The embarrassing non sequitur of death – and a silent rebellion

“It seemed that episcopal authority had now triumphed in the Church. But worshippers at the Eucharist, seeing the bishop seated before them with his presbyters, might be aware that there was an alternative source of power and spirituality in the Church: an institution which had only gradually emerged during the third century [monasticism]. The closer the Church came to society, the more obvious were the tensions with some of its founder’s messages about the rejection of convention and the abandonment of worldly wealth. Human societies are based on the human tendency to want things, and are geared to satisfying those wants: possessions or facilities to bring ease and personal satisfaction. The results are frequently disappointing, and always terminate in the embarrassing non sequitur of death. It is not surprising that many have sought a radical alternative, a mode of life which is in itself a criticism of ordinary society. Worldy goods, cravings and self-centred personal priorities are to be avoided so that their accompanying frustrations and failures can be transcended. The assumption is that such transcendence has a goal beyond the human life span, the goal which some term God […] The Church might well have seen [the] silent rebellion [of those who lived this life] as a threat […] because […] simply by their style of life, they denied the whole basis on which the Church had come to be organised. ”

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity

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Impossible things for breakfast

“I make no pronouncement as to whether Christianity, or indeed any religious belief, is ‘true’. Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet ‘true’? It never happened, but seems to me to be much more ‘true’, full of meaning and significance for human beings, than the reality of the breakfast I ate this morning, which was certainly ‘true’ in a banal sense.”

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity

The Book of Margery Kempe

I was recently asked to read The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436-8) for a course on Northern Renaissance art. The idea was to get an insight into the medieval spiritual life, particularly as experienced through ‘affective piety’ – an emotionally charged practice of prayer, reading and meditation on scenes from the Bible, the lives of the Saints, or other religious material as represented in art. The idea was for the “viewer” to engage with the scene as if she or he were physically present and to stir up feelings of love, fear, grief, and repentance for sin. Margery tells how she visualised herself in scenes from Christ’s and the Virgin’s life, then took part in the actions of the scene –  as a midwife to St Anne, for example, and experiencing Christ’s suffering on the cross, which caused her great emotional distress which resulted in outbursts of weeping.

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While reading Kempe’s book, I was reminded that active visualisation is still practised today. In some strands of the modern pagan movement, for example,  active visualisation is practised either by meditating on and acting out a narrative in the mind or contemplating an image to place oneself within it. In both cases the participant is encouraged to talk to and interact with the people, animals, situations, etc., he or she finds there. This doesn’t strike me as very different from what Margery Kempe was doing. Obviously, it is less ‘affective’, there is no physical suffering involved and ‘God’ is not the Christian God, but the basic method is the same.

It’s too easy to dismiss this as a kind of craziness. People who set themselves aside from the norms of society are often misunderstood and labelled as unstable. Pagans, spiritualists and mystics tend to be viewed in this light today. I’m not sure that this is a helpful way to see Margery Kempe. It’s difficult for us to understand the medieval mindset and the importance of religion and devotion within it. Margery’s ‘extremes’ may be explained by the fact that she was describing events to a scribe and may have been prone to exaggeration. She could simply have felt things more keenly. Whatever the case, her experiences were individual and heartfelt. I see her as a devoted medieval women enthused – very enthused! – by the word of her God.

The description of pain and suffering in her book is fascinating and lends credence to the concept of ‘philopassionism’ – an empathetic identification with Christ during his Passion – and how works of art functioned as channels for it. I think Margery, despite what we see as her excesses, gives us a small glimpse into how that process worked and this can enrich our own experience of Northern Renaissance art – indeed, of our own experience of life.–Lynn Wright

The world just is

For the past two mornings, sunlight has streamed through my window – great shafts of light with thousands of dust particles dancing around. What a sight! And in January, one of the gloomiest months – such indulgence! My immediate conclusion (without thinking or reflection) was to smile and say out loud ‘How beautiful! The world is beautiful’, before making the mistake of thinking about it. My mind flicked to one of England’s most beautiful counties; Cumbria, and images of some its villages submerged under water filled my mind. That wasn’t beautiful at all, quite the opposite. No, nature (and the world) is both beautiful and ugly, or if we flip it around: neither one nor the other. It just is.

What this really means is that the only way we objectify the world is by our subjectivity. Sunlight can destroy just as it can nourish, and the same can be said for the wind and the rain. From this perspective, to fetishize nature (or the world as it is) is a mistake and a false attachment. However, we are also part of nature, as is our subjective consciousness, which enables us to navigate life’s travails and pleasures, and indeed, to decide which one is which.

