Archive for the 'religion' Category

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.

Karen Armstrong: The Great Transformation

May 15, 2022

    I’ve thought highly of the books of Karen Armstrong over the years; her approach to the study and history of religion and theology I have found very enlightening and thought-provoking. I’d never describe her works as popularising; they are detailed, careful, well-explained and do demand a certain amount of personal sympathy with the subjects she tackles.

This tome – The Great Transformation – however, I found rather different, and I will confess at the start that I skimmed a good deal of it, because there was so little in my existing knowledge that I could use to link in to the incredibly detailed exploration of the worlds of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah over the space of several hundred years. In other words, here is a far less accessible work than any others of hers that I’ve read. The links with Jeremiah, Jewish history and the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Bible I could latch onto, the rest not so much.

So not a book for the general reader, even someone reasonably well-versed in the history of religion as I thought I was; there’s an enormous amount of minutiae here, as well as a great weight of (necessary) speculation, given that so much of what she describes is largely lost in the mists of time. She was interesting on the history of Israel, the territory, its gods (!) over time and the gradual emergence of monotheism and the eventual codifying of the Jewish faith and practice.

I think she is detailing the gradual movement from religion as mere ritual to its eventual emphasis on ethical behaviour, with the internalisation of religion as a crucial development. She also emphasises movement from oral to written tradition in scripture, particularly among the Jewish people. I’ve always had a sense of the Old Testament as a chaotic and repetitive text, and lately read much about its gradual and relatively late development, but from Armstrong I have a picture of its being even more chaotic, of its contradictory content, merged stories with varying and different purposes behind them. It seems even more of a mish-mash than I thought possible.

Equally, I was surprised to discover just how early on the notion of questioning and challenging everything in an effort to understand and get to the bottom of things developed in Greek philosophy, and the fact that it was getting on for two millennia later before the West fully embraced this approach.

Another book that I cannot recommend to a general reader; I’m glad I dipped into and skimmed it but there was just too much I could not really understand or make sense of from my relatively limited and Western perspective. It’s good to be reminded of one’s own limitations from time to time…

Richard Holloway: Waiting For The Last Bus

April 6, 2022

     I enjoyed Richard Holloway’s autobiography Leaving Alexandria, and also his book on spiritual journeys and our need for religion Stories We Tell Ourselves, so was interested to come across Waiting For The Last Bus, which is essentially the reflections of a man in his eighties on the inevitable approach of death. It is a brave piece, for it takes courage to accept and explore the implications of one’s impending departure from the world; it is also a very common-sensical book. Here is nothing new, nothing stunningly revelatory: he owns his thoughts and reactions and shares them, and we are led to realise that we are the same, the same applies to us. This is the human condition; it’s just that many of us are quite good at avoiding the obvious…

Holloway is honest about the way the old may envy or resent the young. He also avows bafflement at the state the world has got itself into nowadays, a feeling which speaks to my condition, underlining my growing feeling that we are perhaps not such an intelligent species after all. And his writing is laced with many wonderful and apposite literary references, musings, and questions. He is good on the importance of forgiveness.

For a man who held high office in the Church of Scotland, and whose faith left him (see Leaving Alexandria) he comes over as spiritual rather than religious, open rather than closed in his thinking, questioning rather than answering. At times I felt it was mere brain candy, wistful even though full of obvious truth, and yet I felt my reaction was churlish, for there are many in the world who do not know how to wander through these streets through which he entices and leads us.

I like him for the way he, like me, sees religion as our human response to our own mortality, our awareness of it, and our struggle to come to terms with it, to interpret it as best we can (which is not very well!). And in and among his thoughts I came across the clearest explanation of the Hindu concept of reincarnation that I’ve ever read…

Roy Robinson: The Thoughtful Guide to the Bible

December 20, 2021

     Here is a very carefully written and very thoughtful book, written by a minister in the United Reformed Church. So, a believer, and possibly with an axe to grind. But no. He clearly and trenchantly takes issue throughout the book with any kind of fundamentalist approach to the scriptures. He explains carefully and exemplifies his points, considering the history of the Bible, manuscripts, translation, the need for textual criticism, the traditions of Jews and Christians… and, at the end of it all, the scriptures survive, as they would.

He shows us the different target audiences and purposes of different books in both old and new testaments, and offers an excellent and detailed synopsis of all the research done over many years.

You can either be a fundamentalist who says everything is the word of God so unchangeable and to be obeyed, ignoring all the textual history and context of writings up to 2,500 or more years old, or a reader, perhaps believer, who realises that such a position is illogical and impossible, and that a different approach is therefore needed. What is the importance of the writings, what is the real essence or kernel of meaning? Does a modern approach undervalue and undermine it? Robertson’s answer is clear; his belief survives his microscopic examination.

