religion


IMG_5556

Thank you for seeing me, your holiness, I know what a busy person you are after more than 1400 years of trying to clear your name, but  I hope you don’t mind me asking you a few questions.  The thing is, there’s a few things I just don’t quite get, and I wonder if you can help me. 

Sure t’ing. Oi’ll do what Oi can for you. And who knows, it might even help me a tad or two. 

Aw, thanks, your saintliness.  Now wait a minute, let me just find my note book.  And I’ve got a pen in here somewhere.  OK, here were are.  Now, what I don’t understand is, with you being such an important saint and all that and doing all those great things, is how you got away with it.  

Oi’m nod at all sure what you mean boi dat.   

No, no, I’m sorry, your sanctimoniousness. I didn’t mean to offend. I can be a bit clumsy at times.  So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I’ll start at the beginning.  You left your home in Ireland or was it called Scotland at that time?  It’s all very confusing.  Anyway, you left your home under a bit of a cloud if you don’t mind me saying so.  And I’m not just talking about the weather – though it can be a bit rough in The North Channel especially when your boat is just a basket covered in skin. Could you not fly, you being an angel and all that?  Or have I misrepresented your saintly powers?  Sorry, your beatitude, I’m going off track.  But it was awesome how you and twelve others crossed over the North Channel in what was little more than a bathtub covered in skin. it sounds like Bonnie Prince Charlie without a sail or a prayer, but I dare say you had lots of prayers. No, what I wanted to know is how you caused so much hell back in the home country that you had to get out.  After all, you were a Bishop and a grandson of Kings.  

Oi know, Oi know. But you do go on something chronic. De fact is d’ basterds had it in for me.  Oi guess dey were jealous.  But you know, I never really left.  Back den, it was the same country on eider side.  De islands to the west o’ Pictland were a kind of colony.  Dere were loads of us up dere.  Besides, Oi didn’t stay on Kintyre. Oi just planted me footsteps – for de tourists, don’t y’know.  Then Oi had a drink at de holy well and sailed off up de coast to Iona – where I couldn’t see de old country an’ get homesick   

But the indictment was you infringed copyright law.  Now why would you want to do that?.  And why was it such a serious offence they threatened to excommunicate you. 

Well, you need to understand; we never had xeroxes back den.  De bastards asked me to copy dis enormous document, covered in letters in all different colours, wid pictures all down de soide.   It took me de best part of haf a year in doese freezin’ cloisters.  Dey’d promised me a great fat fee, but when it was all done, dey didn’t give me a bean. Well, Oi was so pissed off, Oi pinched it – so Oi did.  Serves dem roit.  But how was Oi to know it would start a war.  It was moi uncle; he’s a gran’ fierce man.  An de O’Neills look after der own.  But den dat bastard King Diamairt, no more than a jumped up swoine herd, so he is, moirdered de Prince moi cousin, who was recovering from a sports injury.  An’ in moi own church, moind you. Anyway dey framed me; so Oi had to get out pretty damn quick.  But Oi was innocent, so Oi was.  Oi never did it, so help me God.  An’ didn’t yer man make me a saint just loik St Paddy before me, who, by de way, was also no angel eider?  Well, no one was.  It was a case of dog eat dog back den .  

But, you’re a holy man, your honour.  What are you doing meddling in wars and politics?  Not even Rowan Williams did that.  Shouldn’t you leave it to the military. 

Oi feel bad about all de people dat got killed. Dat’s why oi thought oi should go.  But de truth is de kings were hopeless, not quoit as bad as de British government is now, but hopeless, none the less.  Oi had to do something.  Besoides, God sent me a message.   

A message. 

Yes, dis whale came up to me in de boat an’ told me Oi would rescue a man from de fiersome Loch Ness Monster.  So Oi went up there, made the sign of the cross and your timorous beastie ran away. I reckoned Oi’d squared things up wid God.  

Ok, let’s put all that to one side, your graciousness. There’s something else that happened on Iona that bothers me,  

Oi know, it’s about all dose women and de cows on moi holy island of Iona, but God told me to banish dem. 

No, it wasn’t that.

