The Substance of Symbols

In preparation for the summer Olympics draped across the length of Regents Street are the flags of 206 nations coming from around the globe to compete in the summer games. It is a spectacular sight adding great splashes of colour to one of the finest roads in London. It is also certain to generate feelings of pride and patriotism amongst the multitude of international pedestrians as they spot their country’s flag fluttering overhead.

The interesting thing about national flags is the meaning or association of their colours and symbols change over the course of time. Take the iconic Union Jack for instance. In the nineteenth century it stood as a symbol of a colonial empire. Today the very same flag stands for something else entirely; a multi-cultural Britain. The meaning of symbols is never constant it changes depending on circumstances and how people choose to read the symbols. In the case of nations, flags don’t just tell a story about the past they represent the present and the future as well.

Amongst the 206 flags are those belonging to nations that are in the midst of tremendous rupture and change. The ways in which these countries manage such change will inevitably affect the way their national flags are interpreted for years to come.

Lazy politicians and irresponsible scaremongers often shift the blame for their countries situation onto minority groups and outsiders.  Demonising the other is a tried and tested method of shirking responsibility for a national crisis. And yet historically those nations that embraced cultural, religious and ethnic diversity always came out ahead in the long run.

In the book of numbers the bible relates how the children of Israel wandered through the dessert under tribal banners. The colours and symbols chosen reflected not just the stories of their past but the highest religious and ethical ideals they hoped to live by in the future.

May each of the 206 flags fluttering on Regent’s Street represent a future of prosperity, security and human dignity.

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Invisible Art and the Humility of Faith

I recently visited the Hayward Gallery to see a new exhibit entitled Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957 -2012. While to many the term ‘invisible art’ is an oxymoron this exhibit explores the work of  a unique group of artists starting with Yves Klein in the 1950’s who began to conceive of and produce art that cannot been seen, only imagined. Those looking for an aesthetic experience will come away from this exhibit with the impression that the emperor is well and truly naked. However for those interested in the intersection of art and existentialist philosophy this is an exhibit not to be missed.

What artists such as Klein, Bruno Jakob, Gianni Motti, Tom Friedman and others are trying to do is raise the question what is reality and how our perceptions, expectations and biases play a role in shaping reality. Take for example a piece by the Swiss artist Bruno Jakob. The viewer sees a large framed blank sheet of paper with barely perceptible creases. It portrays nothing and yet paradoxically it is capable of portraying anything one chooses to project onto it. No two people will ‘see’ the same image on this paper. What is reflected back to us is what we project onto it and our projections are intensely subjective and personal.

Another example is the work by the Chinese artist Song Dong who keeps a personal diary written in clear water on stone leaving inscriptions that rapidly evaporate. He began this bizarre practice in 1995 when he realized that conventional diary writing posed the risk of exposing his most intimate thoughts and feeling to others. Seventeen years on, after pouring his most intimate thinking out in this way he believes that the stone – which to the observer betrays nothing of his activity – has actually become thicker day by day with the accumulation of his thoughts. In light of this information it is impossible for the viewer to see the stone as simply a stone. One invariably projects this awareness onto the blank surface of the stone seeing in it something else entirely; the reflection of a man’s intimate thoughts and feelings.

Interestingly much of how we perceive the world depends on what we expect to see. The psychiatrist and neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist makes this argument in his book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ where he unpacks the workings of the two hemispheres of the brain. Each new experience as it is first present to the mind, he writes, engages the right hemisphere. Once the experience becomes familiar it gets re-presented by the left hemisphere and that re-presentation is very much guided by what we expect to see. This is why for example we can drive the same road on the way to work for years and yet still not ‘see’ unexpected changes along that road such as new street furniture. The first time we drove that route we saw things as they really were. On subsequent journeys we see what we have come to expect. Ultimately, much of what we see can only be described as a grand illusion since we tend to experience more and more only what we already know. Ultimately, McGilchrist concludes, we become so entrenched in this cycle that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new.

Wandering around the gallery and engaging with the artwork it suddenly occurred to me that the nineteenth century atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach would have felt right at home. Feuerbach famously asserted that there is no independent reality called God. Instead, what we describe as God is nothing more than humanity projecting its deepest values and loftiest ideals onto an imagined deity.  God for Feuerbach is no more real than the fantastic images we chose to project onto Jakob’s blank canvass. It’s all a figment of our own overactive imagination and we would all be better off focusing less on contrived heavenly attributes and more on human justice and compassion. Freud similarly argued in The Future of an Illusion that the illusion of God is one of the most important items in the psychical inventory of a civilisation. It was Freud’s fervent hope however, that civilisation will evolve beyond this infantile stage and that science will replace all religion and reason will replace faith in God.

