Mark Vernon reveals how progressive Christians struggle with their tradition’s past while holding on to the promise of spiritual transformation.
Goes way past the usual religious dogma.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Mark Vernon to discuss the contrasts between Eastern and Western spiritual traditions and the future of Christianity:
Alex Tsakiris: Is Christianity worth saving? That question isn’t even on the table. Christianity may be this institution that is so much a part of our culture, and it’s so intertwined with who we are, but don’t we need to ask, is this something we really have to preserve and protect?
Mark Vernon: You’re landing on something, which I guess at a very personal level, both Rupert [Sheldrake] and myself are Anglicans. We go to Church of England on a Sunday. We greatly value not just the social aspect of that–the way that parish churches bring people together in a community that other wise wouldn’t be brought together. But my answer to that is, certainly not for its own sake. I think that to try and protect Christianity on the basis of its own importance is one sure way of increasing its chances of actually dying, because unless religions can still transmit something that’s alive and present now; something that’s, as Jesus put it, “Life in all its fullness,” then you can’t keep them alive and trying to keep them alive will only hasten their death. But I think for all the problems of the institutional church, which are obvious and many, and I have no interest in defending them whatsoever, I still feel that’s there’s something worth keeping alive through the tradition. For me it’s much associated with the contemplative tradition in Christianity, which in the West has always struggled against the more institutional church, and has always been much more closely aligned to politics in the States than say in Eastern Christianity.
But that contemplative tradition I think does hold a kind of wisdom, and although it’s pretty thin now–a kind of living practice, which when you’re an individual like me, there’s value in trying to tap into that; because it gives you more than you could discover in your own life. If you can connect with the many generations that have tried to pursue this contemplative insight; this contemplative way of engaging with life at depth, then you’ll get more from it than you could possibly discover just on your own terms. And the good thing about Christianity is that it’s already in the kind of air around us in the West. And for all that–it often feels like rather poisonous air, it is around and about. Whereas I think that for all I have gained fro m Buddhist practice, and I still do. I regularly go to Buddhist sittings here from Buddhist teachers; go on Buddhist retreats, that kind of thing, there’s always this slight feel that it’s not yet anyway part of our indigenous culture. There’s something slightly imported about it, and it’s come from another place. And whilst I know a lot of people are working very hard to make it a part of Western culture, for me there’s still value in to trying to tap into the bit of Christianity that is both indigenous and alive. And I suppose it’s a kind of integration of them. If Christianity has lost touch with its contemplative traditions in large part, then Buddhism is saying to Christianity look, you’ve got to bring this back to life. This has got to be the heart and the basic practice of Christianity. Otherwise Christianity will die.
Read Excerpts From The Interview:
Alex talks about the pitfalls and dangerous pragmatism entangled within the established church that supports its archaic traditions–[15min.54sec-20min.03sec]
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s try and untangle [this] because there’s a dangerous pragmatism to what you’re alluding to in my opinion. If we really try and say well, we can’t really do that, it’s not so easy; we’ve got these buildings. Well you can keep your buildings and you can go pay for them; and you can go do whatever you want with them; and you can keep the music…I’m not going to police what people do with their time but I think there’s a lot of cultural decision-making and culture making that goes into that. And let me use that as a segue into the second topic I was going to throw on the table: What do spiritually transformative experiences–as we’ve studied them on Skeptiko because they’re all over the place in science. If you just kind of look in the right places people are talking about in a scientifically oriented way, spiritually transformative experiences, be they near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, psychedelic experiences or any other number of experiences. What do those tell us about religion? What do they tell us about science and what are the prospects for resolving that? Because I think that plays into the question that you were just talking about. And I think there’s a kind of dangerous pragmatism to say well we just kind of have to go along with our traditions because that’s the way they kind of work. I think there might be a new way of looking at this that’s being pointed to by some of these transformative experiences. What are your thoughts on that, Mark?
Mark Vernon: Just one more thought on the dangerous pragmatism because I get what you’re saying I think that it kind of slips into–it becomes an end in itself. Preserving the church becomes an end in itself rather than serving something bigger, and I think that’s a huge danger. You see it a lot in the Church of England because of this huge investment in the established church in the Church of England. And the trouble is, it’s got some good benefits in the established church. Everybody has a parish church they can go to and get married in; call on a parish priest when they’re in times of need for funerals and so on. There are advantages to it but there are huge disadvantages to it as well, which you’re very clear about. I wonder whether part of what needs to happen is that the church needs to be more open about how it has brutalized people. How it quite rightly is the object of a lot of anger because of the damage it’s done. If I–for me, if only the church could be a bit more like that. One of the big debates in the UK at the moment is about gay marriage and gay clergy. There’s just absolutely no two ways about it – the church has done terrible damage to gay people by preserving homophobic attitudes, and giving sanction to that kind of attitude. It’s not just it means that people lose their jobs but inside it can destroy people, that kind of culture. And the church should be much more open about that.
