Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Culture of Dependence

These days it is impossible to avoid some topics that at first blush might not seem to have much in common. Here are a few, in no particular order:

— the obesity epidemic
— the death of Christianity in the West
— binge drinking, alcoholism and alcohol-related problems
— the end of monasticism and religious life
— the failure to do anything about climate change and the degradation of the environment
— preoccupation with the body and with sexuality far out of proportion to their role in what makes a human person

What they all have in common is that they arise from a culture that demands that people become increasingly dependent and infantilized, one which encourages passivity and inertia. Integrity is a word that is rarely mentioned, and a notion few care to think about or understand. Present cultural pressures are inimical to it.

— Alcohol related problems and food/gambling/sexual and other behavioural addictions have dependence as a core issue, not only dependence on the particular substance or behaviour in question, but as a dynamic that pervades every aspect of their lives and distorts every relationship.

— Multinationals don't want us to think; they want us to be dependent on advertising, and shopping as a drug; they want us to feel that we need to be told what we need and what we want. They want us not to mind that most of the world's wealth is in the hands of a very few, while billions live in unspeakable conditions of poverty, anxiety, and degradation.

— Technology makes us increasingly dependent on processes most of us cannot understand and over which there is no control. It strips away the wholeness of life, reducing it to two-dimensions. 'Friend' has become a verb and a commodity; people are increasingly dependent on what others think. Privacy is considered antiquated. Any gift, talent or discipline that does not make the practitioner a lot of money is considered useless, and their exercise is dependent on those who have lots of money and no discernment.

— Governments have created whole classes of dependent people who live in blighted areas where there are no jobs and where people have been unemployed for generations. The despair this engenders is unimaginably expensive, not only in human lives, but also in the costs of health care, benefits (if they exist) and social anarchy. Parents who are themselves children cannot raise mature, responsible offspring.

— Over-specialization makes people dependent on others when they could probably do a better job themselves if they were not discouraged or even actively prevented from doing the work and the research. Many certifications are worthless, including doctorates, as well as those more obviously suspect. The self-help movement has contributed to people's low anthropology: its message is that there's always something else wrong with you so that you will feel you have to buy another self-help book to try to fix yourself up to a Procrustean template.

— Preparing people to pass exams is not education. It trains them to say what they think others (or the computer) want to hear, rather than engaging in critical thinking, and searching for and speaking the truth. Multiple choice, essays corrected by computer, force the subtleties of creative thinking into black-and-white banalities. Academic systems are somewhat like religions in that they tend to spawn their own doctrines and hierarchies that become oblivious to what in fact is true, and prevent people from challenging the status quo, or changing methodologies that are inimical to the content of the research. It is no accident that both Iain McGilchrist and Margaret Barker—two of today's most innovative and world-changing thinkers— are independent scholars.

— Encouraging self-esteem at the expense of self-respect means that many young people live lives based on fantasy rather than fruits, on projection rather than considered, well-discerned action that arises from interior strength. Their lives are based on hollow, narcissistic ephemera rather than grounded in an outwardly-focused integrity. Actions that appear to encourage short-term self-esteem can be extremely damaging to self-respect over the long term. It is yet another way in which people are encouraged to make themselves feel better by consuming, and by dependence on others' opinions. In fact, consumption will only make them feel worse, whereas plunging into a cause that demands all their attention and commitment will, by means of self-forgetfulness, bring a deep fulfillment.

The life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in Homs this past week, is celebrated by Jenny McCartney in today's Telegraph. '...She never wanted to be the story: her unrelenting determination was instead to tell the stories of other people, particularly those who were otherwise voiceless in accursed places that all those with a strong interest in self-preservation would naturally avoid. That is of course, precisely what Colvin was doing in Homs—a place so dangerous that most other war reporters had chosen to stay away. Her last broadcast had a specific practical purpose: it strongly refuted Syrian government propaganda to state unequivocally that "the Syrian army is shelling a city of cold, starving civilians" who had been left with no way out.' She was targeted for this broadcast, but her standing up to the Syrian government has raised the awareness of the West to the immediacy and depth of the Syrian crisis as nothing else could have done.

