Tag Archives: mysticism

Book Review: Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

Disclaimer: This book is published by Taylor & Francis, a subsidiary of the company that I work for. I bought this book of my own volition and was not asked by anyone at work to review it. As ever, I write and publish these reviews purely on my own accord.

Simone Weil is a writer whose name I have heard a few times, but never really knew anything about her. Part-way between a philosopher and a mystic, she is an intriguing prospect. Jewish by birth, but choosing to be a christian, with activism amongst some on the radical left, this melting pot of cultures and thought seemed almost bound to result in fresh expressions of thought, of belief and highlighting aspects of life in ways alien to many, offputting to some and captivating to others.

It needs to be noted, as is made clear in the extensive introduction by her friend and confidante, Gustave Thibon, that this is not a book she set out to write. Rather, it was put together by Thibon from notes that she left him before she died. This is then the collection of those notes, ordered by approximate them.

The introduction gives an insightful background into Weil’s personality and her politics. It is very valuable, though does drag on a bit. The only word of caution I would give is that Thibon was a catholic, and as such he is rather muddled in his thinking and frequently conflates catholicism with christianity. This isn’t always the case, though. He does state that Weil wasn’t a catholic, though when I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this work, my friend was adamant that she was; just one who refused to take the sacraments. In a few references, her take is rather ambiguous and I would conclude that she certainly wasn’t catholic but neither did she fit into any recognisable stream of christianity. If anything, she might be regarded as a supreme non-conformist!

The idea behind the title begins with gravity. What Weil does is to adopt a well-known concept from physics (natural philosophy) and turn into a metaphysical analogy, even if it is more akin to entropy what she describes. The idea is that “nature” tends to descend, to fall to a lowest state. This is what she calls gravity. In this sense, low is regarded as being degenerate. My thought was that she was driving at the state of sin, though I don’t think this was mentioned quite so explicitly. The opposite of this is grace, which is something that defies this descent into entropy, a kind of anti-gravity.

The aphoristic nature of the book does make it somewhat to review, as there is no central idea being put forward and one paragraph may be nearly wholly unrelated to the one that either precedes or follows it. Some of the aphorisms are relatively straightforward and uncontroversial; others are verging on the incomprehensible. Unfortunately, this tendency increased as the book went on and I found it harder to take her seriously. At times, it was like looking down a bad Twitter feed where someone, puffed up with self-confidence, is pumping out material they think it deep, but which is just nonsense.

It made me think of a term used by the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett: deepity. There are some incredibly mundane and nonsensical things said here, but which have a thin veneer of thought on them. If one wants to believe that Weil says something profound, then you can fool yourself into thinking that she does, when in fact there are times when there is simply no substance to her writing. In contradistinction to Dennett, however, I would be willing to give Weil the benefit of some doubt and say that she was merely a poor communicator. But then, as this is a book review, it means I can’t recommend the book. There are good things said here, but they are too few and far between.

It’s not a book that will linger long with me and I won’t be rushing to read any more of her work.

Book Review: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich seems to be fairly in vogue at the moment. Over the last couple of years, this work of hers seems to get mentioned more and more as a source of great inspiration. As a literary work, it stands out as being one of the earliest books we have preserved written in English by a woman. At this point, I must admit that for many years, having heard of Julian of Norwich, I had assumed that she was man as I have never come across a woman called Julian before.

Upon noting the time period and knowing a little about the book (aided greatly by the helpful introduction by A.C. Spearing) this was always going to be a book that was somewhat out of my comfort zone. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I say that when it comes to views on the medieval catholic church, I am broadly in line with John Calvin and when it comes to mysticism, I take a dim view not unlike that of Karl Barth. So Julian of Norwich was never going to sit as easily on my shelf as, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jürgen Moltmann or Alister McGrath.

One could be so minded as to approach it with a pre-emptive critical attitude, looking for errors and things to disagree with. It is a very tempting stance to adopt, nomatter what we read, whether it be in areas of religion, politics, science, history, philosophy, etc. Yet I do not think that that would be a particularly helpful approach. Maybe some of you reading this are aware that by and large, I subscribe to a reformed understanding of christianity and read this with the viewpoint, “What does this protestant think he’s doing, reviewing of the great catholic writers of the middle ages?” Maybe.