Alex Tsakiris: Not just open about it, and this is what I guess I’m saying with the pragmatism: we have to drive a stake in the ground one way or another and say, no, wait a minute, until they clear that up–the gross irresponsible conduct through history. Just take that one issue, gay people. Who the heck has any right to say what’s right and wrong in terms of what two people do sexually? They’re adult freethinking people. There’s just no basis for that that makes any sense other than some historical, dusty old books over here that some people have interpreted in a certain way. And unless the church can come totally clean on that, the way that you’re talking about, then I think that we have to draw a line and say as an institution, as the kind of society/culture that we want going forward, you cannot go forward with us until you come clean. So you can play your pipe organs and all that but you can’t really go forward with this until you come clean about that.
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Analyzing the negative impact sanctioned values can have on the individual, Mark examines the field of psychotherapy as a more sympathetic means to understanding human behavior–[23min.19sec-24min.37sec]
Mark Vernon: In a funny sort of way I think psychotherapy at its best embodies that kind of wisdom tradition better often now than the established church. If you go to a therapist, the therapist won’t judge your behavior in a moral sense but they will ask you to consider what ramifications it has; and what responsibility you have; and what kind of life you’re leading and what kind of person you’re becoming by behaving in such a way. Hopefully it will do it with a compassionate view and tries to understand how you got to the point you’ve got to as well. But life in all its fullness is a difficult task. I think it’s not actually much held by a sort of simple libertarianism anyway.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know. There are so many topics I could pick on there. One, I don’t understand how or why we would want to legislate that kind of moral behavior. I understand what you’re saying I think in that maybe a pure, spiritual–the church needs to stay out of that. Maybe enough said there. The church is not the authority there, the authority is the individual who goes on a spiritual path, finds their truth, and then lives that truth. I think that’s all we need.
Discussing the broader issue of human morality, Mark asserts that our history isn’t reflective of a seamless progression–[28min-29min.10sec]
Mark Vernon: It’s easy to point to positive moral development and you highlight slavery. The status of women is one. I think the gay issue is coming to the fore now. But I must say that I also feel that for every step forward that humankind takes in terms of its civilization, somewhere else you can find a step that it has taken back. The obvious example that comes to mind is the ecological crisis, which is now pending. I jus wonder whether in a 100 years or 200 years time, it’ll even be possible to imagine that humanity at the beginning of the 21st century was on an upwards arc of progress? Perhaps billions have died, the Earth’s heated up and all that kind of thing. I think maybe our time now will look like a time when we were fiddling while Rome burns, as it were. And human nature will seem to be a much more ambivalent thing that while there is definitely a striving to progress even in spite of ourselves we kind of at the same time are as destructive as we are positive. So I’m more on that side that what William James has called the “tragic view” of human nature.
Mark highlights a disconnect between the established church and those seeking spiritual guidance, which has formed an undercurrent of sadness-[31min.41sec-34min.51sec]
Alex Tsakiris: I look at the science of spiritual transformative experiences and it does tell me some things that contradict with what you say. I think there are people that are born into cultures that are kind of at odds with their imprinting. Maybe even at odds, if you’ll allow it, with their incarnation. I think there are Buddhists who are born into Christian families, and I think they report that. This is, if you look into the reincarnation literature, best done at the University of Virginia by Dr. Jim Tucker, people report exactly these kind of accounts. But if you look at the contemporary Enlightenment Movement of people that I’ve looked at a lot and I think is extremely important in looking at this, people have experienced for lack of a better word, this transformative experience of enlightenment. And they’ll say that their previous life was out of synch with their spiritual life and that somehow this transformation brought it back and maybe they find some–you mentioned Jesus. There’s so many different spiritual figures or entities if you will that people connect with. But people who connect with their guru, or a deceased spiritual guide and will say, that was my spiritual guide and they came from a completely different spiritual tradition than the one I was born into. So I don’t know how far we can go down that path without just totally throwing people for a loop, but I take those accounts seriously, especially in the whole. If not one account, when you hear hundreds and hundreds of those and the patterns start repeating I think there’s something there worth looking at. And I think it points in a different direction than the one you’re stating, that hey, we have to deal with this Christian culture because we’re born into the West and that’s our tradition. I think that fits for a lot of once-borns but I think for us twice-borns there’s a whole different set of choices that we can make.
