Archive for the 'Religion' Category Page 3 of 7

The mystic piano

Every morning, for as long as I can remember, I wake up with an urge to play the piano.   My family tell me this desire was evident from when I was only a few months old (and, so surprised they were, they took photos to prove it) and it has been strong all my life.   Apparently I returned angry from my first day of school because the kindergarten teacher, despite the presence of an upright piano at the side of the classroom, had not given any instruction on how to play it.   Certainly, my desire to play existed long before I had any lessons, or any beliefs or opinions about whether or not I could play or whether or not I was musical, and before I even knew what music was.     This desire, insistent and persistent, led to lessons and to years of practice, which in turn led to some ability, as well as a (justified, true) belief that I can indeed play.

Some people have similarly strong desires to engage in what we often refer to as religious practices – to sit quietly in solitude, to still the mind, to listen carefully, to meditate, to visit churches and temples, to commune with what may be non-material realms, to do Yoga – and they may experience these desires independently of any religious beliefs.  Arguably, such desires are the origin of the non-belief-based “religions” such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism, as well as of the mystical strains of belief-based religions.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have minority mystic strains – eg, the Kabbala in Judaism, and Sufism in Islam.    One can be a mystic Christian with very few if any actual religious beliefs, and certainly no beliefs that are particularly “Christian”, as conversations with many Quakers or Unitarians can attest.  I am expressing views here that I have before, there and there.

Not having any beliefs, but a strong urge to do something, is a very different state of mind to merely being skeptical about the matters in question, a position Andrew Sullivan expresses.    Many in the Western philosophical tradition seem unable to imagine how one can engage in a practice without first having a belief which justifies or supports doing this practice, but that inability just shows the hold that the Christian confessional tradition has over the minds of even our sharpest secular philosophers, such as Norm.   In a later post, Norm says he is contesting “the thesis of the unimportance of belief there” (his emphasis).   But, as any Zen adept will tell you:  belief (in the form of enlightenment) is what follows regular zazen practice, not what precedes or accompanies it, and may only occur after a life-time of practice.  Belief is very unimportant in many of these practices, to the point where someone can even write a book called, Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Finally, en passant, it is a pity that Norm resorts to speculation about the motives of the people he disagrees with, as if doing so were somehow to weaken their arguments.   None of us can truly know the motives of others, so such speculation is ultimately fruitless, as well as being unbecoming.

FOOTNOTE:  I am not the only person with a daily compulsion to play the piano:

And yet playing the piano – or trying to play the piano – is now such a part of my life that a day now feels incomplete without having sat at the keyboard for even two minutes.    .  .  .   All this may one day become clear.  Until then I shall stumble on, feeling that the act of playing the piano each day does in some way settle the mind and the spirit.  Even five minutes in the morning feels as though it has altered the chemistry of the brain in some indefinable way.   Something has been nourished.   I feel ready – or readier – for the day.” (Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian)

Biedermeier Orientalism

Listening to Mendelssohn’s Auf Flugeln des Gesanges (“On Wings of Song”), a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine, I am reminded of the composer’s orientalism.    The poem expresses a deep interest in orientalist thought; indeed, the words are quite remarkable for their cosmopolitan and surrealist flavour.  Mendelssohn was well-read in Asian thought, particularly Hindu and Sufist philosophy, and was close friends with Friedrich Rosen (1805-1837), an orientalist and first Professor of Sanskrit at University College London (appointed at age 22).  In his letters, too, Mendelssohn recommended to his brother Paul a book of Eastern mystic aphorisms by another orientalist, Friedrich Ruckert, saying this book, (“Erbauliches und Beschauliches aus dem Morgenlande” – Establishments and Contemplations from the Orient),  provided “delight beyond measure” (Letter of 7 February 1840).    (At roughly the same time, of course, Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists were also being strongly influenced by orientalist ideas and literature.)  Mendelssohn was well-read in theology and philosophy generally, and particularly influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher. There is something more profound here in Mendelssohn’s thought and music than is usually noticed by people who dismiss his music (and often Biedermeier culture generally) as being lightweight and superficial.   That an activity is inward-focused does not make it light or superficial; indeed, the reverse is usually true.

