Archive for the 'Religion' Category Page 3 of 7

Bird cries from the mountaintop

When the wild bird cries its melodies from the treetops,
Its voice carries the message of the patriarch.
When the mountain flowers are in bloom,
Their full meaning comes along with their scent.

I have remarked twice before that modern westerners, even very clever ones, fail to understand the nature of synchronicity in Taoist and Zen philosophy when discussing the art of John Cage.  If you believe the universe is subject to invisible underlying forces, as Taoist and Zen adherents may do (and as Cage did), then there is no chance, no randomness, no lack of relationships between events, only a personal inability to perceive such relationships.  The I Ching is intended as a means to reveal some of these hidden connections.

In a recent essay on Silence in the TLS, Paul Griffiths ends with:

Another of Cage’s favourite maxims, this one taken from Ananda Coomaraswamy and delivered five times in Silence, was that the purpose of art is to “imitate nature in her manner of operation”, which is almost another way of stating his first catchphrase, since natural objects and phenomena have nothing to say. They are not, of course, saying it. We say it for them. And in our doing so, experiencing their voicelessness and taking it into ourselves, a great deal comes to be said. There is no message in the changing pattern of cloud shadow and reflected sunlight on the sea. It may, nevertheless, thrill us, calm us, and fix our sustained attention.”

But, of course, for a Zen adherent there are indeed messages in the changing patterns of clouds and in sunlight reflected on the sea.   Even more so are there messages in human artefacts such as musical compositions, even those (perhaps especially those!) using so-called random methods for creation.    For Cage, the particular gamuts (clusters of sounds) that he selected for any particular one of his random compositions were selected as the direct result of the spiritual forces acting on him at that particular moment of selection, through his use of the I Ching, for instance.   Similarly, under this world-view, the same forces are active in those compositions allowing apparently-random leeway to the performers or listeners.

One can criticize or reject this spiritual world-view, but first one has to understand it. Griffiths, like so many others, has failed to understand it.


The emotions of religion

For some time, I have been arguing the irrelevance of belief for many practitioners of religion. (See posts among those listed here.)  Author Francis Spufford has a nice essay today in The Gruaniad offering his take on this question, arguing that his religious belief is made up of emotions, and not just some emotions but all.

I was reminded of George Santayana’s assessment of Roman Catholicism:

Catholicism is the most human of religions, if taken humanly:  it is paganism spiritually transformed and made metaphysical.  It corresponds most adequately to the various exigencies of moral life, with just the needed dose of wisdom, sublimity, and illusion.” (1944, p. 98)


George Santayana [1944]:  Persons and Places. (London, UK:  Constable.)


Imaginary beliefs

In a discussion of the utility of religious beliefs, Norm makes this claim:

A person can’t intelligibly say, ‘I know that p is false, but it’s useful for me to think it’s true, so I will.’ “

(Here, p is some proposition – that is, some statement about the world which may be either true or false, but not both and not neither.)

In fact, a person can indeed intelligibly say this, and pure mathematicians do it all the time.   Perhaps the example in mathematics which is easiest to grasp is the use of the square root of minus one, the number usually denoted by the symbol i.   Negative numbers cannot have square roots, since there are no numbers which when squared (multiplied by themselves) lead to a negative number.  However, it turns out that believing that these imaginary numbers do exist leads to a beautiful and subtle mathematical theory, called the theory of complex numbers. This theory has multiple practical applications, from mathematics to physics to engineering.  One area of application we have known for about a  century is the theory of alternating current in electricity;  blogging – among much else of modern life – would perhaps be impossible, or at least very different, without this belief in imaginary entities underpinning the theory of electricity.

And, as I have argued before (eg, here and here), effective business strategy development and planning under uncertainty requires holding multiple incoherent beliefs about the world simultaneously.   The scenarios created by scenario planners are examples of such mutually inconsistent beliefs about the world.   Most people – and most companies – find it difficult to maintain and act upon mutually-inconsistent beliefs.   For that reason the company that pioneered the use of scenario planning, Shell, has always tried to ensure that probabilities are never assigned to scenarios, because managers tend to give greater credence and hence attention to scenarios having higher-probabilities.  The utilitarian value of scenario planning is greatest when planners consider seriously the consequences of low-likelihood, high-impact scenarios (as Shell found after the OPEC oil price in 1973), not the scenarios they think are most probable.  To do this well, planners need to believe statements that they judge to be false, or at least act as if they believe these statements.

Here and here I discuss another example, taken from espionage history.

Visitations to a writer

Recently-deceased Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, author of that subtle novel of political intrigue under totalitarianism, Pereira Maintains, writes about the visitation he received which inspired the novel, here.  How sad that the name of the brave Portuguese journalist whose death inspired the novel should be unmentioned by Tabucchi.

