Archive for the 'religion' Category

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio

March 7, 2023

      I’m really not quite sure where to start with this remarkable novel, and I can’t fathom why it’s taken twenty years and a book group choice to bring it to my attention. Influences: the focus on mediaeval times and integration of philosophy into a novel inevitably reminds me of Umberto Eco’s classic The Name of the Rose. The astonishing plot structure, hooking the reader with a major event and then immediately dropping it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: a massive explosion in London: how did that happen? The writer teases, and you have to read and piece so many things together to get there and understand. And the interweaving of the three plot strands and the cutting from story to story in such a skilful, cinematographic way…

I was also hooked because of the setting in an area of Provence I’ve known and loved since my student days; I had vivid pictures in my mind as I read. Pears linked in to my interest in Roman history, church history and the Renaissance as well. Two things stretched my credulity just a little too much: the likelihood of Oliver the poet gaining access to the Pope and having such a powerful influence in him, and also the chance encounter between Julia the artist and Picasso.

So three stories are interwoven, from the start, each with a male hero and a significant female: a Roman aristocrat striving to sustain what remains of Roman civilisation in Provence in the mid-fifth century as all around is collapsing; a troubadour poet at the time of the emerging Renaissance and the arrival of the plague epidemic in the mid-14th century; a dilettante French intellectual in the 1930s as Europe lurches towards the inevitable crisis. The similarities in their situations and in their concerns are gradually revealed as the interwoven stories develop, and the 20th century character gradually unearths and pieces together the history of the other two characters.

The women are equally significant: one of the last-surviving Greek philosophers, a woman briefly glimpsed by a poet who instantly is love-stricken, and an artist seeking inspiration and originality.

Where is truth, is one of Pears’ questions, as multiple versions of his characters’ pasts are unearthed, explored, theorised about. How much is lost over time, drifts into myth, or is deliberately distorted for others’ purposes. An even bigger issue is the idea that good people should strive to preserve the values of civilisation while the world around them crumbles into chaos. This is a difficult task, and fraught with compromise and betrayal, as each of the characters must discover; characters who we warm to and come to like have their very dark moments; we may be shocked, and at the same time we much acknowledge our gratitude at never having been tested in that way. Surrendering to barbarism is actually quite easy; it creeps up on you.

Pears digs deeper, though: what, exactly, is civilisation, and is it worth preserving? The perspective of the good or the worthy is restricted by their own time; later generations will look differently, judge differently. Each of the three male characters sells out or compromises himself in order, supposedly, to preserve that which is dearest to him, and in the grand scheme of things the enormous betrayals achieve very little. Interestingly (or significantly), none of the female characters does. In some ways, I found this a profoundly pessimistic novel, because so true to the human condition, it seemed to me.

It is a novel of ideas, and yet the characters are also vividly and convincingly drawn; I was surprised and moved by how Pears developed the initial flirtation between Julien the intellectual and Julia the artist into a powerful relationship, and what it ultimately led to. It’s a very thought-provoking read, at least to me; I shall hope to return to it some time soon, not least to try and unpick what Pears’ imagined characters explore about God, the soul and our purpose as human beings. Anyway, highly recommended.

Michael Birkel: Silence and Witness

February 10, 2023

      This little book, by a Quaker and intended to enlighten non-Quakers about the Society of Friends through a little of its history and some explanation of how it works, was also informative to this particular Quaker. The disagreements and arguments of the past seemed quite remote: 19th century evangelical and non-evangelical Quakers, and arguments about the primacy or not of the scriptures made me think how much the Society has moved on… and then I remembered the differences between theist and non-theist Quakers today, which have interested me at various points. How mystical is Quakerism? Where is the balance between inner experience and doctrine?

Michael Birkel is particularly sensitive when he writes about discernment, when reflecting on whether one has a call to minister or not. Generally I found his explanations very lucid, well set-out in a way that would enable non-Friends to understand more about the Society and its members and attenders. And he is honest that we are perhaps not always easy to like or to understand.

I found many of the notions from the past seemed very distant or arcane, and yet could see links to the present day, and how those ideas from the past were still able to find ways to speak to us nowadays. Most comforting was the impression of the multiplicity of spiritual journeys always in progress, journeys that we can share; even though the language and ideas may be very different, we are seekers together and the spirit is there.

Being comfortable with silence…

Steve Hagen: Buddhism Plain and Simple

January 21, 2023

     I have recently become interested in the intersections between Buddhist beliefs and practices, and those of Quakers, and had been on the lookout for something introductory to read; after a couple of false starts, this recommendation from a former working colleague finally hit the spot, in terms of its focus on the teachings without the centuries of intervening superpositions and arcana, let alone 2500 years of history. In that sense it resembled the wish of the original Quakers to return to the basics of original Christianity

The language is accessible, with specifically Buddhist terms clearly explained and used sparingly.

