Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Good heavens?

The London Fortean Society is my local branch of the Forteans. Formed by Charles Hoy Fort in 1931 in a New York flat with the aim of studying, investigating, and/or debunking anomalous phenomena. The London branch meet in pubs, or sometimes even on the streets, to discuss such topics as the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, the mystery of the London Stone, the golden age of quackery, and alchemy in 16th century Prague ghettos. A pretty wide remit.

Last night's meeting was in the fantastic Conway Hall. It's like a village hall but in a central London location and is mainly used by the Conway Hall Ethical Society. Advocates of secular humanism and the only remaining ethical society in the UK. Events coming up include talks on psychedelics, a salsa dancing evening, and a family Lego day. Again - a broad church.

I was there, however, for Philip C Almond's talk 'A History of Life after Death' so I grabbed a bottle of Hopping Hare from Dorset's Badger brewery and pulled up a chair in the back row to listen intently to what the Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences (Research) and Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at The University of Queensland had to say. Luckily not his job description as that would've eaten quite heavily into our time.

Time, as we all know, is finite for us. At least in this mortal sphere. But what happens to us after, or doesn't, was the point of the talk. Philip said that up until about 1800 there was a fairly widely held belief in the last judgement and in 'last things'. Catholics believed that the very good went straight to heaven and the very bad straight to hell. Most of us, the naughty ones, had to spend an indefinite period in purgatory first.

Protestant belief was pretty similar. Just without the purgatory bit. In some extreme interpretations God decided, not at the moment of our death, where we'd be going, but at the moment of our birth. Which doesn't sound like there'd have been much of a motivation to lead a virtuous life if you believed that.

Far more common was the idea that, on death, we went into a kind of frozen state and didn't reach our final destination (be it heaven or hell) until the end times, until the planet had ultimately destroyed itself. We were all, basically, in a coma waiting for the world to end.

What's changed in modern thought in the last couple of centuries is that now it's widely accepted, amongst those who still believe, that the afterlife begins almost at the point of death. There's not a lot of hell or purgatory in modern theology either. They're trying to sell this stuff after all.

In many accounts there is no God, as such, in heaven. The older belief of being permanently judged by a capricious creator replaced by the idea that God is now known primarily through the love shown to the other people in heaven.

Swedish theologian, revelator, mystic, and, if you must, scientist Emanuel Swedenborg made great claims in the late 18th century. Utterly fanciful ones to my mind but still ones that gained a lot of traction and shaped modern thinking on these matters.

Possibly his boldest assertion of all was that he, personally, had crossed over to the other side and conversed with those who'd already died. As a reader of Rene Descartes he attempted to fuse Cartesian reason with supposed divine revelation. Philip described it as Cartesianism gone cosmic but Swedenborg sounds like a con man to me.

Swedenborg said that via his 'proof' science and religion could now be reconciled through their differences rather than being at loggerheads with each other. He saw room for both. The angels he'd met, he said, were humans. They lived in houses in heaven which were built in cities in heaven. Both the houses and cities were much the same size and design of those on Earth.

There was even marriage in heaven and after the nuptials a big feast. He didn't specify if everyione got to dance to Come on Eileen afterwards. So similar was heaven to Earth maybe he'd used all his imagination up on the visiting heaven thing in the first place. One thing that was different was that there was no procreation. Not even within marriage. There was sex, just for the fun of it, but no procreation.

Swedenborg inspired the work of William Blake, who saw angels on Peckham Rye (I've seen a few of them), and American feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps whose book The Gates Ajar popularised the concept of a social heaven. It sold huge amounts helped, no doubt, by the fact it was released in 1868. Just three years after the end of the American Civil War when a lot of people were still grieving for loved ones.

Her heaven was full of babies and domesticated life. Which won't sound that heavenly to many. Mark Twain called it a mean ten cent heaven about the size of Rhode Island so unimpressed was he with her lack of vision. She said strawberries and ginger snaps would be available and also work. Yeah, just what we all want to do when we die! You could also meet your pets again as, of course, in this slice of apple pie nirvana, they'd be there.

Whilst we were looking for the spirits though the spirits came looking for us. Or so some would have it. In 1848 a family in New York state began communicating with those who'd passed to the other side. Seances and mediums sprang up around New York and Philadelphia and then further afield.

Eventually some of these spiritualist beliefs became codified. We weren't old or babies in the afterlife but all about 33 years old with fit, unblemished bodies. God had abdicated his role as enforcer of morality and assorted relatives, the dead ones obvs, were to keep a check on us. Although as everyone was about the same age it's hard to work out how hierarchies were formed.

This was the quest for immortality adapted to fit in with the age of science and it was absolute mumbo jumbo of the highest order. Houdini could see that and he crusaded vigorously against fraudulent mediums who he believed, correctly, to be exploiting people's grief in nefarious and painful ways.

Moving into the 20th century Hinduism was first adopted by the West, at least in any significant measure, but something was lost on the journey from India. The wheel of Samsara, the potentially ever recurring cycle of births and rebirths was, in Indian Hinduism something to be escaped. Reincarnation was a curse and the ultimate aim was to be released from that cycle. A bit like Groundhog Day.

The Western take on it celebrated the aspect of reincarnation. They loved the idea of karma where good deeds could be rewarded and sins punished. Aided and abetted by the fact that this wasn't what was happening on Earth.

The Russian occultist Madame Helena Blavatsky, with her Theosophical Society, brought the notion of karma to the West. She told us why bad things happened to good people. Its theories of hidden knowledge and esoteric wisdom helped pave the way for a lot of the nonsense still around now.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't think it was rubbish though. He loved it and in 1920 toured Australia promoting spiritualism and theosophy. Post World War II (and the Spanish flu epidemic) there were, as in Phelps' time, many looking to contact the dead and find peace with themselves. These faith healer types do seem to crop up at very opportune moments.

Conan Doyle held that once everyone had communed with their dead ancestors and these hitherto unknown truths were passed back we'd all be able to live in peace on Earth for ever more. It's a common insult now to describe someone as away with the fairies but Conan Doyle really was. He firmly believed in their existence and was taken in hook, line, and sinker by the notorious fake The Fairies of Cottingley below. If only he'd had the investigative skills of his most famous creation.

Theosophers of the time saw this, to our eyes obvious, fraud as evidence of an evolving new consciousness. They'd been had. But that didn't stop the flow of fantastical creatures. From the pens of Tolkien and Lewis and in the more generalised popular fiction of the day. Most took these fictions to be, just that, fiction. Some will insist to this day that vampires and ghosts exist.

The enchanted and the disenchanted worlds had become more blurred. It seemed that people were able to hold two completely contradictory positions in their mind at once. Was this an example of the aforementioned evolved consciousness or simple hypocrisy? We don't know and we won't know until we die and, I'd wager, not then either.

On this Philip ended a fabulous talk with a quote from the Venerable Bede, the 7th century Northumbrian monk, who wrote, in his History of the English People:-

"It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”

These words ring as true today as they were when he wrote them nearly 1300 years ago. It'd do us all, including me, some good to remember we simply don't know and therefore are in no fit state to tell anyone else. All we can do is share our ideas and tolerate those ideas we may not agree with.

I'll definitely be back for another visit to both Conway Hall and the London Fortean Society.

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