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Saturday Ramble: Resolutions, fasts and Rowan Williams

Resolutions My new year’s resolution for 2013 is to spend one day every week fasting. And I mean fasting: nothing for 24 hours except cold water and cups of green tea.

I’ve dabbled with this regime before but only for a day or two. This time it’s serious.

The big question is, should it be on different days each week, or on one particular weekday, and which one? Looking through my collection of old diaries only Saturdays are consistently clear of events. Besides, I dislike Saturn’s day almost as much as I enjoy the Sun’s weekly outing.

Plus, a healthy food-free Saturday will set one up for the day of rest, not to mention a clear-headed start to the working week.

What’s not to like? Well, one has to get through the fast day itself and during the nation’s favourite feast and booze-up time. I can report that the first fast is rocketing by with just the evening to go.

There was a recent Horizon programme on the BBC which investigated a two-day a week fast, but the jokey scientist involved was allowed 600 calories a day — what a wimp!

However, after the allotted timeframe, all his vital signs showed marked improvement, clearing him from the at-risk register for the usual batch of male, heart-related problems.

So, how is mine going? I spent the day lying in bed until mid-afternoon reading the newspapers on the iPad, which I’m now using to write this column. Modern tech is not only about frivolity, you know.

My sister is fond of saying she hates Saturdays because of the relentless sound of sport echoing from radio and television. It is possible to insulate the jangling nerves from such din by walking out in the country, which is my favourite leisure occupation. Hence the generic title of this column: Saturday Ramble, which incidentally is often written on Sundays.

She’s right, though, except when it includes Test Match cricket and a rugby international or two. But I’ve already foresworn them on my designated day. I hope the sacrifice will be rewarded.

I intend to spend the evening of this first fast day watching Rowan Williams’s superb film Goodbye to Canterbury on the iPlayer for the second time. It was made by the BBC to commemorate his period as Archbishop of Canterbury, which has just ended, and is a must-see if you have not done so already. As I write, it only has a few days of iPlayer time left, so hurry.

It reveals a very relaxed Rowan, with little there to remind us of the Leftie politician, dubbed Beardie, that so infuriated many would-be supporters during his time in office.

Indeed, here he is positively mystical, taking us into the Cathedral’s “core”, the Choir, where the old pre-Henry VIII monastery once stood. His description of life there is eye-opening.

The monks were “wrestling with Eternity on behalf of the rest of us”. Moreover, they knew how to “contact God” and spent their time rising above “this thin reality” to the richness above, for the benefit of all. This is heady stuff and it includes a thoughtful riff on the inevitability of death and how the monks prepared for it.

Watch it if you can. If you like our Midweek Mysticism columns, you will certainly enjoy it.

But that’s enough ramblings for today. It’s back to the penance for me.

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: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.

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Midweek Mysticism: The Lion’s World

Lion Theology has never been my favourite branch of knowledge. It keeps too much distance from the thing it is trying to describe, with the result that it often misses the target altogether.

It’s like a series of stepping stones over a fast-moving stream. When you have crossed a few times, the stream becomes secondary to the crossing, and the stones define your knowledge of it. The living stream is the reality that is too fluid to be retained by the mind.

Theology is for academics who write books to demonstrate their knowledge, piling up pernickety footnotes as a brag list of what they have read. God? … do be sensible, young man!

Cynicism is often at the heart of theology, which has become a field for arm wrestling, not the thirst for experience that will validate the intuition.

So what are we to make of Rowan Williams’s latest book: The Lion’s World, which contains the following passage:

How do you make fresh what is thought to be familiar, so familiar that it doesn’t have to be thought about? … a world in which the strangeness of the Christian story is encountered for what it is, not as part of a familiar eccentricity of behaviour called religion.

Phew! The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury seems more than a little demob happy. And he continues along this fruitful line:

… the real possibility of joy beyond imagining, the fact that the world we think we know is soaked through with symbolic meaning and intelligent energy. [My emphasis]

I like the phrase “soaked through” — it expresses it so well. I should add that Dr Williams has, in the past, been “accused” of writing densely obstruse books on such subjects as, Dostoevsky and Teresa of Avila.

The Lion’s World examines C.S Lewis’s children’s book series about Narnia, a mythical world that only youngsters can see at first, but which develops into a broad metaphor for a field of action, an alternative world, dominated by the Christlike Aslan, a giant lion.

The books and films are too well known, I think, to be described further here. Besides, they have their own slightly dotty charm which must be experienced not read about. As indeed does The Lion’s World, which I won’t labour too much. If you know Narnia and like the sound of this, I heartily recommend it.

Williams amusingly quotes Lewis on Freudian psychoanalysis: “If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the timewasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.”

Self-obsession is a major impediment to spiritual progress, specifically because the emphasis is on the thinker not the divine. Self forgetfulness is the essence of the mystical path. Lewis knew that, and it is an unusual characteristic for one who hovers around the hill-tops of theological discourse.