Among the more there that is here, I believe, is a relatonship between Sufist ideas and Mendelssohn’s love of repetition, something one soon hears in his melodies with their many repeated notes.  A similar relationship exists between JS Bach’s fascination with Pietism, and his own love of repetition, as in the first movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto (BWV 1052), or the proto-minimalism of, for example, Prelude #2 in C minor, in Book 1 of the 48 (The Well-Tempered Clavier).

Those dismissing Mendelssohn for being superficial included, famously, Richard Wagner, whose criticisms were certainly motivated by anti-semitism, jealousy, and personal animosity.  But I wonder, too, if Wagner – that revolutionary of ’48 – was also dismissive of what he perceived to be the inward-focus of the Biedermeier generation, a generation forced to forego public political expression in the reimposition of conservative Imperial rule after the freedoms wrought by Napoleon’s armies.    But not speaking one’s political mind in public is not evidence of having no political mind, as any post-war Eastern European could tell you.  While visiting Paris in the 1820s, Mendelssohn attended sessions of the French National Assembly.  While in London in 1833, Mendelssohn attended the House of Commons to observe the debate and passage of the bill to allow for Jewish emancipation, writing excitedly home about this afterwards.  (Sadly, the bill took another three decades to pass the Lords.)  

In July 1844, while again in London, Mendelssohn was invited to receive an Honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin, and hearing that he would be going to Dublin, Morgan O’Connell, son of Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, asked him to take a letter to his uncle, then in a Dublin prison.  (As it happened, Mendelssohn was unable to go to Ireland on that occasion.  See: letter to his brother Paul, 19 July 1844, page 338 of Volume 2 of Collected Letters.)   One wonders how O’Connell could ask of someone such a favour, without first knowing something of the man’s political sympathies.  So perhaps those sympathies were radical, anti-colonial and republican. In an earlier letter, Mendelssohn described standing amidst British nobility with his “citizen heart” in an audience at the Court of Victoria and Albert (Letter of 6 October 1831).  As these incidents reveal, there may have been much more to this Biedermeier mister than meets the eye.

East of my day’s circle

I have written before about Robert Southwell SJ, poet, martyr and Shakespeare’s cousin, and quoted some of his poems.  Southwell (c. 1561 – 1595) was an English Jesuit from an aristocratic family, whose mother had been a governess and friend of Queen Elizabeth I.  He left England illegally to study for the priesthood and returned – again illegally – to live and minister in secret to England’s oppressed Catholic population.  He was captured, tortured by Elizabeth’s sadistic religious police, subjected to a show trial, and publicly executed.

Southwell was a poet of fine sensitivity, and drew on his Jesuit spiritual training to become the first English poet to develop personation (or subjectivity), a psychologically-real description of the interior self.   His cousin Will Shakespeare was to adopt this idea in his poetry and plays, so that (for example) we learn about Hamlet’s internal mental deliberations, not only about his public actions and conversations.  The late Anne Sweeney argued that Southwell developed personation in his poetry as a direct result of completing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Lopez of Loyala, a process of meditation and self-reflection which all Jesuits undertake. In her words (p. 80):

The core experience of the Ignatian Exercises was the reading and learning of the hidden self, the exercisant learning to define his reponses according to a Christian morality that would then moderate his behaviour. After a powerfully imagined involvement in, say, Christ’s birth, he was required to withdraw the mind’s eye from the scene before him and redirect it into himself to analyse with care the feelings thereby aroused.”

It would be interesting to know if Ignatius himself drew on literary models from (eg) Basque, Catalan or Spanish in devising the Exercises.

Living underground and on the run, Southwell wrote poetry for a community unable to obtain prayer books or to easily hear preachers;  poetry was thus a substitute for sermons and for personal spiritual counselling, and a form of prayer and spiritual meditation.  His poetry is also strongly visual.