Well, de frogs and the snakes, den.   

No, it wasn’t them either, though I don’t know how you managed to round them all up and get them off the island.    

God works in such mysterious ways; his wonders to behold! (holds up two fingers and makes the sign of the cross, him being such a holy man) 

That’s as maybe. But I was thinking about your best friend.

Aw, you’re meaning Oran the moron.  He was no friend of’ moine; he just did what I told him.  But he had a lovely wife – such a waste!   Anyway, what happened to Oran was’na moi fault.  Yer man had a hand in dat, too. God told me that he would not consecrate moi chapel until Oi’d buried a man aloive in de foundations.  And Oran volunteered, so he did.   

And so you used your grace to console his wife. 

Well (stroked his beard wistfully) you could put it loik dat, but wasn’t it the least Oi could do for a friend who had made the ultimate sacrifice?  

 But he was still alive when they dug him up. 

Yes, but he’d lost his moind, God rest his soul – blaspheming against me, the church and his God.  

So you killed him.

Oi had to.  Oi put a stake through his chest to drive out de devil.  But you know dat wasn’t truly me.  As a saint of the holy catholic church, Oi’m only the instrument of the Almighty.  But surely Oi’ve paid moi price by now.  Although I departed this mortal coil way back in 593, Oi’ve never entered dose holy gates to heaven. Oi coudn’t even foind them. An’ Oi’m still lookin’  

So you admit you committed homicide, but if it was God’s will,  why, being a saint and all,  are you not up on a cloud singing with the angels? Sounds like God’s still got it in for you.  

But Oi was innocent, Oi tell you.  All Oi did was do His will.  Oi’ve got letters to prove it, and dey’ve taken me ages to wroite. 

Advertisements

st_augustine_hippo_24

When I was much younger, I worked for a few months at The Villa Maria Mission Hospital near Masaka on the western shores of Lake Victoria. Every evening, I had dinner in the refectory with ‘the white fathers’, who ran the mission. Sustained by delicious African food and the local beer, we shared views on life and the state of the world. One evening, the conversation switched to sex. I tried to justify the fact that I was still in an early ‘experimental’ stage of sexual relations with young ladies and not inclined to ‘go steady’.  I explained that, although not a catholic, part of me felt drawn to a contemplative, monastic existence. My companion turned to me and somewhat ruefully commented, ‘You remind me of Saint Augustine; you want to be good but not yet.’

That made me curious. Who was this kindred spirit and why was he a saint? I thought little more about it until this week’s episode of In Our Time on Radio 4 when Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Augustine’s ‘Confessions’.

Augustine was brought up in the Roman province of Numidia in what is now Algeria in the 4th century AD. His was a typical Roman colonial family of freed slaves. His father was a merchant; his mother a Berber, but deeply religious and fiercely ambitious for her son. He had a good education, studying Latin, rhetoric, grammar and logic. He learnt how to deliver speeches and wrote a good many letters. ‘I lie for a profession’, he once declared.

‘Confessions’ was perhaps his most famous work, in which he acknowledged not only the hedonism of his youth but also his long term relationship with a concubine, who bore him a son. This was a different world: at that time young Roman men were expected to gratify their sexual desires with slaves, who were often willing partners since they derived benefits from the relationship. Although Augustine explains that the relationship started with an act of lust, he became devoted to his mistress.  He nevertheless abandoned her in order to marry and obtain a dowry that would allow him to advance in his career and perhaps obtain a provincial governorship.  His designated fiancé was just ten years old and Augustine had to wait until she was 12 before they could marry. Although he satisfied his lust with another concubine, his heart was no longer in it and he gave up all three women for a life of chastity and devotion to God.

In what now might seem an intellectual defence, born of guilt, Augustine wrote of how the the divine spark, the purity of a relationship with God, is corrupted by the appetites and desires of the body. This led to his notion of original sin; the notion that man is born fallible, but can be redeemed, not necessarily by repentance and discipline, but by the grace of God, the arbitrary nature of which was beyond man’s understanding.

