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Tag: Bede Griffiths

A review of Stephen J. Castro’s Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation

hypocrisy and dissent at the findhorn foundation


Hypocrisy and Dissent concerns a controversy that occurred in the first half of the 1990s at the Findhorn Foundation, a registered charity located in northern Scotland and considered by many to be the leading New Age centre in Europe, a counterpart to Esalen in California. My review was originally published in the August 1996 edition of Network, the journal of the Scientific and Medical Network. Other positive reviews appeared at the time. The local Forres Gazette described it as ‘a searching and sharply-observed book’. Writing in The Christian Parapsychologist (Vol. 12, No. 2, June 1996, p. 63), Canon Michael Perry summed it up as a ‘sorry tale of how an idealistic group of ecologically-motivated people turned themselves into a typical cult’.

Revisiting my review after almost twenty-three years, I realized it would benefit from an explanatory introduction. Not only was the original limited by the spatial constraints of the journal, but there have been further developments concerning the events described in the book. Other critical accounts of the Foundation have been published too, such as John Greenaway’s In the Shadow of the New Age: Decoding the Findhorn Foundation (London: Finderne Publishing, 2003), and Kevin R. D. Shepherd’s Pointed Observations: Critical Reflections of a Citizen Philosopher on Contemporary Pseudomysticism, Alternative Therapy, David Hume, Spinoza, and other subjects (Dorchester, Dorset: Citizen Initiative, 2005). The following paragraphs, therefore, are intended to provide both some context for my original review and an update.

My personal interest in the philosophy and sociology of religion began in 1988, the year of my graduation, when a friend recommended an introductory book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys. Over the next few years I read widely on religious topics and observed several religious groups in Ireland and the United Kingdom. My philosophical background gave a critical edge to my reading, and I was particularly keen to learn about the effects of conditioning, indoctrination, submission to authority, and so on. As a teenager I had been fascinated by the 1980 television miniseries about Jim Jones, and I later became acquainted with the outrageous behaviour of so-called gurus like Rajneesh (Osho) and Sathya Sai Baba. More salubrious was my correspondence with renowned Benedictine monk, Bede Griffiths, whom I met in 1990 at his ashram in southern India.

When I visited the Findhorn Foundation in 1994, therefore, it was more as a critical observer than a participant. The best way for me to achieve this was to enrol in the residential induction program known as Experience Week. This program typically includes team-building activities, tours of the various Foundation properties (including a ‘pilgrimage’ to the ‘shrine’ of the original co-founders’ caravan), and work experience in the gardening, homecare, kitchen, or maintenance departments. Another fixture at the time of my visit was a talk given to the group by figurehead Eileen Caddy (d. 2006), the only co-founder still resident. It was the ‘voice’ heard by Eileen that had guided the co-founders in the early days (i.e. from 1962). All in all, it was enough for me to witness in person many of the things I had heard about, and which would also be described in Castro’s book: the sort of people drawn there, the commercial ‘workshops’ on offer, the organizational structure, the daily routine, and some activities that are distinctive to the Foundation (the regular ‘attunements’ mentioned in my review, for example).

The first half of the 1990s was a time of unprecedented media scrutiny for the Foundation, fuelled by two controversial developments. The first of these was the increasing role of commercial therapies in the program. The most contentious was ‘Holotropic Breathwork’ (HB), the trade name for a therapy developed by Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, following the legal suppression of his research into the effects of LSD on psychiatric patients. It is a form of hyperventilation that induces altered mental states via changes to blood chemistry, with unpredictable results and sometimes extreme side-effects. It was introduced at the Foundation in 1989, under the directorship of Australian Craig Gibsone. Alarming effects were reported by participants and witnesses in Foundation precincts. These were known to include vomiting during sessions, and post-session disorientation and psychological disturbance requiring remedial psychotherapy. The leading opponent was Kate Thomas (d. 2017), who documented the entire episode in a lengthy chapter of the third volume of her autobiography, The Destiny Challenge: A Record of Spiritual Experience & Observation (Forres: New Frequency Press, 1992). She described how other Foundation community members had strong doubts about this experimental practice, including Eileen Caddy, who significantly failed to make her misgivings publicly known. The Foundation attempted to ban the book, but their solicitor pointed out that there was no legal case.

In a 1993 article in The Scotsman, Dr Linda Watt of Leverndale psychiatric hospital in Glasgow, who had studied accounts of HB, cautioned that hyperventilation could cause seizure or lead to psychosis in vulnerable people. The Scottish Charities Office (SCO) became involved and commissioned a report into the effects of hyperventilation by Anthony Busuttil, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Based on this, the SCO recommended suspension of the HB program at the Foundation. The latter complied officially, but authority figures exacted revenge on the dissenters. Although her position had been vindicated, Thomas was expelled from associate membership without a hearing. Her associates received similar discriminatory treatment. These events are at the heart of Hypocrisy and Dissent.