Because the Jesuit mission to England during Elizabeth’s reign was forced underground it is not surprising that Jesuit priests mostly lived in the homes of rich or noble Catholics, or Catholic sympathizers, sometimes hidden in secret chambers.    It is more surprising that there were still English nobles willing to risk everything (their wealth, their titles, their freedom, their homeland, their lives) to hide these priests.   One such family was that of Philip Howard, the 20th Earl of Arundel (1557-1595), who was 10 years a prisoner of Elizabeth I, refusing to recant Catholicism, and who died in prison without ever meeting his own son.   Howard’s wife, Anne Dacre (1557-1630), was also a staunch Catholic.  The earldom of Arundel is the oldest extant earldom in the English peerage, dating from 1138.

The Howard’s London house on the Thames was one of the noble houses which sheltered Robert Southwell for several years.    The location of their home, between the present-day Australian High Commission and Temple Tube station,  is commemorated in the names of streets and buildings in the area:  Arundel Street, Surrey Street, Maltravers Street (all names associated with the Arundel family), Arundel House, Arundel Great Court Building, the former Swissotel Howard Hotel, and the former Norfolk Hotel (now the Norfolk Building in King’s College London) in Surrey Street.    Maltravers Street is currently the location for a nightly mobile soup kitchen.   Of course, in Elizabethan times the Thames was wider here, the Embankment only being built in the 19th century.   One can still find steps in some of the side streets leading to the Thames descending at the edge where the previous riverbank used to be, for instance on Milford Lane.

Southwell also, it seems, spent time in the London house of his cousin Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573 – 1624), who was also Shakespeare’s patron and cousin.    Southampton’s house then was a short walk away, in modern-day Chancery Lane, on the east side of Lincoln’s Inn fields.   Southampton was part of the rebellion of Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601) against Elizabeth in February 1601. The London house of Essex was also along the Thames, downstream and adjacent to that of the Howard family.  The streetnames there also recall this history:  Essex Street, Devereaux Court.

Supporters of Essex, chiefly brothers of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632), paid for a performance of Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, the evening before the rebellion.   Percy was married to Dorothy Devereaux (1564-1619), sister of Robert, and was regarded as a Catholic sympathizer.  Percy also employed Thomas Harriott (1560-1621), a member of the matherati.

And, weirdly, Essex and Norfolk are adjacent streets in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, too (close by and parallel to Orchard Street).


The British Library has a plan of Arundel House, the London home of the Earls of Arundel, as it was in 1792, here.  The church shown in the upper right corner is St. Clement Danes, now the home church of the Royal Air Force.

Christopher Devlin [1956]: The Life of Robert Southwell: Poet and Martyr.  New York, NY, USA:  Farrar, Straus and Cudahy.

Robert Southwell [2007]:  Collected Poems. Edited by Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney.  Manchester, UK:  Fyfield Books.

Anne R. Sweeney [2006]: Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia:  Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape 1586-1595. Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.

Charlotte Joko Beck RIP

A sad post to note the passing on of Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), musician and Zen teacher.   Her books, full of practical wisdom and psychological insight, have been constant companions, as I alluded here.

Reliable Knowledge

How little scientists know who only know science!  Thanks again to Norm, I learn about some statements by a retired professor of chemistry, Peter Atkins, about how we know what we know.   Atkins is quoted as saying:

The scientific method is the only reliable method of achieving knowledge.”

Well, first, it is worth saying that the scientific method does not produce reliable knowledge.  One of the two defining features of science is that scientific claims are defeasible:  they may be contested, questioned, challenged, and even overthrown, if the evidence warrants.   There is nothing inherently reliable about any scientific claim or theory, since new evidence may be found at any time to overthrow it.  The history of science is littered with examples.   (The second key feature is that anyone may do this contesting; science is not, or rather should  not be, a priesthood.)

Continue reading ‘Reliable Knowledge’

Let Newton Be!

Belately, I want to record a play seen at the headquarters of The Royal Society in London last month, Let Newton Be, written by Craig Baxter, but using only Isaac Newton’s own words.     The play was interesting although the energy of the play sagged at times, particularly in the first half.   The story only barely mentioned Newton’s interest in alchemy, and seemed to overlook his brutal, deadly campaigns against money forgers later in life (or did I nap through that scene?)

