Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Is David Cameron religious?

Cameron serious

This is a question often asked since Dave became Prime Minister. Bloomberg seems to have come up with the answer: a discreet “yes”.

Like all middle-class Englishmen he has been shaped by his education and upbringing not to talk about religious matters beyond acknowledging a link with the Church of England.

However, recent events seem to have overcome the inhibition: “The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens. After the day I’ve had, [the Maria Miller sacking and PMQs] I’m definitely looking for volunteers.” *

According to Bloomberg, “he thanked churches for their work in society, including the growth of food banks to help the poor, and urged them to speak up for persecuted Christians around the world”.

He also referred to Jesus as “our saviour,” and went on to talk about his Christian faith in general. Moreover, the PM admits slipping into the sung Eucharist at St. Mary Abbots church in Kensington “every other Thursday. I find a little bit of peace and hopefully a bit of guidance.”

I love this next bit: “In a 2009 set-piece speech in opposition he borrowed the structure of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.” He was clearly aiming high, even then.

Linking his Big Society message with Christianity in general, he went on: “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago; I just want to see more of it. If there are things that are stopping you from doing more, think of me as a giant Dyno-Rod clearing the drains.”

Watch out for the cartoonists take on that one. Let’s hope they are not too risque.

It is good to see a major leader going beyond his professional brief, without the excruciating self promotion of a George W. Bush.

* Miller, the former Culture Secretary, drove the policy of gay marriage, which has split the Tory party down the middle.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming soon: Practical Mysticism: A different way of looking at the world.

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Christmas Mysticism: Contemplatives in action


In his book Grey Eminence, Aldous Huxley wrote: “The mystics are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be completely blind and insane.”

Many would agree with that assessment, although Richard Dawkins and his followers might take some persuading.

The Spanish founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola, thought that a mystic was “a contemplative in action”, which brings us on to our title theme.

If we take Natural Theology to be knowing God through the reason, or intellect, howsoever that differs, and Revelatory Theology through scripture and other outside forces, such as nature, Mystical Theology is the direct, personal apprehension of the divine by contemplative experience.

Its character is qualitatively different from any other form of knowledge, a fact only appreciated by those who have realised it. There is really very little to separate the true mystic and the contemplative, unless we add a preference for action, as Ignatius suggested.

Let’s now take at a look at the words, contemplative and contemplation. The former, nominally an adjective, has taken on the character of a noun — a thing, rather than a way of being a thing. It is not a word that is used much these days, except among the Church’s religious, another word that has curiously leapt into noun status.

New Agers almost never talk about contemplatives. The man in the street wouldn’t be caught dead using the term, and if you mentioned it in a pub, you would probably be barred for your pains. It has become rather technical in its usage and very much a niche subject.

Contemplation, on the other hand, has a wider range of uses: jocularly, as in “contemplating one’s navel,” or with gravitas, as in “you should seriously contemplate your future, young man”. It covers a kind of thoughtfulness, a reverie or, as used to be said, a brown study.

Chambers considers it “attentive viewing … a meditative condition of mind”. The Concise Oxford Dictionary prefers, “gazing, or viewing mentally,” which to my mind, doesn’t quite crack it.

Christmas Humphreys, the late Buddhist Judge, was more precise still: “If concentration were the means, and meditation the instrument, contemplation is the goal.” Perfect!

Most mystics would agree with that, and the Christian texts certainly use the word as defining the highest stratum of their art. As an aspiration, it is a constant attending to God, the “one simple thing necessary” of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Consider this passage from Luke (10 38-42), which indicates Jesus’s high regard for the contemplative life over the active one: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’s feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Jesus recognises Mary’s calling to the contemplative life and gives his approval, even though it means her neglecting the commonplaces of daily living. His religion is not essentially corporatist or social, as our version of it has become, but has strong elements of the personal and inward. We should say, contemplative.

The contemplative then, is one who, through his personal experience, has outgrown the need for institutional support. He, or she, is a mystic without the external trappings, who reaches beyond Augustine’s ideal life of reading, meditation and reflection.