In 2006 I became involved in a sequel to the HB controversy, when I modified the Wikipedia article on HB to include sections on criticism of the practice and on the contraindications listed by Grof himself. Although I adhered to Wikipedia guidelines, I ended up in an ‘edit war’ with HB defenders, which eventually exposed broader problems with sectarianism on Wikipedia. I documented this at ‘Wikipedia and Kevin R. D. Shepherd’. The HB article no longer exists, having been subsumed into a more general Breathwork article.

The second controversial development was an increasingly expansionist policy within the Foundation, which aroused the suspicions of the indigenous populations of Findhorn and Forres. Relations with the locals had often been strained, particularly with the swelling of visitor numbers from the 1970s. Spokesman for the locals was the formidable Sir Michael Joughin (d. 1996), the chairman of Scottish Hydro-Electric, a former Royal Marine lieutenant, a past president of the Scottish National Farmers Union, and a justice of the peace. In 1992 a leaked memo revealed plans for the acquisition of land and an expansion of business operations. Although the plans were later dropped, the episode confirmed the local suspicion that the Foundation was serious about building a ‘vast city of Light’, as predicted by Eileen’s ‘guidance’. Along with Holotropic Breathwork, the planned expansion was the subject of a two-page spread in The Guardian (see Richard Boston, ‘If only the spirit could move them’, The Guardian, 11 November 1992, pp. 10–11). The article concluded: ‘In recent weeks the foundation has suffered one setback after another. The plan to launch a public company has been dropped, the holistic health centre has been abandoned, and the attempt to stop Kate Thomas’s book has failed. The foundation is under attack from without, and is divided and demoralised within. All in all they’ve got themselves into a right old mess.’ Undeterred by the setbacks, however, the Foundation was in the national press four years later, this time because of ambitious plans to establish an ‘eco-village’ (see Amanda Mitchison, ‘Invasionary forces’, The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 24 November 1996, pp. 12–19).

As critics like Greenaway and Shepherd point out, these controversies sprang from the same root cause, which was the transformation of the Foundation from a small group of idealistic (if eccentric) seekers, interested in alternative lifestyles, into a commercial centre for New Age therapies. In Chapter 2 of his book (‘Transition to Managerialism’), Greenaway dates this change as early as the mid-1970s, although the formation of New Findhorn Directions in 1986 was the impetus for the ‘strong commercial drive of the Foundation of the 1990s into the new millennium’ (In the Shadow of the New Age, p. 44). He finds that this ‘growing managerial and commercial culture drew strongly on ideas and methodology taken from successive phases of “New Age California”’ (p. 44). The major influence was the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, which began in 1962, coincidentally the same year that Peter and Eileen Caddy, along with Dorothy Maclean, established themselves in the caravan park at Findhorn. Stanislav Grof was a scholar-in-residence at Esalen from 1973 to 1987.

That the commercial New Age continues to be the context for the Findhorn Foundation is confirmed by their sleek website, which describes the Foundation as ‘a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit’. The website presents the official history, a simple and sanitized account that naturally omits embarrassing details that undermine such vaunted claims. For instance, the charming story that Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean received help from nature spirits in growing giant vegetables in an inhospitable environment has become the stuff of legend, but ignores the more prosaic published data about the sheltered climate and Peter’s horticultural prowess. To take another example, in mentioning that Peter ‘left the community in 1979 to work internationally’ and that he ‘came back to visit Findhorn regularly until his death in Germany in 1994’, the official history glosses over the following facts: that he also left Eileen, his third wife of five; that he later repudiated the basis for her ‘guidance’ (a skeptical turn that is justified when one takes a closer look at how the guidance was produced); and that he was sympathetic to the dissident perspective in evidence during one of his return visits.

If anyone doubts the commercial New Age context, they need only visit the relevant section of the website, where ‘workshops’ retail for exorbitant prices. Visitors can play ‘The Game of Transformation’ for four days (£500–£800) or seven (£700–£1120), or even train as facilitators over a fortnight (£2,090/£2,275/£2,465). If Celtic mythology takes your fancy, you can spend three days ‘Unfolding Your Inner Sidhe’ (£460–£720) – ‘sidhe’ (pronounced ‘shee’) being the anglicized spelling of a Gaelic term signifying a supernatural being. Seven days of ‘Christic Mantras’ will set you back £690/£840/£1110. Also available is the 28-day ‘Esalen® Massage Certification Training’ for £3610/£3890/£4160, with a further £150 payable directly to Esalen for the certificate on completion of training. (It was a familiarity with the materialistic and entrepreneurial nature of the New Age that motivated my satirical ‘I wish I knew how to be wise’.)

