Archive for the 'religion' Category

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

November 22, 2022

     I have long been intrigued by this Roman emperor who was also a philosopher. His meditations are rather hard to read in these modern times, because of the style of writing way back then, and also the need for quite comprehensive notes to explain so many points and references, even to someone with a reasonable classical education. I have been listening to a good Librivox recording, which has made them rather more approachable and accessible; they seem to have been designed for listening, in a similar way to the Qur’an which is intended for recitation rather than reading.

He enjoyed an extremely powerful and privileged position, in the years before the Roman Empire became so large as to be unmanageable; he clearly had the luxury of unlimited undisturbed time to think, to philosophise and presumably dictate his thoughts to his slave… He comes across as a thinker, someone wise, but also someone endowed with large amounts of common sense. He reflects on the purpose and meaning of life, and its counterpart, the inevitability of death, and how a mortal can face and come to terms with that necessary eventuality. Nothing new there, we may think, but here is one of the first to try and articulate a response. And it’s interesting that he continually returns to this particular issue a number of times; I found myself thinking, here is a man – an emperor, but still a man, and aware of this – who is at some level wanting to understand and to rationalise his fears: for me, this made him more human, somehow.

He’s also interested in the nature of the universe, fate and resignation, and his position is that the gods determine everything…

At some level, he’s interested in the same things that I spend a fair amount of time wondering about. There are wisdom writings in most religions and cultures, and some are rather more accessible than others. I’ve found that with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, there’s an awful lot of chaff and not much wheat to glean once the tribal histories of the Jewish people, their wanderings and the misdeeds of their kings are stripped out. And although the Qur’an doesn’t spend as much time on history, is is very repetitive, as a book originally designed for public recitation will inevitably be.

The Wisdom books of the Bible, on the other hand, I have always found attractive and thought-provoking, and as I’ve read more widely I’ve come to realise that they contemplate similar notions to, and say the same things as did Confucius and the Buddha, and various Greeks and Romans, and Marcus Aurelius joins them. For my money, the orientals are rather too enigmatic – again, it’s a different mode of expression that it’s harder for us to tap into. The Greeks and the Romans are a lot more straightforward, in acknowledging that there are things they don’t understand, there are powers above and beyond us, that we humans are limited in what we can do and mortal. And they have no sense of there being a life after death either. For me, the jury is out on that one, but increasingly I do think that the idea of a hereafter is part of the attempt of religion to comfort us in facing the awful and inevitable end.

In a nutshell, if you’re a fan of the Preacher, aka Qoheleth, aka Ecclesiastes, you’ll probably enjoy Marcus Aurelius.

Jo Durden Smith: The Essence of Buddhism

November 20, 2022

     Recently, some of my reading on matters spiritual has suggested that there is a certain overlap between some Buddhist beliefs and practices and those of Quakers; I have been seeking a basic introduction to Buddhism, about which I know almost nothing, with a view to exploring this further, and had high hopes when I found this book. However, I was to be disappointed.

The connections I wanted to explore were around one’s spiritual journey being an individual path and one requiring tolerance of others and their beliefs. The book’s opening chapter offered a clear history, both in terms of the people and the social context of the origins of Buddhism, insofar as these can be known with any certainty after two and a half millennia. Life is characterised by suffering; we need to become seekers after truth; the truth cannot be taught, only experienced. The idea of the ‘middle way’ made a good deal of sense.

In the following chapter some aspects were explained in more detail. The book then developed into a history of Buddhism and its various flavours across the oriental world, and a rather tortuous path through doctrinal disagreements and a certain amount of infighting, myriad debates about orthodoxy and so forth, most of which made no sense at all to a novice explorer. This came as a great surprise to me, and reminded me of what I am so much more familiar with from my own origins and background, namely the shocking history of Christianity and its move away from what it seemed originally to have been. And then I realised that perhaps I should not have been so shocked: is this not what happens with any large-scale spiritual or political movement: those who follow after the initial birth of a movement inevitably become embroiled in struggles for power and influence, and for determining the ‘original’ message and for preserving its ‘purity’ ie orthodoxy, expelling heretics and so on…