At the time, Christians expected that Jesus would return; after all, hadn’t he promised he would? The fact that he didn’t suggested they were irredeemably bad, which coincided  with the notion of original sin, but Augustine suggested that there was no real evil in the world, only human weakness; a rupture of the will.  Sexual desire was part of human nature, which was inevitably flawed. People were all too ready to submit to their own desires and turn their back on God. Augustine confessed his human weakness, but was never certain he had received the grace of God.

Augustine’s Confessions included a detailed discussion of how he stole pears from an orchard when he was a very young boy, explaining how he was not hungry, nor did he particularly like pears; in fact he threw them to the pigs.  No, he just wanted to experience the thrill of transgression – being naughty, but he recognised that if he could steal pears, he could also steal land or countries; there was no moral difference.  Adam and Eve lost paradise because they disobeyed God, followed their own will and stole the apple. The trivial act of stealing fruit was a metaphor for something much more important.

Augustine’s conversion to Catholicism occurred after he met Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Ambrose introduced Augustine to the philosophy of The Neoplatonists and he begin to contemplate on the inner world rather than the outer world. He concluded that God was real but immaterial all at the same. The same might apply to the concept of the mind. He also preached that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally. It was a series of allegories; lessons on human nature.

I wonder how Augustine’s philosophy would have been received by our current secular society.  It seems that the extended metaphor of the Bible would have included the deity; the; the immaterial human mind transposed for God. Existential concepts such as sin, guilt and shame have been encultured in us by upbringing.  Childhood and adolescence may be seen as a process of increasing socialisation, a time when we adopt the mores of the culture. Transgression does not offend against God, it offends against our own nature and is punished by feelings of unworthiness and depression.

But how might we equate sexual freedom with fidelity? Augustine’s prayer, ‘grant me chastity and continence but not yet’, seems a pragmatic solution, that identifies him as a human being, with all the virtues and faults that entails. We might all identify with that. As long we can behave in a way that does not undermine cultural values by exploiting or harming others, we may accept and live with ourselves without conflict and guilt.  After all, Augustine has been there before us and survived.

Lionel has been rector of his poor inner city London parish for a long time.  He is a compassionate man, who offers support and pastoral care to his parishioners,  visits hospitals and prisons and is a good shepherd to his flock,  but Lionel’s  faith is slipping.   This is reported to Charlie, Bishop of Southwark, who urges him to express his  true faith in the liturgy.  ‘It’s not so much what you believe’,  he asserts, ‘as what you are seen to believe’; the Christian ritual is clearly more important than pastoral care.   Lionel and his friends have quietly ignored this while paying lip service to it.  Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon, cannot see what all the fuss is about.  He glories in God’s natural world and can’t be doing with the dogma.  Things come to a head when the newly ordained Tony, who has discovered  his evangelistic zeal and rejected his much more realistic relationship with his perceptive girl friend, persuades one of Lionel’s practitioners to leave her husband.  In the meantime, Harry’s live-in relationship with Ewan has got into the Sunday papers.  But it’s Lionel, who the Bishop, furious at the ordination of women, is after.   He may succeed in the short term, but change is inevitable.        

David Hare’s play reminds me of recent deliberations of the future of British psychoanalysis.  Are those trained in the dark arts a  loose philosophical conglomeration of curious and reflective individuals driven by a desire to understand and make sense of our collective existence in order to help their clients or are they  constitutionally bound to uphold the belief and values of a particular dogma, to practice the ritual, intone the liturgy.  Is is there any difference between the psychoanalytical institutions and certain Christian sects or even the Orwellian ‘Thought Police’?  The threat of Big  Brother is ever present.  Dare to express a different opinion and you could be excommunicated.      

The difficulty is that however much we may try to maintain the faith, however much we may fear change, we can’t stop it happening.  If we are going to survive, we have to adapt.  Psychoanalysis is very different than it was in the 1930s; beliefs, attitudes, forms of communication, the structure and even the existence of the family are all different.  We are all divided from our children by time and change. 