For detailed information about the Findhorn Foundation, Shepherd’s online articles are the most accessible. The full list is available on his bibliographic page (see ‘Findhorn Foundation and New Age’). ‘The Findhorn Foundation: Myth and Reality’ presents a good chronological overview that begins with the early years, while ‘Findhorn Foundation ecobiz and commercial mysticism’ goes into greater detail about the commercial context.

Download a PDF of the published review



Stephen J. Castro, Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation: Towards a Sociology of a New Age Community (Forres, Morayshire: New Media Books, 1996).

This book provides an important insight into the disparity between the professed ideals and the actual reality of a New Age community; namely, the Findhorn Foundation in the far north of Scotland. As its subtitle indicates, it is intended as a contribution towards a sociology of such a community. The author has meticulously collected his data and presents it with notable perspicuity in an attempt to inform both sociologists and general public alike. Its broader significance lies, I believe, in the possible implications of the case in question for our perception of similar organizations.

The Findhorn Foundation is, as sociologist Eileen Barker has noted, ‘one of the best-known of the New Age communities in Britain’ (quoted p. xi). As such, its influence is considerable, having connections with similar communities worldwide. By 1993 the net worth of the Foundation’s properties was quoted at £l.6 million, and the commercial turnover for its trading arm, New Findhorn Directions, was said to be £1.2 million.

In the light of its charitable status, its material wealth, and its obvious prestige in the New Age milieu, it is rather startling to learn something of the modus operandi of this organization. Its members claim to receive the ‘direct guidance of God’. This is a highly questionable basis for the administration of any organization, especially when one learns later in the book the basis on which the claim rests. Yet the process of ‘attunement’ is used in the Foundation to this day, and is applied to the whole spectrum of decision making. The danger, as Castro points out, lies in the sense of infallibility that such a belief provides. Its implications are very serious, as this book reveals.

The Findhorn Foundation has had numerous dissenters. In addition to its very strained relations with the indigenous populations of Findhorn and Forres, a number of those who have had internal experience of the organization, including the author, have noted the disparity between preaching and practice in a community nominally devoted to love, truth, and spiritual growth.

Several cases are presented, but the most striking one is that of Kate Thomas, who first came into contact with the Findhorn Foundation in 1988. She wrote an additional 100-page chapter for her autobiography, containing a detailed record of her subsequent experience. Thomas entered fully into the life of the community, but became increasingly disconcerted as time passed. She discovered that this supposedly spiritual centre was actually devoted to commercial therapies, and not even in a professional manner, but applied indiscriminately, often by people without recognized academic qualifications. (Castro points out that this is possible in the UK, due to the absence of the stricter legal controls which are in evidence in other European countries.) Her mildly expressed protests drew mostly hostility, from authority figures and fellow participants alike, and she was subsequently labelled, by the former group, as a ‘troublemaker’. The situation was exacerbated by her stand against the introduction of Holotropic Breathwork™ in 1989 and by the publication of vol. 3 of her autobiography (with its additional material) in 1992.

Castro reveals Thomas as a person of great integrity, who was not willing to compromise principles in the face of injustice and hypocrisy. It seems that the more the members, and in particular the leaders, of the Foundation were confronted with their misdeeds, the more wilfully they refused to face up to them. Subsequently there was a great deal of publicity, at both local and national level. Among other significant events, we learn that the SCO commissioned a report by a forensic expert at Edinburgh University into the effects of hyperventilation, on the basis of which, in 1993, the Findhorn Foundation suspended its Holotropic Breathwork™ courses.

Kate Thomas was blocked from any closer involvement with the community, and even banned from its properties. She was never given an adequate explanation, nor a public hearing within the Foundation. Similar treatment was extended to anyone who supported her, and who likewise questioned the policies of those in positions of power. Castro points out that such censorship and aversion to criticism is typical of the cult mentality.

The book brings us up to 1995, with the situation still unresolved, at least to the satisfaction of the dissenters. In conclusion, I regard this as a timely publication. It provides material for a much needed investigation into the claims and activities, not just of the Findhorn Foundation, but of similar institutions in the New Age environment. Such institutions should not be exempt from sociological analysis. But one doesn’t have to be a sociologist to benefit from the book. Indeed, it is equally relevant to a general public in need of the sort of information it provides. Such information must become more widely available, if contemporary society is to be able to make a distinction between that which is genuinely spiritual and that which only masquerades as such.

A Christian Universalist

David Bentley Hart

The Experience of God

Being, Consciousness, Bliss

(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

Hart covermech.indd

The Experience of God is divided into three main parts, with a preceding ten-page ‘Introduction’ detailing David Bentley Hart’s motive for writing it. He explains that recent heated debates about the existence of God indicate a fundamental confusion about the subject. In some ways the book is a challenge to atheists to be clear about what it is that they don’t believe, a task DBH has undertaken at greater length in his 2009 Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, also published by Yale.