However, the author of Mere Christianity was bound to break out of the magic circle at some point. It was Lewis who rather wonderfully pointed out that, “there are no ordinary people, it is immortals that we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” It is our purpose to reveal God to one another.

Politics pokes its nose in fleetingly: “Human rules are neither here nor there, and they are commonly used for unjust purposes; Lewis is enough of a Tory anarchist to be very sceptical of most schemes for human happiness,” writes the Archbishop. Is there just a hint of fellow-feeling there? That would be a departure for the lord of Greenham Common.

Might we see a different Rowan emerging from his new Chair at Cambridge University, or will he become lost in the groves of academe, a fate that C.S. Lewis avoided at Oxford? Time, as ever, will tell.

Ultimately, he writes: “What is devilish … is the illusion that we can somehow control this reality by denying it. There is no other stream. The way to life or reconciliation or forgiveness or renewal is always a path through what is there

And I might add … staring you in the face.

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.

Spiritual Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.

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Saturday Ramble: A new Anglican dawn?

Church of England

How strange everything is becoming. The question of whether British people are free to wear the Christian Cross is now being decided by a reading of “human rights” legislation in a foreign court at Strasbourg.

Once again, a piece of paper is being pored over to determine the outcome. It’s like that old Goon Show joke where Eccles writes down the time of day in the morning, then consults it in the afternoon when asked for the time.

What is really spooking the political classes is that if Christians have such “rights” — not age-old liberties, mark you — Muslims and others must have them too, and some faiths often go to aggressive extremes.

Thus, Christians must drop their time-honoured, inoffensive ways, which seems inexplicable in our own country.

But isn’t there more to it than that? Wonderfully, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, now calls the Cross a symbol of the “Religion Factory”. Wow, it’s cat among pigeons time!

Cue general outrage from clergy, members of the religious lobby and anyone wanting to remain suspended in time. Actually, the telling phrase Religion Factory sums up exactly what it is: an empty vessel that has been drained of true spiritual meaning.

When most people look at a cross, they see an instrument of torture used against someone they have been brought up to revere and worship. That is not its true meaning, which is that death is inevitable for us all, but is not the end of our story. The Crucifixion was a Mystery rite demonstrating everlasting life.

The problem occurs because Jesus was rebranded as “the Son of God” by ignorant, or power-seeking, followers after his death.

That is not what he himself said: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are the children of the living Father.” Gospel of Thomas

Nothing could be plainer, we are all “children of God” but are not aware of it. Once we break away from this Religion Factory that has been manufacturing falsehoods, simplifications and misinterpretations for centuries, we will arrive at the truth, which releases us all and grants us our proper status in life. Call it “equality” if you must.

The Cross has ever been the symbol of our servitude, not our freedom. But that should not remove our ancient liberties in the matter of wearing it.

Is this a new dawn for the Church of England?

Reference: Mysticism is not religion but more like science and is the basis of both

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.

Mysticism in the Modern World is coming soon.

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Saturday Ramble: Rowan Williams hits the spot

Archbishop of Canterbury I’ve just watched Archbishop Rowan Williams’s New Year message on behalf of the Established Church of England and its worldwide Communion. It was a remarkable performance by any standards.

If you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t have guessed that Anglicanism is rapidly crumbling around him as many senior High Church clergy head for Rome over the ordination of women bishops.

I suspect Rowan Williams knows that modern people frown at half the human race being refused entry to the higher echelons of clergy, even if old habits die hard. In what way would Karen Armstrong, for example, be less effective as a bishop than some of the old jobsworths currently holding the posts.

In today’s broadcast, gone were the cliches and conventions of age-old piety and churchified sentimentality. In their place were simple, broad statements echoing the existential anxieties of many of our citizens. The Big Society needs a Big Picture of what life is and what it means, he said.

As science delivers ever narrower mechanistic ideas about human life and its future, the Archbishop offered the 400-year-old King James Bible as a source of mystical knowledge beyond the reach of the ultra-restrictive “scientific method”. By doing so, he struck a blow not for theology and pietism but for the perennial wisdom of mankind.

Great scientists of the period, such as Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon (who proposed the scientific method), regarded mystical knowledge as the highest goal of their art. I’m sure they would have applauded Dr Williams’s no-nonsense approach to the ills of modern Christianity. Let’s call it Practical Pelagianism.

Unless the Church can explain itself in practical terms to 21st-century people, it’s doomed to a slow extinction. Let Rome claim John Henry Newman for sainthood. Anyone who has ever tried to read his sermons will be delighted with his removal from the curriculum.

Christianity is often presented in such emotional terms, no doubt due to its Italian roots as an organised religion, that a cooler presentation is required for this quasi-scientific age. But not an over-intellectual one. The Archbishop of Canterbury struck just the right note.

And let the “Anglo-Catholics” go. Their arcane views on women, when viewed against the paedophilia rife in professional Catholicism, will not be missed. This could be the start of a new era for Anglicanism.

