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Posts Tagged ‘Michael McCullough’

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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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

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 first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

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:

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.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, 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.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

These [perfect] mirrors are the Messengers of God Who tell the story of Divinity, just as the material mirror reflects the light and disc of the outer sun in the skies. In this way the image and effulgence of the Sun of Reality appear in the mirrors of the Manifestations of God. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He declared, “the father is in the son,” the purpose being that the reality of that eternal Sun had become reflected in its glory in Christ Himself. It does not signify that the Sun of Reality had descended from its place in heaven or that its essential being had effected an entrance into the mirror . . . .

Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

Emp Civil

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 have discovered how far Rifkin’s case against religion seems largely to be based on his dislike of Christian teachings, especially concerning the existence of Satan, the Fall of man,  and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap.

For example, he feels that the Gnostic gospels were more empowering and benign (page 238) and finds close parallels ‘between Jesus’s teachings as expressed in the Gospel of Saint Thomas and Hindu and Buddhist teachings at the time.’

He develops this theme (page 239):

. . . the Gnostics viewed Jesus as a human being who had achieved enlightenment. There is no talk of him performing miracles or referring to himself as the son of God or any recollection of Jesus dying for the sins of a fallen humanity.

Then he states his case (page 240):

For the Gnostics, ignorance of one’s true self, not sin, is the underlying cause of human suffering. Therefore, the key to unlocking the divine in each person is self-knowledge through introspection.

And he has a view of Jesus to match (page 241):

The critical question is whether enlightenment comes from fully participating in the world around us in all of its vulnerability and corporeality or by withdrawing to an inner world removed from the vulnerability of corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was fully engaged in the world.

He acknowledges the positive impact of Christianity (page 246):

The Christian empathic surge lasted a mere three centuries; but in that time it made an incredible mark on history. By A.D. 250 the number of Christians in Rome alone had grown to fifty thousand people.

Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer

He, in the same way as many others, dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society. He locates a key figure as embodying an inspiring post-Enlightenment empathic spirit – secularised empathy, if you like: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (page 307):

If one were to have to choose a single individual who most embodied a cosmopolitan view of the world and a universal empathic sensibility, Goethe would be an easy pick.

His subsequent commentary explains exactly the nature of Goethe’s appeal for Rifkin. He fuses empathy with biosphere concern (page 308):

Goethe felt that the purpose of living was to enrich life and that man is endowed with a special appreciation of life – a heightened consciousness – so that he might steward all that is alive. . . . Breathing nature in and out was the way one takes in nature and remains connected to the larger whole.

It is here that the roots of Rifkin’s model of empathy and biosphere consciousness becomes most explicit (page 309):

With Goethe, we see the secularisation of the empathic impulse, embedded in the embodied experience and that includes not only human society but all of nature. His empathic view is truly universal in scope.

His critique of Kant remains firm. He condemns his take on the Golden Rule (page 347):

Left behind is any heartfelt connection to another’s plight as if it were one’s own; the desire to comfort them because of a felt understanding of one’s common humanity.

He prefers Arthur Schopenhauer (page 348):

Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahamic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath.

He is indeed hanging his condemnation of religion as a positive redemptive influence almost exclusively on the hook of a particular religion’s interpretation of Genesis. I suspect there is a rope around the throat of his argument here. He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

Is Being Embodied Enough?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

However, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many members of many religions throughout the world, there is no need to make his leap of logic and deny a transcendent realm in order to explain why human beings can be compassionate. Even evolutionary theory – for example in the thinking of Robert Wright and Michael McCullough – plainly discerns how the development of empathy is wired into our brains and selected for in successful cultures.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest, similar to one of Rifkin’s reservations about the Golden Rule. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

Beyond RevengeMichael McCullough in his exploration of our dual potential for revenge and forgiveness, Beyond Revenge, sees them as hard –wired (page 132):

Revenge and forgiveness… are conditioned adaptations – they’re context sensitive. Whether we’re motivated to seek revenge or to forgive depends on who does the harming, as well as on the advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these options.

Empathy, also hard-wired, plays its part in determining what will happen (page 148):

One of the best ways to take all the fun out of revenge, and promote forgiveness instead, is to make people feel empathy for the people who’ve harmed them. In 1997, my colleagues and I showed that when people experience empathy for a transgressor, it’s difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. . . . When you feel empathic toward someone, your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

This material potential may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Even if religion is not the enemy, do we need it? The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

He nonetheless builds an ideal of interconnectedness as far as possible in these purely material terms. He sees civilisation as having a key role in realising this potential (page 362):

While we are all born with a predisposition to experience empathic distress, this core aspect of our being only develops into true empathic consciousness by the continuous struggle of differentiation and integration in civilisation. Far from squelching the empathic impulse, it is the dynamics of unfolding civilisation that is the fertile ground for its development and for human transcendence.

