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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Reitan’

After describing Hitler’s characteristics, he goes on to attempt to tease out the telltale markers of the demonic (page 223-224):

If the eyes are the mirror of the soul as tradition declares, then was the compelling power of Hitler’s eyes the stare of the demon? Did his eyes reveal the hollowness within, a glimpse into the ice-cold abyss, the utter absence of soul?

. . . . As we noted in so many of the biographies, the urgent certainty given by the acorn seems to put life in the hands of a stronger power. “I go the way that Providence dictates for me with all the assurance of a sleep walker,” Hitler said in a speech in 1936.

Hitler’s certitude also confirmed his sense of always being right, and this utter conviction utterly convinced his nation, carrying it forward in its wrongs. Absolute certainty, utter conviction – these, then, are signs of the demonic.

He develops this further slightly later in the chapter (pages 245-46):

Hitler only followed the demon, never questioned it, his mind enslaved by its imagination rather than applied to its investigation. . . . For what makes the seed demonic is its single-track obsession, its monotheistic literalism that follows one prospect only, perverting the larger imagination of the seed toward serial reenactments of the same act.

I absolutely agree that complete conviction, absolute certainty, are pathological and destructive. This is a theme I have explored a number of times on this blog. However, I have never felt it necessary to hypothesise the existence of a demon to explain it.

My very battered copy of this classic.

My alternative picture is based partly in Eric Fromm. In ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) he develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Eric Reitan is also relevant. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way (‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136):

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. When Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

This is not too far distant from Hilman’s perspective (page 236):

Elevation of the profane by the most profane act imaginable raises its power until it is indistinguishable from the sacred.

There are two other concepts relevant to the contagion of such toxic patterns: the hive switch and the Lucifer effect.

The Hive Switch

Haidt explains the first. The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

The capacity for charisma to carry thousands with it only needs the factoring in of such possibilities as the hive effect.

The Lucifer Effect

Zimbardo explains the second in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this thesis. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

Soullessness  

Coming back to Hillman’s perspective, there is one element that he adduces that may be slightly harder to dismiss (page 230):

Then, too, when we read of the odd coldness in Mary (Bell) and in Hitler, of that impulse toward death, there seems to be something else apart from both upbringing and possible heredity, some lack in their souls, or a lack of soul altogether.

He is ruling out such explanations as psychopathy, abuse or disrupted attachment in childhood as explanations of a coldness that is observed very early in their development. This launches him into an explanation of possible causes for the Bad Seed, none of which are mutually exclusive (pages 230-238): Early Traumatic Conditioning, Hereditary Taint, Group Mores, The Rewarded Choice Mechanism[1], Karma & Zeitgeist, The Shadow[2], Lacuna[3] and finally his pet theory The Demonic Call.

He explains more exactly what he means by the last idea (page 235 and 241):

As the potential for art and thought were given with the acorn, so is the potential for demonic crime. . . . . As Galand’s and Manolete’s potential was given with the acorn, so is the psychopathic potential for demonic crime.

I still prefer the Reitan and Fromm approach here which I outlined in the previous post. There are other ways of explaining a ‘calling’ without invoking a daimon. We all need an object of devotion. Heredity, upbringing and peer influence may shape our sense of it, but the need itself is inherent in our nature at some deep level. We need to be wise in the choice we make, or else we will slide into a dangerous or a meaningless pattern, the former if we choose a dark ‘god’ and the latter if we choose no god at all, trapped in an unconscious yearning for something to give our lives purpose. In addition to the devotion issue there is the related pattern: we all have a thirst for meaning which a convincing object of devotion slakes.

Conclusions

Even though, in the end, I disagree with his core thesis, I have to acknowledge the value that lies in his having raised these issues for consideration in such a clear and compelling fashion. When I look at the book more as a poetic rather than a prosaic exploration it makes for an even more satisfying read.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken him quite so literally as I have in this treatment. After all he is quite clear that he is speaking in the language of myth. Maybe I fell into the trap he describes (page 95:

. . . three modes transpose the mystery of the invisible into visible procedures we can work with: higher math, musical notations, and mythical images. So enchanted are we by the mystery transposed into the systems that we mistake the systems for the mystery; rather, they are indications pointing toward it.

