It is much easier to talk about what one does not believe in than one’s positive beliefs. Such at any rate has been my experience. What I dislike are totalitarianism and reductive materialism, they speak to me of the soullessness of much of the modern world. They are linked in my mind. As I have got older I have found the noun, God, has become an obstacle to my positive mystical beliefs. The sky father has no resonance for me, nor do I think I have ever felt the presence of a personal God; or if I have it was only once and I feel inclined to describe the experience with different words. There are a few lives that stand out from human history as having a quality of burning spiritual conviction and intensity, The lives of Jesus and the Buddha are among that select number, but there are others. Bernard Shaw rightly recognised in his play, Saint Joan, that to come to know such a person is bound to be disturbing, causing one to reflect with acute anxiety on the profound moral shortcomings of one’s own life. Best to put such a person on a pedestal and move away from their sphere of influence.
The key words for me are ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’. There is a spirit which runs through living creatures and when one sees the light go out in a creature’s eyes, animal or human, it is an unforgettable experience. How to capture this in a phrase? The Buddha’s thought from the Dhammapada “All living things shudder in the face of death” is a reminder of the connectedness of all living beings. The word soul goes back to the most distant times, and the word entelechy coined by Aristotle gives an intellectual weight to the concept of soul. However I can do no better than refer you to the four great tragedies of Shakespeare and also Dostoevsky and Proust. The great Greek tragedies are shattering too, but further removed in time and less easy to understand. And simply because it is less well known than Shakespeare’s tragedies, I give this quotation from near the end of Proust’s masterpiece reflecting on Baron Charlus’s moral degradation “But in him the practice of separating morality from a whole order of actions, (and this is something that must also often happen to men who have public duties to perform, those of a judge for instance or a statesman and many others as well) must have been long established by habit, no longer asking moral sentiment for its opinion, had grown stronger from day to day until at last this consenting Prometheus had had himself nailed by force to the rock of Pure Matter.”
The next post will be my poem The Question of Belief. But as a final self-contradictory thought: the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” seems to me to contain the most extraordinary moral insight, even if I might be tempted to express it slightly differently myself.