I began this post several days ago, but McCartney states the problems I had hoped to address with a stunning clarity that supersedes my own poor prose: 'I hope that Colvin...would forgive me for writing about her this week. But it appears to me that what she stood for is especially important when set against the prevailing cultural current of our times. For although she certainly had an ego—no one could build a career in war zones without one—she seems to have been largely immune to the besetting diseases of narcissism and trivia which have come to devour so much of the modern age, and femininity in particular....things that were meant to add a touch of spice to life have somehow ended up becoming the main nutritional intake, and are proving toxic in higher concentrations... The perspective of the British public—and of those catering to it—has shifted from looking outward to sustained navel-gazing.'

— Sexuality and the body are important elements in life but they are parts, not the whole. Yet, as McCartney notes: '...people have apparently become increasingly preoccupied with their own bodies [another form of dependence]...Young women can scarcely keep up with the incessant grooming demands of hair extensions, nails, tanning and waxing, which they feel they must follow religiously in order not to be judged repellent. Acute self-consciousness is everywhere...young models pouting and posing [in adverts] in an overt, coquettish fashion ... make them look inordinately pleased with themselves, and also very silly.' They are icons of the vapid zeitgeist.

McCartney ends: 'What does this excess of narcissism do? It can never content the narcissist, nor spread any good in the world. Age creeps on regardless, and death comes even to those who stay away from war zones. Marie Colvin bravely realised the importance of providing a window on the wider world, through which individuals might be moved to effect change. The least that her fellow women could do is bother to look through that window, instead of perpetually stumbling between the fridge and the mirror.'

And Patrick Cockburn in today's Independent adds: 'She had no death wish – in fact, I have seldom met any body more in love with life – but, with her high intelligence, she must have known that death was a price that at any moment she might have to pay.'

To do something for its own sake and not to count the cost seems to be a forgotten art.

— Christianity is deeply implicated in this culture of narcissism. It has changed from promoting outward-looking beholding and communion, spiritual maturity and a high anthropology before the 10th century, to a religion that rests on a low anthropology, one that exploits guilt, relies on infantilising people, makes them emotionally and spiritually dependent, and, these days, so despises its constituents that it dumbs down its practices, texts and rituals to the point that they are meaningless—no wonder people are leaving in droves. Seminaries and theological colleges are no longer able to relate the language of doctrine to the referents of real life, and each generation of students, wrapped up in the closed system of theology divorced from practice and dedicated to control and manipulation, makes religious institutions less viable. Church hierarchies—and for that matter current management practice in business—function in the same way as alcoholic constellations. The language of self-emptying vocation is corrupted to bolster self-serving careerism.

— And, from a personal point of view, religious life has for centuries confused obedience with emotional dependence, women's communities being far worse off than men's in this regard. To be accepted and to survive, candidates are required to be dependent. If they are not naturally so, they must fake it; otherwise they are considered not to have the 'spirit of obedience'. In fact, these two are opposite: obedience can be licit only if it is freely given, and if one is dependent, one is not free: one is submitting to emotional blackmail.

The so-called new monasticism is neither new nor monastic. However well intentioned, it appears rather to be yet another extension of the culture of narcissism, smoke and mirrors that strive to have one's cake and eat it too. Communities of narcissists without commitment cannot long endure, and the work they do, however laudatory, and whatever the appearance of 'success' (which should not even figure in the equation), is contaminated because if it is not an overflow of self-forgetful contemplation it is patronising, exploitive, and oppressive, creating yet more dependence—again, an alcoholic constellation.

We need more Marie Colvins in this world; we need to pluck up our courage and follow her example. Whatever her flaws and excesses, however mixed her motivations, she had a vision of life and her role in it, and followed to the end the hope of making the world a better place.

How many of us can say the same?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Living Book

Last night I stumbled on to a BBC Four programme called 'The Love of Books—A Sarajevo Story'. It had already begun: the presenter was holding an illuminated manuscript in Arabic, equal, though utterly different, to any medieval manuscript the West has produced. The programme told the story of how more than 10,000 ancient and unique manuscripts were saved during the siege of Sarajevo by librarians who braved shelling and sniper fire to move them from hiding place to hiding place, who would rather die than live without the precious manuscripts they loved, and of which they were guardians.