I came to realise that, in the end a book like this is necessary in our times, an age where reason, logic and science present strong challenges to religious faith, although this is not really comparing like with like. But through a book like this, the messages which come from the teachings and example of the man Jesus can retain their significance for many more people today.

My only criticism of the book, really, is of the poor editing and proof-reading which did jar quite frequently during my re-reading of an otherwise very helpful book.

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

November 30, 2021

     ‘Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is… the perfection of imprecise forms.’ I love that.

I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this one finally to come out in English, and I resisted buying the French translation a year ago because I wanted Jennifer Croft’s English version. She’s translated other Olga Tokarczuk novels so well, and I was not disappointed here: she creates atmosphere and tone consistent with her other successes, and I felt I was reading the same Olga, if you see what I mean. Not knowing Polish well enough to read it means I can’t comment on the ‘feel’ of the translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that translators are really important.

Nor is it possible to summarise the plot of a 900+ page novel, so I shan’t even attempt. Suffice it to say it centres around an eighteenth century Jewish heresy in Eastern Poland led by Josef Frank, who presented himself as the Messiah and urged his followers to accept Christian baptism. Wikipedia is your friend here if you want more details. The whole is also set against the backdrop of the beginning of the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish Commonwealth. But there’s so much more besides, with Tokarczuk’s familiar erudition and digression on display throughout. I found myself thinking at one point, is this Poland’s take on magic realism, with her blend of history and fiction?

I have to admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, as the arcana of Judaism and Jewish history is pretty pervasive; at times it all felt a little rambling and self-indulgent, but this did not put me off. It is a book to lose yourself in, a bit like Flights, where you are never quite sure where you are heading next. I thought of Tristram Shandy at times, the endless shaggy dog story; sink into it and go with the flow. It took me a fortnight.

You would have to say it’s a particularly Polish novel, with the focus on time and place, as well as a religious novel in some ways. There is the concept of the Messiah to wrestle with: Christians have had one, but the Jews not, so how will they know when theirs finally comes? And because considerable parts of the novel are set on what was then the border between the Polish Commonwealth and the Ottoman empire, Islam, the third religion of the book, also figures a good deal.

It’s very easy to see why traditional Polish Catholics hated and denounced this book on its publication. Tokarczuk is genuinely interested herself and through her characters in all sorts of heretical and semi-heretical notions; it’s a philosophical and theological minefield for a Catholic reader, as she validates elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And interestingly, too, when it comes to the Catholic Church interrogating Josef Frank and his followers to see if they are genuinely seeking to be united with the one true church, the questioning style and behaviour of the inquisitors is – deliberately – reminiscent of the behaviour of Communist party interrogators during various purges, as they have been recorded in history books. The atmosphere is sinister, threatening, ominous; the Church has spies and agents everywhere, just like the KGB

And then there are the scenes – based on history – set in Catholic Poland’s holiest shrine at Częstochowa. We are shown religious ignorance and trickery on both sides. In the end, for me, some of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the novel were those broader explorations of the meaning of religion, spirituality and the human future in the context of eternity.

Clearly it’s not a book for everyone. If you’re curious, I’d say go for it, but it’s a challenge. It’s evident why Olga Tokarczuk is a Nobel class novelist, for what that’s worth, with this as part of her complete works. I intend to read it again, hopefully in the not-too-distant-future.

As an ex-English teacher I’m a stickler for correctness, and there were quite a few bizarre typographical offerings in this version, particularly in the area of hyphenation, where I thought there were established conventions, but hey…

Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

November 7, 2021

     This was a fascinating and unusual approach to autobiography. Jung does not present his life in a linear fashion, but through the recalling of significant moments and epiphanies, especially of his childhood. He gives a very powerful and detailed picture of the centrality of religion to his early years, and I quickly recognised a polymath striving to find his way through so much curiosity and so many paths of knowledge. He shows how he arrived at his earliest glimpses of the workings and power of the unconscious, and the shadow, in his life. When he moves on to his development as an analyst, we can see clearly the evolution of his therapeutic methodology, and how it has influenced the ways many current practitioners work. There is an astonishing bravery and confidence during those days of psychoanalysis in its relative infancy, almost a ‘make it up as you go along’ approach. Jung’s split with Freud is explained quite clearly: Jung could not go along with his colleague’s attribution of sexual origins to all neuroses, and quite soon was ploughing his own furrow, Freud merely being an episode in the progress of Jung’s life and work.