The play comprised three actors, two men and a woman, who played Newton at different ages – as a child, as a young-ish Cambridge academic, and as an old man.  As a work of drama, the conceit worked well, although it was best when one of the actors was playing another person interacting with Newton (eg, Halley, and later Leibniz, who spoke in an amusing cod-German accent).  Perhaps the real Newton was not sufficiently schizoid for three actors to play him, at least not when constrained to only use the man’s written words.    As I have remarked before, Newton’s personality was all of a piece:  it is only modern westerners who cannot imagine a religious motivation for activities such as scientific research, for example, or who find alchemy and calculus incoherent.

The performance was followed by a panel discussion by the Great and the Good – two historians and two scientists.  One of the scientists was the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, who has subsequently won this year’s Templeton Prize for Science and Religion.  The discussion was interesting, so it is a pity it was not recorded for posterity.

A review of another play about a member of the matherati, Kurt Godel, is here.

The Matherati: Alexander d’Arblay


The photo shows the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of All Saints, at the corner of Pratt and Camden Streets in Camden, London. Before becoming an Orthodox Chuch in 1948, the building was an Anglican Church, most recently All Saints Camden. The building was designed by William Inwood and his son Henry Inwood in 1822-24, who had together earlier designed St. Pancras New Church in Euston, London. Both churches borrow from ancient Greek architecture, so it is fitting that one is now filled with Greek icons and text, and used for services in (modern) Greek. All Saints has a low-set but very deep choir balcony, extending from the entrance almost one-third the length of the church; this gives the church a quite intimate feel, despite the height of the main chapel. The current cathedral also has three large, low-hanging white glass chandeliers over the main chapel, which enhances the intimacy. I was reminded of the intimacy of Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Chicago, a building which is similarly deceptive from the outside about the compactness of the space within.

When built, All Saints was called Camden Town Chapel, and its founding pastor was the Rev’d Alexander Charles Louis d’Arblay (1794-1837), son of the author Fanny Burney (1752-1840) and Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay (1754-1818), emigre French aristocrat and soldier, and adjutant-general to Lafayette. The Reverend d’Arblay was a poet and chess-player, and had been 10th wrangler in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge in 1818. He was a friend of fellow-student (but non-wrangler) Charles Babbage and a member of Babbage’s Analytical Society (forerunner of the Cambridge Philosophical Society), and he may have introduced Babbage to recent French mathematics. d’Arblay had been partly educated in France, and was aware of French trends in analysis, which in its rigour and formality was very different to the applied focus of British mathematics. From his time as an undergraduate, Babbage ran a campaign against the troglodytic British mathematics establishment, who were then opposed to rigour, formality and theory, and he sought to introduce modern analysis into mathematics teaching at Cambridge. British pure mathematics, as better mathematicians than I have argued, lost a century of progress as a result of its focus on certain types of applications at the expense of rigour.

Because of his First-Class degree, after his graduation d’Arblay was appointed a Fellow of Christ College Cambridge, which paid him a generous stipend his entire life (presumably while he remained unmarried). He had a remarkable ability to quickly learn and recite from memory long poems, and was obsessed with chess. He once missed an arranged meeting with his father when the latter was returning to France because he was engrossed in a chess game with his uncle, the admiral James Burney. d’Arblay was apparently bilingual, and wrote equally easily in English and French, and translated poetry and literary works from each language to the other. Through his mother, he was friends with the royal family and moved in high society. Ordained Reverend d’Arblay, he served as minister of Camden Town Chapel from 1824-1837, and then briefly at Ely Chapel in High Holborn, London. He died of tuberculosis and was unmarried, although engaged to one Mary Anne Smith. Some of his poetry is on the subject of chess. As the son of Fanny Burney, d’Arblay was the grandson of musician, composer and musicologist Charles Burney FRS (1726-1814), and thus from a remarkable family that included musicians, dancers, novelists, painters, historians, and an admiral.

