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Author, scholar and psychotherapist Mark Vernon traces the evolution of consciousness.

photo by: Skeptiko

Alex Tsakiris: Today, I’m delighted to welcome Mark Vernon back to Skeptiko. He’s got a new book coming out in a couple months, A Secret History of Christianity and he was nice enough to send me a review copy of the book. You can’t go and order it right now, but you can go and preorder it on Amazon, which is nice.

The great thing about Mark and the great thing about this book is, man, he just has a way of talking about these topics that are important to me in a way that I just enjoy having a conversation about.

He’s written a bunch of other books. He’s been on the show before and I thought this was a great opportunity to have him back and talk about some of the topics that we’re dealing with here on Skeptiko  and get his take, in particular his take relative to this research that he’s done on A Secret History of Christianity.

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Alex Tsakiris: I should also mention that Mark has a PhD in ancient philosophy, and I was just asking him, who’s that over his shoulder and who did you tell me it is?

Mark Vernon: It is Socrates.

Alex Tsakiris: It is Socrates. So the Greek great thinkers will pop up again and again probably in this dialogue and in the book. Mark is also the co-host of the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, which is just outstanding, which we’ve talked about before on this show with, of course featuring Rupert sheldrake.

He’s also a professional psychotherapist and along with working with individual clients there in London, he also serves his community with this great volunteer work in that area too. And that’s certainly, not only you’re to be commended for but I think it just rounds out the person that people will know you to be and find you to be, in terms of truly this person who’s engaged with the larger spiritual community and what that means.

So Mark, welcome back to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.

Mark Vernon: Well thanks Alex, it’s really nice to be back. I very much enjoy your show, so it’s great to contribute.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, it is a contribution. You know the last time you were on I titled this show, Is Christianity Worth Saving? So that will just give people a sense for how you’re willing to go there, and that’s one of the things I really appreciate, is that we can have these kinds of discussions, much needed discussions, even though they don’t necessarily jive with where we’re coming from. It’s just great to get intelligent people to contribute to this dialogue that I’m trying to have. So, awesome, awesome stuff.

Let’s see, where to start? You know where I thought we’d start is, I love this quote for you, and the larger question is, who is Mark Vernon, and then, why do you feel nervous when you’re called a Christian?

Mark Vernon: Yeah. It’s because the word Christian means so many different things and I’m not sure if I want to be labeled with the thing that I’m being labeled with when the word Christian pops up, but it’s also a big part of my own story.

I used to be an Anglican priest, in the Church of England that is, and then I left, and I went through this, kind of great searching phase, the agnostic phase. That’s when I discovered Socrates, you know, because you know one thing about Socrates is that he went around asking people questions. How do you know what friendship is? How do you know what courage is, and so on?

The psychotherapy was really important too because that was a big intensive period of personal work and I got that very much from Plato as well actually, that who you are as a person and the work you’re doing on yourself as an individual, completely shapes what you can perceive and see of the world around you as well as your own inner life. You know, knowledge and virtue and desire and will, in the ancient world these things were all completely knitted together. So I learned that very much from that process.

I’ve written this book now, A Secret History of Christianity, it’s partly to try and put Christianity sort of to bed. Does it work for me once and for all? Who knows whether it will have done it?

But, you know, it’s really Christianity, isn’t it? I mean you often talk about evangelical Christianity and then we’ve got mystical Christianity. In this country there’s a very kind of established state kind of Christianity. There’s Christianity of the different parts of the world.

So what are you calling me when you’re calling me a Christian, I guess, I think?

Alex Tsakiris: Right. Well that would make anyone nervous. I also think it’s interesting when you touched on the psychotherapy because in looking over your website, it just kind of clicked for me that it would be interesting to sit across from you, I think, and engage in that kind of open forum where stuff is coming up for me.

Talk a little bit, if you will, about your philosophy about what that process is like for the people who enter that space with you. Why does it work? You alluded to it, but why does it work, do you think?

Mark Vernon: Well, I guess it’s because we are creatures, we are beings that operate at many levels at the same time. But I guess, particularly when things go wrong in life or at least not as well as they might do, we tend to get stuck at one particular level and maybe it’s the most immediate, the most literal, the most empirical kind of level and people can lose touch with different levels of themselves.