I find the descriptions of various cases fascinating and often wonder if such arcane and weird-sounding issues present themselves nowadays, as presented themselves to the likes of Freud and Jung, or whether today’s mental health issues are very different.

Some chapters are very challenging, both to read and to understand; Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious felt almost like an episode of madness to me, and the revelations he enjoyed reminded me of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. I was continually astonished by his phenomenally detailed memory for his dreams and visions.

Jung’s studies, reading, researches and thinking represent an enormous work of synthesis across many fields, psychology, history, mythology, alchemy, religion, literature, and reflect the complexity both of his past and development, and through him, our understanding of that of the human race as a whole. There seems to be a much broader scope in his approach to the human mind and consciousness than in Freud’s work, as far as I can recall it. And I was intrigued – and will reflect further on this – by a sense of his influence on Philip Pullman’s vision of the afterlife as pictured in the Northern Lights trilogy…

As his life progressed, there was increasing emphasis on the importance and significance of the spiritual element, in its broadest sense, to human life, and the consequences of our neglect or rejection of this aspect of ourselves. I was also struck by Jung’s humility, in spite of the scope of his life’s achievement, by his recognition of his own, and humans’ limitations generally, and by the way he reached acceptance and contentment in his terms, as his life drew to a close.

Not an easy read, but a very thought-provoking and satisfying one.

Rolf Hochhuth: The Representative

July 31, 2021

     Hochhuth was certainly a controversialist: in Soldiers he suggested that the Polish wartime leader Sikorski’s death in a helicopter crash in 1943 was no accident, but sabotage designed to rid Churchill of a troublesome ally, and the fact that various related documents continue to remain secret for far longer than the normal period has not entirely dispelled this accusation. Here Hochhuth’s target is the Catholic Church, the papacy, and specifically Pius XII for doing nothing to openly protest about the extermination of the Jews, of which he was fully aware, and indeed he could see the deportations of the Jews of Rome from his rooms in the Vatican…

We see the Pope as a businessman first of all, keen to protect the Vatican’s investments and income streams. We see how his obsessive fear of communism and its perceived threat to the Church leads him to see Hitler as an ally, even while priests are murdered by the thousand in Poland. Hitler may be committing sins, but first and foremost, Nazi Germany is a bulwark against a threat to the Church, which has, to a certain extent, become trapped by its earlier stances towards Hitler’s regime. It is very hard to suppress one’s outrage faced with the wilful and deliberate blindness shown by Pius XII, and the astonishing moral and mental gymnastics of all those who defend and justify his inaction and weasel words, partly on political and partly on theological grounds. The stain – by no means the only one – on the Catholic Church has not faded sixty years later.

It’s a flawed play, in the sense that it’s laden with very dense and interpretive stage directions, the full import of which would never be conveyed to an audience in production; equally, fully to understand Hochhuth’s accusations, one needs many pages of supporting documentation, found at the end of the text. At times, the feel is very melodramatic, perhaps to emphasise the moral horrors and the dilemmas of the participants. But in 1963, ugly truths needed airing and exposing, and he certainly managed to do this. It is a very Sixties style of drama, wordy, cinematic, didactic even; politics and religion do not often sit well together, particularly on stage. The final act, set in Auschwitz, is bizarre. The contradictions between the moral teachings and the actions of the Church have been exposed. The end result is, of course, the 1984 effect: the play, its damning accusations and moral minefields, have vanished into the memory-hole of history. Who reads, who puts on this play now?


Men don’t read books by women (?)

July 16, 2021

I’ve written about and around the issue of books by men and women, and which I choose to read, before; an article in The Guardian last weekend prompted me to do some more thinking. The premise of the article was that men did not read books by women writers… roughly speaking.

I turned to my shelves and noticed just how large a proportion of the books, of all genres, were by male writers. I cannot deny this, so why is this the case? As someone who spent several years researching into feminism and science fiction as a postgraduate student, it was a sobering realisation. And what women writers have I allowed into my library, and why?

When I consider the classics of fiction, then women writers figure very strongly on the list: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte are right there are the very top and if I were pushed to choose between them and Conrad, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for example, I’d be hard pressed. And I note that that there are no English males in my list, for the simple reason (pace some of my readers) Dickens and Hardy and the like just aren’t up there for me.