Alongside d’Arblay, the founding organist at Camden Town Chapel was Samuel Wesley (1766-1837).

An index to posts about the Matherati is here.

POSTSCRIPT 1 [2011-12-24]: I have now seen d’Arblay’s poem, “Caissa Rediviva”, published anonymously in 1836. This is a long poem about a chess game. If there were any doubts about d’Arblay’s membership of the Matherati, this publication would allay them: The frontispiece to the poem poses a non-standard chess problem, which only someone with a subtle and agile mathmind could imagine: Given a particular chess board-configuration, find the precise sequence of 59 moves by White, each of which forces a single move by Black, and which ends with Black check-mating White with a particular move.

POSTSCRIPT 2 [2012-02-18]: Apparently, the Reverend d’Arblay suffered severely from depression for most of his adult life. Peter Sabor, in a recent talk at a conference in depression in the 18th century argues that d’Arblay’s depression may have arisen from his combination of great (and unrealistic) ambition and great indolence. But, of course, his apparent indolence may have been the result, not the cause, of his depression.

POSTSCRIPT 3 [2012-02-18]: d’Arblay was not the last member of the Matherati to become engrossed in intellectual pursuits. The most recent Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, Sean Eberhard (Tripos 2011), is described by his fellow collegians as, “most likely to neglect children to do crossword”.


An Amateur at Chess [Alexander C. L. d'Arblay] [1836]: Caissa Rediviva: Or the Muzio Gambit. London, UK: Sampson Low.

Peter Sabor [2008]: Frances Burney and Alexander d’Arblay: Creative and Uncreative Gloom. Invited Lecture at: Conference on Before Depression: 1600 – 1800.

Autonomic beliefs

Thanks to Norm, I learn about an attempt to brand religious belief and religious worship immoral, by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse.    It is apparently immoral to believe propositions for which one does not have evidence.   My first reaction is to infer that neither author is an entrepreneur, famously people who strongly believe things (for example, that they will be successful) for which the evidence is usually absent or if not absent, then mostly contrary.    And neither author must be a pure mathematician or an artist, people who pursue dreams or visions while only having vague intuitions or intimations of their truth.   Mathematics (and hence most of modern science and technology) would come to a sudden, shuddering halt if mathematicians could only cogitate or publish on that which they could first prove.    Mathematicians even have a name for results they suspect are true but cannot yet prove:  conjectures.

Of course, the greatest defence against this attack on religion is that most religious believers DO indeed have evidence for their beliefs, as I have repeatedly argued before.   Of course, this evidence is usually not independently verifiable or replicable, which makes it inappropriate for use in the social activity we call science.   But that fact does not alone disqualify its use as a basis for deciding personal beliefs or personal actions.  The state of being in love is also not independently verifiable or replicable (at least not yet), but most of us do not therefore not use it as a basis for personal decision-making, and nor should we.

The ignorance Aikin and Talisse demonstrate about religion is shown also in their argument about worship:  Not all believers in or practitioners of religious ideas are engaged in the worship of divine entities.   One could make a very strong case that worship plays no part at all in Buddhism or in Taoism, or in the mystic strains of other religions, such as Sufism or the Kabbala.    These traditions seek to commune with the divine, not worship it.    Perhaps this distinction is lost on people without personal experience of non-material realms, but most pure mathematicians would get it, since they commune with, but do not worship, mathematical entities.

Aikin and Talisse reject religious worship as being demeaning to the dignity of an autonomous human person.  Why so concerned with human autonomy in this aspect, while striving  a few paragraphs earlier to prevent humans autonomously choosing what to believe?

Given such a weak case, one wonders why they make it with such stridency.

Poem: This World

Today’s poem is by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), New England transcendentalist, and written about 1862.

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond -
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound -
It beckons, and it baffles -
Philosophy – don’t know -
And through a Riddle, at the last -
Sagacity, must go -
To guess it, puzzles scholars -
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown -
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies -
Blushes, if any see -
Plucks at a twig of Evidence -
And asks a Vane, the way -
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -
Strong Hallelujahs roll -
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -


Brenda Hillman (Editor) [1995]: Emily Dickinson: Poems. Boston, MA, USA: Shambhala.

