I love the sociologist Peter L. Berger. For 50 years, he’s been producing intelligent, rigorous and sympathetic work on the sociology of religion. I just got a copy of his 1970 little book, A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, in which he talks about what he calls ‘signals of transcendence’ in modern society – little flashes of light which seem to point to a transcendent reality.
He takes one such signal to be a mother’s love for her child, and the words ‘everything is alright’ – he thinks this is a signal to a cosmic order where everything really is alright. ‘The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality. In that case, it is perfectly possible to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love. What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality.’
He also thinks play and humour are ‘signals of transcendence’, and these are the passages I particularly want to quote, because they’re beautiful. He writes:
Joy is play’s intention. When this intention is fully realized, in joyful play, the time structure of the playful universe takes on a very specific quality – namely, it becomes eternity…This is the final insight of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in the midnight song: ‘All joy wills eternity – wills deep, deep eternity!’ …It is this curious quality, which belongs to all joyful play, that explains the liberation and peace such play provides….When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood. This becomes most apparent when such play occurs in the actual face of acute suffering and dying. It is that that stirs us about men making music in a city under bombardment or a man doing mathematics on his deathbed…It is his ludic [playful] constitution that allows man, even at Thermopylae, to regain and ecstatically realize the deathless joy of his childhood.
This is interesting, and reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow states, and the suspension of ordinary time-consciousness in moments of deep absorption. Play gives us that deep, meditative absorption, that’s one of the reasons we love it – because it suspends ordinary time-consciousness. It’s funny that we construct artificial rules to give us parameters within which to lose ourselves. In that sense, a game is like a religion – an artificial construction to enable moments of absorption and transcendence.
Csikszentmihalyi would insist, rightly, that the deepest absorption comes with excellence – when a person is at play but bringing all of their resources, all their skill and power, to the game, like this beautiful scene from A River Runs Through It. I find this scene moving, because you know Brad Pitt’s character is in trouble, and will die tragically later in the film , and yet the transcendent moment stands out, in defiance of death.
Berger also takes humour as a signal of transcendence: ‘By laughing at the imprisonment of the human spirit, humour implies that this imprisonment is not final but will be overcome, and by this implication provides yet another signal of transcendence, in the form of an intimation of redemption.’
I like the idea of humour and play as signals of transcendence. One could adapt Pascal’s quotation: ‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a laughing reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he laughs at the universe and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.’
But comedy could just as much be interpreted a reaction to the absurdity of our existence and our inability to know what the hell is going on. Think of, say, Woody Allen’s comic existentialism, or the Coen Brothers’ Simple Man, or even Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – the comedy comes from asking deep existential questions, and not really getting any transcendent response. And yet finding a sort of humorous or absurd acceptance of that.
OK, one last quote from the book I want to share with you:
Human life has always had a day-side and a night-side, and, inevitably, because of the practical requirements of man’s being in the world, it has always been the day-side that has received the strongest ‘accent of reality’. But the night-side, even if exorcised, was rarely denied. One of the most astonishing consequences of secularization has been just this denial. Modern society has banished the night from consciousness, as far as this is possible…Much more generally, modern society has not only sealed up the old metaphysical questions in practice but has generated philosophical positions that deny the meaningfulness of those questions.
How long such a shrinkage in the scope of human experience can remain plausible is debatable. In any case, it constitutes a profound impoverishment. Both in practice and in theoretical thought, human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy, by which I do not mean the alleged experience of the mystic, but any experience of stepping outside the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life, any openness to the mystery that surrounds us on all sides.
Wisdom is a watering-hole at which animals of many different species can come and drink – as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or attack each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour.
Last month, I took part in a slightly silly stunt for World Philosophy Day. I and some other writer-types dressed up in togas and re-created Raphael’s School of Athens on the steps of St Paul’s. There are Cynics, Stoics, Platonists and various ‘not sures’ among us, all gathered together to celebrate wisdom. Our number included a theologian, Nick Spencer from the Christian think-tank Theos, in the orange-and-red toga on the right. I’ll come back to him.
