus put it). We can find a deeper fulfillment by looking within, by cultivating an inner garden of consciousness and reason, and also by cultivating caring and ethical relationships with other people.

Both atheist / agnostic and theist Greek philosophers would agree with what I’ve written above. But they disagreed in their definition of ‘flourishing’, and on the question of where reason comes from. Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Pythagoras and the Stoics thought consciousness comes from God, while Epicurus thought it was a cosmic fluke. I was always more on the theistic side of Greek philosophy. I thought it more likely that our consciousness is God-given, that it’s a fragment of God (or the Logos). I also believed, rather more speculatively, that this Logos is providential, guiding us towards an end or telos.

Why ‘Christian’ humanism?

I’ve become a Christian humanist this year for two reasons. Firstly, I believe in grace. I’ve moved from believing in the Stoic Logos, which is a rather abstract and chilly cosmic intelligence which doesn’t particularly care about individual cases, to believing in a God who loves us as individuals and who occasionally intervenes in our life, lifts us up and heals us through grace.

It was one such experience of grace, back in 2001, which helped me recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and which led me to Greek philosophy. I’ve had some more experiences like that this year. I don’t think this makes me in any way special – such experiences are in fact fairly common among humans, we’re just embarrassed to speak about them in our materialist culture.

Why would I interpret these experiences in a Christian framework? Partly because this year I experienced them in a Christian context, and partly because the New Testament gives a better account of such experiences when talking about the healing power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s love. Greek philosophers don’t really talk about God’s love healing us (although the playwright Sophocles does). In Greek philosophy, God is an abstract concept you reach through rational dialectic. In Judeo-Christianity, God is a Being with whom you can have a loving relationship. I believe the latter is true.

Feeding our need for community

The second reason I became a Christian is that I was hungry for spiritual community. I’ve been a total individualist all my adult life – a freelance journalist, usually single, socially anxious, bit of a hermit. I am the archetypal modern liberal, suspicious of all communities and organisations, yet longing to find one I can call home. I agree with Jean Vanier that loneliness is one of the great sicknesses of our liberal culture.

I am all for trying to develop ethical communities for non-believers where, in the words of Daniel Dennett, ‘people who are not otherwise loved can be taken in and their lives can be made important’. I would love philosophy clubs to be such places, as well as organisations like the School of Life, the Sunday Assembly, Action for Happiness clubs. I’ve worked with all these organisations and think they’re on to something important. But there’s a way to go yet, in terms of creating spaces where people can bring all of themselves – their baggage, their wounds, their vulnerability – and feel ministered to.

This year, I’ve been exploring Christian community. I guess I started my explorations at the end of last year, when I was dating a lovely girl, and we went to stay at a cottage in Wales with some other friends of hers. They all turned out to be Christians, in fact one of them was a vicar. This initially freaked me out (trapped in a cottage with Christians! aaargh!) but actually I was really impressed by their commitment to one another, by their sincerity and their humour. They were human beings, not Bible-bashing zombies. They listened to each other, cared for one another, allowed each other to be fallible human beings.

The power of small groups

The vicar at that cottage invited me on the Alpha course, which I did at the beginning of this year. I really enjoyed it, partly because of the power of small groups – it’s a wonderful experience to turn up, once a week, with the same group of people, to talk, listen and support each other. We still meet, every other Tuesday evening. Roughly half of us are non-Christian. Humanist groups and philosophy groups have also drawn on this power of small groups in the past and are doing so again. For example, Richard Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness, was inspired by attending a Quaker small group for a year or so, and is now launching an Alpha-style course for humanists (more on that when I get the details).

Of course, the Alpha course has some slightly more, er, supernatural aspects, like asking the Holy Spirit to come in to you. There’s also an emphasis on praying for each other. I personally think this is a beautiful practice. Think of prayer as wishing each other well, deeply. Christians pray, sometimes, by putting a hand on each other’s shoulders. I think touch is important. These days, we hear ‘touch’ and because we’re liberals we think ‘Ugh! Violation of privacy!‘ But we need touch. We’re primates. We have a touch-deficit in our lives. Touch can be as simple as shaking each other’s hands and giving each other the ‘sign of peace’. Touch is healing.

