‘All Reality Is Interaction’ with Carlo Rovelli.

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All reality is Interaction’ is the title of a conversation with physicist Carlo Rovelli, recorded before the COVID 19 pandemic. In this extract, Rovelli talks with Krista Tippett about complexity, the fragility of civilisation and the value of our life together.

Krista Tippett: you have a sense of the complexity of reality and the cosmos that is so far beyond our senses. So here’s the question: How does this change the way you move through the world? Is this something you’re able to work with?

Carlo Rovelli: Well, I don’t know if I’m able, but I do [laughs] work with it. The idea that our senses can mislead us — this idea, it’s very old. It goes back to antiquity; in fact, it’s the key idea of a good part of Greek philosophy. Some philosophers took it even too strongly, saying we shouldn’t believe at all what our senses say; reality is completely different. Nowadays, of course, we rely on what we see, but we have learned, and I think we have learned deeply, that we are like children. Namely, we start with a naïve idea about the world; we start with a naïve vision about the world; and then, slowly, we learn more. We learn more because we grow. Like children grow, so society has grown, civilization has grown — and has grown by learning from experience, from other people, from books, from experiments, from all sorts of stuff.

And what we have learned is, as you say, the complexity. The world is much more complex than what it looks at first sight. I look at this glass of water, and it’s just quite transparent, but I know that, in fact, it’s a crazy zig-zagging of molecules down there, which do all sorts of stuff, and how fast they move the temperature, and so on and so forth. And this complexity, which is at all levels, guards us from being driven by too-simple-minded things. I think we should keep in mind that the world is complex. We have a good way of dealing with the world, right? Society works. Civilization works. We are alive, and we’re seven billion of us on Earth, and many more than before. And in fact, we are actually more of us on Earth which are out of deep poverty and have education and things to live, much more than in the past, so we’re not doing too bad.

But at the same time, we know that this knowledge we have, it’s fragile, and we don’t have full knowledge at all. Nothing guarantees that we do better tomorrow, at all. We’re not guaranteed by anything. Civilization could stop tomorrow. The Earth is becoming warmer, and it could be a catastrophe. We are too many on Earth, and this might lead to other catastrophes. And worst of all, we are fighting against us more and more, and this could get more catastrophe. So there is a sense of fragility, which I do have, both in the — I don’t think I know the truth. I think I know a little bit about the world, and I know deeply that I have no access to any final truth, to any absolute truth. I know deeply that my brain is limited; it’s something I understand. Sometimes I feel I understand better than somebody else, and sometimes, no, I feel that somebody else understands better than me. And I know that my life is limited. I have a certain number of years to live, and that’s it. Maybe humanity itself has a limited life. I don’t think there’s anything that guarantees us beyond that. Can we live this — with this uncertainty? Can we live with this fragility? I think we do, and we can. And even more, I think —

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To read or hear the whole interview go to Onbeing

Imagining a new kind of education

Schools and universities are closed. Lessons and lectures are given ‘remotely’. And we are all learning what is important and who is important.

In this new ‘learning environment’ here is a poem about an alternative day at school.  The poem was chosen by the poet Padraig O Tuama on his  Poetry Unbound  podcast. Padraig was one of the keynote speakers at the European Chaplains’ conference in Dublin two years ago.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade 
by Brad Aaron Modlin 

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas, 

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark. 

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s 

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else— 

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted 

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough. 

The English lesson was that ‘I am’
is a complete sentence. 

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions, 

 and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person 

add up to something. 

 

Original can be seen at OnBeing

Spirituality in the order and disorder

Extract from my mailing to the Christian Spirituality and Meditation network at Imperial.
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What does the desert of the Lent  Bible passages look like in our contemporary and often urban life?
I came across this quote that suggests to me that our contemporary desert can be found in the mess, confusion and overwhelm of our lives.
“American theological writer Mike Yaconelli calls for a ‘messy spirituality’ fitted not to the ordered life of the cloister but to the unpredictable confusion and frequent mess of ordinary people’s lives. And in a different vein Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, having between them spent 36 years in the cloister, invite us to ‘guard the chaos’ and seek an ‘active boundary living’ in which we harness the enrichment that can come from life at the margins and in states of instability and flux.”*
Here is to making the most of mess in Lent – and walking prayerfully through the chaos and the order.
*From: ‘Spirituality in Season’ by Ross Thompson.