Footnotes:

[1] He writes: ‘If each choice is met with accumulating success… then those successes will reinforce your belief that fate has you on the right track.’

[2] He writes: ‘The psychological propensity to destroy exists within all human beings. . . . Hitler knew the shadow all too well, indulged it, was obsessed by it, and strove to purge it; but he could not admit it in himself, seeing only its projected form [in those he sought to exterminate].’

[3] He explains: ‘[S]omething fundamentally human is missing.’

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

A co-operation game: © Bahá’í World Centre

Exponents of the world’s various theological systems bear a heavy responsibility not only for the disrepute into which faith itself has fallen among many progressive thinkers, but for the inhibitions and distortions produced in humanity’s continuing discourse on spiritual meaning. To conclude, however, that the answer lies in discouraging the investigation of spiritual reality and ignoring the deepest roots of human motivation is a self-evident delusion. The sole effect, to the degree that such censorship has been achieved in recent history, has been to deliver the shaping of humanity’s future into the hands of a new orthodoxy, one which argues that truth is amoral and facts are independent of values.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We now need to move from considering how empathy and entropy interact to looking at Jeremy Rifkin’s Emp Civilunderstanding of levels of consciousness.

I have already had a bit of a rant, in a previous post, about Rifkin’s treatment of this topic (page 182):

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

At times he hopefully throws labels at his hypothetical levels and then tries to make them stick with the glue of his speculations. However there are enough valuable insights housed in his wobbly tower-block to make exploring it more fully well worthwhile.

He draws initially on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model (page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

It is not just parental practices that are critical here but cultural norms as well. Sometimes even cultures that pride themselves on their occupation of the moral high ground can poison empathy in its cradle (page 121):

Ironically, while a shaming culture pretends to adhere to the highest standards of moral perfection, in reality it produces a culture of self-hate, envy, jealousy, and hatred towards others. . . . . When a child grows up in a shaming culture believing that he must conform to an ideal of perfection or purity or suffer the wrath of the community, he is likely to judge everyone else by the same rigid, uncompromising standards. Lacking empathy, he is unable to experience other people’s suffering as if it were his own …

He quotes examples such as how a victim of rape (page 122):

. . . bears the shame of the rape, despite the fact that she was the innocent victim. As far as her family and neighbours are concerned, she is forever defiled and impure and therefore an object of disgust to be blotted out.

It is after these clarifications of the basics that Rifkin begins to explain his full model (page 154):

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

After briefly relating early cultures to early childhood (page 162) and suggesting that initially, in the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason ‘empathetic consciousness developed alongside disembodied beliefs,’ he refers to three stages of human consciousness (page 176): ‘theological, ideological, and early psychological.’ In his view during these stages ‘bodily experience is considered either fallen, irrational, or pathological’ and ‘moral authority’ is therefore ‘disembodied.’

However, this all changes with a further enhancement of ‘empathic consciousness.’ While ‘embodied experience is considered to be… at odds with moral laws, there will always be a gap between what is and what ought to be human behaviour’ he argues. ‘Empathic consciousness overcomes the is/ought gap. Empathic behaviour is embodied . . . .’ This is a large leap of logic to which we will need to return later when we look at other ways of decoding the components of empathy.

He helps his argument by unpacking exactly what he is getting at a few pages later (pages 273-74):

Hatred of the body could hardly endear one to another flesh-and-bones human being. Embodied experience is the window to empathic expression. . . . Empathy is the celebration of life, in all of its corporeality. Not paradoxically, it is also the means by which we transcend ourselves.

He strongly relates what he feels is a fuller expression of empathy (page 366) to ‘psychological consciousness,’ something rooted in the ‘coming together of the electricity revolution with the oil powered internal combustion engine.’ He goes on:

While earlier forms of consciousness – mythological, theological, and ideological – were still in play all over the world and within each psyche to various degrees, the new psychological consciousness would come to dominate the 20th century and leave its mark on every aspect of human interaction and on virtually every social convention. With psychological consciousness, people began to think about their own feelings and thoughts, as well as those of others in ways never before imaginable.