This is a book of philosophy, rather than theology, at the core of which is the tradition of ‘classical theism’. Stemming from Plato and Aristotle, this tradition was developed in the early Christian centuries by the ‘Fathers of the Church’ as well as pagans like Plotinus, reaching an apogee in the writings of the medieval philosopher-theologians of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Apart from the ‘Religions of the Book’, DBH says that the definition of God that he is offering is one that can be found in ‘Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, various late antique paganisms [and] even applies in many respects to various Mahayana formulations of, say, the Buddha Consciousness or the Buddha Nature, or even to the earliest Buddhist conception of the Unconditioned, or to certain aspects of the Tao’ (4). This universalism is also captured in the book’s subtitle, since ‘being, consciousness, bliss’ are translations of the Sanskrit ‘sat, chit, ananda’, which are usually combined into the portmanteau ‘Satchitananda’ (with variant spellings), a term referring to the ultimate reality, Brahman (see Wikipedia: ‘Satchitananda’). The Sanskrit terms are used explicitly in Part Two.

If there is a single guiding idea in this book, it is that God is not a being among other beings. Such an entity, if it existed at all, would be a ‘demiurge’, a supernatural creator god not dissimilar to the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon. The God of classical theism, by contrast, is the ultimate ground of existence, and therefore transcends all the entities of the universe, be they natural or supernatural. Whereas the universe is contingent and changing, the God of classical theism exists of necessity and admits of no change.

This guiding idea is elaborated in the first part of the book (‘God, Gods, and the World’), which consists of two chapters (‘“God” Is Not a Proper Name’ and ‘Pictures of the World’). A failure to grasp this idea leads to metaphysical confusion. To query the existence of God in this sense is to commit a type of category error, since the God of classical theism simply doesn’t exist in the same way that galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, plants, or animals exist. Even supernatural entities like angels, if they exist at all, are part of the created order, and therefore belong in that category of existent things (see 28–9). A condensed form of this point is made in one of DBH’s First Things articles, published in the same year as the book: ‘God, gods, and fairies’ (June 2013).

The only alternative to theistic belief, so understood, is ‘materialism’, otherwise known as ‘physicalism’ or ‘naturalism’. Although popular in modern societies, this is not due to philosophical superiority. Indeed, for DBH it is ‘indistinguishable from pure magical thinking’ (17), which some might regard as ironic. Furthermore, contemporary atheism differs from historical precedents, both by being more widespread and, significantly, because adherents are often ignorant of the classical theism to which it is philosophically opposed. Here DBH takes to task representatives of the ‘new atheism’, such as Richard Dawkins, but even philosophers like A. C. Grayling. At the very least, he points out, geneticist Dawkins should have consulted ‘some scholar of ancient and mediaeval thought’ (21) before making embarrassing mistakes about the thought of Thomas Aquinas. He cuts the new atheists some slack when he points out the many forms of religious belief that are soft targets for them, but this excuse is limited by the historical novelty of things like ‘creationism’ – it might be said that the new atheists are historically, as well as philosophically, naive (see 24–6).

Philosophy is not necessarily an antidote to such naivety, because it is as subject to fashion as any other intellectual pursuit. Analytic philosophy, especially, has tended to mimic the parsimony of modern science, the success of which is largely due to a certain narrowness of method and the limited range of questions it addresses, parameters within which it works well. The early adoption of a mechanistic model was more of an ideological commitment than something warranted either by logic or empirical discovery, but it has had an enormous influence on what is accepted as a cause. Against this, DBH argues for a more metaphysical approach, which is not anti-scientific, but which subsumes scientific causality within a higher causal framework. He rejects the idea that there is an argument between religion and science, when really the contest is between different pictures of the world: theism and naturalism.

The second part of the book (‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’) consists of three chapters, each one devoted to an element in that triad. ‘Being (Sat)’ begins with a reflection on the origin of philosophy in wonder, and in the wonder of existence especially. This is followed by an argument concerning the nature of existence. Existent beings depend for their existence on something outside themselves: they possess ‘contingent’ or conditional existence. The idea that all existence is contingent is absurd, so there must be a form of existence whose cause is contained within itself: such is ‘necessary’ existence. Contingent existence depends on necessary or absolute existence. This is not to be confused with the question of the temporal origin of the universe. It makes no difference if the universe is eternal, or if the current universe is one in a series. What we call the universe is a system of energy being transformed from one state to another. This is a contingent form of existence, which logically requires a ground that is not contingent but necessary. Such a ground has been recognized by all religious metaphysicians as God.

The rest of the chapter draws out the implications of the foregoing, including such divine attributes as ‘simplicity’ and ‘eternity’. Several objections are considered and rejected. There is a reflection on our use of language, and especially the role of analogy (125). The analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy is criticised for a ‘lack of historical perspective’ and for a pervasive ‘mythology of “pure” philosophical discourse’ (123).