One act of Remembrance, many faiths

The College Archivist and I started an Act of Remembrance in 2014. We invite students and staff to gather near one of the College war memorials that have the names of students and staff killed during the First and Second World Wars.

It is a simple event with a reading from the Archive written by a member of College who served in one of the world wars. We observe a two-minute silence and have a short piece of music – this year part of a Bach Cello concerto –  then we lay wreaths at the memorials.

As we are an international academic community we also lay flowers to remember those killed in other conflicts past and present.

We have designed the event to include all those who wish to take part and to acknowledge current trauma and loss caused by conflict.

Last week I was at a conference for central London clergy taking place in northern France. In the town’s cemetery there were a large number of Commonwealth War Graves from the First and Second World War. I have visited a number of these sites over the years but this was the first time I have seen graves of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers. Here is a short video.

 

 

becoming more literate – in a religious kind of way

It was good to be reminded recently of the work on Religious Literacy being done in the UK. Chaplaincy colleagues at the University of the Arts London co-hosted a debate ‘is there room for religion?’ exploring how religion informs the work of students and staff.

Religious Literacy aims to increase understanding of the positive part that faith and religion have in the lives of students and staff.

Religious Literacy seeks a better quality of conversation about religion.

Faith issues show up in Higher Education in a variety of places, like the provision of prayer facilities, exams clashing with religious festivals, appropriate catering, maintaining freedom of speech and being respectful to others, the fear of religious extremism,  personal identity and in the Equality and Diversity agendas.

The Literacy approach gives a positive way of not just finding solutions but of enriching our shared life in the process.

The Religious Literacy programme is based at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

 

 

 

“the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured.”

“The church in a quite special way is the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured. The church has no monopoly on these matters. Its oddity, however, is that it takes this agenda as its peculiar and primary business. In all sorts of unnoticed places, it is the church that raises the human questions.”   Walter Brueggemann from ‘The Counterworld of Evangelical Imagination’ 1993.

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The quote captures something of why I think the Church is involved in many areas of life, including Higher Education. It is the Church’s “peculiar and primary business” to raise “the human questions.”

It might not be obvious which questions the religious practices are raising. I was thinking about the Wednesday Eucharist we hold in the parish church that sits between the university buildings. We are a group of about 10-15 drawn from the staff from the Colleges and local workplaces, students, one regular alumni, some parish members, me and the parish clergy.

The service involves the sharing of bread and wine. The Bruggemann quote reminded me of the continual exploration week by week of basic questions. These are just a few.

What is broken and what is whole?

How is one person related to the many?

What do we need to let go of in order to receive?

What might be worth a sacrifice?

What do I need to know and admit to myself and about myself?

Can these strangers be a gift to me?

the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured.

“Prayers are tools…for being”

“Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” These are words of the legendary biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson. Frustrated with the unimaginative way he found his congregants treating their Bibles, he translated it himself, and that translation has sold millions of copies around the world. Eugene Peterson’s down-to-earth faith hinges on a love of metaphor and a commitment to the Bible’s poetry as what keeps it alive to the world.
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This is Krista Tippett’s introduction to her “On Being” conversation with Eugene Peterson. The audio and transcript of the conversation can be found here.

I like Peterson’s insistence on bringing out the poetry of the Bible to let it work imaginatively in our minds and bodies.

I also like the idea of ‘prayers as tools’. In my context, everyone is using tools in their practice of science, engineering, medicine, and art and design. So I also like the idea that ‘prayers are tools’ – focused, applied, and with a process.

Yet because prayers lead us through silence, imagination, and the unconscious towards God they will only ever be ‘tools for being and becoming’.

Note on Practice: Lectio Divina

I guess this imaginative process prayer that lets scripture engaging our mind and body is why many students and staff in our Christian Meditation group respond so positively to Lectio Divina.