Psychotherapy has become more accountable, more measurable; like it or loathe it, most therapists and counsellors are practicing a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy.  Like the tribes of Papua New Guinea, the culture of psychoanalysis is not so much dying but being assimilated into more generic forms of psychotherapy.  I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.   I believe that psychoanalytically inclined psychotherapists should communicate and work with the new breed of counsellors and psychotherapists and lend their considerable insight to bring about an evolution of thought and practice?   

But isn’t that what’s happening?  How many psychoanalytical psychotherapists practice a pure form of psychoanalysis?  Haven’t we all found in various ways that we have had to develop our own eclectic blend of practices?  Isn’t this what education is about?  We learn a method and then adapt it according to the environment in which we work.   Our training provides a way of thinking that we cannot ignore, but doesn’t this create opportunities to cross pollinate and produce more robust cultivars?  Shouldn’t we embrace and be as curious about the new influences as we are about the old doctrines?  The question for all refective beings is how we can create the sort of integrative, lively meeting of minds from which we can grow.  Were Sigmund Freud still alive, I don’t think he would cling to the ideas he had a century ago.  He always tried to move with the times. 

Racing Demons has been one of three plays in the recent David Hare season in Sheffield.  The Cameron government is seeking to regulate  psychotherapy as a discipline under the Health Professions Council.    

We had completed the first set of asanas and were just relaxing into the pranayamas

‘Now alternative nostril breathing.’  Pinch your nose between the thumb and ring finger of your right hand, breathe in through the right nostril,  close the right nostril, breathe out through the left, breath in through the left’.

‘What are you doing?’ 

A man, in his thirties, I’d guess,  looking somewhat weatherbeaten, and dressed in a black waterproof tracksuit sat cross-legged in front of us.  He was clutching a plastic bottle containing beer and proceeded to roll a cigarette.  I felt a bit wary, but he seemed ok. 

‘We’re doing yoga.’

‘Oh I know yoga.  Ali Akbar.  It makes you fit.’

‘ Yes. You can join in if you like.’ 

He looked at me curious, undecided.    

I carried on.  ‘Close the left nostril, breathe out through the right, in through the right, close the right nostric, breathe out through the left…..’ I sneaked a look at him.  He was looking perplexed but I didn’t want to have a conversation with him.  We were after all engaged in spiritual exercises

‘I had a few drinks with me mates last night.  I was so tired, I covered myself with cardboard and went to sleep by the motorway. 

 ‘I walked over here this morning.  I’m going to meet a friend.  She’s got a big belly.’  He winked at me. ‘You know what I mean.  I want to congratulate her’

I abandoned alternate nostril breathing and went to the next exercise.  Take a deep breath through your nose and then breath out and make a humming noise.  As you breathe in count up to five and as you breathe out, count down from 10.’  We all took a noisy breath in, held it and hummed for about 15 seconds.  Then we took another deep breath in, ….    My eyes were closed but I could hear him muttering. 

‘Now lie down in sharvasana.’  We lay flat on our backs.  Hands slightly away from your body, legs slightly apart, breathe gently through your nose.’

‘Ah that’s relaxation, that’s good for you,’  he muttered.

I went through the routine of progressive muscular relaxation.  My eyes were closed.  He was quiet.  I didn’t know whether he was joining in or not. 

‘Now as you lie there, you will be very sensitive to the things around you, the distant hum of traffic, the sounds of the birds, the gentle hiss of the river, the smell of a cigarette,  a light breeze blowing over your face and the faint heat from the sun permeating your skin and spreading into all the cells of your body.  We lay still and quiet, emptying our minds.  I lost all thought of him. . 

After about 10 minutes silence, I said, ‘Just move your hands and feet and keeping your eyes closed, sit up in a meditative posture.  Rub your palms together, place them over your eyes.  Feel the warmth of your hands.  Feel your eyes, your forehead relax.’   I was aware he was joining in. ‘Now take your hands away, open your eyes, blink a little.  Look around.  Say an affectionate Namaskar to the people around you.’  We put our palms together and held them close to our chest in an attitude of prayer and bent towards him and said ‘Namaskar’.   He repeated the gesture.  

‘What’s that mean?’

‘It’s a hindi greeting.’