On meaning

Over at Normblog, Norm returns to his argument against religion as a human activity that ultimately implies beliefs in the form of propositions.  I have written against this view before – here, and here, and here.  In his latest post, I think Norm makes two errors of reasoning common to western philosophy these  last three centuries or so – that of conflating  knowledge in general with a specific form of knowledge, namely know-what (knowledge of facts about the world), and that of conflating know-what with a particular representation of it in the form of propositions (statements about the world with truth values).

We can know how to tie our own shoe-laces, for example, and, as knowledge engineers in computer science have learnt these last 50 years, such know-how is not the same as know-what, and is also often very difficult to represent as propositions about the world.  Without explicit representation of the actions, one is forced to associate each action with the propositions that are true before its execution, and those true afterwards, ie, two states, or collections of propositions.  But doing so does not enable us to distinguish different actions having the same pre- and post-states, for example, two different procedures for tying the same shoelace knot.  One is therefore soon forced to explicitly represent actions.  But what exactly are these things, these representations of actions?  They are not statements with truth values; indeed, they are not even statements. And this is just for plain old actions, not even utterances about actions, such as promises and requests and commands, all of which may comprise part of a system of know-how (eg, knowledge of how to steer a crewed sailing ship).

Even know-what may not be readily amenable to propositional representation, or at least not to propositions understandable by the  human subject having the knowledge:  any propositional representation of the knowledge of the hundreds or thousands of scents distinguishable by an expert perfumier, for instance, would likely have to involve descriptions of chemical molecules in a style and formal language way beyond the knowledge or thinking or scent-memory of the perfumier.  The same conclusion is true with even greater force for the knowledge of non-human beings, such as the keen olfactory sense of most dogs or the navigational abilities of homing pigeons;  I’ve yet to meet a dog that understood a proposition, but dogs retain an ability to recall and distinguish scents despite this inability at propositional representation.   I have written before on different forms of knowledge here.  And if you think all knowledge of geography has to be represented as maps, you should see Rory Stewart’s example recounted here.

Norm ends with:

At bottom, the whole intellectual project founders, in my view, on this logical conundrum: if you really do evacuate religion of all its substantive beliefs, it will be left as meaningful as scraping a stick along a wall, or balancing a marble on your head, or pronouncing a slow ‘drooom’ into a mauve cup; and if religion has more significant meaning than that for its adherents, meaning which really matters to them, this must be because of things religion says about the condition of the universe and their place within it.”

Norm’s  understanding of “meaning” seems only to be know-what; a wider view of meaning throws that final “must” into serious question.     The meaning of scraping a stick along a wall may be the pleasant sound this action leads to, or the pleasure is gives your hand as the stick undulates with the surface of the wall, or the pleasure it gives you to have a hand able hold a stick, or the presence of friends and family doing the same action with you, or that doing this enables you to recall past times, when you were younger perhaps, when you enjoyed doing the same thing, or that your ancestors likely did the same as long there have been walls  and you wish to honor them by repeating the action, or the sense of bliss or ecstasy or contentedness or calm that scraping sticks along walls may induce in you.  The meaning of a stick against a wall for you may even be its complete lack of any ostensible meaning, its complete and utter time-wasting lack of utility, especially for us western moderns in a culture obsessed with achievement, success, progress, time, self-improvement, and bildung.

All of the meanings I’ve listed here apply equally well to religious activities and other rituals, both social and personal, such as prayer and meditation and attending church services.  And I find it hard to believe that someone who follows sport with enthusiasm should appear to insist that all human activities should have meanings to their adherents that entail propositions testable by external observers, as if all our actions were subject to some community test of significance of meaning.   Does the thought that cricket really matters to me necessarily occur because of things cricket says about the condition of the universe and my place within it?  This I doubt.  If it’s not true for cricket, why should it be true for religion?