He wheels out the atheist’s favourite philosopher to administer what he hopes will be the kiss of death to any hope of the transcendent (page 382):

Nietzsche went after both the theologians and the rationalists, saying that it was time to give up the illusion that there exists something called “absolute spirituality” or “pure reason.”

Nietzsche argued that there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”. . .’ I won’t rehearse here all the thinking that has been done to confirm that, while it is true that all I have is my perspective, it does not mean that we have proved there is no transcendent realm. I’ve explored this, for example, in the sequence of posts on William James, whose point of view is succinctly captured by Paul Jerome Croce in his masterly Science & Religion in the Era of William James (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.

Absence of evidence therefore would not be evidence of absence, but in any case there is a wealth of evidence Rifkin is choosing to ignore here, as we have briefly touched upon above.

I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

When I was a child my father asked me to imagine what it would be like if a man stood with each of his feet in a bucket, grabbed the handles and tried to lift himself off the ground. In my view, all the evidence so far points to our being in a similar predicament: I find it impossible to believe we can mobilise what would be the necessary level of vision, self-sacrifice and sustained co-ordinated action over centuries to turn round our descent into self-destruction and climb back from the brink of extinction by our own unaided efforts.

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

A Ground of Being

In any case, whatever you think about that point, I feel there is even more convincing evidence that we do not have to rely only on ourselves. There is a transcendent dimension or foundation to reality and we can learn to draw upon its powers. In religion-neutral language we can speak of a ground of being, inherently conscious, inherently loving, inherently wise, that we can learn to connect to.

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

And he is not the only scientist to have reported such an experience (see link).

There are those who feel that this can be done as an individual through meditation without drawing upon any spiritual tradition or organised religion. I certainly agree that we can move a long way forwards in this way, but for me there is a distinction between the profound insights granted to the Founders of the great world faiths, no matter how far the followers may have strayed from the original path, and those insights a mystic can achieve.

To explain this clearly we need to start from the idea stated in the quotation at the head of this post. The Founders of the great world religions are like stainless Mirrors in which we can see reflected what is the closest approximation to the reality of God that we are capable of apprehending.

However, our hearts, which are, as a friend once expressed it, the experience of our soul in consciousness, are also mirrors which we can polish until they reflect as perfectly as we are able, but not as perfectly as a Messenger of God, the Sun of Reality if we choose to point them in that direction.

We therefore have two responsibilities: the first is to polish or rather burnish the steel of our heart’s mirror (it’s not a modern mirror!) so it can reflect more faithfully and, the second is to turn it towards the Sun of Truth. If we turn it in worship towards lesser gods it will become tarnished again (Bahá’u’lláh – from The Seven Valleyspage 21):

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

That, it seems to me, defines the difference between a mystic and a Messenger of God. Each Messenger of God has given us guidance appropriate to the time in which we live that will enable us to perfect our heart, as far as we are able, and perfect our world – rebuild our civilization if you like.

The Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, has already unpacked very clearly what this must mean to us (see my earlier post on Working for a Divine Arkitect). When the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were complete, the following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

Rifkin has done his best in this impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

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Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

These [perfect] mirrors are the Messengers of God Who tell the story of Divinity, just as the material mirror reflects the light and disc of the outer sun in the skies. In this way the image and effulgence of the Sun of Reality appear in the mirrors of the Manifestations of God. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He declared, “the father is in the son,” the purpose being that the reality of that eternal Sun had become reflected in its glory in Christ Himself. It does not signify that the Sun of Reality had descended from its place in heaven or that its essential being had effected an entrance into the mirror . . . .

Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

Emp CivilWe have discovered how far Rifkin’s case against religion seems largely to be based on his dislike of Christian teachings, especially concerning the existence of Satan, the Fall of man,  and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap.

For example, he feels that the Gnostic gospels were more empowering and benign (page 238) and finds close parallels ‘between Jesus’s teachings as expressed in the Gospel of Saint Thomas and Hindu and Buddhist teachings at the time.’

He develops this theme (page 239):

. . . the Gnostics viewed Jesus as a human being who had achieved enlightenment. There is no talk of him performing miracles or referring to himself as the son of God or any recollection of Jesus dying for the sins of a fallen humanity.