‘On Hindi, that’s India isn’t it?  I can speak all those languages; hindi, urdu – all of them. 

‘That’s good, I said, so you’ll know this. 

I put my palms together again and together we chanted, Ooohhm, shahnti, shahnti, shahnti-ji   

In our own time, we stood up.  He got to his feet too.  ‘My names Rick.  It’s nice to meet you’.  He then shook hands with each of us.  I thought for a moment he was going to hug me but perhaps my look of apprehension put him off.

 ‘Take care.’  I said.   

‘God bless you’, he replied and looking in my eyes, added, ‘I mean that.’

‘All life is Yoga.’  So wrote Sri Aurobindo,  sage and spiritual master, the author of ‘A Synthesis of Yoga.’  Yoga is not just a series of exercises to improve posture and make the body supple, its acolytes would define it as a method for self perfection  leading ultimately to a union with the Divine.  Yogis believe that since we are all potentially divine,  our aim must be to achieve the perfection of that divinity by improving each part of our own being; body, mind and intellect. 

Yoga achieves perfection of the body through the asanas and pranayamas (Hathayoga). Asanas are a series of stretches and postures, which, it is claimed, give you the same cardiovascular efficiency as vigorous aerobic exercise and vast improvements in fitness.  Each posture stretches a certain set of muscles and is followed by a posture that stretches the opposing set.  They need not be difficult and the postures do not have to be maintained for long.  Proceed at your own pace.  It will leave you feeling remarkable relaxed and refreshed.  Pranayamas are a set of breathing exercises that invigorate and balance the system.

Yoga achieves perfection of the mind through meditation (Radayoga).   The meditation is designed to clarify the surface layers of the mind as lack of movement clarifies a muddy pool so you can see down to the depths. It involves sitting or lying comfortably in a quiet place in a relaxed posture and by breathing and inward chanting to attain a deep state of consciousness akin to trance.  Preoccupations, worries, regrets are banished from the mind while you concentrate on the here and now.  In trance, there is a clearer focus on the sounds and feelings around you while everything else drifts away.  Meditation is focus and can be achieved through creative work; painting, sculpture, gardening, poetry, music, cooking, even  running and walking or even sitting quietly by the side of a river fishing.  Find the time and the space in your life to do this. 

Asanas, pranayamas and meditation exist for one purpose, that is to acheive that peaceful state of body and mine that allows a contemplation on the meaning of life, what yogis say is union with the divine, or an innermost state of peace and contemplation.

Yoga is not another religion.  Yogis do not believe in a single God or even a company of Gods, but they do believe in the notion of a divinity, a state of being that creates and pervades all existence and they revere sages like Sri Aurobindo as instruments to help us attain a state of perfection. 

I cannot believe in such a divine presence, although I acknowledge the power of the human mind to create it. There is much about our existence that we cannot explain, but I like to place my faith in evolution, cosmology and the amazing power of the human mind to create meaning out of our existence.  But I do believe that Yoga is a wonderful system of  healing the mind, the body and the spirit or meaning and I incorporate asanas and meditation as an essential components of my everyday life. 

Our lives are so fragmented; we express so many different aspects of ourselves at different times.  We are, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, disorderly ordered.   We seem to have a fatal attraction to pain and suffering.  Yoga is a means of liberating ourselves.  Yoga is not only a method by which man can attain that state of peace and relaxation that facilitates health, fulfilment and happiness.  It  also creates a state of being that allows reflection on the deeper meanings of our existence,  alongside but separate from our daily preoccupations with work, family and the material aspects of contemporary living.   

Some yogis may renounce all material connections, retire to an ashram and live a life of self perfection, but most of us cannot do that.  Each person must follow their own path. But we may find time during the day to carry out asanas and pranayamas and we may also be able to build into a more balanced way of life time to meditate and reflect on the deeper meanings.  This can only help us to cope with stress, to think about what we are eating, how we are living and deal better with the strains of life that cause illness.    

In June, I lived for three weeks in the Sri Aurobindo ashram high above the town of Nainatal in the foothills of the Himalayas.     

They called him ‘The Fire of the North’. 