‘Consciousness (Chit)’ begins by recognizing the no-less-wonderful phenomenon of our awareness of being, that we experience the world through mind, including perception, abstract thought, memory, imagination, and self-awareness. Ancient philosophers did not sharply distinguish the physical and mental realms, since they conceived of nature as imbued with mind. It was only with the arrival of the mechanical philosophy of the early-modern period that matter was conceived as inert and mindless. Even so, those philosophers allowed for the reality of mental experience, their problem being one of explaining how mental and material substances interact. With the development of modern brain science came the belief that we could account for subjective mental experiences from an objective, third-person perspective. Subjective terms were demoted to the status of ‘folk psychology’. This position reaches an extreme form in ‘eliminativism’, the philosophical theory that mental experiences are illusory.

Much of this chapter is an analysis of the mind–body problem from the philosophical perspective of classical theism, as elaborated in the preceding chapters. DBH acknowledges the worthwhile contributions by neuroscience to our understanding of the brain, but points out that none of this resolves the philosophical question of the mind–body relation. For example, he devotes about five pages (162–7) to an analysis of the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet in the 1970s, undermining the popular interpretation of these experiments on both methodological and metaphysical grounds. He is similarly critical of popular interpretations of Platonic and Cartesian dualism, describing instead a richer and more nuanced understanding of the human entity from classical times, and not neglecting to include non-Western traditions: ‘Consider (to take an example more or less at random) the Taittiriya Upanishad’s wonderful delineation of the various levels of mind: the material (anna), vital (prana), mental (manas), purely conscious (vijñana), and blissful (ananda)’ (169).

The main problem is, once again, a commitment to a fundamentally mechanistic ideology. Recognizing the impossibility of dealing adequately with the topic in anything shorter than a book, DBH nevertheless offers a selection of the ‘irksome difficulties that the phenomenology of consciousness creates for materialist models of the mind, and thus for attempts to devise naturalistic or mechanistic explanations of consciousness’ (172). The following thirty pages (172–203) are devoted to this task, with six ‘irksome difficulties’ being offered: the qualitative dimension of experience, or qualia (172); abstract concepts (182); reason (187); the transcendental conditions of experience (190); intentionality (191); and the unity of consciousness (197). Plotinus, Shankara, Kant, Hegel, Brentano, Dennett, Searle, and Dretske all make appearances.

A more general discussion of the difficulty in explaining consciousness follows, and various philosophical positions are considered, including those of McGinn (204), J. J. C. Smart (205), and Dennett (208). Computational theories of mind, as embodiments of the mechanistic model, are treated at length (216–25), with a focus on attempts to create artificial intelligence and the significance or otherwise of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov’s famous defeat by the computer Deep Blue in 1997 (220).

The lengthy detour through the philosophy of mind is preparatory to DBH’s reflections on the relation of human mind to God (225–37). His purpose is to ‘accord serious consideration to the ancient intuition that the true order of ultimate causes is precisely the opposite of what the materialist philosopher imagines it is, and that the material realm is ultimately dependent upon mind rather than the reverse: that the fullness of being upon which all contingent beings depend is at the same time a limitless act of consciousness’ (227). A range of Eastern and Western contemplative and philosophical traditions are brought to bear on the matter. There are many choice quotes, but they can be summed up in the following brief statement: ‘Absolute being … must be absolute mind’ (236). An important implication is that human mind is oriented towards, or seeks fulfilment in, the absolute mind. The attainment of this end is bliss, which provides a segue to the next chapter.

‘Bliss (Ananda)’ begins with the recognition that consciousness is ‘intentional’ or directed to some end, and this implicates the concept of ‘will’. Although this fact has been interpreted by evolutionary biologists in terms of adaptation, DBH again inverts the materialist metaphysics in favour of the classical analysis: proximate objects of desire indicate an orientation of the will towards an ultimate goal. One desires something (e.g. money) not as an end in itself, but as a means to some other end, but this in turn is a means to some further goal, and so on. The classical account conceives of the ultimate objects of the will in terms of ‘transcendentals’ such as truth, goodness, and beauty, which are unified in ‘the single reality of being itself’ (243). Choice quotes from a variety of theistic traditions are again provided: Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and paganism (Plotinus) are all represented (248).

DBH responds to attempts to ‘naturalize’ ethics as a sort of ‘evolutionary utilitarianism’. Once one dispenses with the mistaken idea of God as some superlatively good being, there is no conflict between moral choice and evolutionary benefit. Conceived along the lines of classical theism, God is the source not only of being and truth, but also of goodness. Ultimately, therefore, all desire is ordered towards God, even if that transcendent good is reflected in a myriad proximate goods in the immanent realm of the created universe.