It might be the levels that come out of their own personal past, the developmental side. An obvious example would be some kind of trauma that feels too much to live with and so gets blocked off. But the trouble with that is that you’re blocking yourself off from a part of your life as well, so it causes problems, it makes life feel limited. But also the more transpersonal side too. I think that we are spiritual beings, whatever that might mean, in some way or other. So having better access to that too can also come in through psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy does, I think, I increasingly think of it as a sort of hypnosis in the sense that the kind of way I worked, normally anyway, is that someone comes the same time each week, to the same room, very little externally changes and it just allows a kind of shift of consciousness, a dropping of consciousness. So that more immediate level becomes less important and that in itself allows other levels to come to the surface over time

Alex Tsakiris: I love that expanded view and I think it’s awesome, and it feeds into, kind of one of the main points. I obviously want to bring to the table right from the beginning, this whole idea of consciousness because the topic has already touched us a couple of times and it’s addressed directly in your book. I mean the subtitle of your book refers to the evolution of consciousness.

So I wanted to take one step back from that and maybe just ask you, what is your understanding of consciousness, the nature of consciousness? This is obviously a very prescient topic to me on Skeptiko, also in the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues that you guys do. Rupert Sheldrake has been one of the leaders within the scientific community to raise his hand and say, “Hey guys, I think our lack of understanding about consciousness may be getting in the way of what we’re calling science.”

So what is your understanding of the nature of consciousness at this point?

Mark Vernon: I guess that in the book and the way that I have used this phrase, “the evolution of consciousness,” it really means the perception that we have of what it is to be human. Both our personal perception, our sense of our relationship to others, our perception of our relationship to nature, to the cosmos, to the divine, you know, to the spiritual world.

I’m drawing a lot on the ideas of a chap called Owen Barfield in the book, who was one of the Oxford Inklings. So he was a great friend with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, and both Lewis and Tolkien said that Barfield had the best ideas about this subject, but Lewis and Tolkien in their different ways were very great writers, so they were able to build it into their writings. Barfield did write a lot as well, but he’s a bit more of a gritty writer and in some ways I’m trying to open up his ideas in my book.

But his idea was that our modern consciousness, in the sense of this modern sense of who we feel we are, how we perceive life, has a kind of history and it’s changed, it’s evolved, particularly over the last two or three thousand years. It’s trying to understand something of that and particularly the role that Christianity is played in that, that I found very Illuminating and I try to unpack that in the book.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, we are going to unpack it here, don’t you worry, because I have some questions/issues with that, but I want to get there, kind of from a little bit of a roundabout way.

First off, I think it’s important that, maybe you and I were definitely in the same camp. I consider maybe, when we’re going to talk about Christianity, I may be in the loyal opposition part of this thing, where I am so much in agreement and so appreciate the dialogue, the conversation that you’re bringing which is much needed, yet, I have reservations about some of the points.

I’d guess I’d start with this: Materialism is baloney, as my friend doctor Bernardo Kastrup would say and I think it’s important to pull this out and just pound it, although I certainly do a lot of it, is that we are enmeshed in a culture, in a scientific culture that completely denies that consciousness even exists.

You know, I just had an interview with the very excellent philosopher, Dr Philip Goff, who’s there in the UK and you may know him, but he’s been kind of trying to lead the charge and, “Hey, you know, materialism really isn’t the way that it is.” But when we start to have this conversation he goes, “You know, neuroscience isn’t really married to this idea of materialism. It isn’t married to this, you are a biological robot in a meaningless universe,” and I had to call him on it and say, “What part of neuroscience are are you reading? What part of science are you reading?” And we actually pulled up the Wikipedia entry for neuroscience and he had to admit, “Yeah. Well, I guess that is still the official position.”

Not enough people are doing what my friend here, Bernardo Kastrup is doing, in saying, “This is so intellectually ridiculous that we can’t even fully  comprehend how people are supposed to be the leading science figures, you know, the Neil deGrasse Tyson and stuff like that, when they’re asked about consciousness they say, and I have the quote and I played it last time, “I suspect that we’ll find it doesn’t exist.” I mean, how absurd is this to say, my consciousness is connecting with your consciousness? That is inescapable and yet we are enmeshed in this scientific culture that is telling us that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain.