Dr Pereira visited me for the first time one September evening in 1992. In those days his name wasn’t yet Pereira. He still didn’t have distinct traits, he was rather vague, elusive, hazy, but he already nurtured the wish to be a protagonist in a book. He was only a character in search of an author. I don’t know why he chose me to tell his story. One possible hypothesis is that the month before, on a torrid August day in Lisbon, I too had made a visit.

I vividly remember that day. In the morning I bought the city’s daily newspaper and read an article about an old journalist who had died at the Santa Maria Hospital and whose remains lay in state at the hospital chapel. I shall discreetly avoid any mention of the deceased’s name. I shall say only that he was someone with whom I had a passing acquaintance in Paris, in the late 1960s, when he, a Portuguese exile, was writing for a Parisian newspaper. He was a man who had plied his journalistic trade in Portugal during the 1940s and 50s under Salazar’s dictatorship. And he had managed to ridicule the regime by publishing a savage article in a Portuguese newspaper. He naturally encountered serious problems with the police and was subsequently forced to choose exile.

I knew that after 1974, when Portugal returned to democracy, he went back to his country, but I didn’t meet him again. He wasn’t writing any more, he had retired, and I didn’t know what he was doing for a living. Sad to say, he had been forgotten. In that period Portugal lived the restless, convulsive life of a country that had rediscovered democracy after 50 years of dictatorship. It was a young country, led by young people. No one remembered an old journalist who had resolutely opposed Salazar’s dictatorship in the late 40s.”

Poem: Up-Hill

Posting The Lost Man by Judith Wright yesterday reminded me of another poem about the journey of life:   Up-Hill, by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), sister of the pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  This poem was first published in 1861.


Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yes, beds for all who come.

The Matherati: Matthew Piers Watt Boulton


Matthew Piers Watt Boulton (1820-1894, pictured in portrait by Sir Francis Grant, ca. 1840) was the eldest grandson of the great engineer Matthew Boulton, and was named for James Watt, his grandfather’s partner-in-steam.   He inherited significant wealth and attended Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where his first tutor was the mathematician George Peacock (1791-1858), undergraduate friend of Charles Babbage and Alexander d’Arblay.    At Cambridge, Boulton studied mathematics, logic, and classics. He declined to apply for scholarships, despite his evident ability and in the face of entreaties from his tutor and his father, on the grounds that they bred unpleasant competitiveness – perhaps he was someone after my own heart.  It is likely that, for the same reason, he did not sit the Tripos examinations.


He was however of strong mathematical bent.  In 1868, he patented a method for lateral control of aircraft in flight, inventing what are now called ailerons.  Being a gentleman of wealth and leisure, he was able to read and write at will, and published translations of classic literature, some poetry, and pamphlets on solar energy, in addition to a work on aircraft stability.   Kinzer (2009) makes a compelling case for him also being the author of several works of philosophy published by someone calling himself “M. P. W. Bolton,” mostly in the 1860s.

Kinzer quotes the following words from Boulton’s paper,  “Has a Metaphysical Society any raison d’etre?”, read to a meeting of the Metaphysical Society, held at the Grosvenor Hotel on 9 April 1874 and chaired by William Gladstone:

There is no question, however apparently non-metaphysical, which may not be pursued till we come to the Metaphysical.  The question of whether Tarquin lived, and whether Lucretia committed suicide, is about as non-metaphysical as any question can be: yet disputants engaged in its discussion may persist till they open up the general question of the credibility of testimony; and this may open that of the credibility of memory, the nature of belief, what grounds we have for believing the existence of other persons, and an external world . . .  Whenever we try to bottom a question or subject, to use Locke’s word (the French word would be “approfondir”) then Metaphysics come in sight  . . . Every sentence involves, in some shape or other, the verb “to be”, and this, if pursued long enough, leads to the heart of Metaphysics  . . . Scientific persons often speak of Metaphysics  with scorn, calling them an Asylum Ignorantiae, useful enough to the vulgar, but in no way needed by themselves.  They imagine their science to be perfectly luminous, far above the lower regions where Metaphysical mists prevail.  But in reality they share the common lot:  the ideas of Force, Law, Cause, Substance, Causal or Active Matter, all dwell in the region of metaphysical twilight, not in the luminous ether. “



For some reason, reading the quoted passage brought to mind Richard Dawkins and memes.

I am grateful to Bruce Kinzer for some information here.

There is an index here to posts about members of the Matherati.

Billie Andrew Inman [1991]:  Pater’s Letters at the Pierpont Morgan Library.  English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 34 (4):401-417.

Bruce Kinzer [1979]: In search of M.P.W. Bolton. Notes and Queries, n.s., 26 (August 1979): 310-313.

Bruce Kinzer [2009]:  Flying under the radar:  The strange case of Matthew Piers Watt Boulton. Times Literary Supplement, 1 May 2009, pp. 14-15.

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.