This depressed me greatly, and I realise that trying to develop an understanding of some of the key tenets of Buddhism will perhaps involve just as much care and wading through treacle as any attempt to understand any religion. I do feel a little defeated, having, perhaps naively, had a picture of Buddhism as a peaceful faith. I shall persist for a while in my attempts to understand, and would welcome any suggestion from my readers of books which may be helpful: it’s the principles I’m interested in, not the history and the arguments…

ed Stevan Davies: The Gospel of Thomas

November 14, 2022

    Having realised long ago that Christianity, despite its spiritual origins and intentions, is also a construct of those fallible human beings who shaped and directed it particularly in its earliest years, I’ve been exploring some of the writings which, for all sorts of reasons, are nowadays regarded as apocryphal, unorthodox or deuterocanonical; the Gospel of Thomas is one of those.

There is, of course, ongoing debate about its status, authenticity, and whether it’s gnostic or not; it appears to be synchronous with other of the earliest accepted writings, though offering a different perspective. It’s a list of sayings of Jesus, with almost no narrative content at all; there is considerable overlap with what Jesus says in the synoptic gospels. So, is it actually another source for those?

I don’t particularly care, although the scholarly debate is mildly interesting; what interests me is the content. And the sayings of Jesus as reported in this text offer a rather different perspective: the kingdom of heaven is here and now, within us – reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Republic of Heaven at the end of the Dark Materials trilogy! – and there is no place for the sin and salvation narratives of the canonical gospels. Self-knowledge is the road to salvation. There are no miracles, and no prophecies about the future.

Davies’ commentary I found not particularly helpful, ranging from the obvious to the purely speculative, and I was thrown by a basic error in his Latin at one point, too. I’m not sure he offers very much enlightenment, but he does provide a clearly accessible text for the general reader, which I suppose I am, in the end. What I did notice were clear links between the simplicity of Jesus’ message in the Gospel of Thomas and the Quaker approach to the scriptures, and I was reminded of what I’ve read about the beliefs and practices of the Cathars, too.

Albert Nolan: Jesus Before Christianity

October 3, 2022

     In a way this book covers similar territory to E P Sanders’ book I read and wrote about recently; in another way it’s very different. It’s not so scrupulously detailed or annotated, for a start.

Jesus is seen as a follower of John the Baptist initially, who then turns his attention to the downtrodden, oppressed classes who have no hope of escaping their poverty, which is basically regarded as a sinful state. I’d never thought of him as ‘middle class’ though in terms of the society of his time, he was. Nolan develops a coherent picture of, and interpretation of, Jesus’ work in the context of his time. However, and this is where I encountered the greatest difficulty, he attempts to be dispassionate and analytical against the background of his own faith and what he perceives to be Jesus’ picture of God as well. Faith is opposed to fatalism: things can be done, we can make the world a different place. Nolan’s Jesus preaches community, equality, the sharing of surplus, ie only having what you actually need. He is very clear about the man as radical, and what was new about his teaching and life; Jesus comes across not as a revolutionary in the manner of others of his time, but as someone who can understand and show us what right living is…

For Nolan the central incident sealing Jesus’ fate is the clearing out of the money-changers in the Temple, which made him a known and potentially dangerous figure in different ways to the Jewish leaders and Roman rulers.

I think I said in response to Sanders’ book that his purely rational, historical analysis of Jesus as a human being should make no difference to a person’s faith; I find the confusion of analysis and urge to faith here very unhelpful. Nolan tries to make Jesus human before his death, almost omits the resurrection as an embarrassment, and then somehow tries to make him into an extraordinary figure for those who remained, quite suddenly almost an extension of God; here he lost me, I’m afraid: this bolting of a religious message on to the end did not work for me.

Clearly I’ve been reading a good deal about the man Jesus and his times over recent years; I’m still not sure if I call my response a belief or a faith, but none of the historical investigations have diminished the inspirational teachings I have always seen at the heart of the message…

E P Sanders: The Historical Figure of Jesus

September 3, 2022

  This was a most interesting read, mainly because of Sanders’ perspective and approach, as a historian writing about Jesus as just another historical character, and setting him clearly in the context of his time and society, using all available sources. For any other historical personage this would be standard practice and unsurprising, but the story of this particular character has been so swamped with other approaches, and uncritical veneration, that being faced with a dispassionate investigative approach was a serious eye-opener, at least for this reader.

