Water, shade and a sense of home


It is hard emotionally to live in a world of uniform space and time. We seek out special places and celebrate special times. ‘Home’ means more than a description of a place; it is where we belong.  Perhaps our whole life is a matter of looking for, or creating, a sense of home.  So, in the heat of what’s left of summer sunshine (we hope!) we may seek cool shade, with the sound of water in a fountain, symbolising and making real a sense of refreshment – as here in the Cathedral square in Frejus, in southern France. To me, life is all about finding such places, points on the map where we can suddenly feel comforted or ‘at home’ and develop a sense of ourselves. Our life is spread over the surface of the globe, like an overlay on a map with particular places taking on special significance for us.

Curiously, I do not choose places in which to feel ‘at home’; they choose me. No doubt they select themselves out of my on-going experience on account of memories stored in my conscious or unconscious mind, but they present themselves quite naturally, as inviting a comfortable rest and a sense of belonging. The world would be a poorer place without them.

That’s partly who I love photography; I can regularly visit places that evoke a sense of home, and in the cold of a winter’s evening recall summer’s heat and the blessing of shade and water.

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.




It’s been a wonderful autumn for fruit, here in the UK. Marianne and I have just returned from our third session of blackberry picking, murderer’s hands carrying fruit destined for the freezer. They’ve been on the go for almost six weeks now and while some are starting to look past their best, others are still green, awaiting their chance to ripen before the weather deteriorates. Few people seem to bother to collect free fruit these days – after all, why go plodding down lanes and risk getting scratched when you can buy blackberries in a plastic container from the supermarket? But I love doing it. Four reasons: 1) it’s a gentle, quiet activity, good in itself and good in its results (especially combined with stewed apples with a dollop of ice cream on the side!)  2) It’s great to be out there in nature, accepting that some things come for free. 3) There’s an interesting discipline about picking blackberries – don’t try to hog them all, leave some to ripen further, others to drop, others for fellow pickers. Picking requires restrained hedonism. 4) It marks the change in the seasons. I’m reminded of picking blackberries on Sunday afternoons with my parents and grandparents, the turning of the year, not yet harvest festival or time to gather conkers beneath the Horse-Chestnut.

Zen and the art of blackberry picking? I think a good case can be made for picking blackberries as a spiritual discipline – quiet attention, restraint, acceptance, appreciation; it’s got it all.

I don’t care that some supermarkets are already starting to clear space for their Christmas offerings; I want to enjoy autumn!

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.

Ravenna’s digital glory


Today, the quest for the perfect digital image generally requires cramming a huge number of very small pixels onto a camera sensor. By and large, the older the image, the larger the pixels and the more crude the image.  Well, now I’ve seen what must be the absolute ultimate in religious digital imagery, and it leaves me gobsmacked – the mosaics at Ravenna.  Pixels don’t come larger than this! No digital photograph can start to do justice to the overwhelming aesthetic (Did I mean religious?) experience of encountering the wealth of digital images that cover the walls of the basilica here. Pixels individually placed to form the most exquisite, colourful and uplifting visual symbolism.

Choices! (Political and otherwise)


If we’re lucky enough, life is full of options and choices, like escalators taking us to different levels of a department store. Directions, offerings, promises – we look down and almost get vertigo. We may look at other people’s choices with incredulity or envy.  How on earth can they want that, vote for that?

To those for whom poverty or hunger mean that they have no choices, our freedoms must seem like heaven. Yet I sense that it is generally the choices we are offered that cause us to struggle with life and its meaning – do I REALLY want to do this or that?  So much of what concerns us is, from a global perspective, merely the froth on a wave – to use one of Buddha’s analogies.  Where am I going in life? Where are we all going? These questions, along with a host of ready-made, vote-for-me answers, proliferate when it comes to election time. For the first time, facing the general election on June 8th, I am really in despair. It’s not that the issues before us are not important; indeed, this election could decide the future for rather more than the usual five years of a government. Rather, what concerns me is the gross mismatch between ideals and deliverables. Politics requires a subtle blending of visionary principles and pragmatic solutions. Without the one we have no direction, without the other, no means to travel.

To put it crudely, we are offered the choice between an approach that says, in effect, ‘Give me power and I will deliver!’ but without any clear sense of what it is that will be delivered or deliverable. Getting the ‘best deal for Britain’ is meaningless without a clear sense of what constitutes ‘best’. While, at the other extreme, I see a political vision of what could constitute the good life – with policies that might well command majority support – that may indeed be wonderful, and certainly fires the orator with enthusiasm. But can it be delivered? Is it realistic? If not, is all that is promised not doomed to heroic failure?

I feel, sometimes, that I am at the top of that set of escalators, looking down on people moving in very different directions with equal enthusiasm, and feel a kind of nausea. The secret of Nietzsche’s happiness may have been a straight line and a goal. The secret of mine, at the moment, is simply knowing how we get out of what I perceive to be our present mess.

But, more generally, I have a hunch that, as we pass through life, we construct multi-dimensional maps of our environment, marked with point of significance and value for us. Looking into the map of our life is rather like looking down into this stairwell of escalators. We see, passing one way and another, different aspects of life; some pulling one way, some another.  And our task, not just as we come to vote, but as we struggle to make sense of life, is to get to appreciate and understand the map and its coordinates. Values and visions; plenty of them on parade. For now, however, they tend to be all part of the bombardment by the claims and boasts of our ‘post-truth’ world. Can I trust any of them? Are they workable? And in whose interests?

For a moment, the political world appears to be free from the usual human confusions of existential doubt. All is mad certainty. But for me, it’s more mad than certain.

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!