The desire to find objective beauty, happiness, or contentment, is the same desire to find objective meaning and God. From here, we feel confident making moral judgements; separating the beautiful from the ugly; good from evil; and the holy from the profane. But herein lies the rub: by which external standard are we to derive an objective understanding?

The world is all we know, and no matter how far science advances, we will never be able to know what Kant called ‘the thing in itself’. Many religious people seem to agree with this to a certain point. What they do, however, is substitute science’s natural limitations with an all-encompassing theology which claims to solve the problem. It doesn’t. It just moves the question along. The proclamation of divine knowledge, espoused with idiotic certainty, is best demonstrated with the God-as-first-cause argument.

I have had many conversations with credulous Christians and Muslims who think that this is the best weapon in their arsenal. Science, they say, can never reveal the ‘thing in itself’ (although they never actually use this phrase.) When I point out that merely postulating a Creator God doesn’t deal with where he comes from; they genuinely don’t seem to understand. The same can be said for the ‘finely tuned universe’ argument. If just one of the cosmic settings – if one of the numbers in the equations that seem to determine what nature is were out by a mere fraction – then the universe as we know it couldn’t exist and it would be curtains for all life forms, they opine. The obvious rebuttal is: why did the Creator God make the world with such inbuilt precarity?  With no other comparable standard, what they are really doing is theologising an existing objective reality.

It’s just the world As It Is. We live on a permanent knife edge.

What sense does it make to think of ‘first causes’ anyway? A beginning, a middle and an end – how very western. But if one looks closer, the metaphysical trick is revealed: before the beginning there was infinity (God), and the end is also infinite because God can never end. As far as I know, theoretical physics postulates a beginning of time; a ‘big bang’; a singularity. At a certain point, all these discussions merge into one: different attempts (some more ingenious than others) to crack the nut of the ‘thing in itself’.

The ‘thing in itself’ remains uncracked.

Time is an endless river. It never started and it will never end. There can only be endless cycles of life: death, decay, resurrection and so on. This is our best assumption, anything else either collaspes within its own logic, or lies beyond our ken. Beauty, ugliness, good, bad, happiness, sadness are inextricably linked in every object, relation and phenomenon. Attempts to separate them are merely idealist attempts by humanity to objectify what will always resist such crass categorisation.

And when we realise this, true meaning may be found, and a moral compass. The pressure is lifted if we accept that we are only brief candles in the dark. Thus what we experience, think, feel, hate and love will ultimately pass, as all things must. Here we can find true meaning mediated by our temporal existence within the infinite.

Tomorrow I will pray again for those shafts of light, or perhaps an orange sunset. For although time is infinite, it is also running out.

The best way to be political is to be non-political

Regular readers will hopefully realise by now that they are witnessing two people experiencing a common journey. We met as socialists in the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), before leaving and shifting even further to the (ultra) left in our search for revolutionary purity. After this stage, and having found the limitations of this approach, we eventually moved into the world of the pragmatic: this time, our quest was how to combine our desire to change the world with practical political activity in the here and now. But here we discovered a new set of limitations, and currently find ourselves in ‘negative capability’; looking for a God we don’t actually believe exists, but determined to find him nonetheless.

Each stage has been part of our learning and we embrace all those who have fed and watered us along the path. This learning has shaped us, and all involved (for good and bad) have been integral to our education. We have never thrown out the baby with the bathwater (although it may have looked like that on occasion.) On the contrary, we always bottled the bath’s dirty water, open minded about what of value might remain, and often attempted CPR on our damaged infant if we considered it to be drowning in its own infantile contradictions.

In essence, we are attempting to find the source of everything: a starting point. Unless we strip everything down and shed our various skins and narratives, how are we to make progress? Well, the good news is that we have found something positive, a guiding principle which allows us to clarify our thoughts and insights. Four words best describe this: compassion, empathy, understanding and love (CEUL).

Practising CEUL is not easy. We still swear, rant, rave and throw our hands about (particularly when watching what passes for ‘politics’ in the media), but we don’t leave it there. We realise that the people we are vexing are vulnerable human beings (yes, even the capricious Iain Duncan Smith.) However, it is vital to create a space between us and the so called ‘political’ world, in order for us to understand it without losing our minds in undiluted rage. There is a practical dimension to this. We no longer have the capacity to carry this rage around on a daily basis as it was destroying our lives and relationships; corroding our very souls. But the ‘rage’ remains our friend because we continue to learn from it, and it has been the best facilitator in our attempts to find peace.

We decided to start by looking inwards, clearing out our own closets. Naturally, it is impossible to be completely clean: the more you scrub, the more dirt you actually find. However, this ‘dirt’ need not be your enemy as it unites everyone together. We are all dirty and clean in equal measure, what is important is the ‘cleansing’ process itself, and the realisation that it is an impossible task: the more you scrub, the more shit you find, and the more shit you find, the ‘cleaner’ you become.

