“♫ I was 21 years when I wrote this song. I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long. Time hurries on, and the leaves that were green, turn to brown ♫”
Leaves that are green is a sweet song, sung above by Paul Simon in his sixties, reconciled to ageing without any bitterness. I thought of it today because everybody is saying there are 100 days until the UK general election, but when it arrives we will all be 100 days older, and who even thinks about that?
Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious. - Peter Ustinov
Last night’s climate comedy featured an exacting gig for professional comedians at the RSA, but they all took the task very seriously (one aspect of comic expertise, I noticed, is skill in the art of pretending not to prepare).
Individually, and together, they delivered a wonderfully diverse take on the climate challenge. It was a great fit for the project, because it echoed the core point about the need for a diversity of perspectives and approaches to the challenge. I am grateful to all the comedians for their hugely creative contribution; in fact I feel I learnt something about the creative process by watching what they did with the issue. I’m especially grateful to Pippa Evans for rallying her colleagues and hosting the event with such elan (even if she did call me ‘little beardy Rowson‘ on stage). Read more
A talent for speaking differently, rather than arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change. – Richard Rorty
Today is a climate change bonanza at the RSA. We are hosting ‘Seven Serious Jokes about Climate Change’ tonight (live streamed from 6.30) and launching our paper (co-written with COIN): The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change
Dear Climate Change,
I’m terribly sorry I haven’t been in touch since October. Let me assure you, I received your recent letters and graphs with all due consideration and affection. It’s just that I have been so terribly busy these past months, what with getting Spiritualise out the door, and then Christmas and what not. But you have been in my thoughts almost every day, and I am so very glad to now have the chance to reestablish contact.
Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges deals with a weighty subject and the overall process of producing the report involved about 300 people over two years, so it’s not surprising the final report is relatively long – about 40,000 words over 92 pages; it’s half a book really. (Now there’s a thought…)
You can of course skim and dip, but if you want the full picture and the whole thing seems daunting, there is a 4000 word summary in the form of speech transcript here, and the video recording of the actual speech is here (4.30-23.20).
If even that is too much, I wrote a 1000 word summary here.
And if that’s still asking too much, I can only really offer bait in the hope of luring you in. So here are some of my favourite quotations from the report. I’ve given the page numbers so you can pursue them in context:
1. “We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape. Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be. This is perhaps a place of power: we often experience this as deeply moving or inspiring.”
- Taylor, C. (2007) A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press p.5.
2. “I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do…I miss civilisation, and I want it back.”
- Marilynne Robinson (Quoted in London Review of Books, 23 October 2014 p20) See: www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n20/
3. “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
- Barnes, J. (2008) Nothing To Be Frightened Of. London: Jonathan Cape.
4. “Many atheists now consider ‘spiritual’ thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition (but) we must reclaim good words and put them to good use – and this is what I intend to do with ‘spiritual.’…There seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness.”
Harris, S (2012) In Defence of ‘Spiritual’. Online: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/a-plea-for-spirituality
5. “I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.”
Jonathan Safran Foer responding to: ‘Do you believe in God?’, Radio4, Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cjm4c
6. “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”
- Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind. London: Penguin Books. p.281.
7. “I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies.”
- Williams, R. (2014) The Physicality of Prayer. New Statesman, 8 July, [Online] Available at: www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/07/after-god-how-fill-faith-shaped-holemodern-life
8. “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.”
- Wei Wu Wei. (1963) Ask The Awakened. Routledge-Kegan Paul Ltd.
9. “In theory, freedom may be held in high regard; in practice it is experienced as a dizzying loss of meaning and direction.”
Batchelor, S. (1997) Buddhism without Beliefs. Riverhead Books. p110.
10. ‘We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’.
Rohr, R. (1999). Everything belongs. Crossroad Publishing Company.
11. (Religion should not be seen as inherently divisive, but could also be seen and experienced as) “a secure base from which to explore, not a fence beyond which lies infidels.” – Elizabeth Oldfield (at first RSA workshop)
12. “The word spiritual has a history, and that history has a politics.”
- Matthew Engelke at first workshop.
13. “In truth, the crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge: the practising life.”
-Sloterdijk, P. (2013) You Must Change your Life. Cambridge: Polity Press. P.11
14. “‘God is Love’ became ‘love is God’.”
- May, S. (2011) Love: A History. London: Yale University Press.
15. “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”
- Martin Luther King, Sourced from Kahane, A. (2010). Power and love: A theory and practice of social
change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
16. “…There’s no cheating death here; the meditator learns to stare down the vertiginous fact of her own mortality, unflinchingly and intentionally. And it’s in so doing that religious principles move from propositional beliefs into experiential reality…” – Joanna Cook (speaking at the RSA)
17. “I face up to death but then I flip back into denial. Surely that’s what it’s like? I lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, absolutely terrified by the apprehension of my own dissolution…And then I go to sleep and wake up in the morning and make toast.”
- Will Self (speaking at the RSA)
18.“We are all engaged in a futile struggle to maintain ourselves in our own image.”
- Epstein, M. (2004) Thoughts without a thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective. Basic Books. p.44.
19. “We can say that there is in every organism, at whatever level, an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfilment of its inherent possibilities”.