Then states his case (page 240):

For the Gnostics, ignorance of one’s true self, not sin, is the underlying cause of human suffering. Therefore, the key to unlocking the divine in each person is self-knowledge through introspection.

And has a view of Jesus to match (page 241):

The critical question is whether enlightenment comes from fully participating in the world around us in all of its vulnerability and corporeality or by withdrawing to an inner world removed from the vulnerability of corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was fully engaged in the world.

He acknowledges the positive impact of Christianity (page 246):

The Christian empathic surge lasted a mere three centuries; but in that time it made an incredible mark on history. By A.D. 250 the number of Christians in Rome alone had grown to fifty thousand people.

Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer

He, in the same way as many others, dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society. He locates a key figure as embodying an inspiring post-Enlightenment empathic spirit – secularised empathy, if you like: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (page 307):

If one were to have to choose a single individual who most embodied a cosmopolitan view of the world and a universal empathic sensibility, Goethe would be an easy pick.

His subsequent commentary explains exactly the nature of Goethe’s appeal for Rifkin. He fuses empathy with biosphere concern (page 308):

Goethe felt that the purpose of living was to enrich life and that man is endowed with a special appreciation of life – a heightened consciousness – so that he might steward all that is alive. . . . Breathing nature in and out was the way one takes in nature and remains connected to the larger whole.

It is here that the roots of Rifkin’s model of empathy and biosphere consciousness becomes most explicit (page 309):

With Goethe, we see the secularisation of the empathic impulse, embedded in the embodied experience and that includes not only human society but all of nature. His empathic view is truly universal in scope.

His critique of Kant remains firm. He condemns his take on the Golden Rule (page 347):

Left behind is any heartfelt connection to another’s plight as if it were one’s own; the desire to comfort them because of a felt understanding of one’s common humanity.

He prefers Arthur Schopenhauer (page 348):

Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahamic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath.

He is indeed hanging his condemnation of religion as a positive redemptive influence almost exclusively on the hook of a particular religion’s interpretation of Genesis. I suspect there is a rope around the throat of his argument here. He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

Is Being Embodied Enough?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

However, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many members of many religions throughout the world, there is no need to make his leap of logic and deny a transcendent realm in order to explain why human beings can be compassionate. Even evolutionary theory – for example in the thinking of Robert Wright and Michael McCullough – plainly discerns how the development of empathy is wired into our brains and selected for in successful cultures.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest, similar to one of Rifkin’s reservations about the Golden Rule. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

Beyond RevengeMichael McCullough in his exploration of our dual potential for revenge and forgiveness, Beyond Revenge, sees them as hard –wired (page 132):

Revenge and forgiveness… are conditioned adaptations – they’re context sensitive. Whether we’re motivated to seek revenge in or to forgive depends on who does the harming, as well as on the advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these options.

Empathy, also hard-wired, plays its part in determining what will happen (page 148):

One of the best ways to take all the fun out of revenge, and promote forgiveness instead, is to make people feel empathy for the people who’ve harmed them. In 1997, my colleagues and I showed that when people experience empathy for a transgressor, it’s difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. . . . When you feel empathic toward someone, your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

This material potential may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Even if religion is not the enemy, do we need it? The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

He nonetheless builds an ideal of interconnectedness as far as possible in these purely material terms. He sees civilisation as having a key role in realising this potential (page 362):

While we are all born with a predisposition to experience empathic distress, this core aspect of our being only develops into true empathic consciousness by the continuous struggle of differentiation and integration in civilisation. Far from squelching the empathic impulse, it is the dynamics of unfolding civilisation that is the fertile ground for its development and for human transcendence.

He wheels out the atheist’s favourite philosopher to administer what he hopes will be the kiss of death to any hope of the transcendent (page 382):

Nietzsche went after both the theologians and the rationalists, saying that it was time to give up the illusion that there exists something called “absolute spirituality” or “pure reason.”

Nietzsche argued that there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”. . .’ I won’t rehearse here all the thinking that has been done to confirm that, while it is true that all I have is my perspective, it does not mean that we have proved there is no transcendent realm. I’ve explored this, for example, in the sequence of posts on William James, whose point of view is succinctly captured by Paul Jerome Croce in his masterly Science & Religion in the Era of William James (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.

Absence of evidence therefore would not be evidence of absence, but in any case there is a wealth of evidence Rifkin is choosing to ignore here, as we have briefly touched upon above.