Christian community also puts music at the centre. Initially, I found the contemporary worship very off-putting. I felt it was a desecration of the religion of rock & roll. How dare they play rock music – they’re Christians, the epitome of Uncool. Even worse, some of the Christians there would put their hands in the air and dance. I would look at them, as Michal looked down at David, and think, you poor, poor people.

Michal (top right) looking down on David in contempt as he dances in front of the Ark

It is absolutely fine to put your hands in the air and dance at a club or music festival. It’s fine to raise your hands in a diamond-gesture to worship Jay-Z; fine to raise your hands in worship of Manchester City or Blackpool FC; fine to raise your hands to worship your country at a football match (less cool at a a nationalist rally). But if you raise your hands to worship God then, my friend, you are a nutter.

Well…I still think most Christian rock is pretty cheesy. But some of it is OK, and a handful of songs I actually like, and I’m OK with people raising their hands to worship God. I like worshipping God with other people, through music. No, actually, I love it. It’s a really powerful, wonderful experience, hearing a hundred or a thousand people lifting up their voices around you, affirming your deepest beliefs. Again, humanist groups do this too – I occasionally play the drums at the Sunday Assembly, and sometimes people even raise their hands to the music. Charismatic atheists!

Humanism is also civic, outward-looking, engaged with society. I admire the social work which some of my Christian friends do, in an effort to follow the example of Christ. Some of them have gone off to live in deprived estates, some of them left lucrative careers to set up charities, some of them went to live with mentally disabled people, some of them turned their homes into refuges for addicts.

And I admire the leadership of the Christian community I’ve been engaged with – Nicky and Pippa Gumbel. I admire their humility, the fact they run a huge global movement but haven’t been seduced by money, power or fame. They still ride around on their bicycles and live in the vicarage. Thousands of people come to their church, yet they know the name of all the people in my Alpha group, and care about us. Their community is not perfect by any means, but it’s more nurturing and less corrupted by money or power than most philosophical / self-help communities I’ve encountered. The good thing about belonging to a very old and established church like the C of E is it’s bigger than you and your ego. Newer churches or self-help movements can easily become vehicles for their leaders’ egos.

James Randi, left, is good at ministering to the humanist community.

It is not at all easy to create a community where people feel loved. It’s hard to care about other people, because people are annoying and needy. So we keep other people at arms’ length. I remember a famous philosopher saying of someone ‘oh, they’re very needy’. In Greek philosophy and liberal humanism, neediness is weakness and autonomy is strength. Christian communities, by contrast, are OK with people’s neediness. Christian priests are trained to minister to that need. Does humanism have servants, people who are willing to give their lives to minister to other people and to put them before their own egos? I think James Randi is close – he ministers to the Skeptic community, writing postcards to Skeptics around the world, keeping in touch, giving out hugs at The Amazing Meeting.

I have friends trying to cultivate caring communities for atheists and I’m all for that, because humans need community, and as humanists, we share a common tradition in Greek philosophy. Personally, I would also like to see the revival of the Church of England, and the revival of the Christian humanist tradition within the Church. I would like to see the revival of all humanisms, and of friendship between them.

How lovable are you, on a scale of one to ten?

A few weeks ago, I woke up at 3am, for no particular reason, and lay in my bed listening to the city sleeping. My middle-class street in Tufnell Park was placid and at rest. Then I heard a woman sobbing, as she walked down the street. It was such a strange, piercing sound:  in the middle of the night, outside the silent family homes, was an adult weeping like a lost child. I wondered if I should get out of bed, put my clothes on, go into the street and offer her help. Was I really going to intervene in the messy chaos of her life? I went to the living-room to see if I could see her. But by then she had disappeared, and I went back to bed, slightly relieved.