By chance I had been talking that morning with some visitors to Oxford who shared my table at the café in Blackwells. I suggested they go to see the current exhibit of manuscripts at the Bodelian, describing with an awe that only grows with the passage of time of the processes by which they were created, each letter hand written on vellum; each gold ornament, some of them miniscule, made from leaf as thin as tissue, blown into place by someone's breath of life, then buffed; the painstaking process of making vellum itself; all that is the best of what is human poured out between covers.

The leading scholar on the programme said that he thought of a book as a person, and more than human. Each book collected the civilisation of the past, and without history there is no present or future. He was Muslim, but some of his colleagues were Orthodox Christians; one was a refugee from the Congo.

Before the war Sarajevo was a cosmopolitan city, a welcoming place; Christians and Muslims lived together in peace. These relationships ran deep; even during the war one scholar was warned by a Serbian neighbour that she was on an assassination list and should get out of town. She stayed, but went into hiding in such haste that a four-volume manuscript was left behind. By some miracle it survived.

Twenty-five years before the war I visited Sarajevo. It was indeed a special place, and its citizens had every reason to love their city. We had driven through the mountains from Dubrovnik, stopping at Mostar to view the graceful arc of stone across the Neretva river, so ethereal it called forth tears. 'The famous traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 17th century that: the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other. ...I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky' [quoted in Wikipedia].

We continued to Sarajevo. The first day we wandered through the city centre; my ears immediately picked up a sound from my childhood. I was incredulous. It couldn't be. It was the sound of the trolley cars from Washington DC in the forties and fifties. For a moment I was completely dislocated: I remembered standing on the narrow platforms in the middle of the street, vertiginous for a small child: the trolley cars seemed enormous, the wheels ground very near. But how could those cars have been hauled over the nearly impassable roads we had just traversed? It would take extraordinary determination, something I was to learn that the people of Sarajevo had in extraordinary measure. In my wonder I forgot Rule 1 and mentioned the trolleys to my parents.

I kept my mouth shut for the rest of our stay in Sarajevo, but would not be shaken from my conviction. That evening we rode the trolleys to a local circus performance on the outskirts of town. It was, thankfully, as far from Barnum and Bailey as could be imagined. The chief delight of the evening was a flock of trained white pelicans who performed with intelligence and humour, as if aware of the gawky grace of their bills and bodies, and the power of their wings.

The next day we hired an elderly Muslim guide. He was a man of great courtesy and education. When the war started two decades later he came strongly to mind, and I hoped and prayed that he had gone to his reward in the paradise of Allah so that he would not see the devastation of the city he loved so much. He sat us down and spoke to us as if we were his own children; he fed us thick Turkish coffee; he took us to a private home and showed us the beautiful zenana; he gave us sticky sweets made from rose petals—so sweet that even my sweet tooth could not handle it. He showed us mosques and libraries and churches and gently opened our minds to the wonder that was Sarajevo. Finally he took us to the streetcar barns. 'Of this trolley system we are very proud,' he said. 'It comes from a city where you have lived: Washington, D.C.'

When the siege of Sarajevo started targeting the libraries, more than two million books were lost, incinerating cultural links between East and West. There is something particularly obscene about burning books. A firefighter told how the brigade struggled to fight the fires while pounded by artillery, and how they then lost water pressure. The men began to scoop up the still burning pages in their hands to try to save them. The lines on his face deepened as he spoke, the grief of war too deep for words.

There is much debate these days about the survival of the book. While it is imperative to digitize manuscripts and make them widely available through this medium, at the same time the virtual copies will never be the same as the actual book. Manuscripts are alive; they breathe, they speak; to have contact with a manuscript you are studying changes your perception and your relationship to the people who made it, and whose words it contains.

The same is true with books in a lesser way: there is a tactile relationship, the type on the page, the feel of the paper. Books convey us into liminality in a way that virtual reality never can. It should be no great mystery why the book cannot be replaced by electronic versions for the same reasons that the self-conscious mind, with its virtual, two-dimensional re-presentations cannot exist on its own, can never replace the deep mind, but is dependent on and must interact with it.

There is a lot of reconstruction going on in the Balkans. The Mostar bridge has been rebuilt, along with mosques, churches and other structures; but the 50,000 books that were destroyed there, along with the more than two million that were destroyed in Sarajevo can never be recovered. Their loss speaks of a barbarism that can erupt at any time, and in any place, and indeed is already at work among us.