So, two parts to that question, I guess. How far do you feel like you need to distance yourself from that understanding of consciousness? And then secondly, why do you think that persists, when Rupert will tell you it’s complete baloney, all these other people tell you it’s complete baloney, why does it persist? A two-part question.

Mark Vernon: Yeah. Well, I’m kind of with you and with Bernardo Kastrup as well. Consciousness is the nearest thing to us. If you get rid of the nearest thing to us, then the rest of the world drops away as well. It just seems bizarre and odd to me that that move has even been made.

But Barfield actually has a bit of an answer indirectly as to why we might find ourselves in this stage now, because his sense of how consciousness in the sense of our perceptions, how that evolves, is to go through cycles where we feel alienated from the world around us. He thought that a cycle of alienation began in the period, sometimes thought in what’s known as the axial age, you know from about 500 or so BC to around the time of the emergence of Christianity. That was a kind of, one sort of alienation.

But we’ve embarked on a new kind of alienation now, which arises from The Scientific Revolution as it’s so called, The Enlightenment, The Reformation actually as well. I think these have all had a big impact and whilst that alienation causes us to feel disconnected from the world, to such an extent that now we can do things that even a hundred years ago would have been almost impossible to imagine. And not just, I think, that some people can go around saying that consciousness as an epiphenomenon maybe doesn’t even exist.

I think also the same about the divine actually. You know that it’s only pretty recently really, that full-blown atheism in the nihilistic sense has been possible. Nietzsche famously flags up with the Death of God.

But Barfield said there’s a meaning to that as well, which is that it causes us to withdraw into ourselves and to go through the struggle of trying to develop our own interiority. So, a sort of upside of this in a way, is that, for example, we nowadays value the individual, that’s more than any other time in history. You know men and women, all sorts of varieties of individual people, we now absolutely take it as granted that there’s a sort of sovereignty of the individual and however we try and work that out, that won’t really go, but it leaves us with a sense of detachment.

So the sort of, the third bit, there’s the withdrawal, there’s the development of the interior life, but then the third piece, which Barfield felt we were beginning to embark on now, and maybe people like Kastrup and others are beginning to take us back in that direction, is a reconnection with the world around us, but with the added advantage of our own interiority, which means that we can discern it that much better, we can embark, bat it back into the world around us with with free will, with conscience and responsibility.

So it’s the kind of spiral of alienation and reconnection, but that takes us upwards and it’s part of our evolution, part of our development.

So it’s got a downside and it can even become a kind of reductio ad absurdum like there’s no consciousness at all. But overall Barfield, and I think you can find signs in our culture now that maybe there’s a kind of return but a return with difference, and that difference is a kind of progress, a kind of development. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Alex Tsakiris: It doesn’t. It doesn’t because, and I got to just kind of take off, as if I had any kid gloves on, but it’s the kind of stuff that drives me nuts about the Christian worldview in how it gets overlaid on top of these important discussions we’re trying to have about what is the nature of consciousness? What is the nature of this extended transcendental consciousness that Christ Consciousness is talking about, a chapter in your book, that we’re going to get to in a minute?

I mean, here’s the quote, you mentioned Owen A Barfield who is the grandson, but you get the idea. “The experience of being alive involves. The pivotal moment of human evolution was two millennia ago.” Hold on, time out. Who says that? According to who? It’s like that is indefensible from our scientific understanding of history, like archaeology, anthropology, history books. We can’t point to 2000 years ago and say, “Oh wait, historically we have all of this evidence that lines up that everything changed, yet this is a thing you’ll hear over and over again from Christians, is that this was a pivotal point in history and then they breeze by it like it’s true. They breeze by it like it’s somehow true historically or they allude to the fact that it’s somehow true spiritually, and I challenge that too.

