The Beshara Lecture 2014: Jane Carroll

A Heart Capable of Every Form: Atheism, Agnosticism and Belief

“My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent
for Christian monks and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba and the tables of the Tora
and the book of the Koran.

I follow the religion of love: whatever way love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.”
– Ibn ‘Arabi, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq

When I was first asked to give this talk I immediately came up with the theme which I had been thinking about for some time. I have no credentials to talk on these subjects, I am not a philosopher or theologian or historian, and neither am I, in any conventional sense of the term, a believer. I am not a member of a religion nor a strict follower of a prophetic tradition. I am interested in how these terms shift meaning depending on the context in which they are used and especially in the experience of looking at the world and ourselves through each of these lenses.

The interest is purely personal. For the past 10 years of so I have joined a group of friends for weekly silent meditation. It was probably at least 5 years before any of us asked each other how it was we had come to meditation. After describing a little of my experience at the Beshara School one of my friends said to me, ‘I wish I were a believer’. I was quite taken aback as I would not have defined myself that way. Not long after, I read the best selling books on atheism by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens with a different group of friends and found I was one of a few in the room who did not clearly identify as an atheist. For the record I don’t think of myself as an agnostic either. So where does that leave me?

Apparently with an increasing number of the population of both Great Britain and the United States who identify as ‘unaffiliated’ – the fastest growing category in both the 2011 British census and a recent U.S. Pew Research poll on religion (which includes the religious and secular unaffiliated).I personally would in no way equate unaffiliated with uncommitted and would state my religious path, if there were such a category, as wanting to see things how they really are, regardless of how they might be described by another. And I might also say, if there were room enough on the form, that although atheism, agnosticism and belief appear to be in contradiction with each other, at times each one takes on a lens which seems appropriate through which to look at the world.

We are all of us in the 21st century profoundly impacted by ‘modern’ science and what might be called its artistic response: Modernism. The project of modernism, so often derided for bringing about moral relativity in a godless world, has been hugely helpful at sweeping away illusion and breaking through perceptual barriers. The arts, at their best, do such a good job of conveying meaning without being definitive. So I wanted to explore this subject with the help of a few favourite paintings, and a little through the lens of science.

Last year the British Museum mounted the exhibition Ice Age Art. This was described as The Arrival of the Modern Mind and showcased a number of exquisite sculptures (mostly found in Northern Europe) from as far back as 40,000 years, We know nothing at all of the beliefs, rituals, social orders, gods, goddesses, spirits of the people who made these but what was so moving in gazing at them was how obviously they communicated a sense of transcendence. The curators made clear that each of the pieces would have taken months to make, given the tools available, and that therefore they must have held great significance. But the pieces themselves, without this information, conveyed powerfully their purpose to connect with a higher order, the way all sacred art does (or I should say all good art) and, at least while I was there, there was a palpable kind of reverence on the part of the attendees to be in the presence of these far, far distant human relatives’ search for meaning.

Interestingly the curators chose to show these works alongside art by Henry Moore, Mondrian, Matisse and others, artists of the modern movement who consciously broke with the tradition of explaining the context of images so the two periods of art were in easy dialogue with each other – one had no known spiritual context, the other deliberately avoided it – and, to quote the catalogue, each showed ‘the fundamental human desire to communicate and make art as a way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world’.

Over the past 40,000 years of course we have evidence of human belief in innumerable forms – statues, paintings, writings, buildings – from throughout the world. We know more or less about the details of these beliefs but the objects themselves convey a transcendent and compelling meaning – why else do we unearth, collect, display and admire them so?

For more than 1,000 years of course the spiritual context of European art was known and shared: painting, literature, music, architecture have been deeply entwined with the story of Christianity. In its various forms, and not withstanding the major convulsions which have taken place within it, it remained for over a millennium the imaginative presence within which the vast majority of Europeans lived. Judaism was severely marginalized, there was almost no cultural contact with Islam since the 12th century, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions, were known only to a very few. Most Europeans, up until the 20th century would have been baptized, married and buried within one or other Christian church. The Old and New Testaments provided the images and stories, the sense of beginning and end, the moral framework which all shared.