I love Raphael’s painting, because it’s a portrait of intellectual friendship. There are philosophers of many different creeds gathered together in the painting, but they’re not denouncing each other or cutting each other’s heads off. They’re enjoying a friendly conversation. The intellectual diversity of the scene is all the more remarkable considering the mural is on Pope Julius II’s library wall in the Vatican Palace.
The painting reminds me of a group I have met up with fairly regularly for the last year or so. It grew out of the RSA’s spirituality project, organized by Jonathan Rowson. Some of the people involved in that group started to meet at each other’s homes for dinner every couple of months.
The group members hold a wide variety of metaphysical positions – for example, they include Toby Flint, who runs the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, and also Pippa Evans, who founded the Sunday Assembly, the humanist church. Toby and Pippa get on like a church on fire, not least because they have a similar sense of humour, and a similar desire to help people and provide them with community.
I think the fact that the founder of an atheist church and the organizer of the Alpha course can meet in friendship and humour is a triumph of Anglicanism. I define Anglicanism as broader than Christianity – Philip Pullman is a self-declared Anglican atheist, so is Richard Dawkins. It’s an open table, a shared culture of good humour, affability, and love of wisdom. The friendship between George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton is an example of Anglicanism. This exchange, on Twitter, between the Reverend Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins is another.
I think Anglican open-mindedness and friendliness is closely related to humanism. Humanism means a love of wisdom, particularly the wisdom of Greek and Roman philosophy. It also means a love of the arts and sciences, and a belief in their power to improve life. But above all, humanism is about people gathering together in friendship to share ideas, enjoying each other’s company even if we don’t share all of the same beliefs. As Terence put it: ‘I am human, nothing human is alien to me.’
Humanism is a social philosophy. It grew up in groups of friends, like the circle of Scipio, which helped bring Greek philosophy to Rome, or the humanist circles that flourished in 14th century Florence, around Boccaccio, Salutati, Bruni, and (some decades later) Marsilio Ficino, or in 15th century England and Holland, around Erasmus and Thomas More. These circles were quite heterogeneous – they might include Christians, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Kabbalists and Hermeticists. But they met in friendship and good humour.
My humanism is better than yours…
Today, alas, humanism is not quite such a broad or friendly church. One of my fellow toga-wearers from that gathering at St Paul’s, Nick Spencer of Theos, co-authored a report last week which bemoaned the fact that ‘humanism’ is now used to mean people who are non-religious or even anti-religious. The Theos report points out that there’s a long and proud tradition of Christian humanism too. Fair enough.
But the report then insists that Christian humanism is the best form of humanism, while atheist humanism doesn’t actually make sense. Na na na, my humanism is better than your humanism. This naturally riled atheist humanists, who called the report a land-grab, a ‘trolling of a whole world-view’. So, alas, what could have been an essay celebrating the shared foundations of Christian and secular humanism instead turned into a slanging match.
I am all for Christian humanism. I spent several years exploring and celebrating Greek and Roman philosophy and how people use it today. By the end of that journey, I was beginning to explore Christianity, and I’ve gone to church for the last two years. But I still take part in things like Stoic Week, because what I love about Greek philosophy – and wisdom in general – is that it can help free people from suffering no matter what their precise metaphysical beliefs.
At the heart of all humanisms is the belief that wisdom heals. This idea is at the heart of Christian humanism, Islamic humanism, Jewish humanism, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian humanism, and atheist or agnostic humanism. We might have different ideas about where beauty and wisdom come from, or what happens to us after death, but we can still agree on certain ideas and practices which heal us of suffering and help us to flourish.
Wisdom is like a watering-pool at which animals of many different species can come and drink, as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or behead each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour. Humanisms of all stripes need to get along, to withstand the real enemies: on the one hand, narrow and violent fanaticism, on the other, apathy and indifference.
The decline of humanisms
Humanisms are not in great shape at the moment. The centuries-old tradition of Islamic humanism seems to be overwhelmed by fundamentalism. Likewise Jewish humanism. Secular humanism is often shrill, hectoring, hostile to outsiders, and keener to denounce than befriend. And Christian humanism is also in dramatic decline.