To argue that we are all essentially equal (from the lowest ‘criminal’ to the most exalted ‘saint’) is both controversial and counter intuitive. It is certainly the main insight from Christianity, but one rarely finds a Christian who actually believes it. This may derive from a category error. The idea that some people are inherently ‘bad’ and others ‘good’ is predicated on a particular view of what it means to be an ‘individual’, which necessarily loses the most salient, yet paradoxical, feature of authentic individualism: we are all interconnected. If intellectual historian Larry Siedentop is correct, the ‘invention of the individual’ was Christianity’s greatest bequeathment. Could it be that our interconnectedness got lost in this, only to make the occasional abstract appearance; relegated to the status of a rhetorical device?

Writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy certainly appeared to be conscious of such a gap, and wrestled over its implications in both their novelistic and critical works. The one thing they appeared to agree upon was how we are all responsible for each other, and that compassion and understanding is key to the human condition. In Dostoevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov, all the brothers share in the guilt for the murder of their father, although only one of them actually killed him. Arguably, the complex matrix of individual and collective responsibility achieves its highest artistic expression in this work.
People build a narrative, an identity, and present it to the world as their true selves. We believe that much of this is a post hoc rationalisation of what they want to be, certainly how they want to be perceived. We have all met the socialist who proclaims his ‘love’ for humanity through gritted teeth, whilst displaying the manners of a gutter snipe. He loves the people of the world in abstraction because rudeness and a general coldness are his actual character traits. He seems oblivious to this, and the chances are that such inauthentic behaviour is not consciously realised, and in his mind, at least, he truly does want a better world. Conversely, we have all met the self-proclaimed conservative who actually cares about the people around him and can be relied upon to help out when required. It’s true he may not be so keen on lots of refugees coming into his country because it violates his understanding of elementary resource allocation. “There’s not enough room for them”, he will opine, but unlike our open borders socialist friend, may genuinely help out when faced with an actual living refugee because it is in his nature to assist people.

There is a mediation between the person in the flesh and the ideas being espoused, which leads us to the view that every conceivable position may have something to offer the world. The trick is to attempt to understand the motivation behind the ideas and the internal psychology. Is it not possible that a racist may be motivated by love for a perception of a lost community? How long does it take to go from that position to a hatred of ‘strangers’? If the premise of love is correct then our racist brother is not a lost cause. And even if he is truly motivated by hate, he has lost himself completely and the only response that is both moral and effective is CEUL.

So the first thing to do is to check how one acts in the world on a day to day basis. Subscription to a set of tenets is not an adequate substitute. And it is precisely because people make this substitution, disaster can often hove into view. For example, many young Muslims have reacted angrily about the highly immoral actions taken by western governments in the Middle East. With no compelling domestic narrative as a counter balance, many have left behind family and friends to fight on the side of ISIS. They have made the decision that ISIS are defending a moral truth which may result in them performing hideous crimes because after taking such a drastic decision, a post-hoc rationalisation is never far away. If one believes one has been violated, one often loses one’s head, before others starts losing theirs.

We have all heard of disaffected British lads joining the army because it gives them an opportunity to act out a revenge upon people they have grown up despising. Why they despise is complex in itself, but it may come down to a perception that strangers have moved into their communities and taken vital resources which they believed belonged to them. Some of these lads may have done and seen terrible things in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but by which objective criteria are we to adjudicate the actions of these lads to those who joined the other side?

The simple fact of the matter is that the material results of these ‘just so’ stories are not just independent decisions made by people in perfect circumstances with perfect knowledge acting with freewill. All such decisions are mediated by the social matrix which we have all contributed to in one form of another. This doesn’t do away with individual responsibility or freewill, but it does provide a basis for understanding how judgements and moral choices are selected, their contingencies, and how the difference between one murder and a thousand can be a hair’s breadth. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a disaffected student, Raskolnikov, kills an old money lender for a complexity of reasons which cannot be discussed here. Suffice to say that the empathetic Examining Magistrate, Profiry (understanding that Raskolnikov is young, highly intelligent, but ensnared in a high brow theory), quips that it was a good job that his theory only lead him to kill an old woman. “Who knows what might have happened if had picked a different theory?”
Indeed, this is a salutary reminder for any of us who proclaim this idea or that, may actually end up doing something terrible in the name of this idea. Particularly if God or revolution is involved.

So this is what it means to be political without being political: examining the gap between one’s professed ideology, how one really feels, whilst extending this courtesy to others, acknowledging that we are all vulnerable, frightened, angry, strong, weak, hard and soft. Shedding skins, throwing off shibboleths, and practicing CEUL.