It is worth remembering this when we look back on the great crisis of faith which began to shatter the Christian narrative with the dramatic scientific discoveries of the 19th century.

In the late 18th century, the Scottish geologist James Hutton, after careful observation of the sedimentary layers of earth on his Berwickshire Farm and of the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh began to overturn the prevailing theories of the Neptunists who had been seeking to find evidence in geology for Noah’s flood. Hutton described a universe very different from the Biblical cosmos: one formed by a continuous cycle in which rocks and soil are washed into the sea, compacted into bedrock, forced up to the surface by volcanic processes, and eventually worn away into sediment once again. “The result, therefore, of this physical enquiry,” Hutton concluded, “is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Hutton was accused of being an atheist, of contradicting biblical truth.

Hutton’s theories strongly influenced Darwin who after a close study of the Galapagos finches’ beaks, among other things, developed his Theory of Evolution and we all know how unsettling that was. These, with other discoveries of the period were of course not the first to have upended prevailing beliefs – Galileo providing a prime example  – but the data driven discoveries of the 19thcentury began, in Europe and America, a seismic undermining of the creation story and something began to unravel. The physical world would no longer be investigated for evidence of religious truth: the reverse, belief was to be put aside to allow for unimpeded observation. The approach the scientist would adopt, while observing data, would be atheist, whatever their private belief, if they had one. Scientific objectivity requiring ‘the view from nowhere’ as the philosopher Thomas Nagel has called it, however unattainable, has been the accepted approach ever since. We attempt to allow the world to tell us what it is, rather than look to it for proof of pre-existing beliefs.

We can try to imagine what it would have been like at the time to absorb these bombshells. Our own grandparents and great-grandparents had to confront what these meant for their own belief. The majority of Christians and Jews now in Europe and even in America, (in spite of the flourishing Creation Museum in Kentucky which ‘disproves’ Darwin), do not find that the theory of evolution makes biblical truth meaningless.  It does not shatter their faith and they have found a variety of ways to live with both stories. But in 1851, coincidentally the same year that Darwin stopped going to church, Matthew Arnold expressed the shattering loss of faith in his mournful elegy On Dover Beach which ends with the lines:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

I first came across the poem as a teenager and loved it. I was not a brooding melancholic and did not at all believe that the world no longer held joy but in the way poetry can get its hooks into you and carry meanings beyond words I took to this one and have come back to it over the years, giving it another go as it were. I now deeply appreciate his evocation of the facing of the loss of everything felt dear, everything he thought he knew. And of course that:  ‘Ah love let us be true to one another’ makes all the difference because if love and truth remain, we can let go of the rest.

This loss of faith was the preamble to Modernism: the developments in art, architecture, literature, music, dance, theatre, which rejected the certainties of enlightenment thinking and religious belief and which the world found so shocking. We can trace this briefly (and not at all comprehensively) by looking at it evolving in a few pieces of art from the last 120 years or so. Starting with the Impressionists who explored light, colour, contour and movement rather than the object depicted. These were radicals in their time, violating the rules of academic painting, working outdoors, looking to capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight. Denied a place at the Paris Salon, these paintings from their first Exhibition in 1874 caused an uproar. What is so interesting is how easy it is to love these now – so much so they are sometimes snobbishly dismissed – and we have to struggle to recapture the drama of that first startling view. In the same way that the Theory of Evolution does not rattle most of us now, these paintings have happily settled into our lives.