New fact number one was chronology: Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospels were committed to writing, ergo he did not know the gospels, and neither do the gospel writers seem to have known his letters. Then Sanders unpicks and explains the Roman regime which ran Palestine at the time, and dispels a number of old chestnuts about the roles and powers of a Roman governor, about Pontius Pilate in particular, about Jewish high priests and what they had the power to do, about how Jewish civil society was organised and run. There was clearly a good deal of autonomy as long as the local population behaved.

Sanders’ forensic investigative approach somehow “shrinks” and normalises Jesus: he’s a human character in human history here; nothing of God or Christianity interferes. He shows what a historian can work out from the available material, and there is clearly a good deal more than I was aware of. Comparison of gospels reveals a lot, inconsistencies included, and much can be deduced or surmised; Sanders carefully clarifies what we can be sure of and what must forever remain unclear or unknown.

It is an exhaustive and at times densely-written academic work. The picture which gradually emerges is of a man who clearly believed he was carrying out a God-given mission, who became a thorn in the side of the Jewish authorities, and they quickly organised his execution. What they didn’t count on was what came after. That doesn’t mean the resurrection, the nature of which Sanders makes clear we can never know, but the work of his followers in the aftermath of Jesus’ disappearance, powered by their belief in his imminent return…

Faith is most definitely not part of this historian’s work, and perhaps for this reason, believers may find it disturbing or disorienting, though I personally don’t actually see why this should be the case. I feel a good deal more informed, factually and contextually and that is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really change what I understand to be the message of Jesus’ teaching.

Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief

August 13, 2022

     Elaine Pagels explores some aspects of the early history of Christianity in similar vein to various works by Karen Armstrong and Geza Vermes. Here she is focusing on the time between the death of Christ and the formal codification of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine in the early fourth century CE. It’s a fascinating period, and clearly there is a lot of information from those early centuries for researchers who know where to look.

What I find particularly interesting is how what seems to have been a revolutionary but fairly simple message, preached and developed by a man who was executed by the authorities as a dangerous character, evolved and developed into something rather different, ultimately one of the great world faiths with all kinds of doctrines and creeds, and penalties for the unorthodox and heretical. It’s evident that all sorts of things were going on, including battles between different interpretations of Jesus’ original message, and varying accounts of his life and work, written by people who didn’t actually know the man.

Pagels’ particular interest is the Nag Hammadi/Dead Sea Scrolls, and the various challenges and contradictions they bring to the long-accepted canon of scriptural writings. She makes clear that there was never one single, ‘pure’ early version of Christianity but a great diversity of beliefs and practices right from the start, which seems to have been inevitable in those days of slow and difficult communication. She focuses on the differences between John’s gospel – part of the canon of accepted texts – and the Gospel of Thomas, not accepted as canonical by the church. They espouse rival viewpoints, with John proposing a more church-based practice and advocating the divinisation of Jesus, while Thomas offered a more individualist approach to faith and practice; clearly, for whatever reasons, John became the preferred option and Thomas was quietly erased from history: finding God on your own was not what a church organisation wanted.

It was not a surprise to read about widespread division and controversy within a century or so of the death of Jesus. The framing of the four gospels into an accepted canon was largely the work of Irenaeus of Lyons; the focus was on John’s gospel particularly as it allowed the promotion of Jesus as divine and this shaped the development of the early church. Creation of an organisation necessitated orthodoxy for its survival in an era of persecution; by the time Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, its basic structures and beliefs had been codified, and were rather easier to enforce: the earlier and wider variety of beliefs and practices was no more.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt

August 8, 2022

     I’d been meaning to come back to this long novel for quite a while; it intrigued me when I first read it some twenty years ago, but it was nothing like I’d remembered it, this time around. It’s a well-written and evocative alternative history of the world covering several centuries, with a major difference: the Black Death of the fourteenth century did not kill only one third of the population of Europe, but eliminated it entirely, leaving the world to develop along a rather different track. Robinson explored potential futures focused on the Islamic, the Chinese and the Indian worlds, with a major emphasis on reincarnation thrown in…

It’s complex – obviously! – confusing, and at times annoying and rather boring; it’s clearly a tour-de-force for an accomplished writer like Robinson to imagine history on such a grand scale, but it does verge on the self-indulgent. Being a great fan of alternative history, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I shan’t even attempt to summarise the plot. The absence of Europe is thought-provoking in itself, given how we and our various offshoots, the USA especially, have shaped the world as we know it. Christianity has also gone, places have disappeared, and later on, our ancient history becomes the study material for curious archaeologists from other continents.