To leave out the supernatural (as dictionaries tend to do) or, in Aquinas’s phrase the operant grace, is to denude him of his essence. All true contemplatives receive an infusion of what Christians call the Holy Spirit (see John 14 15-18 and 15 26, 27), and Zen masters call Satori.

But what is the best definition? It is this: a contemplative is one who seeks and has found contemplation, which is spiritual enlightenment, and nothing less.

John Evans

Publishing soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world.

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Midweek Mysticism: Is Pope Francis a mystic?


I had written a piece on “the contemplative” for this slot, but was then deflected by Damian Thompson’s very interesting Telegraph article on Pope Francis’s latest pronouncements in The Joy of the Gospel, which have a bearing on the subject.

Damian Thompson writes: “[The document] says that traditional styles of worship are not necessarily suitable for newly evangelised non-Western people, or the modern world in general; and, in a passage that will truly trouble some conservatives, it raises the possibility that non-Christian religions are performing God’s work, enriching souls albeit imperfectly.”

Despite the “albeit imperfectly” — a very Christian declaration of superiority — it does at last recognise that religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and the best of non-religious mysticism, do have a profound understanding of the practical means of attaining a definite response from the Almighty, and not just the emotional outpourings of traditional church services.

Pope Francis writes: “Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live ‘justified by the grace of God’.”

He continues: “… due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God.”

The word communitarian strikes a false note here since most mysticism is intensely personal in nature, even if performed in a group. Lusty church singing drives away the most advanced forms of spiritual experience, for earthly emotion is incompatible with the heights of contemplative practice.

Here’s another “wrong end of the stick” moment: “While these [non-church practices] lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences.”

Well, you can’t blame a chap for supporting his own football team.

Francis is certainly true to his calling: “Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”

Don’t spare the rod, Your Holiness, against “obsessions and procedures.” It is often well deserved.

Thompson writes that he “is haunted by Francis’s insistence that reality is more important than ideas”, and it does seem to be a significant advance on conformity. As the Pope puts it, “This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.”

It’s hard to be objective and disagree with that. However, arcane theology raises its sticklebacked head: “… adoration is what is most important: the whole community together look at the altar where the sacrifice is celebrated and adore.”

As Anglican-raised, but now a much more broadly based student of mysticism, I gag at that in several ways. How can you adore an idea, an invisible being that most people never get to encounter? Moreover, how is it possible to “celebrate and adore” a vicious sacrifice? Buddhists widely regard passages like that as barbaric and they are right.

Francis has made a lunge for modernity, but he’s still stuck in the old rhetorical language of his church which few outside it will countenance.

But he’s made a start and that’s welcome. Thompson writes: “… surely we’re going to see a shift away from some of the familiar structures and practices of Catholicism.”

We certainly live in revolutionary times.

John Evans

To be published: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website,

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Midweek Mysticism: Space & consciousness


In the dark, dissolute days of 8th-century India, the ancient religion of Hind was riven by faction and weakened through moral disintegration. Many Brahmin priests were openly corrupt. The traditional Vedic lore had degraded into superstition and was now a mere excuse for clerical power.

Buddhism was spreading across the sub-continent as the inheritor of Upanishadic purity and the disdainer of gods. It was time, many thought, for the healing balm of a unifying synthesis.

Shankara (c. 788-820) is perhaps the one Indian metaphysician who can claim comparison with Gautama Buddha in the influence he has had on the philosophy of his countrymen. Ostensibly, he lived for only thirty-two years. If that is so, his achievement is the more remarkable.

Today he is associated with the non-dual religious practices of Advaita Vedanta, which evolved from the Upanishads, which in turn were a later development of the ancient Vedas hymns and scriptures.

Vedanta (meaning the end of the Vedas) is the basis for most modern Hindu thought. It has two separate, yet interlinked, offshoots, one a dualism known as Sankhya; and Advaita, meaning non-dual. Shankara was numbered in the latter camp.

The Upanishads, which by some reckoning also includes the magnificent Bhagavad Gita, are compositions of varying length, the majority of which date from around 800 BC and later. The authors were anonymous rishis, or forest sages, who encapsulated the essence of their wisdom in these often exquisite, eye-opening pieces.

