Sunday 22 January 2017


Mark Vernon is a writer and psychotherapist and as such has written much of interest – not just books about Ancient Philosophy, but numerous articles which cover Socrates and Plato, Freud and the unconscious, spirituality and the soul, faith and transcendence, wonder and well-being, and the big question: God.  He was ordained in the Church of England, but later left the priesthood and the church, and then – from what one reads – went from theism to atheism and on to agnosticism.  An obvious guest to invite to Wychwood Circle, then, where we question everything, whatever our world view.  We look forward to hearing much more from him in person on February 5th.

Faith and the unconscious

Dipping - in anticipation - into a book on Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (by Meissner, pub 1984) provided the following quotations about Freud and religion, though the author went on to place Freud himself on the couch, so to speak – also an illuminating exercise:
All religious behaviour and belief is a form of obsessive-compulsive neurosis … an exercise in passivity, compliance, and dependence – essentially a feminine preoccupation… Freud could not conceive of religion on other than emotional grounds…
Mark Vernon will surely not have ducked such claims in making his own journey and in an article celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s “The Unconscious” in 2015 he concluded thus:
The founder of psychoanalysis is not often thought of as a friend of religion.  But read him more closely: his curiosity concerning the dynamics of the human soul produces reasons for confidence in, as well as the development of, the insights of generations of people of faith.

A way of reaching towards the unknown

Vernon's 2011 book How To Be An Agnostic includes chapter headings such as Cosmic Religion: How Science Does God; How To Be Human: Science and Ethics; and Socrates or Buddha? On Being Spiritual But Not Religious.  In chapter 7, Following Socrates: A Way of Life, Vernon has some interesting things to say that may illuminate where he is coming from, which makes it even more intriguing to know where he has got to in 2017:
Religion is not just a set of beliefs or a moral code.  It is a way of seeing the world and a way of approaching what is unknown. …
This also adds to why, although I lost my faith, I found atheism unsatisfying.  Atheism is not a practice but a principle. You can no more believe in atheism than you can in science: the whole point is that you don’t believe; you know. … We need something bigger than ourselves to be ourselves. My religious imagination demanded this something else. …
Agnosticism as a way of reaching towards the unknown reaches back before Christianity. It rest on the shoulders of Socrates.  And he can provide a complementary resource to the Christian one.
Elsewhere he has noted that spirituality has become 'a kind of taboo': serious people are embarrassed by it, rather like Victorians felt the need to cover up piano legs!  But we are depriving ourselves (and our souls?) of making certain essential connections and this lack of perspective may be one reason why 'we find ourselves so frequently to be ethically and personally at sea'.

Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, and then Theology? 

The conclusion of Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience, by the way, is that psychoanalysis only goes so far: it is very useful in negative terms for studying the ‘impeding psychic forces’ which we need to be released from, but then theology needs to take over where psychoanalysis leaves off.  And then the theology also needs an anthropology which benefits from psychoanalytic input...

So if we are to understand ourselves and our human needs it seems we need three or more disciplines to interact. Mark Vernon will be able to provide insights from at least two of them and maybe persuade us that 'secular enlightenment ... is not enough'. 

Dr MARK VERNON joins us at Wychwood Library on Sunday, February 5th at 7pm. 
On Sunday, March 5th at the same time and place, our guest speaker is Canon BRIAN MOUNTFORD, author of Christian Atheist - Belonging without Believing (2011) and formerly vicar of the University Church in Oxford, whose topic is Spiritual but not religious
Anyone is welcome. Entry is free and donations are requested at the end. 

Tuesday 10 January 2017


'The classics hold a surprising fascination for we 21st-century moderns,' says Mark Vernon, commenting on the way Greek philosophy and classical history often feature on primetime TV and radio:
'Yet contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless, or aimless.'
Mark Vernon goes on to relate the 'loss of this crucial dynamic' to much that is of concern to us today, 'from mental health to climate change'.  As he points out, our modern narrative tends to exclude anything which doesn't fit with a secular view of things. The ancients developed human reason but not in order to shut down any sense of wonder or contemplation of a greater reality which might exceed our understanding.
'Reason's greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open on to transcendent vistas on which the soul can gaze and feed.'
A year ago at Wychwood Circle we were welcoming Oxford psychologist Professor Mark Willliams who has done so much to recommend the practice of mindfulness to the modern world, from the classroom to the houses of parliament.  Mark Vernon would not be alone in saying that this is the sort of practice which has long been part of religious traditions such as Christianity, as well of course as Buddhism. We shall be discussing again in March (with Brian Mountford) what it is to be 'spiritual' and there is no doubt a difference between secular and spiritual mindfulness. In a 2014 collection of essays entitled After Mindfulness a distinction is made between 'problem-solving' and 'spiritual' mindfulness. The latter might be said to address 'the questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular, the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine', says Mark Vernon.

Dr Vernon is a psychotherapist and he has pointed out that (evidence shows) the now quite common Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - originally inspired by Stoicism! - has not always delivered on what it promised.  'The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why', he says. 'If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.'  Well, at Wychwood Circle, we only cut out the censor, and whatever our point of view as we come to Wychwood Library on February 5th we shall learn a lot that we probably ought to know about reason and contemplation and doubtless a bit more about mind and mindfulness.

WHY WE NEED BOTH PLATO AND FREUD IN THE 21st CENTURY - a talk and discussion by Dr Mark Vernon at Wychwood Library at 7pm on Sunday 5th February. Open to all. Retiring collection.