An existential ladder?


How’s this for an image of existentialism? We are in the mud, soaking wet and the tide is rising. But we come across a ladder, which itself appears to be without any visible means of support, offering the prospect of escaping upwards out of life’s sticky, downward-sucking mud. We mount, hoping that we can reach… But no, other than a general sense of satisfied authenticity, it is difficult to specify exactly where the ladder will lead us. We may end up with little more than an elevated view of the surrounding mudflats.

Having said that, I’d rather be climbing the ladder than stuck in the mud, for at least a ladder suggests that there is something we can do about our situation; somewhere to climb; some token of hope.

Personally, I think the existential questions are the most fundamental for philosophy. Let sciences deal with the nature of the physical world; what concerns me is making sense of life from a personal point of view. The quest for meaning is not like the quest for information about some external object: it’s a process to be gradually developed and refined, never complete.

I’m not sure whether existentialism should be regarded as a branch of religion, or religion as a branch of existentialism. Both offer hope and quest for meaning. Religions would not flourish were it not for existential questions and the longing that they represent; existential philosophy would not achieve much without some overall idea that life can be made meaningful and that we benefit from a sense of integrity and direction.

The only advantage existentialism has over conventional religious enquiry is that it does not require any prior supernatural or metaphysical beliefs, which can be a stumbling block to many (myself included) who tend to take a naturalistic view of life.   Perhaps the best way to relate religion and existentialism is that taken by the theologian Paul Tillich, whose ‘Systematic Theology’ sought to relate existential questions to the symbols and ideas of religion. Without existential questions, religion may appears irrelevant, or be mistaken for ancient science. As a response to existential questions, any religion may provide a form of ladder out of the mud. Just don’t expect it to be leaning up against anything solid!

And – in case you’re wondering – this photo is not Photoshopped. The ladder was just there, stuck upright. How it got there, I have absolutely no idea.  Much like religion really.


Walking on unsafe ground


To me, there is is something fascinating and threatening about walking through an area of volcanic activity, as here amidst the ‘Craters of the Moon’ in North Island, New Zealand. Steam hissing from fissures in the earth; bubbling pools of hot mud; the glooping sound as bubbles of mud bust into the air; the small of sulphur. They are reminders that the habitable world is fragile, and that most of the universe is hostile to what we celebrate as life. We are, as the Buddha put it, like froth on the crest of a wave. We have nothing as of right; no environment – however carefully controlled – can ever give total protection; we tread carefully, recognising that life may not provide quite what we expect of it.

I’ve been reminded of unsafe ground recently, working on a book about two theologians who fought on opposite sides of the same part of the Front in 1916. The ground over which they worked, bringing back the dead and wounded, was as unsafe and unreal as one might possibly imagine: an interlocking series of deep and flooded shell-holes, each deadly for anyone chancing to slip down their glutinous sides.  For Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, their conventional world of the pre-war years had been shattered and they spent the rest of their lives walking on what must have seemed very unsafe ground.

How we deal with the fragile and uncertain nature of life is a question for philosophy and a challenge for religion. Mostly we avoid thinking about it, comforted by the familiar. But it does not take much – a medical examination, an accident, an unexpected redundancy or bereavement or, as in today’s news, a horrendous mudslide, to rekindle the sense of our own vulnerability.

Morbid thoughts?  Perhaps, but also realistic ones. Celebrate when you can, but always count yourself lucky; you never know what’s ahead.

Courage, action and philosophy


Morning coffee on arrival at the Front, near Verdun, in 1916. The man on the right of the group is Teilhard de Chardin, the French scientist and religious  mystic.  A moment of normality and comradeship in the midst of hell. How did they find the courage to go on? And how did it shape Teilhard’s theology? (This image was published in the Teilhard Album, published by Collins, its provenance and copyright are being sought.)

I’m working on a book about the First World War and the impact it had on two religious thinkers – Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – the one a German Protestant chaplain, the other a French Catholic stretcher-bearer. By chance, they found themselves on opposite sides of the exactly the same ridge to the west of Verdun in 1916. The experience of the war was to shape their thinking and their lives, until both found themselves living as exiles in New York, the one having been banned from Germany by the Nazis, the other from France by the Jesuit hierarchy.

In exploring their lives, I find that their story touches on many issues in philosophy and theology that have developed over the last century. With just one chapter to go in the penultimate draft, here is the concluding paragraph of Chapter 10, where I have been exploring how men found the courage to enter into the hell of the trenches.

It is a feature of the best philosophy and theology that, beyond critical analysis or dogma, it encourages us to think about the values and goals to which we commit ourselves. Its value is illustrated by the courage of those who act, with their eyes open, in a world where the future always appears uncertain but the past, with hindsight, sadly inevitable.’

Does the world make sense? Are we fated to attempt to make sense of it? How, in times of confusion or trauma, do we find the courage to act decisively?  War – and especially the monstrous experience of entering a killing ground across mud and barbed wire – sets a question mark over all our easy philosophical and religious assumptions.

Through Mud and Barbed Wire is scheduled to be self-published (my first attempt at circumventing the conventional publishing route) this autumn.

Getting RE Straight


No, the ‘RE’ has not been Photoshopped! And, no, I was not trespassing on the railway line, but was on a level crossing when I noticed that Religious Education seemed to feature on the track of this little branch line in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands. I was reasonably safe, since this line gets so few trains that I hardly needed to listen out for a rumbling that might have made this my last photograph.

But it set me thinking, both about Religious Education and about straight lines.