Instead, I have tried (harder perhaps than normal) to maintain an openly cautious view. That is, to always be willing to listen to what an author has to say, but not to be quite so open-minded as to accept in uncritically. One must test everything by an appropriate measure. So if I am reading science, I must assess by the empirical evidence available. If it is philosophy then I must measure against….um….I’ll have to come to that one. In matters of christianity it is to assess by its accordance with the scriptures. Test everything and hold on to what it good. So, on with the bulk of the book.

It comes divided into two parts: the shorter version and the longer version. The shorter version describes the “showings” that Julian had while she was ill. She tries to enumerate them, though as she writes they come across very much as one. When she was in the throes of illness, someone held up a crucifix in front of her face. And in her vision it became more than a statuette; it bled. She was the only one who saw it, none of the others in the room with her saw what she saw.

The longer version also recounts the showings, so there is some repetition. More than that, though, this part records Julian’s later reflections. So it is inherently more theological than the shorter part, but not ‘theological’ if we think of that term as a rigorous study of the scriptures, their linguistics and the cultures out of which they came. This is more a kind of dream interpretation, in a kind of Freudian way, if you will forgive my anachronistic analogy.

One of the points brought out in the introduction and is evident throughout is that Julian doesn’t want to be seen as sticking her neck out. So at several junctures she wants to emphasise that what she is speaking of is in accordance with the teachings of her church, that being a pre-reformation medieval catholic church. Examples of this include her advocacy of penance and salvation coming about by works that we do. There is no place for grace in her theology. It is this, possibly more than anything else, which ought to give us cause to doubt whether her vision was truly from God or if it was simply an expression of flawed catholic understanding of christianity.

One of the things that struck me was Julian’s constant used of the word blessed to describe Jesus (and sometimes Mary), with particular regards to his body, his face, his blood during the fairly grim affair his execution. I grant that it may be an issue with the translation, but it seems to me to be very odd to describe Jesus’ death as being in any way blessed. It goes quite against the grain of “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” and, in spite of the presence of blood in her vision, it goes someway to sanitising the cross. While it may be the means through which blessing comes, it is not, in my view, a blessed thing itself. If we heed Julian we forget that it was an instrument of death, of humiliation, of utter defeat. It is only if we take in the whole of Easter and take in the victory of the resurrection that blessing can flow. Yet Julian barely mentions the resurrection. This again, shows her sticking to the core tenets of catholicism, with its lopsided view of the Easter weekend.

It is also worth noting that Julian departs from anything that could be described as mainstream theism, as she openly advocates a form of panentheism by stating that God is in everything.

At chapter 51 (don’t worry, they’re all quite short!) the tone changes and Julian presents us with a parable: The parable of the Lord and the servant. This is ostensibly a picture simply of a person falling over. But the discussion that follows actually very closely follows a Pauline mode of thought by identifying Jesus with Adam. So while Paul saw Jesus as the new Adam through whom new creation would come, Julian takes the view that they play a similar role in the fall, only that while Adam fell and sinned, Jesus was then made to fall and become sin because of this. Therefore the two people become one, the servant, as they fall at the feet of the Lord.

After this, there comes an interesting few chapters where Julian identifies Jesus as mother. It is this, more than anything else where I think the renewed interest in her lies. For it plays very much into a 21st century conversation of gender politics, particularly those upset by historical church patriarchy and the all too frequent portrayal of God as being intrinsically male. So we are offered a much more maternal view, which fits in well with Jesus’ own description of gathering people under his wings like a hen would. My own thought on this, is that may reflect more on the perceived gender roles of mothers and fathers at the time, that it may be necessary to view Jesus as a mother, though I wouldn’t deny Julian’s view on this point, as it is most creditworthy.

So we come back to the question that must be asked by anyone who approaches Julian’s writings: was this a vision or a delusion? How we answer this will radically affect what we take away with us.

Julian seems to recognise that some may think that this was a vision of delirium alone. As such, she includes a chapter to say that there was an additional “showing” whereby Christ told her that this was all truly a vision and not a delirium. She concludes with a rather stark warning, that one must wholly accept everything she has to say or else be branded a heretic. To do so, though, goes against scripture which she holds so dear, by encouraging us to be wholly undiscerning, to not test her words. I have read her words, prayed about them, tested them and found them wanting. So while there is much here that is good and worth considering, one cannot in good conscience wholly and uncritically believe this to be a true vision, but rather it probably came about as a result of a delirium caused by illness which brought to mind much that was already in her mind, whether through her own meditations and the teachings of the church which she was a part of.