The message is that we have to be fully awake and do whatever it is we do for ourselves; knowledge is what we see. Again, as a Quaker I’m familiar with this idea though it’s worded differently; my spiritual journey is my own, and I cannot be told by anyone else how to manage it.

On the other hand, to look at things from a Buddhist perspective does seem, to me at least, to require quite a radical shift in perspective, and a good deal of thinking (?) in terms of how to re-orient my way of looking at the world. One minute I feel miles away from understanding what he’s saying, the next, it’s a clear as daylight. In the sense of going beyond a ‘search for meaning’, which I feel I’ve been engaged in for years, I’m wondering if there is in fact no spiritual journey as such, that I’ve been wrestling with impossible contradictions for years and it’s time to move on…

I know I’m not supposed to be ‘thinking’ about it all, but there is much to engage with here, and I shall be pursuing this way of looking at things.

Milton, Blake and Dust in Pullman’s His Dark Materials

January 15, 2023

Pullman acknowledges his debt to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a masterpiece of literature that nowadays eludes many people, for a number of reasons: it’s in verse, it’s very long (12 books), it’s about religion, it’s written in 17th century English, which is a little different from today’s, though far from impenetrable. Milton’s aim was to write the ultimate epic, the story of creation, and the redemption of humanity by Jesus’ death. He tells of the temptation of Eve and the Fall of the first humans, tempted by Satan.

Unfortunately for Milton, Satan takes over the story, becoming rather more of an interesting hero-figure than God or his son. And the question of the Fall also becomes double-edged: before it, Adam and Eve mimsy around the Garden of Eden blandly doing the gardening and having rather wet and innocent conversations, and a bit of very dull sex. Our feeling tends to be, well if this is paradise, I’m not sure I’m all that interested. The temptation is to take the forbidden fruit, of the knowledge of good and evil, after which they become humans as we know them: sex and arguments and blaming each other. And the real question is, why was the fruit forbidden? Because, is Milton’s and God’s answer, and that’s that… and we humans have become what we are because we have that knowledge. There are consequences: death. Adam and Eve have no idea what it is and cannot imagine it; we are the only species on the planet that knows of death and can contemplate it… And while I’m on with the Miltonic parallels, clearly there is an intended resemblance between Asriel’s armed camp preparing for battle with the Authority, and the building of Pandaemonium in the second book of Paradise Lost.

Pullman is fully aware of the importance of this difference between innocence and experience, and how it shapes us through our lives. There are things which happen to us which change us irreversibly, and which we cannot easily explain to others who have not experienced them. How do you describe to someone innocent the experience of an LSD trip, or sex for the first time, or indeed what love actually is? And, of course, you can’t rewind from any of these points, or turn back the clock: you are now changed, experienced. I have often felt that it’s perhaps easier for adult (experienced) readers to overlook this liberating aspect of Pullman’s stories, whereas they may perhaps be more eye-opening or life-affirming for younger readers. I don’t know for certain, of course; I’m on the wrong side of the fence here.

So in His Dark Materials, there are forces – organised religion – who would have humans remain permanently in a pre-pubescent state of innocent obedience, easily controlled. And the rebellion Pullman visualises is one against this tyranny, which might install the republic, rather than the kingdom of heaven. The more I think about it, the more utopian I find this notion, as well as extremely attractive. The idea of humans taking control over their own lives and their futures, rather than kowtowing to external forces, is one which has been revolutionary through the ages, and sadly, we are no nearer to achieving it…

Here is where Milton and Pullman overlap, for me: the crux is free will, which Christianity says we were given as a test: would we freely choose to obey and serve God, or would we wilfully choose what we shouldn’t and take the consequences? Milton feels the first humans made the wrong choice and it had to be rectified; Pullman lauds that choice, and has his Adam and Eve figures willingly give in to temptation and not regret it.

Dust. There is a serious amount of philosophical, even theological argument woven in to the novels; we don’t have to worry too much about it or strive too hard to comprehend it all. There is a serious information dump about Dust and its link with the Christian notion of original sin in the final chapters of Northern Lights, in conversation between Lyra and Asriel, and I’m still not sure how convincing I find this, given Lyra’s supposed age at this point. The concept is further developed in The Subtle Knife, where the arrival of Dust is linked back 33,000 years, presumably to the time of the first emergence of human consciousness in our species, which is where Pullman seems to situate the mythical Adam and Eve event and the original ‘Fall’. I’ve still not completely fathomed the significance, several times iterated, that things began to go seriously awry three centuries ago with the making of the knife: I can’t fit this timing in to a historical event, though I suppose we are at the start of the Enlightenment and the scientific era…perhaps a more astute reader can enlighten me here. Clearly these two dates are significant to Pullman’s ideas, and the second Fall, in the world of the mulefa, has the effect of reversing something.

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.

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