Okay show me how the Buddha fits into that. Show me how all the other great spiritual truths that have come from great spiritual minds before and after, tell me how that fits in with this idea that this was this pivotal moment, this moment we know almost nothing about historically, why that was so pivotal. And my guess, my real frustration that you’re hearing here is that it just slides off the tongue so easily for folks who have been indoctrinated into this Christian worldview and are talking primarily to other Christians who just nod their head and go along with it as if it’s, you know, okay to say that kind of stuff.

Mark Vernon: Well, this needs unpacking and I hear what you’re saying. So the idea is that evolution, as Darwinian evolution, is one part of the story. It’s the materialist part of the story if you like, you know, through natural selection, sexual selection, all the other mechanisms that are described increasingly by evolution and science. But people like Barfield, and also, he was very influenced by other thinkers like Rudolf Steiner. They’ve made the point that, that’s just a positivistic notion of evolution. It’s the kind of materialist notion of evolution. And if we are conscious beings, which we are, if we are spiritual beings with capacities for extended consciousness, which we are, in a way the next piece of the evolutionary story that’s going to come in, it’s going to have to build that in.

So for example, I myself don’t buy the kind of emergentist stories of evolution, that we started from a big bang which is that we’re purely material and that through various degrees of emergence, consciousness sort of finally pops up and then self-consciousness as well in ways that aren’t fully understood, and then you get into the whole panpsychist, sort of back reading and the tries to explain how it was sort of nascent there all along.

I mean, I know you don’t like panpsychism as well, and I think we’d be on the same page with that. I mean, it’s the sort of last gasp of the materialism if you like.

So, what we’re going to look for in the future is a story of human evolution and the evolution of the cosmos in the world that builds in all aspects of our being, and the spiritual and the material for want of simplifying it.

Alex Tsakiris: Why are we going to do it from a materialistic standpoint? Why are we going to jump back over to that failed proposition? That’s what I think is the hard part, is I think to totally break clean from that, as Rupert gets pretty close to there, but sometimes he even slips back into that.

So when Rupert Sheldrake does his experiments and finds that these morphic fields somehow exist and these little birds that learn to take the caps off of milk bottles before World War II still know how to take the caps off of milk bottles six years later after three generations of birds. I mean this is epigenetics, kind of thing, which is a misnomer because we have no idea how genetics would pass along that kind of information.

So we’re drawn to, like Sheldrake’s idea of these morphic fields that somehow this reality, this consciousness is a small tip of the iceberg on this larger consciousness that transcends space and time.

If we make the shift and say that appears to be, as near as we can tell, the reality, then why do we want to switch back and start talking about this very time-based linear version of consciousness when we know that’s probably not as close to what’s real as the Christ Consciousness version of consciousness?

Mark Vernon: Yeah. Well, I guess that I’m with you I think, but we can only sort of take steps, nudges forward if you like, and try and build in, get it to integrate with what we do know. I think that Rupert’s idea of morphic resonance is an attempt to take a sort of next step forward, to say that the material, empirical, to the touchable realm is only one part of it.

He gets his idea of morphic fields partly from electromagnetic fields, which are fields that are around us. We can’t see them, but you can sort of measure them with detectors. So morphic resonance is just a, sort of, an analogical extension of that. So, he’s trying to feel his way back into, I think, a spiritual vision of things, which I think, was much more common until the modern period.

Again, it’s like we’ve had to, well, I don’t know we’ve had to, but we have done this withdrawal to a kind of purely material sense of things, which has brought various advantages, you know, the obvious medical advantages or whatever. But nonetheless, it’s not going to rest there, so we’ve got to find our way back into this bigger picture again.

Incidentally, I think mental health is in the vanguard there as well, because the treatment of mental health usually struggles, and psychiatry can do certain things but it’s not really very successful in terms of treating people’s mental health. It can help people find a holding position if you like, sometimes.

Where I work as a psychotherapist, part of my interests there is how it’s taking us back into a bigger picture, what it is to be human.

Can I just say something about this two millennia, 2000 years ago again? Just sort of say something about what that might be, really trying to say, because I think it is, when [unclear 00:23:14] human evolution was two millennia ago, it’s way too stark, way too Triumphalus, if you like. But what it’s pointing to, what Barfield was pointing to and what other people like Rudolph Steiner were trying to point to, was that something happened about that time that gave birth to the sense of being an individual as we really know it. It had been emerging before. I think that this axial age, from around about 500 BC, when you track figures like the Buddha in India, like [unclear 00:23:48] and Confucius in China, the Hebrew prophets, figures like Socrates around the Mediterranean, what they were starting to do was to shift the sense of what it was to be human, to have a consciousness from the outside and take it inside.