Book Review: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

I picked this up as “something else” book to read whilst I was on holiday. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much time to actually read it undisturbed as the hostel was rather noisy. As a consequence, I think this may be a candidate for a re-read in calmer conditions. I suspect, though, that were I to do so, I would still be as bemused as to how to write a review of it as I am now.

It’s not that the book itself is terribly confusing. It is short, but it covers such a range of topics and in such brevity that I found it hard to get my teeth into. Just when you start to get to grips with it, it ends. At only 50 pages long, it is more of a pamphlet than a work of non-fiction prose.

If you are unaware, the basic premise is this: Aldous Huxley took a mind-altering drug and describes the results.

One should not think, however, that the book was written whilst Huxley was under the influence of the 0.4 grams of mescalin that he took. Rather, this was written in retrospect, relying in places on answers recorded by a friend who he was with during this time. Huxley does become something of an apologist, or even an evangelist, for the use of mescalin, arguing that it has much fewer drawbacks than even alcohol or nicotine. He describes how things become much more vivid, though there is no loss of cognitive functions. Hence, he feels that our evolution has filtered out things in the world which readily exist, but which the use of narcotics open up to us.

One of the strongest parallels Huxley draws is with religion. I wasn’t aware that this was such a significant factor as I was planning on taking a short break from any “religious reading” for a week, though the parallels that Huxley draws are very interesting. He is level-headed enough to dismiss the suggestion that reasoned theological thought should be equated with any drug-induced experience, but he does suggest that both offer insights into realms beyond our everyday comprehension. That’s not to say I agree with him, but it is quite thought-provoking.

In writing this review I will confess that I have been a little lazy as I have not followed up on Huxley’s claim that mescalin and LSD are less harmful than other drugs. I think it likely that there has been subsequent research but I have not reviewed the relevant literature. Nonetheless, as a stand-alone piece I can readily see how this may have influenced the “hippy” movement in the years following the book’s original publication.

Book Review: The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer

It’s been a couple of years now since I read The Pursuit of God, having mixed thoughts on what is probably his most famous work. When you read Tozer, you ought to be aware of what you are getting; mostly sound, orthodox teaching, told with great fervour. Tozer was a man with a passion for God, though he wasn’t a theologian. I don’t always agree with him or how he chooses to phrase certain things, but he is nonetheless a thought-provoking writer and is more often closer to the mark than far from it.

The aim of this book is to list, and give some flesh to, some of the attributes of God. Tozer’s motivation for writing this book was a complaint that christians have forgotten the great writers of the past (he points at Augustine and Anselm in particular) and that we no longer think particularly highly of God. Crucial to Tozer’s idea is that we worship God as It truly is, lest we come up with ideas about God which are either misguided or incomplete which would lead to a kind of idolatry; this is an idea I wholeheartedly agree with and is the motivation behind why I constantly try to understand God, christianity and scripture.

What I found most interesting was his idea that our descriptions of God are all describing One. i.e. God does not really have “aspects” to Its character, but we have to distinguish such aspects for our own linguistic interpretation and understanding. Though interesting, I thought it went a bit too far to describe God as “simple”. If people are made in God’s image, and people can be very complicated beings, I don’t think it helps anyone to suppose that God’s character could ever be described as “simple”.

Tozer manages to straddle two very contrary realms of being at once very conservative and also of being a big fan of the mystics. Neither of these are areas I am comfortable in; I’m much more of a liberal rationalist. In fact, Tozer’s anti-rationalist and anti-scientific stance really did quite annoy me as I think it does some otherwise good writing a great disservice. The other book that came to mind as I was reading this was J.I. Packer’s Knowing God which is equally conservative but not as mystic.

There are some other aspects which are a little uncomfortable. Tozer often phrases things in terms of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ with a tone strongly implying the supremacy of the former over the latter. As for the Holy Spirit, that is completely absent. The overall impression is a kind Arian binitarianism. Yet at the same time, there is a contrary high Christology, with the humanity of Jesus often overlooked.

So without endorsing everything that Tozer says, or how he says it, this is still a thought-provoking book with enough in it to make it worth recommending.