Lectio is a method of slow reading meditation. The method starts with reading the passage slowly three or four times while asking the question ‘What am I most drawn to in this passage today – what word or phrase attracts me most?’

We then ‘sit with the phrase’ turning it over and over and noticing what arises as we do this. After a while, we move to silent conversational prayer. Finally we drop all pondering and reflecting and simply sit quietly. Contemplation.

 

I love ‘The Outrun’.

‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot

I love ‘The Outrun’. I read it over two years ago and it still prompts me to pay attention to what I see.

Amy Liptrot describes her growing dependency on alcohol in the years after graduation. After three months in a rehab clinic she returns home to Orkney for ‘a few weeks’. Weeks turn into a year. She remembers and explores her descent into addiction. She also maps for us the elements of her recovery – a new and expanding awareness of her environment and her own body.

The physical labour of repairing the stone walls on her Dad’s farm gave her something to do as she practices  the new disciplines of a recovering alcoholic. Outside all day, in the rain and wind, she began watching the clouds, and then learning their forms and types.

She explores in every direction around her. Long walks around the islands for exercise increasingly turn into a detailed investigation of the coastline and its geology, then visits to the pre-historic settlements and standing stones.  Liptrot lands a night time job counting Corncrakes, shy birds rarely seen and who can only be heard at night, ‘the perfect job for a recovering alcoholic and clubber’. The job extends her awareness, not just to birds but to the stars and satellites. Awareness of the natural world is combined with awareness of human interaction with the natural world. She visits old deserted crofts on outlying islands and ponders the experiments for tidal electricity generation. Liptrot takes her  immersion in the environment to the next level and joins the wild swimmers of Orkney.

There is much concern in Universities about student mental health, and a growing awareness of the part that digital culture plays in the rise of anxiety and dis-ease.

In The Outrun Liptrot uses the digital world to enhance and extend her vision and observation. She shows how the digital world mapped her journey of recovery and gave new connections to people and to the world. Her digital life includes a Facebook group has alerts for sightings of whales and eagles. The star gazing apps open up a new night vision to the veteran clubber. Her phone GPS tracker charted then change in her movement from long walks around the island to in-depth exploring of each inlet. She is interested in the passing space station  as well as the stars. In the routes of shipping and airplanes passing and crossing the island. As her day to day relationships slowly develop so too does a way to handle the online and digital relationships.

She shows us the daily learning and never ending discipline of being a recovering alcoholic. This is vivid nature writing that explores  the natural world and human life within it. It also her story of moving from illness to a new form of health – physical, mental, relational and digital. And all are connected.

Prof Richard Davidson on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation.

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Here is the link to an OnBeing podcast interview with neuroscientist Prof Richard Davidson. He has worked on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation. Davidson talks here with Krista Tippett about how mind, body and emotions are more closely integrated than we conventionally understand them. He also refers to research showing a human predisposition towards kindness.

My Buddhist colleagues and I have been talking about these issues in relation to our various meditation programmes – Mindfulness, Buddhist and Christian meditation – that we offer each week.

There is more discussion of research studies in the  long unedited version of the interview, which is not the one with the transcript.

Full link

 

 

“I’m not busy”

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“You must be very busy?”

‘I am not busy’  is a website and a book by Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Cambridge. He argues,

“Busyness has become a disease.

The developed world is suffering from an epidemic of major proportions, and the disease at the heart of it is busyness.

We are addicted to doing one thing after another with as little down-time as possible. This is a sickness, a spiritual sickness.”

‘I am not busy’ is his response to our hyperactive working culture. He is an academic and a priest. He runs an organisation, writes books, broadcasts, offers  pastoral  and I assume does much more besides. But he chooses to see himself as engaged rather than busy.

This thinking might be useful for those of you concerned about high levels of stress or working with student mental health.

It is a bonus for those following the Christian season of Lent (but please don’t be put off by that if that’s not your world view).

“I am not busy” offers ten tips for responding to our ‘busyness’ culture’. It’s not only applicable to the Higher Education sector of course.

The personal response is one part of the answer. It is also good to ask about the structural causes of stress as well.

If you find it useful, let me know. I would be interested to hear your reflections.