The problem, as I see it, is that just about every human in the world doesn’t feel entirely loved or lovable. We carry the secret wound of our unlovable-ness deep within us, all through life, and out of these wounds our feelings of self-worth leak out, drop by drop. So we are constantly trying to top up our self-worth. And we do this in inappropriate ways.

The most obviously inappropriate way we try to feel loved is by piling up honours or wealth, in order to win the approval of strangers. We bring each new triumph to lay at the feet of other people, like a cat bringing in a dead bird. The feeling of being unlovable is actually an incredible motor for achievement. Hey guys, guess what I did? I’m lovable, right?

A likeability scale, from Forbes magazine

Alas, success doesn’t really make us feel loved. Success gives you a quick intoxication, and we might blurt out, like Sally Field winning her Oscar, ‘You like me! You really like me!’ But just as many people will envy and dislike you for success. And admiration is not the same as love. Admiration keeps you at a distance and misses your flaws. Love holds you close, and accepts you despite your flaws.

We seek love through celebrities. If they notice us, if they follow us on Twitter, if they sleep with us, we feel validated, connected to the beautiful people like Gatsby when he holds Daisy in his arms. Have a look at any of pop-star Harry Styles’ tweets and the desperate tweets his fans send him, begging him to follow them, and you get a snapshot of all the lonely young people looking for love in the wrong places.

We seek love through substance-abuse. Heroin, Russell Brand wrote, fills a hole in people, and ‘transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave…A bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.’ Alcoholics are also seeking love. There is nothing more boring than an alcoholic, because they desperately want to connect with you, with everyone, they just don’t know how to do it. Alcoholism, the Russian writer Vladislav Zubok recently suggested, can stem from a misdirected desire for togetherness and unity. And then, when the drunk fails to connect, their mood rapidly turns ugly. They lurch from eros to thanatos, from trying to bond to shoving the world away.

We seek love through food. I sat in a McDonalds yesterday at 5pm, sucking on a chocolate milkshake like a baby pacifier, and watched various overweight Londoners lumber in and order their Happy Meals, for their first dinner of the evening. They were seeking a brief good feeling from their trays of sugars and carbohydrates. I do the same. McDonalds’ adverts even try to sell themselves as the nation’s social glue, bringing together alienated family-members and different races and generations. Their slogan now is ‘We all have McDonalds in common’. Really? Are you saying the only thing we now have in common is Big Macs and fries? My God, it’s worse than I thought.

We seek love through technology. We constantly scan our smart-phone screens to see if anyone has Liked us. We have invented an app for everything, except feeling loved. Scientists tried – in the 1970s, they developed a computer programme called ELIZA, which tried to give people the feeling of being understood and accepted. There was briefly an idea to have ELIZA machines on every street corner, to hear our pain. It hasn’t quite taken off yet.

We seek love through sex. We give our bodies to strangers to get the experience of being held for a few minutes in silence. We pay someone to hold us.  Or we get the simulacrum of sex off the internet, without any of the messy intimacy. Can it be long before they start selling vibrating empathic robots to stroke our hair and tell us we’re worth it?

We seek love through therapy. We pay someone to give us unconditional acceptance, which the psychologist Carl Rogers said is the key ingredient in the therapeutic relationship. But is it really unconditional if you’re paying for it? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often accused of missing out this crucial dynamic of the loving therapeutic relationship, but the grandfather of CBT, Albert Ellis, emphasised the central importance of Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and Unconditional Other Acceptance. Who or what gives us the power to accept ourselves unconditionally? Apparently, we have the power. We can simply choose to accept and love ourselves, through some Nietzschean act of self-acceptance. It doesn’t sound that easy.

Deeper still, perhaps, are Buddhism’s various techniques and practices for cultivating loving-kindness. We develop the practice of observing ourselves, with all our flaws, and not judging or condemning ourselves – because, after all, ‘you’ don’t really exist at all, so there is nothing to hate (and also nothing to love).