Nietzsche commented that his happiness was to be found in a straight line and a goal, and if there’s anything this mad world needs it’s a sense of direction and some sort of defined goal. Whether in political or personal life, there is surely a limit to the amount of ‘muddling through’ that can give satisfaction, and my heartfelt sympathy goes out to the vox pop‘d Brenda, whose ‘Oh, for God’s sake, not again!’ comment, on being told that there was to be another election, went viral. Whatever side of whichever debate you’re on, it is hard to believe that careful, reflective thought or precise argument grounds most political, social or economic decisions these days.  Oh for a straight line and a goal in this world of post-truth, electoral statistics and the orchestrated events that attempt to fool us into thinking that politicians genuinely meet the public in this media-dominated world!

Getting a grip on direction, purpose and values seems to be the very essence of education, once it get’s beyond the utilitarian spoon-feeding of undigested facts that our examination system seems to encourage. Religious Education, I believe, has a valid part to play in this, because Religious Education, at its best, not only gives factual information about the lifestyles and belief systems of the world religions – itself absolutely necessary to promote a mature and sensitive approach to life and empathy with people of different cultures – but it should also provide an opportunity for students to learn to questions their own beliefs and assumptions, ask fundamental questions about life, and grapple with issues of meaning, value and direction.

Of course, that is the role for Philosophy too – and it would be offered more widely, were it not for the way in which, in the UK, Religious Education stands in the place that Philosophy occupies in most European education systems. (Of course, a majority of students, being wise to what they need and intuitively aware of the anachronistic nature of RE’s position within the curriculum, have tended to opt for Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at A level, thereby effectively smuggling Philosophy into the curriculum under the guise of RE.) A key difference between Religious Education and Philosophy, at this level, is that Religious Education, properly presented, seeks to earth philosophical reflection in the intuitive, the cultural and the personal – things that give religions their on-going attractiveness – whereas philosophy presents a more exclusively intellectual and enquiring approach to life, although one that is mercifully freed from dogma – except, perhaps, the Enlightenment dogma of humankind’s motivation being principally guided by intellect.

The best philosophy includes the all-too-human dimensions, of course,  and when it does so, it gets beyond the superficial, Western distinction between philosophy and religion. They are both about finding direction and getting life straight, and both come with a legacy that can be difficult to reconcile with our present experience and assumptions about life!

For decades now, as a secular thinker, I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with Religious Education.  At its best, it can indeed stimulate the sort of questioning and reflection about life that is at the very heart of education. At its less-than-best it can easily slip into the role of purveying traditional religious answers to questions not yet asked, at at its worst, offering dogma and supernatural delusions in place of that blend of intuition and reason that characterises the best religious thinking.

But of one thing I am convinced. Education is desperately in need of a solid grounding in the exploration of values, whether they come through Religious Education or Philosophy. Education is not the same thing as training, and it should never be evaluated in terms of economic benefit or a competitive accumulation of qualifications. Getting it straight is at the heart of what it’s about – and we’ve never been more in need of it!





Matthieu Ricard’s thought for the week

I always appreciate Matthieu Ricard’s ‘thought for the week’, and today’s offering seems particularly valuable as a starting point for reflection. From the teachings of the Dalai Lama, it touches the essence of what spirituality and religion should be about – not improbable beliefs, but personal transformation.  It also touches on the issue of neuroplasticity, and the mistake of assuming that the mind can be ‘reduced’ to a determinist view of neural activity. Here it is…

‘The mind is malleable: it is capable of change. So we need to learn to see how we can transform it. We need to identify the ways to achieve that transformation and put them into action. Samsara, the circle of existences, and nirvana, the state beyond it, are not like geographical locations far from one another. They are two states of mind. Samsara is a deviation from knowledge, a distorted vision of reality that makes the mind the slave of negative emotions, while nirvana is a state of inner freedom, free of any conceptual and emotional obstacles.

Oral Teachings given in Schvenedingen Germany, 1998.


Beyond the grave?

What do you make of this?


I promise you this photograph owes nothing to Photoshop. This tree, over many years, has grown quite naturally out of the grave. For some it may be an appropriate Easter image of hope, but you don’t need to be particularly religious to ponder its significance.

We may hope and believe (rightly so, since we are all unique) that our lives are somehow special, worthy of a permanent memorial – or perhaps simply that we may aspire to live worthy of a decent funeral oration when our time comes. We may also look beyond death as a natural phenomenon (however unnatural or tragic its circumstances in so many cases) and recognise that nature will inevitably take over and insist that we become nourishment for the next generations of living things. We are all swept along in a natural process of life and death; a stream that was flowing long before our individual consciousness came to birth, and that will continue to flow long after all whom we know have long vanished from the earth. If beyond death is the same as before birth, we have nothing to fear. Or, as Wittgenstein observed, death is not an event in life.

It may also remind us to let go of our craving for the past or for permanence, since neither is possible, and focus on the present moment – savouring the beauty of transient life, and celebrating the fleeting now.

Teilhard de Chardin argued that humankind would never move in a direction it knew to be blocked, but would be paralysed at the thought that its efforts would not win through to some eternal future goal.  I’m not persuaded of that. We find it all too easy to go blindly down alleys that lead nowhere – as individuals, or humankind as a whole. But do we do so knowingly? Or do we secretly believe that our particular dreams will somehow yield a permanent result?  Teilhard, along with most western religious thinkers, sought an overall structure of meaning and purpose (generally described in terms of ‘God’, for him a evolution leading to Omega) to make sense of life, believing in that structure being a prerequisite of salvation from meaningless existence.  At the other end of the scale, the Buddhist tradition requires the radical letting go, accepting and celebrating the present moment.  Personally, I find the latter more satisfying and realistic. It does not preclude other beliefs, but renders them of secondary importance to the immediate engagement with this ever-changing life.

I guess, for the more cynical (or realistic), the image also suggests that one really should take care to remove any ill-placed saplings that may have started to spring up from a long-forgotten acorn. Neglect it now and the result will be immovable in a generation or two!

Happy Easter to you all!