Altruism exemplifies a trait that is not exhaustively explained by evolutionary utility (257–72). Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ is rejected as a ‘profoundly foolish metaphor’ (259), which confuses different levels of explanation (see 259–66). Ultimately, altruism attains a state of selflessness that is described by religious traditions as ‘saintly’, although the state is not necessarily confined to ‘religious’ people (see 273–4). In this context we can see that ‘the famous dilemma from Plato’s Euthyphro is not much of a problem for any of the great theistic traditions … that the entire point of Plato’s inquiry in the Euthyphro was to show that there must be some eternal principle – which he would call the Form of the Good – beyond the realm of either material nature or limited and willful deities. This is all part of an ancient metaphysical project going back at least as far as Xenophanes, which is the common heritage of philosophy and rational theology alike: the attempt to distinguish the transcendent from the immanent, the changeless from the mutable, the ultimate source from its contingent derivations’ (275–6).

DBH concludes the chapter with an extended meditation (277–85) on the nature of beauty as ‘the most exemplary of the transcendentals … No other is more obviously characterized by an almost perfect absence of utility, or possesses a power to compel that so clearly offers no gratification or profit beyond itself’ (277). Even the Thomistic tradition, which enumerates integrity, right proportionality, and brilliancy as the three constituents of beautiful things, is accused of confusing ‘the beautiful with the pretty, the delightful with the merely obliging, enchantment with diversion’ (279). Moreover, Darwinian attempts to explain beauty never move beyond a sound ‘recognition of an elementary continuity between the physiological, material basis of our likes, dislikes, pleasures, and aversions, on the one hand, and our judgments of beauty, on the other … to account for all the ways in which aesthetic desire exceeds the boundaries of the physiological and the material’ (281). In place of a materialist explanation, DBH reminds us of ‘the ancient conviction that the love of beauty is, by its nature, a rational yearning for the transcendent’ (284), with quotes from Plato, Plotinus, the Sufi poet Mahmud Shabestari, Gregory of Nyssa, Kabir, and Thomas Traherne.

The final section of the chapter on bliss (285–90), which also concludes the second part of the book, contains some of DBH’s most important reflections on his theme, which might be summarised as ‘the formal structure of transcendental desire and its presence within rational consciousness’ (285). No summary of mine, nor any selection of extracts, can do justice to these reflections, but it would also be remiss of me to exclude any reference to them. So here goes. Notwithstanding the myriad ways in which desire can be misdirected, ‘our yearning for the utmost value persists’ (286). God is both ‘the source and ground of being and the wellspring of all consciousness, but also therefore the final cause of all creation, the end toward which all beings are moved, the power of infinite being that summons all things into existence from nothingness and into union with itself’ (286). Thus conceived, ‘faith in God is not something that can ever be wholly and coherently rejected, even if one refuses all adherence to creeds and devotions [because the] desires evoked by the transcendental horizon of rational consciousness are not merely occasional agitations of the will but constant dynamisms of the mind; they underlie the whole movement of thought toward the world’ (287). At the last, the only way to avoid this being a merely logical conclusion, ‘is consciously and conscientiously to pursue the transcendental ecstasies that open the world to us to their ultimate end: to seek, that is, a vision of and union with God’ (290).

The third part of the book (‘The Reality of God’) contains a single chapter, ‘Illusion and Reality’, the first section of which (293–300) is a reflection on the ideological nature of our models of reality, concluding with the observation: ‘behind the putative rationalism of scientific naturalism there lurks an ideological passion as immune to the dictates of reason as the wildest transports of devotional ecstasy could ever be’ (300). DBH sees more continuity than discontinuity between the early-modern deistic conception of a creator God (the Intelligent Designer), on the one hand, and the Darwinian conception of natural selection, on the other: one mechanism was simply replaced by another. Rather than being a basis for return to classical theism, Darwinism was ‘simply assumed into the mechanical narrative’ (301) and we are left with conceptually impoverished disputes. DBH compares these to attempting to settle the question of Tolstoy’s existence by ‘trying to find him among the characters in Anna Karenina, and arguing about which chapters might contain evidence of his agency (all the while contemptuously ignoring anyone making the preposterous or meaningless assertion that Tolstoy does not exist at all as a discrete object or agent within the world of the novel, not even at the very beginning of the plot, and yet is wholly present in its every part as the source and rationale of its existence)’ (303).