Once a soldier, man of action,

with connections to the King,  

A traveller, he healed the sick 

From Dumfries to Berwick,  

Made miracles

from Durham to Dunbar,

Received acclaim from Rome.  

.

Be our bishop, they cried.  

At first, he denied. 

Too much work,  he replied. 

I need peace, time and space

to converse with the grace 

of God, but don’t mention the ducks,   

We’ll throw in the island, they said,

Bring you breakfast by boat.  

.

You can wash our feet, they said

if that makes you feels good. 

But he waved them his blessings 

And cuddled his ducks instead. 

.

They must have thought Cuthbert was the man of the moment, a born leader, active, wise, understanding and willing to travel.   But he was also widely known for his piety, diligence, obedience and asceticism.   Northumbria extended as far north as the Forth and as far west as Galloway.  Cuthbert travelled the length and breadth of the country,  preaching,  performing miracles and talking to the people.  His generosity and gifts of insight and healing led many people to consult him. He set up oratories and churches throughout the Kingdom and established a reputation for himself and the church further afield.   When Alchfrith, King of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, it was Cuthbert who became its praepositus hospitum or visitors host. He was a leading exponent of the customs of the Roman church at the synod convened at Twyford on the River Aln and also at the synod of Whitby.     

King Eagwith, about whom the great historian Macauley once said, ‘Who?,’  was impressed and prevailed on the Abbot of Montrose to release him to become Bishop of Lindisfarne,  but Cuthbert didn’t want that sort of responsibility.  He liked coming up with ideas, but he needed space to think and contemplate.  He agreed only if he could live for as much time as he needed in solitude on Inner Farne.  Cuthbert loved the sea and had frequently travelled from Melrose to the priories at Lindisfarne and St Abb’s.  It was said that he could communicate with the wild creatures.  The Eider Ducks were so tame they would nest in his hut.  To this day, the locals refer to them as Cuddy’s Ducks. 

But Cuthbert spent more and more time on his remote island.  If anybody, even the King, needed to see him, they would have to get a boat and a pilot and undertake the often perilous journey from the mainland.  At first he would welcome visitors and wash their feet, but later he waved his blessings from the window and returned to his contemplation. Cuthbert preferred the company of his wild creatures to man, but his inaccessibility only added to his reputation for piety.  

He died in his island hermitage and his body was brought back in state to be buried at Melrose.  Some years later, it was exhumed and his beatification was assured when it was found that no decomposition had set in.  It now rests in Durham Cathedral. 

So what kind of man was Cuthbert?   A reluctant leader?.  A man of great promise, who could not deliver; always out for a duck?  A selfish recluse?   This is open to conjecture, but I like to think of him as a scholar, a man of ideas and inspiration, who could be too affected by others’ agendas.  He needed to escape, to cease the chatter, the demands and be alone.  It wasn’t that he was selfish; quite the opposite.  But he was no politician.  He could see everybody’s view and could so easily be compromised.  And he was quite unsuited to administration. Luckily for him the King recognised Cuthbert’s symbolic importance and his retreat to the island just added to the mystique. He even passed a law protecting the ducks.   

I have just completed St Cuthbert’s Way across the Border Country from the abbey at Melrose to Lindisfarne Priory. It crosses the Eildon Hills (the Roman Trimontium), then follows the broad upland River Tweed as far as the crystal well at Maxton,turns south along Dere Street, goes up over the Cheviots to Wooler, gains the sea at Beal and follows the Pilgrim’s Route across the sands to The Holy Isle.

I rubbed up  a whole new crop of blisters and trudged the mud and sand of the Pilgrim’s Route barefoot and bloodshod.  Half way across, the sky darkened and a squall blew in from the North Sea.  It was then that the it started, an unearthly sound as if all the souls of the departed sailors shipwrecked on this coast has been disinterred and were howling in agony.  It came from what looked like a clump of rocks on a distant sandbank. I focused my binoculars and saw between two and three hundred seals, half of them pups.  This would have stirred Cuthbert’s heart and it stirred mine.                           

My feet have healed and I’ve donated my boots to the RSPCA.  Maybe a duck will find them useful.