- Rogers, C. (1995). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
20. “We have had two centuries of a civilisation of unparalleled material progress, abundance and development based on extrinsic values (self-interest, materialism, economic growth, keeping up, social mobility); intrinsic ‘beyond-self’ and religious values have periodically been reasserted but they have lost their institutional hold and centrality to the stories that make sense of our lives. The extrinsic values celebrated by industrial society are now under real pressure in the West as scarcities begin to return and confidence in the future wanes, for good reasons of ecological disruption, social fragmentation and economic dysfunction and inequality.”
-Ian Christie (email communication)
Today, after two years of preparation and a pause for Christmas dinner, we are publishing: Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges.
Put away your trumpets. Spirituality is a serious business. In Matthew Taylor’s words:
“The fact that the RSA – known for its work on policy issues like city growth, self-employment and public service reform – undertook this project is a sign of the growing importance being attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. Spirituality is coming into the mainstream. It could powerfully affect the way we approach major 21st century possibilities and challenges”
Matthew is right, and by no means alone in thinking that the world’s existing and emerging challenges are so complex, contested, interrelated, urgent and exacting that technocratic and technological solutions are unlikely to be sufficient, and may sometimes even compound matters. While instrumental and utilitarian thinking will always have its place, we need to re-engage with fundamental questions to deepen and broaden our perspective, and sharpen our sense of priorities - What are we? What really matters? How should we live?
Earlier today 132 schoolchildren were shot dead in their school uniforms, in a premeditated attack by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan.
An eyewitness remarked: “They did not come with the intention to take hostages. Their purpose was to kill children”
photo via BBC website
Shocking, yes. Yes, it’s terrible. Awful. Did you see? Yes, I know.
But the news comes at a time of Christmas parties and compassion fatigue.
But yes, it’s unbelievable. The children. The faces. The horror. How could they do that?
Hang on, how *could* they do that?
The following transcription came from a speech that formed part of a series of six public events within RSA Social Brain Centre’s project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. The final report of this project, outlined here will be published later this month.
What Happened to the Soul?
Iain McGilchrist, RSA, 31 March 2014
There was a piece in the papers not very long ago by a quite well known team in America who do neuroimaging and they’re particularly interested in moral values. And they found that by suppressing activity in the right temporoparietal region they caused a failure to understand the nature of moral judgements.
Well, this wasn’t a surprise to me, anyone who knows my book would suggest that that was probably going to happen. They set up a scenario of Grace, hoping to put sugar in her friend’s coffee but actually by mistake putting poison in, and her friend died. In the other scenario Grace intended to poison her friend but put sugar in and the friend lived. In the normal state we probably think it was worse to intend to poison; but the good old left hemisphere on its own thought, in what is basically an autistic way, that the outcome was the important measure.
Well, that’s all very interesting. But then these neuroscientists, and I won’t mention their names to spare them their blushes here, finished up by saying, “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it’ll be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.” Well, I hope you can see that there might be a category mistake in there; everything that goes through human experience has its brain correlates, but of course it doesn’t mean that that’s all there is to it.
The following 4200 words are a distilled version of our forthcoming report on spirituality, scheduled for publication later this month, and they are also the text of a speech I gave at the final event. On the day, it felt wrong to be so controlled on a subject like spirituality so I chose to speak to the audience more directly, but here is the more considered version of what I planned to say:
Love, Death, Self and Soul:
Spirituality worth fighting for
Jonathan Rowson, RSA, November 19, 2014
The esteemed psychotherapist Carl Rogers said that what is most personal is most universal. I offer my perspective on leading our project on spirituality with that in mind, and start with a simple observation.
Spirituality does curious things to people’s facial expressions.
While running this project over the last two years I have noticed that facial expressions are the preludes to a range – three in particular – of more or less archetypal responses to conversations about spiritual matters.
The most welcome response comes from the ‘spiritual swingers’. Spiritual swingers perk up at the mention of the spiritual but look at you a little too eagerly and intensely for comfort. They are excited by all things non-material that point to a deeper, fuller, more cuddly world, but for them the spiritual appears to be one big unwieldy umbrella; everything from meditation to massages; mysticism to monasteries, moonshine to mindfulness. They’re up for anything, as long its ‘spiritual’.
Slightly more uneasy were my encounters with the ‘religious diplomats’ who look at you warmly but quizzically, because they support your endeavour but can’t figure out whether you are one of them at heart, validating or revitalising their view of the world, or perhaps you are seeking to supplant their established ways with something unhinged that they don’t altogether trust?
But the ‘intellectual assassins’ are the worst. They hear ‘spiritual’ and respond with a look of discomfort bordering on disgust, followed by disdainful frowns. They are the quickest to ask for a definition of the spiritual, but usually with the express purpose of taking it down with words of their own.
The public realm faces significant challenges that cannot be adequately addressed by instrumental, utilitarian thinking. By public realm I mean the political economy and all the educational, commercial, civic and media institutions related to it; all of which, of course, have human beings inside them.
This is a hopeful point, not a council of despair. As thinkers like Steven Pinker are fond of reminding us, in some ways the world is not doing that badly at all; compared to much of human history, most of us live longer healthier lives in societies that are more or less functional and peaceful. Still, I’m not the only one who occassionally has the impression that, slowly but surely, we are losing our way.