Imagining how the Muslim world might have developed is an interesting line of development, and I wonder what the reaction of Muslim readers has been to various strands that Robinson explores. The futures he creates are largely impressionistic rather than detailed; other religions and philosophies can get stuck in a rut just like Christianity has done in numerous ways. The effect is convincing, and also frustrating at times when I felt I’d have liked rather more detail to his alternative visions…

The Chinese explore the world in the way that various European nations actually did, and Islamic scientists replicate the investigatory and experimental tracks that actually took place in the West: the Islamic science that we know to have faded rather after the Middle Ages continued to flourish. Fortunately, scientists from all nations conspire to foil the development of nuclear weapons.

Although a world without Europe is very different, Robinson inevitably must remind us that humans are humans: there is still the lust for power, much cruelty, development of weaponry and warfare: in his future the equivalent of the First and Second World Wars are telescoped into one war which lasts over sixty years. It’s a strangely riveting read, and at times I found it hard to believe that a Western writer had written it; equally, I wonder where a non-Western writer would have gone with a similar idea. Robinson philosophises about the world, about power and religion and has obviously researched his material: I didn’t ever find myself thinking, ‘this isn’t a credible development’.

The best science fiction, to my mind, makes us think about and reflect on our own world; if it goes into the future, it makes us consider our own future, too. Humans are the same everywhere, and the big question which faces us now is surely whether we can learn from our history and our mistakes or whether we are condemned to revisiting and repeating them, in which case there’s little hope left. Robinson, from a very different and unusual perspective, and in a challenging work, offers much to think about.

Karen Armstrong: Sacred Nature

July 23, 2022

     In this latest book Karen Armstrong develops her idea that monotheism led people to view nature and their relationships with nature in a different way from other peoples; they came to see ‘God’ as separate from the world rather than an integral part of it. For her, then, the early modern, increasingly scientific and rationalistic world-view, particularly in the West, let to the idea of nature as a resource for human use and exploitation, rather than humans striving to live in harmony with creation which included ‘God’. God thus became something completely separate from the world, and other, the original holiness or sacredness of the world and nature was sidelined, and we have ended up in the current situation where the planet is rapidly being destroyed, in the sense of becoming unliveable for our species, at least.

Armstrong is building on and developing ideas that she has already expounded in recent books; through her knowledge and understanding of religion and history, she argues for a radically different relationship between human beings and the world we inhabit, which would involve, for us in the developed world at least, much sacrifice of what we currently have and enjoy, at the expense of the planet.

It was interesting to learn that apparently, the Chinese have no creation story in their myth or tradition. Her message develops from both Chinese and Indian philosophy, and to a lesser extent from Islam, and is about a world-picture that the West and Christianity has left behind at its cost. She extracts many important, if not vital, lessons from the wisdom of past ages, and yet sadly, she ultimately comes across in this book as disconnected from the chaos that is the contemporary world: I cannot see how, in practical terms, enough of us can begin to bridge the gap she describes, to make the transition she hopes for, and with which many thinking people will surely agree.

She emphasises the importance of quiet and solitude, two things which the modern consumerist world obviously despises and does its best to eliminate from our consciousness. Quiet people, who enjoy solitude, are not ideal consumers; noise, groups, gregariousness facilitate spending money and generate profits…

I enjoyed this book, and it slowed me down and made me think and reflect a good deal. I was particularly gripped by her thoughtful and innovative reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And, though I wish things might turn out differently, I do not see her book changing the world.

ed Anthony Storr: The Essential Jung

June 14, 2022

     I’ve been delving into some of Jung’s writings lately, finding a number of his ideas and insights helpful in terms of understanding and interpreting my own life and where I am at currently. This is a selection from the vast corpus of his life’s work, presented by Anthony Storr, who also provides an excellent summative introduction to the salient parts of Jung’s life and thought.