The old tradition of humanist Anglicanism – with its poetry, its music and architecture, its wisdom, its open-mindedness and good humour – has been replaced by a narrower evangelicalism imported from America and Africa. This evangelicalism is not all bad – it has energy and ecstasy (and there’s a long tradition of ecstasy in humanism). But the intellectual side of Christianity has been sidelined in favour of a gushing and uncritical emotionalism.
In previous centuries, Anglicans like George Herbert, or Thomas Traherne would have been as familiar with Greco-Roman arts and philosophy as with the Bible. Today, most Christians view philosophy as a threat, and would have no awareness at all of, say, Dante, Milton, Raphael or Bach. Church bookstores are filled with crass American evangelical tracts, and would never dream of stocking works by, say, Donne, Blake, TS Eliot, Launcelot Andrewes, Julian of Norwich, or Erasmus. Anglicanism is losing its humanist roots.
I remember seeing a priest at a mega-church, who told the huge congregation how much he loved Milton, then attributed this quote to him: ‘Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life.’ Anyone who thinks Milton said that has, clearly, never read Milton in their life. I don’t mind him not having read Milton, but don’t pretend you have, and check your facts before passing them on (in the same sermon he claimed the Segrada Familia in Barcelona was built in the 14th century).
The deeper problem with this anti-intellectualism is it encourages an uncritical emotionalism. Any testimony about God’s healing power is uncritically swallowed with whoops of joy and cries of wonder. Christians become utterly credulous, embarrassingly so. That makes it very easy for any ambitious preacher to manipulate them with made-up stories and anecdotes – even well-respected preachers are happy to pass on fabricated internet anecdotes as if they were gospel truth. If we can’t trust them on that, why should we trust them when they tell us the Bible is literally true?
And a second big problem with this anti-intellectualism is there is no sense in the modern church that wisdom heals. If you have emotional problems, the only solution is to pray to Jesus and hope He exorcises your pain. This anti-intellectualism would seem bizarre and primitive to humanist Anglicans like Thomas More or Thomas Traherne, who understood that wisdom empowers us to change our minds and heal ourselves. As that founding father of humanism, Cicero, put it, ‘there is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy’.
I wish more Christians knew this – it would help them suffer less from things like depression or ME. The celebration of wisdom is not anti-Christian, it’s completely Biblical. But when I offered to do a workshop on healing wisdom at my local church, the young evangelical vicar brushed it warily aside. So I did it at the Sunday Assembly instead.
Even the theology schools that are supposed to be making Anglicanism more culturally sophisticated are often anti-intellectual. I did a theology course at St Paul’s Theology School, run by Graham Tomlin – a wise Christian humanist who’s written books on Justin Martyr and others. The school’s ‘ethics course’ involves a session on euthanasia, in which a man with cystic fibrosis gives an impassioned testimony about why every life is sacred. This invariably reduces everyone to tears. The other side of the argument – that some terminally ill people might want to end their lives – is not even considered. This anti-intellectual emotionalism is typical of the modern church but astounding in a theology school.
As Christian humanism declines and the church grows narrower, it loses its connection to wider society, and turns in on itself. A Christian friend told me recently they didn’t have any secular friends. How many contemporary apologists have any sort of voice in the wider cultural conversation? They are not converting anyone, they’re just reassuring existing Christians. The cross-cultural friendships are absent. The bridges are closed.
Meanwhile, a quiet tradition of Christian humanism carries on, and actually connects far more people to God, precisely because it does not insist people show their metaphysical credentials before inviting them to sit and eat. I think, for example, of the novels of Marilynne Robinson, or the poetry of George Herbert – brought to a wider audience recently by the biography of John Drury. These humanists are outside the church bubble, meeting their society in friendship, generously sharing the nourishment of Christian transcendence, without insisting people ‘surrender their yes to Jesus’.
Reading this again, I wonder if I sound like an intellectual snob. If I do, it’s probably because I am an intellectual snob. And obviously one of the good things about Christianity – compared to atheist humanism – is that it’s notintellectually snobbish, that it is a broad church which welcomes all, in which an illiterate fisherman might very well be closer to God than an academic. Still, what is also good about Christianity is that it’s a broad church with room for the humanist or intellectual side too. It’s a pity if that aspect of Christian culture disappears – more than a pity, in fact, a tragedy.