The past might elicit nostalgia and colourful imagery, but what matters now is Now. A practical, spiritual message is what the times are crying out for, not a bolstering of ancient hierarchies of thought and organisation. The King James Bible has plenty of unadulterated advice if you look carefully, and the Archbishop singled out a handful with a neat visual device, showing biblical references as London street signs.

In his message, Rowan Williams addressed individuals, not masses. The Big Society is not about masses either, despite its unfortunate depiction. It is pointedly about handing power to individuals. Mystical knowledge can only be obtained by individuals working on themselves, not by congregations.

In talking to people’s own lives, on their terms, about the hidden riches to be found in great spiritual texts, he broke away from all the soggy sermons deemed uplifting by desiccated theologians, and reached out to the heart of the real matter.

Such projection is rare. It needs following up and nurturing.

John Evans

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Saturday Ramble: The Church and a State of Grace

Archbishop of Canterbury Christianity is plausibly the world’s greatest organized religion, both in reach and in power. The West would be a very different place without the Church’s curate’s-egg influence down the long centuries since the reported birth of its founder, the shadowy Jesus Christ.

It differs from other faiths beyond the three related “Book” religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), by tone, by magnificence, and regrettably, by its bloody history of domination.

As a writer on Christianity, and religion generally, I dislike the political aspects now indispensable from its dispensation. It is an old saw that power corrupts. This Easter especially we are all too aware of the weaknesses of clergy on an almost industrial scale. Even the Pope is mired in sleaze after a blizzard of accusations centred on child abuse.

This gathering ecclesiastical storm easily outruns our own Parliament’s expenses scandal which seems trivial in comparison with the lost lives of thousands of preyed-upon children. If only they had been prayed upon instead.

Into this incendiary mix come two seemingly unhelpful interventions. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, chooses this moment of maximum weakness to counterattack the Pope’s landgrab of Anglican members who dislike the “liberal” cast of current personnel, including the Archbishop himself. If this is a deliberate distancing exercise, it is very welcome at long last. Ecumenicism, like European Union, has only one boss: Rome — as the EU has Brussels. This is all about power, not spirituality.

Second, Philip Pullman, of His Dark Materials fame, has a new novel out questioning the authenticity of the character and existence of Jesus. The book, The Good Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, supposes that Mary had twins called, oddly enough, Jesus and Christ.

Jesus is the good guy, strong and truthful. “Christ” is small and weak — the real Satan — which sounds very much like Paul. While Jesus preaches the optimistic message that comes down to us today, the jealous Christ tempts his brother in the wilderness, and even manufactures his divinity.

I haven’t yet read the book, so can’t comment too keenly. However, it seems to ignore the awkward fact that “Christ” derives from the Greek, Khristos meaning, annointed and thus in Hebrew, Messiah. Had Jesus been born around 7 BC as is supposed, he would certainly not have been called Christ, nor would a twin brother. The term Christ was possibly applied to him by the Greek-speaking Paul, who is said to have cooked up a lot of what we think we know of Christianity.

The problem remains that half the texts attributed to Paul in the New Testament are forgeries. What is left show that Paul was a Gnostic, a mystic who believed in a direct relationship with the source of all things, and no founder of churches or funder of bishops.

Hardly any of the much-redacted “Christian” texts can be taken at face value, except perhaps the very early books of sayings (“Q”) from which the synoptic Gospels were clearly developed, adding in the narrative history of an apparently real person. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is the closest we have to the Gospel of Q. It is a purely mystical text that resonates with Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and other Idealist (consciousness-based) religions of knowledge.

To make any definitive historical statement about these later documents is, frankly, assumption piled upon assumption, not good scholarship. At least John’s Gospel is unashamedly mystical in nature and clearly allegorical in intent. It possibly derives from a Jewish version of the Mystery School texts then dominant among the inducted educated classes around the Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt and beyond.

The essence of moral Christianity can be traced back to the Axial Age some 500 years before Jesus. The dying and resurrected Godman* aspect, together with the virgin birth, were echoes of tales told in most Middle-Eastern countries from the Axial Age onwards. Far from being original to Christianity, they would have been instantly familiar to intelligent citizens of many of the surrounding lands. You don’t have to rummage very far through the history of the times to find this myth embedded in dozens of traditions.

Even Easter is a Celtic, or Druidic, festival (Eastre) centred around the rebirth of nature in the Northern spring.

All is not lost though. The central story of Christianity is of immortality, not of one man, but of everyone. The import of the Jesus story is correct in its depiction of life itself, as I point out in my book, The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face?

My wish this Easter is that the Church of England would mature away from these simplistic stories that hardly anyone takes literally now — with the exception of a few American cults — and pronounce the real message behind the allegory.

Oddly enough, Rowan Williams might be very good at that. He has scholarship enough, and is acutely aware of the mysticism at the heart of the Church, having written books on Teresa of Avila and Dostoevsky.

In doing so, he would save his Church (our Church) and release it from the tainted hand of Rome which has built another empire on a feast of lies and confusions.

This Eastertide, truth and a State of Grace is not a lot to ask, surely?

* See the works of Freke and Gandy.

John Evans

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