Tuesday, 14 October 2008
A PAUSE FOR THOUGHT: WHY BOTHER?
"What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow-creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but disqualified for life." - Albert Einstein
In all the hoohah on these pages about Cathars and Kabbalists and the Soul and Yin and Yang and Babadoo Babading, one might be tempted to ask: "Why bother with any of this stuff? Why go back to these musty old tomes, these hoary 'truths', these dead ways of looking at things? What does any of it have to offer us today? Hasn't Science proven that all this stuff is just so much deluded hoodoo? We all know there is no God. And if there is one, he seems to either fucked it all up or given up on the whole sorry project. So why not knuckle under and get on with the world as it is?"
And having posed it, its with a deep breath that I am going to try and answer. Because this is important stuff. Indeed one might say its the big question of our times. As a species, or at least in the West (we sometimes forget that our mindset is not the whole world!), we have done Religion and we are still doing Materialism, if not outright Atheism. But if there is a strange truth of our age, its that we have not quite given up on God or at least the idea that there might be something more than the physical in this world - in spite of the best efforts of well informed, intellectual giants and polymaths such as Richard Dawkins. But people interested in these things find themselves stuck between the Funny Hat Brigade who offer old truths, blurry New Agers who offer them up rechauffeed and the ice-cold comfort of the Materialists, who tell us we are little more than a bunch of chemical reactions which have successfully duped themselves into the illusion that they exist and somehow therefore matter...
The reality is that most of us have a nagging feeling that there IS more, a feeling that is no longer catered for either in the Churches and Mosques or the lecture theatres of Science Institutes. It is to do with dignity, a sense of Self and a sense of connection with something all around us. It is also, fundamentally, about the power and reality of the Inner Life. And THIS, it seems to me, is what is NOT provided for in our society today.
Since the Enlightenment, which happened in reaction to the appalling excesses of the Church, we in the West have lived in the belief that, in essence, we live in a Universe of Mechanism which can be understood, harnessed and perhaps controlled. After Newton, Descartes and Voltaire, the belief has been among most that rationalist, sceptical, empirical enquiry was the only basis upon which the human race could proceed. Never mind that Newton and Descartes both believed in God (Newton rather repellently so, a kind of anti-Dawkins!)! Reason was King, purified of all superstition, emotion and irrationality. If society could be run on Reason, our problems would disappear. And so it may yet prove to be.
As I say, this impulse, deeply humanistic in principle, was based on an idealistic view of human nature which, if it could be purged of its negative propensities, could create a Heaven on Earth of its own. After Inquisitions, religious wars, the hypocrisies of Priesthoods and Papacies, the suppression of dissent, the prevention of scientific enquiry and the celebration of blind, unthinking obedience to Men in Hats, who would not have signed up to the progressive vision of the Enlightenment? I myself would count myself deeply grateful for the division of Church and State and the development of human values the Enlightenment has brought us. I would much rather live in a secular state than a theocracy and only a fool would deny the advances in technology and medicine that have happened since then (although contrary to popular belief that didn't start with the Enlightenment!). Just as I don't dismiss what the Age of Religion did for us over the centuries, nor do I dismiss the Age of Reason. The problem is, as Billy Wilder pointed out in SOME LIKE IT HOT: 'Nobody's perfect'.
Where the oppression of the Church lead to untold primitivism and suffering, the Enlightenment has lead to another problem - the creeping devaluation of the interior life. For human kind is NOT a Rational creature. Or rather Reason is only a part of what makes us human. Reason is crucial in restraining ourselves from excessive, destructive behaviour but where it diverges from feeling, empathy, compassion and our deeper, more interior needs, it creates a new Hell every bit as destructive as the millenarian madness of fanatical religion.
Since the advent of the Enlightenment, we have seen a proliferation of great Social Ideas. These sprang directly from the new vision of the Universe set down by the scientific and intellectual giants of the period: Newton, Descartes, Hume. These three men, whose views on the Spirit were wildly different, nevertheless ushered in the ideas that would lead to the Scientific Method, Scepticism and distrust of human Consciousness as a yardstick for anything. Newton brought in the notion that the Universe was made up of mechanistic Laws which were purely physical, in which everything operated as discrete, independent bodies: the Universe as Machine. Descartes brought in the Deductive Method, whereby everything that could not be indisputably KNOWN was to be distrusted, the idea of Coordinates and the Mind/Body split. No matter that Descartes believed that God united Mind and Body, what has been passed down to us is a materialist interpretation of his ideas. For this reason I sometimes think of him as 'Poor Descartes'. A man who spent his life trying to prove the rational existence of God has, without knowing it, become one of the great icons of Rational Materialism.