With more recent and contemporary fiction, males do dominate, without a doubt. But then I thought, actually it’s not the gender of a writer that attracts me, it’s the subject-matter, the themes and ideas. So Margaret Atwood is there for her speculative fiction and her feminism, Pat Barker for her brilliant imaginings and psychological insights about the Great War, Ursula Le Guin for her speculative fiction and feminism just like Atwood. And similar reasons for reading Angela Carter, Marge Piercy. Olga Tokarczuk and Agota Kristov are there because I explore Eastern European fiction. And although there are clearly traits that draw me to writers, both male and female, I do also appreciate the qualities of their writing, and what they bring to the human conditions they illuminate.

I looked at the non-fiction section of my library, and found Mary Beard, whose take on the classical period I like very much and have found a most interesting counterbalance to the picture of the ancient world I imbibed as a school student many years ago. And there was Karen Armstrong, whose histories of religion and theology I have found very thought-provoking over the years. I read those authors not because of their gender but because of the subject-matter: theology, religion and history have always interested me deeply.

Somehow I feel as though I’m offering excuses here, as much as explanations or reasons: are there really fewer women writing in the subjects I’ve come to find interesting over the years? I don’t know.

Then I thought about travel-writing, my major more recent area of exploration, and realised how much I have appreciated the women travellers of the last century of so. There’s Ella Maillart, the intrepid Victorian Isabella Bird, Mildred Cable and Francesca French, Edith Durham, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Jan Morris… certainly men still dominate the shelves, but the women writers are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. Here, I suppose, it’s because there’s not the macho posing and posturing a good many of the male travellers have gone in for at times. Instead there is the close observation, detailed description, sharing of the lives of those among whom they travelled, a sense of intimacy and belonging and appreciation of differences. Not that men travelling aren’t capable of those things, but that women do them better and more consistently and have left me with a fuller appreciation of their travelling…

I’m as confused as before. I don’t think any of my choices are gender-driven, though, and I’d be interested to hear what any of my readers think on this question.

Amin Maalouf: Leo the African

July 13, 2021

     I’d no idea it was so long since I last read this novel, which never ceases to amaze me, because it is a (fictionalised) account of a real life, and I really don’t believe you could make it up.

Jews, Muslims and Christians live reasonably peaceably alongside one another in pre-Reconquista Granada; there is a recap of events leading to the fall of Granada to the Spanish in 1492, and the mayhem which follows for those who are not of the Catholic faith. There is the full vileness of the Inquisition, persecution and the inability of Christians to accept that anyone might be different. Our hero, and narrator, is a Muslim. And though it’s technically a novel, it’s also an autobiography: we cannot have the same expectations of plot as we might have of a completely fictional text; the narrative is linear, but we do grow inevitably attached to people and places.

The narrator and his family leave Granada and settle in Fez; we learn of schooling and lifelong friendships. Eventually he becomes a rich and successful businessman, close to those in power, travels widely and is used on various diplomatic missions by the authorities. His weirdest adventure is his kidnapping by Christians and presentation as a gift to the Pope! Here, his knowledge and skills are put to the service of the incredibly corrupt Church at the time of the Reformation; he is baptised against his will, but escapes being ordained priest before one of his missions. In the end, after years of wanderings, he is able to return to his home and family and live out the remainder of his life in peace as a devout Muslim. I had mis-remembered the plot from my earlier readings, and forgotten how small a section of the novel is his life in Rome at the service of the Pope.

I realised that the narrator’s famous book The Description of Africa is based on his travels all over the north of that continent; when I last read the novel, I had yet to track down that book. Leo travels in the footsteps of his earlier Muslim forbear Ibn Battutah, whose journeys a couple of centuries earlier rivalled those of Marco Polo.

I found the first person narrative effective and convincing. In the back of my mind was always the thought, this stuff is true; the narrative style is that of a devout Muslim, whose faith is at the forefront of his life and deeds (most of the time), and the adventures are almost non-stop. Towards the end of the book, the narrator is at the centre of world-changing events, with the Reformation, the attempts of an incredibly corrupt papacy to consolidate its power and build alliances to secure its future, even if this means joining forces with the Ottomans, and also the various rivalries weakening the Muslim world in those tumultuous years.

Over the years I have come to realise how good a writer Amin Maalouf is. Not only has he written some very good novels, but also a number of very interesting historical and social texts in which he presents thoughtful and powerful analysis of the current state of the world. He has received recognition by being elected to the Académie Française, but that’s all, as far as I’m aware. At the moment, I’m reflecting on what is different about Arabic fiction, thinking of Maalouf, and also Naguib Mahfouz in particular. Maybe it’s my position as an ‘outsider’ to their world, but I’m conscious of a different feel to their novels, one which cannot just be explained by the Muslim background that is omnipresent in a way that Christianity isn’t in Western fiction, for instance. Does anyone out there have any pointers?

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