DBH considers that materialism is no more rational than the anthropomorphic religion that it contests, and imagining that it can be defeated with logic is to misunderstand the point. In an ironic turning of the tables, he describes it as ‘an emotional sedative, what Czeslaw Milosz liked to call the opiate of unbelief … it should be classified as one of those religions of consolation … not a philosophy but a therapy’ (304–5). As such, however, it ‘has a certain burden of moral proof to bear’:

it must show that the opiates it offers are at least as powerful as those it would replace. To proclaim triumphally that there is no God, no eternal gaze that beholds our cruelties and betrayals, no final beatitude for the soul after death, may seem bold and admirable to a comfortable bourgeois academic who rarely if ever has to descend into the misery of those whose lives are at best a state of constant anxiety or at worst the indelible memory of the death of a child. For a man safely sheltered from life’s harder edges, a gentle soporific may suffice to ease whatever fleeting moments of distress or resentment afflict him. For those genuinely acquainted with grief, however – despair, poverty, calamity, disease, oppression, or bereavement – but who have no ivory tower to which to retreat, no material advantages to distract them from their suffering, and no hope for anything better in this world, something far stronger may be needed. (305–6)

Popular atheism, however, along with the associated metaphysics of materialism, stands accused of more than soporific escapism. Every ideology, religious or secular, has varied effects, benign as well as malign. To regard nature as a machine, and the human organism as mechanical, underlies the ‘incapacity for astonishment or reverent incertitude before the mysteries of being’ (308). Rather than a fallible created being, open to moral improvement or even perfection, the human entity, like the rest of nature, becomes subject to technological control:

Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty: ‘scientific’ racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, ‘curative’ lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed). (308)

Martin Heidegger, ‘a morally problematic figure, admittedly, but not to be dismissed’, described ours as the ‘age of technology, in which ontological questions have been vigorously expelled from cultural consideration, replaced by questions of mere mechanistic force’ (311).

While ‘the age of the great totalitarianisms seems to be over’, we are left with ‘the interminable spectacle of production and consumption, the dialectic of ubiquitous banality by which the insatiable economic culture of the late modern West is shaped and sustained … what a Marxist might call the “ideological superstructure” of consumerism’ (312).

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the one truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it really was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form. It was equally inevitable that, rather than boldly challenging the orthodoxies of its age, it would prove to be just one more anodyne item on sale in the shops, and would be enthusiastically fêted by a vapid media culture not especially averse to the idea that there are no ultimate values, but only final prices. In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys. (312–13)

When it comes to claims of religious experience, DBH urges a cautious but positive approach. Such experience is necessarily subjective, and a healthy skepticism is not out of place. At the same time, he does not accept the claim that experiences of this nature must prove themselves at the court of scientific method. Once again he inverts the metaphysical priorities: third-person objectivity is derivative, dependent at a fundamental level on first-person insight. As in other areas of life, assessing another’s claim to religious experience will depend on context, on how well we know that person, and so on. Hume’s argument against all reports of miracles may encourage us to be skeptical, but we needn’t accept it as conclusive for all cases. DBH regards it as ‘a rather feeble and circular argument in a great many ways, and it amounts to little more than an assertion that what is exceptional is incredible because it is not ordinary, and that ostensible miracles are to be disbelieved on the grounds that they would be miraculous’ (317).

Reductive scientific attempts to ‘explain’ religious experience in terms of physiology miss the point, because it would be surprising if such experience did not have a physiological correlate:

It is precisely because mental states rest upon a physiological foundation that all the established contemplative traditions insist that one must undertake physical disciplines, many of them quite ascetic in nature, if one is to detach one’s mind from the distractions of daily existence and penetrate the surface of normal perception, to see what may be found in the hidden depths of things. (320)

A corollary is that the search for God, ‘if it is to be successful, must be conducted in a manner fitted to the reality one is looking for … what one is seeking is a particular experience, one wholly unlike an encounter with some mere finite object of cognition or some particular thing that might be found among other things … an ever deeper communion with a reality that at once exceeds and underlies all other experiences’ (320).

Given what has been said about the God of classical theism, it should not be surprising that the major theistic traditions speak in comparable terms of seeking God within, and also describe similar experiences undergone by the contemplative (several examples are provided on 322–5). The search is, therefore, ‘empirical’ (see 324) and ‘rational’ (see 325) in a fundamental sense of both terms. Taking a cue from Evelyn Underhill, DBH posits that materialist thinking is in fact ‘a form of barbarism, which so coarsens the intellect as to make it incapable of the high rational labor of contemplative prayer … [and] the facile convictions of the materialist can appear positively childish, even somewhat “primitive”’ (325). Our age confuses technological advances with wisdom, whereas the former may actually hinder the development of the latter:

We excel in so many astonishing ways at the manipulation of the material order – medicines and weapons, mass communication and mass murder, digital creativity and ecological ruination, scientific exploration and the fabrication of ever more elaborate forms of imbecile distraction – and yet in the realms of ‘spiritual’ achievement – the arts, philosophy, contemplative practices – ours is an unprecedentedly impoverished age. (326)

The book concludes with reflections on Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, ‘the greatest metaphysical allegory of Western tradition’ (329). We inhabit a world of illusion, from which we must struggle to escape, climbing out of darkness and ignorance toward the light of truth. That ascent may now be more difficult than ever, ‘because of all the vital things we have forgotten’ (328).