Finally Hume brought forward Scepticism, saying that absolutely nothing that was not to be encountered by the Senses could be deemed 'real' in any way (and he wasn't even sure of that!). Of the three men mentioned here, he was the only materialist and offered up the first powerful intellectual argument against belief in God. As such he is regarded as a pioneer of Rational Atheism and a massive influence on figures such as Bertrand Russell (although even he was concerned by some of his conclusions!). Hume suspected all human Consciousness as being fundamentally flawed by its very subjectivity. Our minds, our emotions, could be misleading and were not to be trusted and so we needed to find other means to find the truth. We might THINK God exists, but that proves nothing, at least not in any objective sense. Thus, in the absence of verifiable proof we must operate as if God does not exist. We might even think WE exist, but that may be an illusion. In truth, Hume argued, the only thing that was absolutely certain was mathematics - pure, abstract thought with no emotional content or fug attached. Thus, once again, the logical end of Hume's reasoning was that in every way the Inner Life was a yardstick for nothing. It had no inherent value. Thus it could only be distrusted. Ultimately, he drew into question the whole idea of Self. Arguing that the Hume that was a boy was not the same as the Hume that was a man, he posited that the idea of the Self, of Identity, was, in essence, an illusion. And maybe he was right. A lot of modern biologists seem to think so.
Out of all these new intellectual currents arose the great Social Ideas I mentioned above. Some have been positive, some less so. All have been based on the mechanistic view that by changing the external realities of society the problems of the human race could be solved. In other words, just as Newton's model of the Universe saw it as a machine, so was everything else - society, the body, the mind, humanity in general. If the machine goes wrong, it can be fixed. If the machine can be designed properly, it will work well. Practically EVERY '-ism' we have lived by in the last two centuries has been based on this. Utilitarianism, Marxism, Communism, Nazism, Free Market Capitalism, Socialism, Neo-Conservatism, Eugenics, Social Engineering, Genetic Engineering etc etc. Our education has been based upon it, our medicine, even our culture. At its best it has brought about human rights, prosperity, stability and health. At its worst, human beings have been reduced to becoming units, cogs in a machine, economic counters, classes, masses to be herded, exploited, 'liberated', kept entertained etc etc etc. Where even utopian, idealistic approaches to social engineering have emerged, they have so often involved wholesale slaughter of thousands, if not millions who did not 'fit'. Think of Cambodia, Stalin's Russia, the French Revolution. If all these earlier -isms have bitten the dust, the last one we are dealing with is Free Market Capitalism in which everything, EVERYTHING justifies itself in terms of money and supposed economic prosperity. Art, culture, education, health, hygiene, town planning all become subject to market forces. If they cannot justify their existence financially, they risk going under. Everything is dispensible, even human life. We are told that we went to war in Iraq for oil. In other words, financial goals overrode human life on a grand scale. And that wasn't the first time! The Industrial Revolution itself ushered in an era of suffering and human exploitation in the name of material profit such as we had never seen before. And yet this was the supposed Age of Progress! As for how Darwinism was perverted and used to justify racist ideologies in America, Nazi Germany and South Africa, the least said about that the better...
In amongst all this the mental, emotional and spiritual life of the human race has become utterly devalued, often without us even noticing and sometimes with the best intentions! What has been the prevailing expression of our culture over the last two hundred years? What have our books, our poetry, our plays, our philosophy, our films, our songs been telling us about how we feel about ourselves? They tell us about alienation, despair, ugliness, violence, the degradation of sexuality to commodity and voyeurism, the loss of spirituality, the debasement of aspiration to drinking ourselves into oblivion and seeking some kind of sense of value in quick-fix 'celebrity'. And all this in an era where material prosperity, life expectancy and standards of health have been higher than ever! Those of us who want something more, who have a sense of what is inside us, not just the spiritual but also the emotional, are told not to worry, not to bother. We are called 'deluded', 'romantics', 'naive dreamers', 'sentimentalists'. We are told to just get on with it like everyone else, to face up to the 'real world'. Worse still, some of the more sensitive of us who find this existence difficult are slammed on drugs, as if the efforts of figures such as Jung and Freud to find a means to help us make sense of our inner lives was all for nothing. When a recent survey in the UK revealed that certain anti-depressants were placebos the howls of protest were intense. Journalists came out of the woodwork to reveal how they had been on anti-depressants for years (which was pretty galling considering so many of them were responsible for creating the cynical cultural atmosphere we live in in the first place). Statistics were revealed which showed the extent to which Depression was prevalent in our society - a staggering 10% of people were on some kind of medication. Something is seriously wrong with our country. Our culture is not nourishing us. And its hardly surprising given that our society is based on the tacit assumption that really nothing really matters other than money and that, given there IS no inner life anyway, what is the point of trying to nourish it?
And now the human race faces the consequences of this materialist culture. What has this recent economic collapse been about but the total giving over of our existence to the Great God Money? What is the consequence of the greed-driven industrialisation of our world started in the late 18th Century? Global warming and the threat of the extinction of the human race. And what is at the root of our resistance to doing anything about it? Our reluctance to have to give up our material wealth, power and lifestyle...