Psychological Consciousness & the God Issue

It is in the 1890s, interestingly at exactly the same time as Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was publically and fully explaining the Bahá’í Revelation, that Rifkin perceives another potential pitfall emerging, in addition to entropy, that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

He concludes that this was not all bad though (ibid.):

. . . . The shift from being a good character to having a good personality had another, more positive impact. People began to pay more attention to how their behaviour affected others. In the process, they came more mindful of other people’s feelings.

He refers (page 411) to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a theory we will be looking at more closely when I come to examine in a later sequence of posts Medina’s take on personal and societal development. He relates it to the stages “one goes through to develop a mature empathic sensitivity.”

He then moves into similar territory to Wilber in privileging a Western mode of experiencing the world. He states (page 414):

While in developing countries theological consciousness is still the dominant mode of expression, and in the middle range of developed countries ideological consciousness is the most prevalent form of public expression, in the most highly developed nations of the world, psychological consciousness has gained the upper hand, even to the extent that it partially interprets and remakes the older forms of consciousness into its own image.

is-god-a-delusionThis default assumption that somehow a belief in God in inherently a more primitive take on the world that must hold development back is as dangerous and as ultimately unsubstantiable as the delusion that everything can be explained in material terms. This steers Rifkin away from looking at the potential role of religion as a positive force, something I will return to later.

The crucial issue in my view is rather the same as Eric Reitan’s as expressed in his book Is God a Delusion?: what matters is what kind of God we believe in. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.

Deciding whether your concept of God fulfills that criterion is probably easier said than done as Gilles Kepel illustrates in his book, Jihad: the trail of political Islam, when he refers to Qutb and his followers arguing that (page 25-26):

The Muslims of the nationalist period were ignorant of Islam, according to Qutb; just like the pagan Arabs of the original jahiliyya [original state of ignorance before Muhammad] who worshipped stone idols, Qutb’s contemporaries worshiped symbolic idols such as the nation, the party, socialism, and the rest. . . . Within Islam, Allah alone has sovereignty, being uniquely worthy of adoration by man. The only just ruler is one who governs according to the revelations of Allah.

The problem remains. What is the ruling conception of Allah we should adopt and what exactly has He revealed that should guide our conduct? What interpretation of the Qu’ran is to be devoutly followed? This question is of course blurred by the issue of the hadith and sharia, lenses through which the Qu’ran has been variously interpreted by different schools and periods of Islam.

Robert Wright seems to be singing from roughly the same hymn sheet as Reitan. He has bravely tackled the issue of religion from a sympathetically evolutionary perspective. One of his most trenchant insights is (The Evolution of God page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.’

As I will explain below he does not simplistically conclude that all religion should be tarred with that brush.

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

Globalisation

Interacting with the development of psychological consciousness and instrumental in shaping it, is the impact (page 424) of ‘cyberspace’ where ‘the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face. . . . Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.’

There is also the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

He argues that (page 429) that ‘2007 marks a great tipping point.’

For the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in the vast urban areas, according to the United Nations – many in mega-cities with suburban extensions – some with populations of 10 million people or more.

He then introduces what for him is another key concept: cosmopolitanism (page 430):

At the same time, the urbanisation of human life, with its complex infrastructures and operations, has lead to greater density of population, more differentiation and individuation, an ever more developed sense of self, more exposure to diverse others, and an extension of the empathic bond. . . . .

Cosmopolitanism is the name we used to refer to tolerance and the celebration of human diversity and is generally found wherever urban and social structures are engaged in long-distance commerce and trade and the business of building empires.

Robert Wright similarly locates (page 445) the ‘expansion of humankind’s moral imagination’ to the Robert Wrightextension of such connections throughout history. Though a sceptic, he does not dogmatically conclude there is no God and only blind material forces.

. . . . Occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. . . . The existence of a moral order, I’ve said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a “higher purpose.” And maybe the source of that higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label “god” in at least some sense of that word.

Because Rifkin does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he is in need of some other organising principle to motivate us to lift our game. For him this is ‘biosphere consciousness’ (page 432:

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .

However, being cosmopolitan is no guarantee we’ll buy the biosphere package (ibid.):

Although admittedly a bit of a caricature, I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.

If we subtract God from the Bahá’í system of belief, it is clear he shares a central tenet of that Faith (page 443):

We are within reach of thinking of the human race as an extended family – for the very [first] time in history – although it goes without saying that the obstacles are great and the odds of actually developing a biosphere consciousness are less than certain.

A Summary of his Levels

Now I need to quote him at some length to indicate how, rather as Wilber does, he locates the highest levels of consciousness in Western societies (pages 447-450):

As individuals in industrialising and urbanising societies become more productive, wealthy, and independent, their values orientation shifts from survival values to materialist values and eventually post-materialist, self-expression values.

Traditional societies, imperilled by economic hardship and insecurities, tend to be intolerant of foreigners, ethnic minorities, and gays and staunch supporters of male superiority. Populations are highly religious and nationalistic, believing the firm hand of state authority, emphasise conformity, and exhibit a low level of individual self-expression. Because self-expression is low, and empathic extension is shallow and rarely reaches beyond the family bond and kinship relations.

In secular rationalist-societies engaged in the takeoff stage of industrial life, hierarchies are reconfigured away from God’s created order to giant corporate and government bureaucracies. . . . In the process, the individual, as a distinct self-possessed being, begins to emerge from the communal haze but is still beholden to hierarchical institutional arrangements. . . .

Knowledge-based societies, with high levels of individualism and self-expression, exhibit the highest levels of empathic extension. . . . . In fact, the emancipation from tight communal bonds and the development of weaker but more extended associational ties exposes individuals to a much wider network of diverse people, which, in turn, both strengthens one’s sense of trust and openness and provides the context for a more extended empathic consciousness.

Robert Wright’s treatment of a similar theme from a different angle indicates that it is not quite as simple as that. While the Abrahamic faiths have significantly lacked tolerance at key points in their history not all faiths have been the same (page 441):

At the risk of seeming to harp on the non-specialness of the Abrahamic faiths: this expansion of the moral circle is another area in which non-Abrahamic religions have sometimes outperformed the Abrahamics.

Even then though, the whole picture is not dark for the Abrahamic faiths in his view, as he explains in considering the life of Ashoka, the king who converted to Buddhism and instated a tolerant regime (ibid):

. . . Buddhism’s emphasis on brotherly love and charity, rather like comparable Christian emphases in ancient Rome, is presumably good for the empire’s transethnic solidarity. Yet, like the early Islamic caliphate – and unlike Constantine – Ashoka insisted on respecting other religions in the Empire; he never demanded conversion.

He also refers (pages 188 passim) to the interesting case of Philo of Alexandria as a devout monotheistic Jew who saw ‘a deep streak of tolerance in Yahweh.’

Rifkin summarises his understanding of the research by stating (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

There is much more to say on the issue of levels but it will have to wait until the next post on Thursday.

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A chain like the one in the Siyah Chal

The theme of this much earlier sequence of posts seems to complement the current sequence about death as light and therefore warrant republishing now.

At the end of the previous post on this topic there is the following challenging quote from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:

51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

No one can argue convincingly that Bahá’u’lláh did not know what suffering was like. That alone would give His words tremendous credibility. He was incarcerated in the Siyah Chal, a traumatic ordeal. His experience there was special in an altogether different and more positive way as well:

In the middle of the 19th century, one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran’s “Black Pit.” Once the underground reservoir for a public bath, its only outlet was a single passage down three steep flights of stone steps. Prisoners huddled in their own bodily wastes, languishing in the pit’s inky gloom, subterranean cold and stench-ridden atmosphere.

In this grim setting, the rarest and most cherished of religious events was once again played out: a mortal man, outwardly human in other respects, was summoned by God to bring to humanity a new religious revelation.