Late modernity is, after all, a remarkably shrill and glaring reality, a dazzling chaos of the beguilingly trivial and terrifyingly atrocious, a world of ubiquitous mass media and constant interruption, a ceaseless storm of artificial sensations and appetites, an interminable spectacle whose only unifying theme is the imperative to acquire and spend. It is scarcely surprising, in such a world, amid so many distractions, and so many distractions from distraction, that we should have little time to reflect upon the mystery that manifests itself not as a thing among other things, but as the silent event of being itself. (329)

* * *

This book was a pleasure to read. DBH writes lucidly and with style. He is a master of turning a phrase, indicating his deep familiarity with both his subject matter and with the English language. The book itself is attractively presented, a plain white cover reflecting the logical simplicity of the ‘God’ of classical theism. Neither could I fault the editing, a factor that cannot be taken for granted nowadays, even from university presses. There are fourteen pages of endnotes, some of them substantial. The eight-page ‘Bibliographical Postscript’ is a very useful guide to further reading, as well as demonstrating DBH’s latitude. The fifteen-page index is a similarly welcome addition.

In terms of subject matter, I found the book appealing on several levels. First, my own philosophical formation at University College Dublin was influenced by classical theism, with a strong emphasis on the history of Western philosophy from the Pre-Socratic thinkers, through the high-point of Athenian philosophy, followed by the Hellenistic period, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and modernity. I have come to a greater appreciation of this broad historical approach with the passage of time and exposure to other ways of doing philosophy. Another recent influence was Pierre Hadot’s notion of ancient philosophy as a ‘way of life’. I was, therefore, ‘primed’ for The Experience of God.

Second, from the time of my postgraduate studies in Dublin, I had also broadened my interests to include the philosophies of other cultures, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I paid visits to the Buddhist centre in Dublin, which happened to subscribe to Tibetan Buddhism. I was introduced to the writings of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who wrote books with titles like The Marriage of East and West, and who later settled at a Christian ashram in southern India. We exchanged several letters and in 1990 I visited him at the ashram, which, incidentally, was called Saccidananda (also Shantivanam, Tamil for ‘forest of peace’). Later I became familiar with other modern spiritual giants, such as Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, and Meher Baba. It was gratifying, therefore, to discover DBH’s universalist tendencies, perhaps partly the result of his own Eastern Orthodox background.

Third, DBH avoids several potential pitfalls of the universalist approach. Rather than a superficial eclecticism, there is a rationally coherent account of the classical theist position, constructed from first principles, as it were, and without prioritizing any one creed. The examples provided from different traditions are illustrative and supporting, without overburdening the argument. At the same time, he is not content with a merely logical compulsion, but draws out the moral and experiential dimensions to classical theism, as I have tried to demonstrate in the synopsis provided above.

DBH’s approach contrasts with that of the so-called Traditionalist School associated primarily with René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon. Thinkers in this school likewise believed in a universal truth underlying the various religious traditions, although they preferred to call it the ‘perennial wisdom’ rather than the ‘perennial philosophy’. They also insisted, however, on the necessity for affiliation to one of the ‘normal traditions’, which has potential drawbacks, such as Guénon’s support for the Hindu caste system (see Kevin R.D. Shepherd, ‘Investigating Perennial Philosophy’; also his ‘Ken Wilber and Integralism’, which takes a critical look at another problematic claimant to perennial wisdom).

Another pitfall to be circumvented is the approach of Aldous Huxley, who published a book with the title The Perennial Philosophy in 1945. Unfortunately, Huxley confused genuine mystical experience with drug-induced states, advocating the use of mescaline in his 1954 sequel, The Doors of Perception (see the first article by Shepherd above). Although there has been a perennial resort to artificial means of inducing altered states of mind, this is not condoned by the mainstream theistic traditions, which tend to prefer abstinence and a contemplative disposition. Popular writers like Huxley had a disastrous influence on the hippies of the 1960s and subsequent New Age movement, but DBH’s classical theism avoids this problem.

A fourth appeal of The Experience of God is that it demonstrates the relevance of the classical theist position to the contemporary philosophies of science, mind, and religion. There is no doubting the breadth of DBH’s learning, but it also has depth. His familiarity with the broad, rich history of metaphysics enables him to contextualize the development of modern science, the discoveries of neuroscience, and the rise of popular atheism. I believe his approach also shows how impoverished philosophy can be when it neglects historical and intercultural dimensions in favour of a preoccupation with language and argument.

The Experience of God will be of interest to the educated general reader with an interest in philosophy. Some background familiarity with philosophy would be helpful, although not essential. I think it should be required reading for philosophy students, especially those in analytic philosophy departments, who might benefit from understanding that the history of philosophy is not just a source of dated philosophical arguments and ‘thought experiments’ but has a rational coherence as a way of life.

Simon Kidd
Perth, Western Australia
January 2019