Each day when I go into the Bodleian I give thanks that it is still there, that the lovely buildings are standing; that the manuscript treasures they shelter are protected, that the millions of books are safeguarded, and that in my humble way I may participate in its living, breathing tradition: but I am also, equally, only too aware of its fragility.

May it never suffer the fate of the libraries in Mostar and Sarajevo.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Affective has a specific meaning: the primacy of the heart (love) which drives intention beyond the linear self-consciousness, which it then informs. The heart enables us to dwell quietly and without fuss in attentive waiting in the ordinary, while, without our knowing it, our self-consciousness is transfigured in ways too subtle for us to recognise except in retrospect. God's best work is always out of our sight.

This loving intent ('nakid entent' in The Cloud) enables perseverance in the work of silence: it simplifies, it strips everything extraneous to the one thing necessary; it focuses the seamless self-forgetful love that overflows from God to neighbour and self. It frees us from the slavery of looking for 'results', or 'success', from the demands of what our self-conscious mind thinks we 'ought' to feel like, or what the so-called spiritual life 'ought' to be.

The word affective is often wrongly used to describe devotions, be they the disciplined rhetorical extravagances of Bernard—which he is then careful to qualify and elide into the apophatic, or the kitsch effusions of lesser writers. The word affective in religious writing or in our own lives is not about emotion or feeling, but rather about an intention that is steadfast beyond whatever we think or feel.

The litmus test is paradox, for paradoxes link the two epistemologies, the self-conscious mind; and the deep mind, which is not directly accessible, and can be influenced only indirectly by intention. Paradoxes in this process operate as descriptors, catalysts, transponders, passkeys, portals and more. In Bernard's writings, for example, as in those of Bonaventure, Porete and the Cloud-author, the images of love are paradoxical because they are signalling a love, an intention, that is so faithful that it is detached from its own desire, a willingness to free-fall in the love of God.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Today's Telegraph and Guardian both have articles that expose the rapid and expanding dehumanization of society, encouraged in the UK by Cameron's government, and in the US by a multitude forces already beyond control.

In the Telegraph the elderly are told to go back to work and to downsize their living spaces. People in the UK have a far different attitude towards the property they live in and have made home than the peripatetic Americans, who think nothing of upping sticks and moving into retirement accommodation. There is still a sense of community and place in the UK that is unknown today in the USA. If there are no jobs for young people, how does the government expect old people to find work? And given the dehumanized environment in the workplace, to suggest that elderly people go back to work who have been subject to a lifetime of stress and oppressive bosses is simply cruel. And how are the elderly supposed to downsize in a country where there is a chronic shortage of housing? What about the negative, sometimes fatal impact of being removed from familiar surroundings?

The Telegraph also has an article about axing hospital chaplains to hire more nursing assistants because, it is said, chaplains have 'no clinical benefit'. The implications of such a statement—that people are bodies only, and those bodies are merely mechanical—are horrifying. What dark age are these policy makers living in? The evidence of the interdependence of body and mind is overwhelming. Reports on hospitals show that they are neglectful, uncaring, lonely places, especially for the elderly. Their bells are not answered; they are left in their waste, offered unpalatable food, not fed, ignored, sometimes actively abused. Whatever one thinks about religion, chaplains help to relieve the degradation of being stuck in such circumstances.

O yes. And RBS has decided to cancel its annual lunch for elderly past employees. How much could that lunch have cost in comparison to the millions of pounds of bonuses offered to executives, not to mention the wastrel gambling culture of the banking system in general?

The Guardian contributes an ominous article about the new diagnostic handbook for mental illness being published in America, which classifies normal human emotions as mental illness, so that a person grieving for a spouse would be considered 'abnormal' with the label of chronic depressive disorder, and recalcitrant children would be classified as mentally ill with an 'oppositional' disorder. This suggests a multitude of opportunities for supporting parental abuse. On the other hand, serial rapists could use the handbook to escape jail.

'Peter Kinderman, professor of clinical psychology and Head of Institute of Psychology at the University of Liverpool, said the revisions "could only make a bad system worse". The diagnostic approach, a tick-box list of symptoms leading to a label, was always "hugely problematic", he said. What is termed "oppositional defiant disorder" is dubious, he said: "Since my children say 'no you are an idiot, dad' repeatedly to me, by definition my children are ill." He also disagreed with the label of paraphilic coercive disorder: "In my view, rape is a crime and should not necessarily be regarded as a disorder. It gives people an excuse for that behaviour," he said.'