A few years later Van Gogh, now apparently the most popular painter in the world, struggled alone to find, as he said in a letter to his brother Theo, ‘the high yellow’ a search which at the time only Theo and Gauguin might have understood, but which we can recognize so easily now as a transcendent quest. Now that yellow is ubiquitous, and again, we have to struggle to see past the endless reproductions to embrace that ‘height’ he was searching for.
By the time we reach Mondrian we are moving into abstraction. 1926 (10 years after the General Theory of Relativity was published) all representational forms are abandoned. ‘Today one is tired of the dogmas of the past and of truths once accepted but successfully jettisoned. One realizes more and more the relativity of everything, and therefore one tends to reject the idea of fixed laws, of a single truth….The important task of all art is to destroy the static equilibrium by establishing a dynamic one. Non-figurative art demands the destruction of a particular form and the construction of a rhythm of mutual relations.’ (Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art 1937)

These artists are on fire, on a mission to open eyes to light, colour, line unencumbered by the forms to which they are habitually attached. They are not using art to tell a story or establish a belief but using it to ask questions and provoke insight. Of course, all great art does this and has always done so but in modernism it is done overtly.

Alexander Calder wrote in 1948: ‘Just as one can compose colours and forms, so one can compose motions.’

Jean Paul Sartre described his work: ‘Although Calder has not sought to imitate anything, – his one aim is to create chords and cadences of unknown movements – his mobiles are the tangible symbol of nature….. that nature of which we shall never know whether it is the blind sequence of causes and effects or the timid, endlessly deferred, rumpled and ruffled unfolding of an Idea.’

I think this is a masterful explanation of the ability of art to convey two different possibilities in a single piece:  ‘little private celebrations’ as Sartre called them. Is the world around us a random sequence of events or is it covering up a grand Idea (note the capital I) of nature?

These are images chosen specifically of artists whose work I have seen in the past year. I find myself, with it seems an increasing number of others, visiting museums for sheer pleasure, engagement and even enlightenment. According to a recent article in the Economist headlined Temples of Delight museum building and museum attendance has increased rapidly over the past 30 years as church attendance has declined. In 2012 American museums received 850 million visitors – more than all the big league sporting events and theme parks combined. Half the adult population in England visited a museum last year. China is building literally thousands of new museums, several serious new museums have appeared in the Gulf states. 20th century Modern art is attracting an increasing following: 5 million visited Tate Modern last year, MOMA in New York is one of the most visited museums in America. The article suggests people are looking to museums for guidance but not for answers and that museum directors are increasingly aware that they need to engage with the visitors rather than to lecture them.

The Los Angeles County museum this year mounted one of three major exhibitions of recent work by James Turrell, an artist who has spent most of his life working directly with light alone: trying to eliminate even the forms light falls on so we can see ourselves seeing. If the light falls on an object he says, we see the object and our previous perception prevents us seeing things as they really are. He wants to try to eliminate ‘prejudiced seeing’. His grandest project harks right back to our earliest ancestors, creating a naked-eye observatory at Roden Crater in the Arizona desert, not this time to provide answers to our place in the universe but to allow a profound and personal engagement with the sky, sun, moon and stars from a private position of one’s own.

We have been educated by these modernists, whether we are aware of it or not, and we owe a huge debt to them. Time and exposure has not only made it easy for us to love Impressionism but also to be comfortable with not knowing what later more inscrutable works of art mean. We have been encouraged to open our eyes and let the light in and not require an answer.  And this extends throughout the arts: musicians threw out melody and fixed rhythms so we could hear sounds in a different way, architects broke with traditional orders so that we could re-experience space and light, dancers sought movement from an internal core rather than external order, writers loosened narrative and plot go so they could examine the unresolved and the absurd and the sheer complexity of words.

It would be too glib to call the modern scientific approach atheistic or modernist art agnostic, but both do require a ‘putting aside of belief’ to increase perception and knowledge.

‘On or about December 1910 human character changed,’ Virginia Woolf stated, hyperbolically. Relations between ‘masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children’ shifted, she wrote, ‘and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.’