While Feuerbach and Freud argued that man should evolve beyond the primitive stage of religious belief pragmatists like William James maintained that belief in God can be justified regardless of whether or not He actually exists. This is because such belief – which can neither be proven or disproven – can be immensely useful in the way it brings about extraordinary positive changes in people’s lives. A contemporary of  William James, the American Psychologist James Leuba similarly held that proof of God’s actual existence is irrelevant to a person of faith. He writes:

God is not known, he is not understood, he is used sometimes as meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love. If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that. Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.

True beliefs, then according to James and Leuba are those that are useful to the believer. In fact, in response to a survey about religious belief, James indicated that he believed in God, not because he had any evidence of God’s existence but because he needed such a belief.

And yet just because the canvass is blank it does not mean that it is intrinsically empty. Simply because a reality is incommunicable does not necessarily undermine its veracity. The mystics also thought of God as a blank canvass. They believed that any attribute or quality that one ascribes to God is nothing more than our description of how God is manifest to us. As for God himself nothing can be said since He transcends all description and characterisation. In fact ‘He’ is neither he nor she, simply the En Sof;  the infinite, the indescribable, the inscrutable. Any attempt at definition is detraction. Any characterization is to limit the limitless. The mere use of language is severely inadequate which is why the mystics struggle with language when talking about the divine.  Gershom Scholem pointed out how the seminal text of Jewish mysticism the Zohar is filled with oxymora and paradoxes for this very reason. When the Zohar employs a term like ‘It is and is not’ it is not struggling to describe something that exists only partially argues Scholem, but rather that its existence is of such a lofty spiritual nature that it cannot be properly described.

Even though nothing rational can be said about God it does not mean that belief in God is inherently irrational. The American psychologist and philosopher Ken Wilber makes an important distinction between what he calls pre-rational and trans-rational states of mind. In the pre-rational state one has not thought the matter through and is simply ‘irrational.’ In the trans-rational state one recognises that rationality has its own severe limitations and therefore seeks to go beyond these limitations.  This awareness of something divine beyond language and description is, according to the Lutheran Theologian Rudolph Otto, at the heart of all religious faith and the feeling it engenders is what he calls the Numinous which he describes as ‘a non-rational, non-sensory experience, or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.’ He also refers to it as the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ a great mystery that invokes both fear and fascination, the operative word here being mysterium. Rabbi A.J. Heschel who was influenced by Otto’s thinking argued that the rational mind cannot be the sole arbiter reality. In his ‘Man is not Alone’ he writes that:

The most basic objection to the belief in the existence of God is the argument that such a belief passes from the mind’s data to something that surpasses the scope of the mind. What gives us the assurance than an idea which we may find ourselves obliged to think may hold true of a reality that lies beyond the reach of the mind? Such an objection is valid when applied to the speculative approach. Yet, as we have seen, the certainty of the existence of God does not come about as a corollary of logical premises, as a leap from the realm of logic to the realm of ontology, from an assumption to a fact. It is, on the contrary, a transition from an immediate apprehension to a thought, from being overwhelmed by the presence of God to an awareness of His essence.

The mystics and Feuerbach however, agree up to a point. They both see the characterisation of God as a human endeavour, not dissimilar to projecting images onto a blank canvass. Where they part company however is in their conception of the blank canvass itself. While Feuerbach contends that it is nothing the mystics maintain that it is everything. For Feuerbach there is no independent divine reality beyond our own imagination. For the mystics God is absolutely real even if at the same time He is inscrutable.

The practical upshot of all this is awareness that despite our best efforts we cannot possibly know God. While this seems obvious to some it is sadly not the case for others. A decade into the twenty first century we are witnessing a resurgence of faith. While on the surface that is a good thing it is the kind of faith professed by many that is disturbing. It can only be described as a’ faith of arrogance.’ One that purports to know exactly what God is and what he does, and does not want, leading its proponents to act as God’s enforcers. Such confidence and certainty can be toxic when aligned to man’s baser instincts such as the craving for power, greed and self importance. Sadly, no faith has a monopoly on this dangerous distortion. We see it and read about it all the time. What frequently passes for religious zeal is barely masked opportunism in which individuals project their own selfish needs, desires and fears onto God. We need to rediscover the wisdom of the mystics and start putting forward a faith of humility underpinned by awe and wonder at the infinitude of the divine – the mysterium tremendum – while at the same time acknowledging our own severe limitations and inadequacies. The result is to proceed humbly and cautiously on one’s religious journey as the prophet Micah (6:8) said ‘Walk humbly with your God.’  A visit to the Hayward Gallery is a useful first step in this direction.

Invisible: Art about the Unseen,1957-2012 is showing at the Hayward Gallery 12 June – 5 August.

this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 5 July