The year was 1852, and the man was a Persian nobleman, known today as Bahá’u’lláh. During His imprisonment, as He sat with his feet in stocks and a 100-pound iron chain around his neck, Bahá’u’lláh received a vision of God’s will for humanity.

For Bahá’ís therefore His words have an authority over and above the credence everyone would undoubtedly agree His sufferings accorded Him. I recognise that many do not see His Words as originating with God so it is necessary to pursue this exploration of the meaning of suffering much further and in more prosaic terms.

The Siyah Chal was not the end of His sufferings. Exile and further imprisonment followed, and in the prison in Acre he lost His youngest son, Mirza Mihdi:

He was pacing the roof of the barracks in the twilight, one evening, wrapped in his customary devotions, when he fell through the unguarded skylight onto a wooden crate, standing on the floor beneath, which pierced his ribs, and caused, twenty-two hours later, his death, on . . . . June 23, 1870.

(God Passes By: page 188)

Mirza Mihdi

So, He clearly knew from close personal experience what he was talking about. Also, if we have accepted that the improbability of the universe entails the existence of a God capable of creating it, and now that we have begun to comprehend the vastness, wonder and complexity of the universe, with its quantum foam and simultaneous interactions over vast distances that light would need decades to traverse, the idea of the spiritual reality of which He speaks begins to seem a little less preposterous.

This is fortunate because, as we have already seen in the previous post on this subject, there is no way we can get out of the impasse without making a further extrapolation from the existence of a God to the existence of a reality beyond the one accessible to our senses.

Eric Reitan, in his exemplary treatment of the whole question of the existence of God, takes a long look at the questions we are scrutinising now. His discussion is thorough and complex and I can only include the bare bones of it here. His concern in the passages I quote is the problem of evil, but it is easy to see how his comments apply to the closely related issue of suffering. On pages 196-197 he writes:

For any and all of these evils, the question of why God would permit them requires us to suppose that there are vistas of reality that transcend our understanding – vistas that may not just put evil into perspective but also the fact that it can seem so overwhelming. . . . .

If, within His vast ocean of understanding, God discerns a justifying reason for allowing evil to exist, the probability that this reason would also fall within our puddle of understanding is very low.

So, we can neither know the mind of God nor grasp the full nature of the spiritual reality which surrounds us, though it surely exists in some form. He draws on the cosmological argument, a variation of which I have already referred to briefly in the earlier post and mention again above, to conclude that (page 197) ‘it is reasonable to believe in a transcendent and essentially mysterious reality.’

It is perhaps important to mention that Reitan is not seeking to provide conclusive proof that would persuade everyone that God exists. That would be impossible for reasons I have explored elsewhere. He is simply demonstrating that it is as reasonable to believe in God as not, a truth that Darwinian reductionists find hard to swallow. (See Olinga Tahzib’s Ch4 broadcast for a clear explanation of the Baha’i viewpoint.)

Once you accept the possibility of a transcendent realm, aspects of that mysterious reality can be seen to have, potentially at least, a massively compensating function that provides a radically different context against which to measure both evil and suffering, a context which would make it possible to accept that the pain entailed in making moral choices, for example, and the agony incurred in unforeseen calamities are not inordinate and maybe even serve some higher purpose. Reitan himself points towards this very clearly (page 189):

Not long ago, the distracted negligence of a home daycare provider combined with plain bad luck to take the life of my friend’s 18-month-old son, a gentle boy fiercely loved by his parents. In the face of this tragedy, my friend and his wife have been sustained by a religious faith which promises that everything good and beautiful about their child has been embraced by the deepest reality in the universe.