I have no idea what happened specifically in December 1910 to Virginia Wolf but she was clearly on to something because along with dramatic scientific advances and radical artistic upheavals there has clearly been, in the West at least, major changes in human relations since then. If the 20thcentury witnessed genocide on a scale never seen before it also, in counterpoint, produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an ever-expanding understanding of what this might mean. And if religion or belief needed to be put aside for scientific enquiry and artistic breakthroughs it has often had to be circumvented in issues concerning morality and social justice. The civil rights movement of course was strongly rooted in the Black Church though it is also true that the Bible had given plenty of textual cover condoning slavery and apartheid. Liberation theology, which mined Catholic teaching to understand the roots of poverty and shift the consciousness of the poor, was also roundly silenced by the Catholic Church. The women’s movement and the gay rights movements have had to work very hard to overcome, where they have done so, religious doctrine.  It is interesting to note that recent surveys in America indicate quite clearly that the rapid increase in acceptance of gay relationships, within even conservative religious communities, has come about through personal contact with gays. Love of real human beings can over and over again transcend religious doctrine. Knowledge of what is, precedes belief in what should be.

There is these days no shortage of critique of religion. Atheism and agnosticism, quietly part of the critical dialogue for the past 150 years or so have burst out of the closet, so to speak, in the last 20 years with a stream of books, articles, debates between atheists and believers, lectures on the incompatibility of science with religion. What is new as Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker wrote recently is ‘a tone frankly contemptuous of religion’.  The aforementioned books by Dawkins and Hitchens I personally found irritating, simultaneously barking up the wrong tree and flogging a dead horse. They each trotted out well-known examples of the evil done in the name of religion and the incomprehensibility of religious tales and supernatural doings. And they both managed to dismiss 40,000 years of human engagement with transcendence – by almost all of our human relatives – as delusional. Boiled down though, the principle point of these best-selling atheists would seem to be that the God of religion is created in the imagination of the believer which then becomes the authority figure. This subjects the believer to dogmatism, and strips them of responsibility for their own actions.

Ibn ‘Arabi from whose magnificent book of poems, The Tarjuman al Ashwaq the title of this talk is taken, would entirely aggree. Ibn ‘Arabi, the devout muslim believer and devoted follower of the prophet Muhammed, steeped in the revealed text of the Quran, said (agreeing with these opinionated atheists) ‘God conforms himself to the belief of his servant’.

‘Whoever believes that (God) is like such and such, He appears to him in the form of his belief.’ Fut. III.411.26.

‘Take care not to be tied by any particular belief (‘aqd) while denying all others, for much good would escape you – in fact, knowledge of how things are would evade you.’

Truth reveals itself in the imagination, says Ibn ‘Arabi – this is the realm where forms take on meaning and meanings descend into forms. Many scientists and artists would I think agree with this. But if the access to the imagination is filtered through pre-existing belief or if it is coloured by projections or fantasies or hopes or fears, or history, truth cannot appear as it is.

It is precisely because we create God (or Truth) in our belief that Ibn ‘Arabi demands an emptying of belief, a removal of conditioning so that we can see the truth as it is, not how we think it should be. The responsibility of the believer is in keeping the heart pure, in NOT attaching to belief. And so long as we are unable to do this, we will be serving the God of our own projection and therefore under an authority which is not real. This applies to everyone, however they define their belief or their lack of belief, or their uncertainty. However they think the world is, it appears to them that way and they have difficulty seeing it another way.

The universe is annihilated and recreated at every moment, claims Ibn ‘Arabi. Breathing out and breathing in. Meaning appears and then is erased and then appears again in another form. This finds resonance in the profession of faith of the Muslim: ‘there is no God, but God’.  In the Tarjuman al Ashwaq he extols the beauty of the beloved in the meeting around the camp fire in the desert and then laments her departure in the morning with the camel trains, leaving nothing but traces in the sand. The beauty remains only in the heart. This is not a million miles away from Matthiew Arnold’s lament On Dover Beach, in spite of all he says is lost, his love remains and truth is still the object.

So what then is the belief of a heart capable of every form?

If we leave aside the origin stories, the promises of life after death, the miracles of the chosen ones, the prescriptions for right behavior and the punishments for wrong, there seems to be an essential element to all belief which is that the quest for truth, beauty, goodness is reciprocated. Something out there responds to something in us or something deep inside us responds to our requests for help and answers.