And then there is the weird idea of grace – the idea that, sometimes in life when we are particularly lost, God lifts us up, tells us it’s OK, and puts us on our feet again. Without earning it or deserving it, we have a sudden sense of our creator’s limitless love for us, a sense of reunion with Him after a long exile. Such moments are incredibly healing. After long wandering in a desert, you find a hip-flask of water on you, which never runs out. We feel replenished in our ability to love other people too, to care about strangers, rather than merely tolerate them.

Greek philosophy also talks about learning to trust the God Within, rather than scrabbling around in externals in a desperate attempt to feel loved. But in Stoicism, learning to trust the God Within involves solitary ascetic training and logical Socratic dialectic. It means obeying the dictates of the cold and impersonal Logos. In Positive Psychology, the search for happiness likewise involves endless strenuous exercises – keeping a Gratitude Journal, savouring a raisin, cultivating your strengths, perfecting your Duchenne smile. I don’t know if that really heals the wound we all feel, of not feeling entirely lovable. It seems more like a solitary workout regime in the gym.  You scored 7 on the gratitude scale – keep going!

In Plato, there is more of a sense of connecting to the Divine through love. But in Platonic philosophy, both ‘love’ and ‘the divine’ are abstract intellectual concepts. To me, love is not a work-out regime, or an abstract concept. It’s a relationship. Love is a father sweeping up his child into his arms when she runs to meet him.

But if you believe in a God who loves, who intervenes, who sometimes sweeps you up in his arms, then you are left with the troubling question of why He sometimes doesn’t. Why is there so much pain in the world? Why do His children feel so unloved and alone? I think of that woman walking through the empty street at dawn, sobbing, and wonder why God doesn’t intervene more often. Then again, why didn’t I?


In other news:

A new ‘wireless philosophy‘ project from Yale and MIT.

The History of Philosophy podcast from KCL looks at Islamic philosophy’s ideas on music.

One of the weirder corners of American religion has come to light in the media this week – the ‘Christian Domestic Discipline‘ scene, or Holy Spanking. I’m not sure if this is a real thing or a send-up.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association asks why the decline of religion has not led to moral chaos.

In the Independent, Paul Mason looks at how and why revolution is sweeping through BRIC countries despite their rapid economic growth.

Meanwhile Martin Wolf gives a grim picture of how austerity policies have failed in the UK, in the New York Review of Books.

Tomorrow I wrote the cover story for the Telegraph Weekend – have a look and a laugh at the photo.

This week’s column was partly inspired by a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace, by Philip Yancey, which I’m reading at the moment. A great book, which also inspired a U2 song. Watch an interview with Yancey here

Some book reviews. First, Tariq Ali reviews a new book on the bitchy side of Sir Isaiah Berlin. The Economist reviews a new book by a French writer who went to live in a shed next to Lake Baikal (no, not for tax reasons). And in the LA Review of Books, a review of Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’, and the end of the dream of a psycho-pharmalogical utopia. Tao Lin also wrote a collection of poetry called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, by the way – one of the few instances I’ve come across of CBT influencing the arts.

Finally, it was very sad to hear about James Gandolfini’s death. The Sopranos is my all-time favourite TV show – I even considered writing a book about it last year, which gave me the excuse to spend most of August re-watching episodes. The show was about so many things, but particularly about the scarcity of love and the imperfection of families. Many of the characters love each other – Tony and Uncle Junior, for example, or Tony and Christopher. But their love gets lost under power, resentment and cruelty.

There’s no grace in The Sopranos – the two priests who appear are both weak and corrupt. Instead, the characters try everything from yoga to Prozac to psychoanalysis to search for fulfillment. I always thought Dr Melfi, the most famous therapist in literature, was a bit rubbish for waiting until Series 3 to offer CBT for Tony’s panic attacks, and the show itself is simplistically Freudian in making Tony’s mother such an out-and-out villain (unlike every other character). Still, what a show. Here’s the best article I’ve read on it, by Peter Buskind in Vanity Fair, which includes some amazing photos by Annie Liebovitz, like the one below.

See you next week,