So the Hebrew prophets start saying, “God doesn’t want your temple sacrifices, he wants the sacrifice of a broken heart.” The Buddha starts saying, “Look the old Vedic traditions of the horse sacrifice and so on, that’s not working anymore.” We need things like meditation.

Alex Tsakiris: You’re just kind of creating a timeline, like I mentioned in the email to you. It’s to me, outside as a non-Christian, someone who’s brought up Christian and worked, not worked but found it very difficult to really get out of that shadow and I kept thinking I’m out of that shadow and I found I wasn’t, I wasn’t, I wasn’t. Now that I feel like I am I just look at that and I go, Mark if that was played back to you, you would have none of it.  How would we connect Buddha, the 500-year gap between Buddha and Christ? There’s a lot of history there. I mean, it’s classic apologetics of the worst kind that we hear from Christians all of the time, where they’re cherry-picking data and working backwards to do it. 

I just don’t think you’d go outside of the Christian Community and find a historian to say, “I’ve looked at all of our recorded history and here’s the moment in time I would put my finger on and say this was the pivotal moment.” No one would say that if they were coming at it from a Christian perspective.

Mark Vernon: Yeah, I think you can put together a historical story. So for example in the book I talk about the story that comes out of the Hebrew Bible and how there’s an evolution of consciousness that you can track through the Bible and you can do it relatively objectively.

So for example, what you can do is stack up the bits from the Bible and put them on a timeline because modern biblical scholarship has teased out that certain bits of the Bible are older than other bits. It’s not that Genesis 1 is the oldest bit at all, you know. So if you do that, what you can do for example is show how the language gradually moves from an interest in what’s going on outside to an interest of what’s going on inside. It becomes more and more introspective, the language, and that sort of fits in a timeline.

You can do the same with ancient Greek philosophy because we’ve got a continuous record, if you like, of ancient philosophy and similarly not just Socrates starts challenging people and getting them to think for themselves, but for example the stoics and the epicureans, the next generation of philosophers, they developed what’s been called spiritual exercises, and this is the cultivation of the self, which is quite a new thing.

So you can, I think track. In the book I only do it in the Mediterranean Basin and I do completely set the point that that’s a Western point of view. But I think it can be done from the Indian subcontinent and the Chinese perspective as well. People have done this and are looking at increasingly now, this notion of the axial age.

What it suggests is that it is a bit pejorative from the Western point of view, to say that we feel that there was this sort of pivotal moments when things like free will for example, it’s not until the first century AD that philosophers start talking about free will. That just hadn’t really existed before and then also things like fate and they start to lose their currency on people, people feel less and less that they’re being controlled by fatalistic forces from the outside, but there’s a kind of inner freedom that develops.

Just because of the issues of history, Christianity becoming so powerful in the West, it all starts to be thought about in Christian terms, but I think we’re at a stage now where we can just loosen the need to claim it for Christianity and start seeing how actually it worked out in other traditions as well.

So for example, just to throw one more thought in there. The Bhagavad Gita, which is a text from maybe the third century BC, but commentaries on the Gita is as much important as the Gita itself and commentaries too start to develop notions of non-duality, for example. And that too requires a kind of individual consciousness that can appreciate the one and the many, the particular and the universal and exist in this sort of non-dual realm.

So I think there is a kind of story that can be told and can actually be made to stack up as well. It’s not just a Christian Triumphalus claim, but the individual with a kind of microcosm that then can begin to feel it, it mirrors their macrocosm and so knows the macrocosm in a different way, a different kind of consciousness. Something crystallized around these centuries which we call, you know, the first century of AD for example, something does seem to have evolved around then and shaped, not just the Western world, but the Eastern world as well.

What do you make to that?