I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

When I was a child my father asked me to imagine what it would be like if a man stood with each of his feet in a bucket, grabbed the handles and tried to lift himself off the ground. In my view, all the evidence so far points to our being in a similar predicament: I find it impossible to believe we can mobilise what would be the necessary level of vision, self-sacrifice and sustained co-ordinated action over centuries to turn round our descent into self-destruction and climb back from the brink of extinction by our own unaided efforts.

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

A Ground of Being

In any case, whatever you think about that point, I feel there is even more convincing evidence that we do not have to rely only on ourselves. There is a transcendent dimension or foundation to reality and we can learn to draw upon its powers. In religion-neutral language we can speak of a ground of being, inherently conscious, inherently loving, inherently wise, that we can learn to connect to.

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

And he is not the only scientist to have reported such an experience (see link).

There are those who feel that this can be done as an individual through meditation without drawing upon any spiritual tradition or organised religion. I certainly agree that we can move a long way forwards in this way, but for me there is a distinction between the profound insights granted to the Founders of the great world faiths, no matter how far the followers may have strayed from the original path, and those insights a mystic can achieve.

To explain this clearly we need to start from the idea stated in the quotation at the head of this post. The Founders of the great world religions are like stainless Mirrors in which we can see reflected what is the closest approximation to the reality of God that we are capable of apprehending.

However, our hearts, which are, as a friend once expressed it, the experience of our soul in consciousness, are also mirrors which we can polish until they reflect as perfectly as we are able, but not as perfectly as a Messenger of God, the Sun of Reality if we choose to point them in that direction.

We therefore have two responsibilities: the first is to polish or rather burnish the steel of our heart’s mirror (it’s not a modern mirror!) so it can reflect more faithfully and, the second is to turn it towards the Sun of Truth. If we turn it in worship towards lesser gods it will become tarnished again (Bahá’u’lláh – from The Seven Valleyspage 21):

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

That, it seems to me, defines the difference between a mystic and a Messenger of God. Each Messenger of God has given us guidance appropriate to the time in which we live that will enable us to perfect our heart, as far as we are able, and perfect our world – rebuild our civilization if you like.

The Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, has already unpacked very clearly what this must mean to us (see my earlier post on Working for a Divine Arkitect). When the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were complete, the following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

Rifkin has done his best in this impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

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The Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

Goya’s ‘The Cudgel Fight’ (for source of image see link)

I was recently set thinking about some key issues of concern to me. I am still in the process of refining my thoughts as subsequent posts will hopefully testify but I felt that drafting an interim report, even though still slightly confused, would help move my thinking forwards.

Are we locked in a fight to the death?

Amy Chua’s book, World on Fire, remains evidence for me about one of the sources of violence within society.

There were two threads to her argument: one was capitalism, and the West’s over-eagerness to export it, as well as democracy, and the problems which arise from forcing the pace of its implementation. 
Capitalism alone, some suggest, can make possible the rising standards of living that will in themselves reduce violence. Unfortunately, almost all statements which include ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘only’ and the like are automatically suspect. Amy Chua’s book strongly suggests that fast tracking a sawn-off version of capitalism in any country, especially when this is combined with a fledgling democracy which allows a previously oppressed minority to gain power, is a blueprint for disaster. The Phillipines, the country of her birth, spurred her to research this phenomenon more widely. She pins down the core of her concern early in her book (page 14):

It is striking to note that at no point in history did any Western nation ever implement laissez-faire capitalism and overnight universal suffrage at the same time – the precise formula of free-market democracy currently being pressed on developing countries around the world.

Beyond the Culture of Contest

In the West capitalism and democracy in their present forms both evolved slowly over long periods of time. They cannot be parachuted from outside into an unprepared culture.

I have been influenced greatly by Michael Karlberg’s book – Beyond the Culture of Contest – which raises serious questions about a society like ours that is founded historically on:

  1. competition in politics, when the urgent and critical need now is to achieve consensus across all divisions of opinion in certain areas;
  2. adversarialism in the court room, where truth is less important than winning; and
  3. hyper-competition in the market place, where the need for profit and the desire to consume find their perfectly destructive match.

He does not argue that these can be replaced overnight, even though the need to do so is becoming increasingly urgent.

Which brings me onto the third point.

