God in Corona World
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Note by the author: Wherever this thinking piece features situations or images involving people other than myself, explicit consent for publication of the material has been given.
Many of the thinking pieces I've created over the course of my research on LIFE = ART feature spiritual and even religious references. In secular Western society, including its universities as strongholds of objectivity and rationality, a certain awkwardness surrounds this dimension of life. It is not easily talked about for fear of being considered irrational or superstitious, because spiritual experiences evade measurement and proof. However, they do play a significant role in many people's lives - including my own. Right now, the reality of living in Corona World invokes a fundamental uncertainty about the continuation of life as we used to know it. The presence of death brings to the foreground existential considerations, posing questions about our priorities and what we value in life. In this letter to my PhD supervisor Prof Linden West, I illuminate the role that spirituality, the notion of God, and the presence of mystery plays in my work and life - against the background of everyday movements grinding to a halt because of a virus affecting humanity on a global scale.
Berlin, 23 March 2020
If the world was a strange place already, Corona makes it even stranger. I am writing to you from the confinement of my flat. How is it in your cloister, someone asked me yesterday. And it’s true, being in quarantine is a bit like going on a retreat in one’s own home. That is, if one has the luxury of being able to do so. These times invite contemplation on what actually matters in life. A whole new appreciation of social contacts – something that many of us used to take for granted – is emerging. Conversations with others on Skype or – more sparsely – in real life, take on an existential tone. A good moment to think about spiritual matters.
What are you going to do with your life if everything is ripped out of normality? What becomes interesting? And what fades into irrelevance? I have certainly been struggling to keep up with my PhD research these last few weeks, even though the topic, LIFE = ART = RESEARCH, is probably as close to daily experience as it can get. And yet, why immerse yourself in a self-created world of thoughts and ideas behind a laptop if today may be your last chance of going outside and enjoying the spring weather? Why work towards the distant and slightly surreal goal of gaining an academic award if universities and schools are closing, people are losing their jobs, and countless creative initiatives are sprouting up to turn these times into something worth living? Here is some of what I got up to instead.
I started painting a Scroll of Life. It currently features may bugs, details of moss, and also death in the form of a fox skull. For a long time, I’ve experienced the absence of a valid excuse to take the time to make images like this. I usually feel like I can more effectively communicate through words, whilst drawing and painting is an indulgence that distracts from more important things. But a few days ago, I had a dream in which my lover’s mother – who is a visual artist – gave me permission to make marks on a surface of white foam that was covering a piano. I’d met her on Skype the day before, as I was talking to my lover who left for Mexico just before Corona kicked off. This distance encounter was strangely touching. The dream image reminded me of Beuys’s muted piano covered in felt, with a red emergency cross on it. Well, we live in the middle of emergency right now, and the fragility of the current state of affairs invites creative responses of many kinds. One needs to do something to not go crazy. So why not paint. Why not?
Furthermore, I spent four days going through all my material possessions with my former partner of ten years, to disentangle our shared belongings. It felt satisfactory in the way that a spring clean feels satisfactory, just on a soul level. Life goes on, and after our break-up six months ago it seems like we’ve arrived at a point where we can begin to appreciate the various learnings that have occurred in our respective lives in the meanwhile. We had to do a lot of catching up on sharing experiences by describing them to each other, a way of life we’d developed together over the years. I missed these conversations.
In one of the boxes that were stored in the basement, I found a pile of books that I took from my mother when she was about to throw them away. One of them caught my eye and I started reading it. It is about death – a translation of the Tibetan Book of Death for a Western audience (Etminan & Plate, 2005). The authors draw parallels between Buddhist and Christian views on death, taking the perspective that all stories and symbols are in the end rooted in human experience and can be traced back to that. They talk about gnosis – knowledge derived from experience. Yesterday I said to my former partner that I just LOVE describing experience, and I LOVE listening to people describing experience. I asked him why he thought that was – knowing that this is something we share. It’s because it brings you right in touch with the fabric of life, he said. And so we were revelling in the joy of gnosis as we were smoking at the window in my living room, which we’d turned into a party space by switching on blacklights and live-streaming a DJ-set broadcast from Griessmühle – a club that is deserted now that all nightlife in Berlin and the rest of the world lies flat.