There is so much we do not know.  There is so much we take for granted.  There is so much that we think we know but we cannot prove.   How did stars form out of gases?  Where did the gases come from?  Was there really a big bang?   If so why?  Did life really start because of chemical coincidence,  a freak combination of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon in a cooling world?  Did these chemicals arrange themselves to create molecules that could replicate themselves and encode for every other protein in the body?  How was the first unicellular organism created?  How did these develop into more complex organisms; plants, animals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and finally man? Why is man able to reflect on things and create meaning? How can such phenomena as thought transference, dreams, synchronicity and distance healing be explained?    

Cosmology and evolution seem so far- fetched; a series of lucky accidents.  Left to itself, matter tends to disintegrate by processes of inertia and decay. So why doesn’t it?  For most of the world’s population, the answer is simple. God created the world and everything in it.  And he created man in his own image. 

Yoga, while believing in a super-intelligent design, is not against evolution or science or psychology.  All are  part of the divine plan. Everything that we perceive to exist contains the essence of the divine, the vibration in stones, the way a plant bends towards the light, the way a beautiful lotus flower will blossom in the mire. Divinity, it asserts, pervades the whole universe from the stars to the smallest cell in our body.  God creates life out of Himself, like a divine spider weaving a world wide web.  Scientists may claim to have created life,  but they had to rely on the forces and raw materials that God provided in order to do it.     

Just as a tiny seed has the potential of a tree inside it, just as a grain of sand can be made into a silicon chip, so the potential for humanity was there from the beginning in the DNA of the smallest organism.  Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  The human embryo starts as a simple unicellular organism and from there develops through fish stages with gill arches, amphibians, mammals and man.  The philosophy of yoga acknowledges evolution as one aspect of a divine plan that conceived humanity from the start. ‘Karma’ embraces past and future lives and the ultimate purpose of our multiple lives is to merge with this divine being.   Thus yogis believe that man’s destiny is to evolve into a state of superbeings  at one with the divine.   

But hang on a minute, belief is one thing, but when faiths apply science to support their convictions, it doesn’t quite work.  Take the inertia argument. Things only disintegrate when you don’t apply energy to them.  If you apply the enormous energies generated by the birth of stars and locked up within the universe, then synthesis is not only possible but obligatory and there are an infinite number of chemical combinations to choose from, many of which may ‘work’.  But, we might ask, where does all that energy come from?   What caused the big bang?  Or is that just another act of faith?     

And is evolution evidence of divine plan or a wonderful genetic system through which life adapts to environmental change?   Did God really look at a chimpanzee, scratch his beard and say,  ‘Hmmm, there are capabilities there’.  Would an intelligent designer have built in so much junk DNA?  And why should a race of superbeings develop?  We might equally argue that we are in danger of generating a race of sickly degenerate beings only able to exist in our artificial environment. 

Karl Popper’s dictat that we can only accept hypotheses that are capable of being disproved  indicates that the creationist’s position is, by the rules we adopt to establish our universe, antiscientific.

The other argument for the divine is collectivism. All cultures on earth; Indian Yogis, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, the ancient Greeks as well as primitive peoples such as the aborigines, American Indians and African bushmen, have at one stage or another believed in an all powerful divine presence, who created the world, watches over it and requires appeasement.  Certain truths seem to exist in all religions;  so many people seem to have independently experienced a similar concept of divinity.  In his book, The Perennial Philosophy,  Aldous Huxley describes how leaders of religions throughout the world  claim remarkably similar expressions of the divine.  But that does not constitute evidence of the divine existence, just a collective culture of meaning.   Millions of people believed the earth was flat.  That didn’t mean it was!  We are all of us driven to find meaning in our existence and God is the simplest and mast lazy answer.  We have a template.  Weren’t our parents originally our Gods?   So is it surprising that our Gods exist in their idealised image.  Life can be so lonely without anybody powerful to look up to.         