Something else has helped me come to terms with even uninvited suffering, and helped me also get a more immediate sense of how the idea of a spiritual reality, over and above the purely physical world our senses are restricted to, can be of great help. This was the message that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to bereaved parents who had contacted him in their despair, his keen awareness of the pain of their grief perhaps enhanced by the strong light cast by his own feelings from when his brother, Mirza Mihdi, died in the prison citadel of Acre. He uses a very homely and concrete image to embody the intuition Reitan describes, imagery which makes the possibility of a spiritual realm more vivid and brings it that much closer:

The death of that beloved youth and his separation from you have caused the utmost sorrow and grief; for he winged his flight in the flower of his age and the bloom of his youth to the heavenly nest. But he hath been freed from this sorrow-stricken shelter and hath turned his face toward the everlasting nest of the Kingdom, and, being delivered from a dark and narrow world, hath hastened to the sanctified realm of light; therein lieth the consolation of our hearts.

The inscrutable divine wisdom underlieth such heart-rending occurrences. It is as if a kind gardener transferreth a fresh and tender shrub from a confined place to a wide open area. This transfer is not the cause of the withering, the lessening or the destruction of that shrub; nay, on the contrary, it maketh it to grow and thrive, acquire freshness and delicacy, become green and bear fruit. This hidden secret is well known to the gardener, but those souls who are unaware of this bounty suppose that the gardener, in his anger and wrath, hath uprooted the shrub. Yet to those who are aware, this concealed fact is manifest, and this predestined decree is considered a bounty. Do not feel grieved or disconsolate, therefore, at the ascension of that bird of faithfulness; nay, under all circumstances pray for that youth, supplicating for him forgiveness and the elevation of his station.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá169)

Even though this loving and lovely metaphor of the gardener contributed to a resolution of my quandary, there was still an aspect that troubled me. All this has not only been ordained by God, but it also requires our acquiescence in some way. Bahá’u’lláh’s own expression of it in the Hidden Words is:

18. O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

I needed to make sense of this in terms of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described. Why might it be so important that I content myself with this state of reality?

An obvious partial answer is that, if we can accept the suffering, we will suffer less. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy regards suffering as what we add to the inevitable pain of existence, in part by our resistance to it and also by the language we use to ourselves to describe it. Which is not to say that we should not take practical steps to alleviate our own pain in other ways and to give solace to others, as well as, where possible, making sure that avoidable accidents do not add to the catalogue of human misery.

To go beyond that and probe more deeply into possible ways of learning to accept the apparently unacceptable is something each of us has to do in our own way, by prayer, reading, reflection and ‘right action,’ to use the Buddhist phrase. So, as a way of bringing these reflections to a close, I’d like to share in short hand form my own way of internalising this depiction of reality and of coming to terms with this injunction that we be content with whatever sorrow comes our way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Heart Safe (for source of image see link)

When we suffer it’s as though we have been robbed of the comforts we have locked away in our hearts to keep them safe, convinced that they were the gold that would buy us our protection from the slings and arrows of ill-fortune, and have been left in their stead with bundles of flimsy paper covered in strange writing.

We simply do not understand the true nature of this paper and rage against our loss, not appreciating that the rage, which is making our heart a furnace, will turn the paper into ashes all too soon, wiping out its incalculable value before we can realise its worth. If we could only come to see our pain and loss as providing us, as a gift, with the currency we will need when we travel, as we all must at some unknown point in the future, to settle in the undiscovered land from whose borders no traveller returns, it would become possible to accept it gratefully rather than resist it pointlessly. We would not then unwittingly destroy it, much to our disadvantage later. Without this currency, when we die we will be like refugees, ill-equipped at first to deal with the challenges of our new homeland. If we were to realise this, not just with our heads but with our hearts as well, we could then do as Bahá’u’lláh advises us and greet calamity with the same peace of mind as we welcome all good fortune. That would be true wisdom and real wealth.

That, of course, is far easier said than done and will take most of us more than a lifetime to accomplish. That should not be a reason to give up, it seems to me. We will, after all, have the whole of eternity to finish off what we have begun locked in time down here, and the better the start we get, the less we’ll have to do later on. Another example of the compensating effect of taking the broader view offered by a spiritual perspective.

Perhaps there is no better way to close this pair of posts than by concluding with the most beautiful piece of music that I know of relating to this theme. (For more about Handel’s Messiah click the link.)

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EdmundsonAs I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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