What is the solution? Going back to outdated models of spirituality and the Universe which have long since ceased to be vital and life-giving? Surely not. They were part of the problem in the first place! But at the same time the answers given by the post-Enlightenment crowd of Scientists, Social Reformers and Economists are not the way either. Both have had their day. Both have had their Golden Ages. Both have made their contributions and, doubtless, will continue to make them. But we need something else, something more. For sure, society needs to be organised, but not along lines which have contempt for the individual value of the people within it. We need a synthesis or something new altogether.
THIS is why we need to be bothered. The ideas I have thrown around on these pages represent some of the richest, most complex and most visionary ideas human culture has given us. But they are NOT dogma. They don't involve obedience, they involve exploration - of the Self, the Universe, of Consciousness. No-one was burnt at the stake for believing in the five levels of the Soul, they were burnt for questioning the authority of the Church, or denying the Council of Trent or the Transubstantiation. Further, Mystics are almost never enthusiasts for slaughter. Try as I might, I cannot think of any great Mystic of the human race who did not regard everyone as being part of the Universal Journey (oh wait, one: St Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached the Crusades and justified the Templars' ability to kill in the name of Christ). They may have regarded their particular way as superior, but all spoke of everyone being brought to God. Rumi spent time with Christians and Jews, Eckhardt read Maimonides and Avicenna, Isaac Luria urged the lifting of the prohibition against women and Gentiles studying Kabbalah. Mystics dream of the return of the whole human race to the One. And, ultimately, their vision is empowering. They make us think of ourselves in a different way. They make us look at each other in a different way. They make us turn inwards, not outwards and think about what that means. In an age in which so many of us feel increasingly disempowered what more valuable energy could there be?
Of course I simplify and no doubt overstate my case a tad. Not every Rabbi, Priest or Imam is corrupt. Nor is every Scientist or Social Engineer. Far from it. Similarly I realise that I have presented the last 2000 years of human endeavour as little more than a kind of extended disaster. This is not what I mean at all. But it is an almost universal principle that with true Mysticism comes a certain Humanism. As the Epistle of John puts it:
"If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother who he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" - First Epistle of John
Even if this were not true, the reality is that the mystical ideas I have been talking about try to elevate the reality of our Inner Life to new heights. The very idea of the Soul in its mystical sense brings with it the inherent dignity of each human being. Further, it acknowledges the deepest yearnings and aspirations of the human race and the profound sense of connectedness we feel between ourselves and each other. Paradoxically, the sense of alienation and aloneness we feel is directly proportional to the sense that we ARE connected to the world outside us. Unless there was the possibility of food, we wouldn't feel hungry... What we no longer have in our society is a universal sense of what it is to be a human being beyond the purely material. Nor do we have access to the deep emotional satisfaction which these ancient traditions offered people. The lack is a serious one.
Even if none of these 'Gods' exist in any physical reality, they exist in an extremely potent PSYCHIC reality, which is perhaps even more important. If we might have learnt anything from Jung it should have been that. Spiritual traditions emerge from an evolving awareness of what we are and how we relate to ourselves and the Universe. If we could understand this, we would cease to bind ourselves to the Gods and instead use them as tools for our own self-revelation, which is what they were supposed to be in the first place. They act as metaphors and images for important inner processes we all must go through. And this is our moment to do it. We live in a time when, for all its materialism, we have unique access to every spiritual tradition the human race has known over the last few millennia. Once we could be Christians or Buddhists and not know about each other. Now we cannot avoid awareness of each other. Some find this terrifying. Others, like myself, find it utterly liberating. For the first time in history we can transcend the limitations of our culture and roam over the ideas of the vast epic of human endeavour that is thought and feeling and discover how one tradition can suddenly shed light on another. What an opportunity to enrich ourselves, to open our eyes and give ourselves a chance to liberate ourselves once more with a new understanding of what it means to be alive and, perhaps, experiencing the existence that all spiritualities have pointed towards in their own way.
Does one need to believe in God to believe in the Soul? Who knows? But at least we can enlarge what we mean by these terms now in a way in which we haven't been able to for centuries. This is not to say that the advances of Science and the achievements of the Enlightenment have gone for nothing. Far from it! Only that a balance needs to be struck. All new major spiritual steps forward emerged out of a crisis in what came before. Judaism grew out of spiritualities in Egypt and the Middle East, Christianity out of Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other spiritualities of the time, Islam out of Judaism and Christianity. If there is a reason to open these tomes again, to bother with this stuff, its to lead us to a new birth, a new relationship to things, which will not be the same as the old way in its outward forms but will grow out of the universal sense of the Spirit in every tradition. And maybe we won't have to subscribe to a one-size-fits-all spirituality, but one which sees every individual as part of an immense tapestry, each contributing a unique colour and texture to a new vision a thousand times more beautiful than before...
Amen to that! Now on with the work! See what we can do...!
“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.” -Albert Einstein