Alex Tsakiris: Well, let me get there from another angle because I think we’re touching on some really important topics that are important to me. This is the kind of stuff I love talking about and I so again appreciate what you’re bringing to it, because you have thought very deeply about this and when we contrast that to what we get on a regular basis, in terms of what people in the scientific or in the modern intellectual culture, which is mostly atheistic especially over there, it’s just complete gobbledygook. It just doesn’t even have any possibility of being true.

So I appreciate the dialogue and I want to touch on this thing of Christ Consciousness, because we’ve kind of talked about it a couple times. There’s a chapter in your book titled Christ Consciousness. You have a lot to say about it.

My issue is that I think this makes clear my point of Christ Consciousness clearly transcends space-time. We can’t talk about Christ Consciousness and at the same time talk about history and this and then this happened this century and let’s look at this text. It doesn’t make any sense because everything we know about Christ Consciousness tells us that it is as alive and meaningful today as it was yesterday, as it was for our grandparents and our great grandparents. And we can extrapolate out of that as all great spiritual traditions have done and say it is timeless, it is truly beyond space-time.

So that’s to me the miss-step, is to start pointing to a point in history, then you’re kind of misappropriating the idea of Christ Consciousness of something that is truly transcendent.

So, what do you think about, in general, about transcending consciousness? Because I think that’s the issue. Is consciousness, our normal day-to-day consciousness something that can be transcended? It’s certainly something that spiritual masters throughout time have said is possible both in the East and the West. And I brought up Jeffery Martin because I recently had him on the show and he’s a Harvard trained social scientist who went out and interviewed extensively, like eight-hour interviews with mystical Christians, Buddhists, Sufis. He went to these communities; I love his methodology. He went to these communities and said, “Who is enlightened? Who is awakening? Who has transcended consciousness?” whatever you want to say, “Let me talk to them.” And then he tried to understand what the phenomenology was of that experience.

And again, to me, that’s where we have to fit Christ Consciousness back in, and not try and mash it into some materialistic timeframe. What do you think?

Mark Vernon: Yes. Well, yeah. Maybe I’ll just speak personally. In a way it was psychotherapy that gave me a sort of direct felt sense of how time changes at different levels of our consciousness and at one everyday level, humdrum level, it is kind of clock time, it is calendar time. Although I increasingly sense that that’s the sort of convenience, so that we know when to speak to each other, we know when we’re going to meet, you know, we can put some sort of order at a mundane level into the world.

But when you sit with people in psychotherapy, one of the key measures of what’s going on is how fast time feels like it’s going or whether you feel you’re more, sort of getting into a more timeless zone.

So for example, if time feels like it gets a bit suspended, you know that you’re sinking into less immediately conscious levels of someone’s psyche, as of where you’re getting into something that they’re not normally aware of but is now coming to the surface. And conversely, if you sort of feel in a session you’re kind of watching the clock and you thought half an hour had gone and only five minutes had gone, you know that you’re at a very sort of humdrum level and you’ve got to try and work out how you can sync more deeply.

My thinking in psychotherapy, even at times can get a sense of a kind of eternal level of the the personal psyche, by which I mean a timeless level and I personally had this when in my own psychotherapy, which was pretty intense for a period of time.

I gradually gained a sense of how things that have happened in my very early life had quite as much an impact upon me now as they had back then. So in my personal psyche I got a sense of how there’s a kind of timelessness as it were, a lot of important events are kind of coexisting you might say. And that really was so valuable to me because it gave me a direct sense of how, by analogy, I could imagine that in the world around us and the cosmos around us whilst there is kind of seasonal time, solar time if you like, with the earth going around the sun, there is something that’s sort of unfolding in that normal way of using the word time.

I think there’s also a kind of timelessness, eternity which is co-present with that too, which I guess the mystics are on to and you know in the West we might call it the Christ Consciousness in the East we might call it Buddha Consciousness. But nonetheless it’s possible through all sorts of techniques, maybe not psychotherapy, maybe meditation and so on, to get more in touch with that more timeless zone, that more eternal zone.

So I see these things happening sort of at the same… They’re just different levels of consciousness and it depends what level of consciousness we’re operating on at that particular moment, and the mystics get good at aligning themselves to the more timeless zones, whereas you know, many of us get more stuck at these time zones, if you like.

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