There’s a vast range of extracts, presented thematically to show the stages and development of Jung’s work and his theories, along with very helpful commentary that links, enlightens, and above all for me shows process; in a single, selective volume like this, the presentation is vital.

The early years, work with mentally ill patients, the friendship and then the quarrel with Sigmund Freud is a bit amorphous; it’s when Jung turns his attention to developing an understanding of how healthy minds work, and what’s going on deep beneath the surface (I oversimplify appallingly here!) that it all becomes really interesting and eye-opening. I find myself led to reflect on my own life and experiences in different ways, from different perspectives. The gradual development of Jung’s own methods of psychoanalysis, and the humility, I think, of recognising any therapist’s own limitations is also very interesting; there is much that we can know or find out, and even try to change, but there is much more that we can never know, or know with certainty…

Jung lived adventurously, in terms of taking all sorts of risks at various points, with his own life and sanity in terms of advancing his understanding of workings of the human mind; I was certainly conscious of a man driven to want to know, to explore, to find out and to explain. He saw life as an ongoing process, a part of which necessitates our coming to terms with ageing, and the prospect and inevitability of death, things which we naturally prefer to avoid or hide from ourselves.

This led Jung on to wrestle with religion, and the psychology of religion; there’s an awful lot of very good sense in what he has to say which I do not think invalidates the idea of faith. There is some rather over-the-top stuff where he’s wrestling to make Christianity fit in with his theories, and then when he moves on to alchemy, he lost me completely. I could see why, though everything in this book of extracts is obviously part of Jung’s life and work, a good deal of it is no longer widely referenced. It seems as if he felt he had to explain everything and integrate everything into his theories, which led me to think that here was yet another scientist who was attempting to explain and rationalise religion, ie attempting the impossible.

The final very pessimistic section on the potential future of humanity chimes in all too well with our age, and a feeling that though we may be an intelligent species, we’re not that clever, and the problems we are faced with may be too many and too complex for us to surmount. He foresaw the world of Trump, Johnson, Le Pen and Orban and where such men may lead us, whether we will or not, because – and I have to agree with him here – people are too easily led, and not self-aware enough.

Karen Armstrong: The Case for God

May 25, 2022

     I do find Karen Armstrong’s writings on religion fascinating and thought-provoking, as you can see; there’s a lifetime of research and exploration there, by someone seeking to understand and explain, as far as this can be done, and I can identify with this in a number of ways.

This book is much more approachable than the previous one. Her starting-point is our changing understanding of what God is, and the problems this presents in our modern and would-be rational age, leading to responses such as fundamentalism and atheism. She outlines how in the ancient world there was no belief in a single supreme being, along with an acceptance of God as something inexpressible and incomprehensible, which we now want to rationalise and tie down and explain…

The ancient Greeks launched the Western pursuit of Reason: there was a rational explanation for everything if it could be found or worked out… and the philosophers’ quest for understanding of the world and the cosmos seems to have been focused on the right way to live. Humans were rational creatures, carrying within them a spark of the divine.

The section on language, and the changing meaning of the word ‘belief’ was fascinating; the Greek and Latin words translated now as ‘belief’ were in earlier times more about a sense of trust and commitment in God, than about unquestioning acceptance and assimilation of a set of dogmas defined by other humans. From about the 4th century onwards, Christianity began its shift towards insistence on doctrinal correctness. And once the idea of creation ex nihilo gained acceptance, then God and the universe were separated… Belief in literal truth of scripture rather than scripture as allegory to help us see, led to the ongoing separation between spirituality and theology. Armstrong explains that we participate in a mystery, whereas we solve a problem: nowadays we try to turn the mystery into a problem which we can then solve.

I decided that, in the end, this book and others by Armstrong are of course yet another 21st century rationalist approach to the exploration of spirituality and religion. Inevitably: this is what we do in our present world and time; there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just our version of the aeons-long human quest. We are necessarily creatures of our own age. So much of the book is about clever people wrestling with the (still!) ungraspable in the attempt to explain and understand, when this seems by definition impossible. Armstrong earns my respect for being engaged for so long, and bringing forth so much enlightenment. For her, religion is a practical discipline, is not easy, and is about living intensely in the her and now. Amen to that.

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