While I am sympathetic to those who argue that these problems are neither new nor necessarily worse,  and even to those rational optimists who believe that the statistics prove that most of us have never been safer or healthier, I am attracted by the credibility of Jeremy Rifkin’s case, to give just one example, in his book, The Empathic Civilisation – where he argues that our strong empathic tendency has enabled us to build ever larger civilisations and the current version is globally interconnected. He writes (page 44):

The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.

In short, in history our separate civilisations have all too often got too big to sustain themselves and thereafter collapsed. In the past, that has been tragic but not catastrophic, in that there have always been other parts of the world totally unaffected by the crash. Not so now, possibly, when we have a virtually single civilisation planet-wide. If one part goes down we probably all do. I will be returning to his thesis in more detail in a later sequence of posts.

In that respect, as well perhaps as in others, our situation is therefore not exactly the same as it has always been, and our degree of interconnectedness potentiates the impact of destructive processes in a way that lifts them to a higher level, a difference of degree only perhaps, or possibly renders them of a different quality, i.e. different in kind.

ATOE bookKen Wilber’s book, A Theory of Everything, which I will be reviewing in the next sequence of posts, points to another key factor i.e. the access those with narrow and hostile views now have to destructive high level technology. This is a fear that Jeremy Rifkin also shares in his panoramic survey The Empathic Civilisation to which I shall also be returning (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day. A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

Nor are these the only perspectives on our tendency to violence and how to remedy it. Being oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. Following on from the possibly flawed but none the less illuminating Milgram studies of obedience, Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘).

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:

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.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, 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.

Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle, and he emphasises the power of labelling and disgust to remove inhibitions against genocide. I don’t think his argument here has been undermined by evidence that his own moral life in an unrelated aspect was not entirely exemplary. He explains (page 199):

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group-out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib.

I don’t think any of us, expert or otherwise, can claim to have a clear, complete and valid picture yet. In my view, though a layman in terms of my mastery of the complex evidence involved, it seems that we can either learn to sink our differences to a degree that will transform our culture, or else stick with our current patterns and sink without trace under our differences.

Robert WrightIs Capitalism really the answer?

There is clearly quite a lot depending upon which model of the way the world works the majority of humanity accepts – one model which accepts the inevitability of competition, the other which holds out hope for the probability of co-operation.

Evolutionary theory, when it has taken a psychological turn recently, accepts that humanity has a dual potential in that respect and, according to Michael McCullough, we can move beyond revenge towards forgiveness and cooperation, just as Robert Wright can legitimately argue that, throughout human history, we have proved ourselves capable of widening our sense of identity beyond the family or tribe to include ever more disparate and distant groups of people.

Economic theory is not my specialism. I do have a view though about its overall validity. For me, the problem with economics, as with any other social science such as psychology, my own discipline, is that it only goes as far as to provide a lens of our own, albeit systematic creation through which to observe and understand ourselves – a very tricky process whose conclusions have to be approached with extreme caution.

For example, what a convinced capitalist says reads well within its own assumptions, as does what I write to me of course. What he describes may apply if we accept the same premises and assumptions especially concerning human nature and the consequent social dynamics. For instance, one might argue that nothing does more to reduce violence and many other social ills than the rising standards of living that capitalism alone makes possible.

While I accept that capitalism has brought many benefits, as has liberal democracy, it seems to me that such optimism is missing a crucial point. It is not ‘rising standards of living’ that are necessarily the main issue but the rising inequality which unrestricted capitalism seems inevitably to produce, with all the socially destructive consequences this brings in its wake. Hardly a rationally desirable outcome, it seems to me, and certainly not a morally desirable one. I have already posted a review of The Spirit Level so I won’t rehearse those points again here.

Also, as John Fitgerald Medina pointed out in his book, Faith, Physics and Psychology (page 238):

 Economic theory does not allow economists to make distinctions between renewable resources and non-renewable resources.

In a 2012 BBC4 documentary – Surviving Progress – David Suzuki indicated that this defect is at the core of economics, which he describes not as a ‘science’ but as ‘a set of values.’ He contemptuously refers to its dismissive description of natural resources as ‘externalities’ as ‘a form of brain damage.’ The sense of urgency in this recent programme suggests that any remedy to the current model of economics, so kind to short-term profits, has some way to go before it gains widespread and effective acceptance. It is not clear whether we have that much time before disaster strikes.

There is a need to dig a bit deeper though, and I plan to do so in the follow up post next week.

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

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the second of the sequence: the first was published yesterday

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

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

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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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William Blake: Songs of Experience Additional Poem

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the first of three posts on consecutive days.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

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:

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.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, 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.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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