The Independent features an article that exposes the bumper profits being made by the energy companies while 5.5 million homes are in 'fuel poverty'—and doubtless people will die as a result. A little further down is an article in which care home staff admit abusing the helpless people who were entrusted to them. And finally there is a long article on loneliness—to be classified as mental illness in the new diagnostic handbook—a whole new spectrum of possibilities to make you to feel guilty: if you show any human qualities, you're sick. But there will only be more loneliness as public policy continues its relentless program of turning people into ciphers, fragmenting communities and segregating people into socio-economic, age-related and cultural ghettos.

'Contexts bring meanings from the whole of our selves and our lives, not just from the explicit theoretical, intellectual structures which are potentially under control. The power-hungry will always aim to substitute explicit for intuitive understanding. Intuitive understanding is not under control, and therefore cannot be trusted by those who wish to manipulate and dominate the way we think; for them it is vital that such contexts, with their hidden powerful meanings that have accrued through sometimes millennia of experience, are ereadicated.' (McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, p. 319)

Are you ready to be a robot?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Margaret Barker

Did you know that:

— the sign of the cross is a First Temple sign for God?

— that God Most High, The Lord, and El Shaddai (whose name means the God with Breasts) prefigure the Christian Trinity?

— that the Second Temple tried to obliterate the contemplative theology of the First?

— that some of the First Temple people fled to Arabia and that it is likely that Paul visited them there?

— that Jesus and his followers are looking to the First, pre-Mosaic temple, and see themselves as high priests of an internalised temple with the heart as the holy of holies?

— that parts of the Hebrew Scriptures were rewritten so that the Christians could not cite them? We know this in part because of the discoveries at Qumran.

— that some of the traditions of the First Temple endured in Christianity to the fifteenth century?

— that much of John’s apocalypse is about the liturgy of the First Temple?

— that the First Temple had a profound understanding of the conversion of the heart?

These are only a few of the insights presented by Margaret Barker, a highly respected scholar and former president of the prestigious Society for the Study of Old Testament, who has written a dozen or so books that are so illuminative they will change and deepen your understanding of Christianity forever.

She is a meticulous scholar, but she writes in lucid, non-technical prose that everyone can understand. I’m reading two of her books simultaneously: Temple Theology, which is a good place to start, and Temple Mysticism. The next one I’m going to read is Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment —which presents a far different vision than we have been led to believe exists in the bible.

The best place to get her books are at or

Her work dovetails almost too neatly with my own and is as important in terms of evidence to my new book, as is McGilchrist’s. To absorb what she is saying is going to put me behind my hoped-for deadline—but it will be a better book as a result.

"Clement of Alexandria is often said to have been adopting contemporary Greek ideas, but he too was writing about temple mysticism. Paul, he taught, clearly revealed that some knowledge was not given to everyone, 'for there were certainly among the Hebrews some things delivered unwritten...' The goal of the Christian was to know these things and to behold them." Temple Mysticism, pp. 37-38.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Aporia / Asceticism

Aporia has generated much discussion. In the context of the work of silence it means, more or less, a gap in the schematizing activities of the self-conscious mind. Writers can provoke aporia deliberately through imagery and syntactic tropes, opening the reader to the deep mind. Sarah Kofman suggests that the true, philosophical aporia, or Penia ('the child of poverty') is always fertile and resourceful. It is this descriptive paradox, a variation of the basic paradox of intention, that underlies notions of the usefulness of voluntary poverty and asceticism, which integrate the body with interior work. See Gillespie and Ross, 'The Apophatic Image...' The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V, ed. M Glasscoe, Cambridge, 1992.

Asceticism is a means, not an end. It is a way of opening to new possibilities. It is optimally tailored to the individual. It is counterproductive when carried to extremes, or competitive, or stereotyped. Ascetical exercises can be positive as well as negative. Physical asceticism persuades the body that it will not die if it gives up indulging itself, thus helping to prepare the mind for giving up its indulgences, including the noise of ideas about itself and the world—and, ultimately, its preoccupations with asceticism. 'The purpose of asceticism is to fail.' The trans-figurative resources of the deep mind cannot emerge without letting go even the effort to let go.