They represent a distinct advance on the Vedas, which can appear primitive in comparison. While the Vedas sometimes refer to blood sacrifice, in the Upanishads it is the sacrifice of the individual ego that takes precedence. The physical plane is transmuted into the spiritual, and inwardness swallows up the material world.

This crucial step from the sacrificial ceremonies of the Dark Ages to psychological self-sacrifice and inwardness represents a maturing process on the path to enlightenment. It is one that militant Islam has failed to make thus far.

The essential truth contained in the Upanishads is perfectly expressed in a sentence from the Chandogya Upanishad:

We should consider that in the inner world Brahman
[God] is consciousness; and we should consider that
in the outer world Brahman is space.

The meditations recommended by the text are in the form of an enquiry into the nature of space and consciousness. But, since both are equated with Brahman, then space and consciousness are the same. Brahman is both the consciousness within us and the space without. Our consciousness is space, and space is consciousness – “the fluid, intelligent quality of space”, is how the modern-day Tibetan Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche expressed it.

Brahman (space) is Atman (consciousness). God and man’s soul are revealed as a unity. The ultimate duality is the non-dual reality. This is the message of the Upanishads.

The 20th-century sage, Ramana Maharshi had a similar Upanishadic viewpoint: “When the waveless ocean of the external, and the steady flame of the internal [state] are realised as identical, the ultimate goal … is said to have been reached.”

John Evans

To be published: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website,

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Saturday Ramble: Sand castles in the air, Nuclear depowerment, Guardian does religion

Caveman Clegg

Some politicians, such as Nick Clegg, have developed a serious neurosis about carbon. Not a week goes by without a hand-wringing plea to “de-carbonise” the planet.

Now I distinctly remember our biology master at school explaining that living creatures can be based on one of two elements: silicon or carbon. The Earth has plenty of sand on its surface — the Sahara desert, Bournemouth beach, for example — so we could easily be based on silicon.

However, good old Mother Earth chose the carbon route from the beginning, so all living creatures, and the entire biosphere, are built around — shock, horror! — the “c” word.

In that context, the word “decarbonise” represents the height of scientific illiteracy — sand castles in the air.

* * * * *

The current kerfuffle about our future energy policy, is reaching ludicrous proportions. There is a history here.

The Labour Party can always be relied upon to pile disaster upon disaster in the pursuit of a ringing soundbite. Their recent unlamented three periods in office desecrated all policy areas, including energy.

Nuclear power, in which Britain excelled in the 1950s, was wound down to such an extent that we are now reduced to sending the Chancellor of the Exchequer halfway round the world to a country of mainly peasant farmers, which has only recently part-industrialised, to help build a range of nuclear powered electricity generators. The French will be the other partner, much to their glee.

Our new electricity industry will be constructed by the Chinese Communist party and a French Socialist Government. The Miliband brothers should never be forgiven for what they did in office, especially Ed at the Department for Climate Change and Other Oddball Ideas.

Labour left nothing to plug the looming energy shortages in the coming decade. A Conservative-led administration, which itself pursued “green” solutions to the point of insanity — remember David Cameron’s little wind turbine on his house and his “hug a husky” campaign? — must now face reality.

Wouldn’t it be better to throw some serious money at rebuilding our own nuclear industry and inviting a few Americans to give us a hand?

* * * * *

I’ve never been a natural reader of The Guardian newspaper, but I do rather like its online Belief pages.

True, some of the articles retain that unmistakable academic, leftish tone that runs through the rest of the paper. But we should be grateful for small mercies.

The ubiquitous Giles Fraser, as “The Loose Canon”, pops up once a week with varying contributions from laments on his depression to the usual Anglican doubts about whether anything in Christianity is actually true. I thought that was my parish.

Michael Mcghee, an academic at Liverpool University, is currently writing a rather good exposition of Buddhism under the title Is Buddhism a Religion?. It obviously is, though there are strong arguments against, and Gotama himself would certainly have denied it. A topic worthy of an airing.

My problem with these pages is that good, fresh copy is rather scarce. Dipping in two or three times a week is probably the optimal approach.

It would be worth a go for the Telegraph to prove it could do better. After all, there’s nothing like a decent bit of competition.

John Evans

Coming up: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website,

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