Many would see intimations of the divine in thought transference, synchronicity, dreams, premonitions, faith healing, fate, love, but can we always be sure that there is not a more grounded explanation?   Very sensitive people can ‘read’ subliminal signals in much the same way as aboriginal trackers can read the landscape.  They are very suggestible.  People, who know each other well tune into those signals and each other and think the same thought, do the same thing.   Hope and faith alter the function of the immune system and are the essence of healing.  Dreams, as Freud commented are often wish fulfilment or the enactment of dread and we can all have an unerring tendency to bring about what we most want or fear or to re-enact the conditions of trauma.  This is not fate; it’s more about the way experience wires our nervous system.  .    

Some people even claim to have had encounters with the divine being, but there is a rational explanation for this too.   Just as traumatic events can make us ill, they can also make us cleave to the idea of redemption by divine grace, the perfect love by an all caring deity.  This desire can be so powerful, it can create delusions, even generate hallucinations.  And because there is a collective impression of God,  then these hallucinations will appear similar.

We cannot know everything, but  is that justification to invent a divinity?      

And then there’s fate.  A person’s life can tend to run according to a script.  People do tend to make the same choices, make the same mistakes.  It’s what is called character or personality.  But that  isn’t evidence for the divine, merely that our personality is forged by the influences on us early in life and given the same set of circumstances, we will make the same decisions.  Change often requires a crisis.   Yogis also do not believe that fate is ineluctable.  Man does have choice.  He can change fate, but the pull to the divine is inexorable and the path is rarely direct and may take many lifetimes. 

If there really is a God, why did he create such an imperfect world?   Yogis would say that the divine plan does not exist to give comfort to human beings.  Sometimes it is necessary to create tragedies, disasters because these manifestations of the divine will are opportunities for spiritual growth.  How many people have come to terms with the reversals in their lives by being more reflective, more spiritual?   Don’t we all need grief to appreciate joy?  Don’t we need darkness to appreciate the light.  This argument has always seemed to me somewhat contrived.

And what about emotions?  Are not love, fear, shame, remorse and guilt, manifestations of the divine?  Or can they be simply explained by neurochemistry?  I define emotion as ‘feeling put into context’.  Many feelings have a chemical signature.  Hormones, a class of chemicals named after the Greek word ‘eremonos’, literally, messengers from the Gods, are quite heavily implicated;  adrenalin – fear and anger, cortisol – depression,  thyroxine – agitation, oxytocin – love.   They help to define the subjective self and underline such phenomena as awareness, experience, memory, meaning, metaphor and attitudes.

The other area in which people perceive the existence of the divine is morals and ethics.  It is the influence of the divine grace, the religious argue, that encourages us to live a good and honourable life.  I cannot agree.  It’s not God that encourages us to be good but the mores of the community.  God, I believe, is a human projection; the embodiment of an inner authority.  If God didn’t exist, then we would have to invent him. Instead of God creating man in his own image, it seems more likely that we created God in our image? The social argument of a man made God seems very powerful to me.  Gods are necessary to provide a moral and ethical framework for communities, to provide structure and security and belief, hope and meaning.  Without the belief in God, the world could descent into chaos. To my mind, whether God exists does not exist in reality does not matter.  It’s the fact that most people believe in a divinity and that that divinity represents a moral code that is important.   

To my mind, concepts such as soul and spirit represent the meaning we ascribe to life’s deeper issues .  And  thoughts and  meanings the generated by the activation of neural networks, established by experience.   Believers state that faith is the starting point of knowledge.  No.  Imagination is.  Imagination is a predictive construct based on previous experiential associations.  Discovery favours the prepared mind.  As King Christian X of Denmark said many years ago, we console ourselves with our imaginings and delusions.  A meaningful life can be so beautiful; it doesn’t have to be divine. 

Proponents of any a belief system, whether this be a religion, a cult, psychoanalysis or aspects of neurochemistry and cosmology,  insist that we suspend and ultimately surrender disbelief for the security of faith.  It is true that for a full life, we must liberate our slavish dependence on evidence and let our imagination free in much the same way as the artist, the poet, and the composer, but that shouldn’t mean adhering  to a particular faith because we have been told to.  We are all seekers, but our quest should be generated by our own observations and meanings and not by obligations to science or God.

Next Page »