To assert that this is not the case seems as nonsensical to me as asserting that no good will come of contemplating a late self-portrait by Rembrandt or reading War and Peace or listening to Miles Davis or whatever it is that brings you to a sense of profound connection. The proof for this of course lies in the personal experience, in taste, which is to say there is no proof.  The sense of sublime, whether through religion or art or music, is transitory, sometimes communicable but never definable. So there is no agreement about where it can be found, except sometimes when we recognize that someone has witnessed what we have witnessed.

Religion at its best clearly serves to develop this sense of the experience of the sublime and to share the witnessing: to position the believer in the best state to receive an authentic vision of what is real, what is right and provide a place, or community in which this is shared.

But everyone, atheist, agnostic and believer has to develop their own ability to receive, their own method for recognizing truth, their own conscience, as Pope Francis, surprisingly recently agreed, claiming even atheists have to ‘make up their own mind about what is good and evil’.

The point of looking at science and the arts is that they are the result of the struggle of human beings to produce authentic visions of reality. The process for learning to recognize an authentic vision seems to be the same in religion, science, art and human affairs: we need to distinguish between the authentic vision and a fantasy or pretension or projection of our desire for belonging, or our assumed knowledge of history or culture or religious teaching.

The process of learning to appreciate art usually begins by studying with someone who knows something about it, looking at paintings in books, studying some more, visiting museums, unlearning what you thought you knew, looking again till you begin to develop something of an eye of your own. It requires some concentration and application and desire to be educated and rigor to remove pre-conceived ideas. As the aforementioned Miles Davis said ‘It takes a long time to learn to play like yourself’. When the taste is well developed the eye can tell instantly what has value, just as those who saw what the Impressionists were up to at their first show. The rest of us may have to wait until the general education of the zeitgeist seeps into us.

If we admire science, we would like to think that as soon as a scientific truth is demonstrated we are able to accept it whatever concepts it contradicts. If we love art we would like to think that we can embrace a new vision as soon as it presents itself. If we are inspired by social justice movements we like to think that we would instantly have leapt to the side of the righteous.

The possibility that Ibn ‘Arabi (amongst others) presents, is a vision like this, about everything, at every moment: to be so empty of self that the truth appears in a new configuration at every moment without attachment to past forms.

Scientists, artists, poets, prophets, mystics all help with this.  We live in extraordinary times: moral relativism on one side, the return to extreme religious fundamentalism on the other. But we also have available unprecedented access to the spiritual heritage of humanity: in the last 50 years or so previously esoteric texts in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek have emerged and been translated – along with respectful, close studies of indigenous communities, all offering multiple prisms through which to look at transcendence and the human search for it. These all help to rub off the encrusted edges of a single belief system.  Scientific enquiry and the close observation of data clear up our wooly interpretations of phenomena, and artists in all fields provoke our senses to take in the light with ‘unprejudiced vision’.

This is in no way to suggest that studies in comparative religion or frequent visits to blockbuster art shows will bring us to the vision of an Ibn ‘Arabi. Professor William Chittick in a lecture in Berkeley last year, reprinted in the recent Journal of the Ibn ‘Arabi Society, spoke on this point. He emphasized that this much loved and quoted poem of our title ‘My Heart has become Capable of Every Form’ is written from the vision of one who has achieved union with the Real, achieved this only by following most rigorously the prescriptions of his religion. Paradoxically the most broad, liberating and universal vision where the truth appears as it is without screening comes about through intense application, discipline, study, submission of one’s own ideas, submission of one’s self. ‘It is not easy to become a perfect man ‘Ibn ‘Arabi states most convincingly in The Kernel of the Kernel.

Yet Ibn ‘Arabi does state that this is the true potential of the human being. The vision his poem evokes is so attractive, so compelling, it leads us on. Whatever path we take, with or without a formal religion, it requires us to access our inner atheism when it is time to abandon meanings, our inner agnosticism when we need to know that we don’t know, and our inner believer when it is the moment to step back and receive: to be helped, and educated, moved by compassion or swept away by beauty.

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka‘ba and the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

Ibn ‘Arabi – Tarjuman al-Ashwaq

Jane Carroll, February 21, 2014