Mark Vernon: Again, I certainly don’t want to get into defending the Church or Christianity for its own sake. But I guess I feel there is a resource out there that mostly for reasons the church needs to take responsibility for. People don’t even think of it as a place where they might find succor, and help, and guidance, and discernment that’s expansive; that can take these kind of maybe the raw experience of something more of kind of a possible transformation or a natural transformation, and develop it, grow into it. I think that the church has lost out in a way on many generations and perhaps we’re of those generations where people just don’t think to turn to it anymore. And there’s a sadness there I guess.
Alex Tsakiris: I think there is a sadness there. And I think we really need to recognize that wound.
Tossing non-belief into the discussion, Mark and Alex talk about what atheists bring to the table and what they each embrace about Atheism–[38min.05sec-43min.16sec]
Alex Tsakiris: You and Rupert [Sheldrake] did an interesting dialogue on what Christianity gets right. And I wanted to turn the tables a little bit and say, what do atheists get right? What are they telling us that’s right, that can inform this discussion that we’re having in terms of how to move forward with spirituality and science, and culture?
Mark Vernon: The thing is, there are “atheists” and atheists.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, but let’s get past that because Atheism means what those people at the atheists convention get together and talk about; what those people who write the books talk about. Atheism just means a non-belief in God. Bullshit. Come on, let’s get past that. We know who you are. You have something to bring to the table. Let’s talk about that.
Mark Vernon: The kind of atheists which I would like to talk about that I do learn something from actually are the group that has set up what’s called The Sunday Assembly in the UK that I think is now in the US as well. So this is a group of atheists that felt dissolution with the church but felt that they were missing something by not gathering with other people. And also sort of seeking a sort of spiritual dimension in life, but they didn’t want to associate that with Christianity or with monotheism. And The Sunday Assembly I think is onto something because there’s a kind of freedom of exploration there, which I have valued. But it’s not to find by what they’re against, which I think so much of Atheism is, but it’s to find a kind of–almost like an innocent new quest to set off again. And there’s a freshness in that which I very much value, which when you belong to the Church of England which has been around for centuries already–that kind of quest for direct experience; that enthusiasm can get a bit lost amidst the traditions and what’s so familiar and so on. And inasmuch as that kind of atheistic quest has that kind of vitality to it. An open vitality though, not a knocking of other’s kind of vitality. Some of those atheists are my friends you might say. Well, they are. I mean I learn something from that.
Alex Tsakiris: See, I’m open to some of the stuff that the atheists are against. I think they do an important job in bringing focus to the goofiness of Christianity. And I’ll stick to the United States for an example. You cannot get elected to office in the United States without making a faith statement; if we’re talking about a national election that is a Christian faith statement. So you wind up with Barack Obama who I don’t think anyone believes is this conservative Christian; having to make these faith statements about Jesus and all the rest of this stuff… I don’t know the guy’s heart but I just don’t believe for a second is true. It’s like George Bush who–that was his leading salvo in terms of who he was. He doesn’t go to church anymore. It’s a sham. Who’s going to point that out? I think that there’s a huge problem there and the atheists have pointed that out. I think they’ve also pointed out the problems with the historical account of Christianity. It just doesn’t hold up very well at all. Christian apologetics is a complete failure when you talk to the really smart people that have pulled it apart. And I sent you a couple of links that we won’t get into but Joseph Atwill has I think done an outstanding job of pointing out the obvious and glaring problems. I think Acharya S. (D.M. Murdock) is another person I’ve had on. Some people have challenged bits and pieces of her work, but the whole of it, the main pieces, remain intact. There’s some huge problems with early Christian history in terms of the way apologists spin that into our modern-day Christianity. Who’s going to stand up and bring that history to the fore? Again, I think that the atheists are the only people who are really doing that. And I think it’s also, we talked a little bit about religious freedom. And I think with that goes with the ability or the freedom to be a non-believer. And again in the United States that’s a very difficult process for a lot of people to go through. It’s a hugely challenging process for them to break away from that tradition and come out and say, I’m leaving that behind. And I think atheists can provide support for those people and even if I don’t think that’s ultimately where people need to wind up, I do want to support that people need that freedom to break away from their religious traditions.
Photo by Thomas Hawk