So much as to what has been keeping me from writing for a while. Slowly, the abnormal is becoming the new normal, and I’ve been adjusting to a different rhythm of life. Maybe now I can return to some of the thoughts I’ve been having before the outbreak of this crisis and look at them from the preciously weird perspective Corona World is offering me. You’ve repeatedly remarked that my writing features a kind of spiritual language, and you’ve encouraged me to reflect on this. It’s taken some time for me to begin to articulate why I have this tendency, but I’ve realised that actually it’s not surprising at all.
My father was a Catholic. My mother has been drawn to a variety of spiritual narratives. And so I grew up looking for what resonated with me within this wealth of stories and rituals. When I was a young teenager, I even wanted to study theology and I read books about different world religions. I remember having the last and only adult conversation with my big brother shortly before he died. He asked me why I was so interested in all of this. I said it was because I wanted to understand the ways in which people find meaning in life. On a basic level, this is still where I’m at. I no longer believe in the Christian God as an old man in heaven, but also, I never found a way of coming to terms with a purely materialistic worldview. Given the mystery that there is something and not nothing, as Heidegger (1976, p. 307) pointed out, I am too aware that everything is happening against a background of unexplainable things. Being in the world evokes awe in me. And I want to live my life with a sense of meaning and purpose. To do so, I need to tune in to what I call soul – the fabric of life itself – and orientate towards the biggest possible perspective, which is that I am part of a mystery that can’t be dissected but that can be experienced. From that experience speaks the logic of trying to live a good life, which I think is on a practical level what spirituality is about. In the end, I am a pragmatic person.
Translation from Dutch: “Dear Annelinde, I’ve known for years, even before you were born, that you are smart, beautiful, and lovely. But one thing you should always remember: your biggest secret, your God spark, is inside you! To find it, you will have to go a long way, just like Snowwhite had to go over seven hills to find the seven dwarfs. Thus He [God] spoke and so do I. (I also believe in fairy tales!) Enjoy your time together [with your father]. I am often with you in my thoughts. With love, mum Johanne!”
Probably the most fundamental pillar of leading a good life to me is doing things with love. Love always makes sense. There is nothing that anger or hate or fear can do better than love. Love is not a denial of difficulty. Love is what gives the power to acknowledge difficulty and find creative ways forward. Love goes together with a sense of justice and care. I’m thinking of how Jesus had a temper when he noticed the money lenders on the stairs of the temple. Infuriated about how one could justify living off other people’s poverty, he shouted at them as he threw over their tables. Others stood around looking sheepishly. This story always reminds me that if you really care, you won’t be corrupted as easily. Corruption can come in so many guises! It’s easy to slip into doing things one isn’t really convinced of because of social pressures. In the worst case it leads to living with double standards. Or to shutting your mouth about certain things because they don’t fit into the frame you’ve created for yourself. Or to not being able to look yourself in the eyes anymore. Denial kills care. Keeping on caring is a life goal I’ve set for myself. Through my work I hope to offer a tiny inspiration for others to do the same.
Quite the antithesis of being a denial of difficulty, I have a sense that an attitude of love can actually help to embrace the unexplainable and unsettling dimensions of life. With love you can bring light as well as go into the darkness, into the shadows where things are ambiguous and not as clear-cut, instead of having to look away from them fearfully. I remember a religion class in primary school where the teacher asked us to go out into the world, find an object, bring it back, and talk about it. I went off into the bushes – a forbidden place – and found a broken peanut butter jar. If everything is God’s creation, then surely the dirty and broken also has a place in it, I thought? Whilst the catholic God tends to be presented as a God of order and light and clarity, as one who knows everything and who judges your actions rightfully, I’ve always felt like that couldn’t be the whole picture. Because order only exists by the grace of chaos, light only as the other of darkness, clarity only in conjunction with confusion, and knowing only in relation to not knowing. And in the end, you can’t wait for judgment until you die – you have to find a way of finding your way as you go along. A picture of God that makes a lot more sense to me is described in Demian, a book written by Hermann Hesse. He mentions Abraxas, the divine being that unifies within itself these apparent opposites. It says:
“Rapture and terror, man and woman combined, the most sacred and the most hideous things interwoven, deep guilt quivering in the heart of the gentlest innocence – such was my image of my dream of love, and such was Abraxas, also. Love was no longer an obscure animal urge, as I had conceived it anxiously at the beginning, nor was it any longer a spiritualized pious worship (…). It was both, both and much more still, it was an angelic image and Satan, man and woman in one, human being and animal, the highest good and extreme evil. To experience this seemed to be my lot; to taste of it, my destiny. I longed for it and feared it, but it was always there, always hovering over me.”
(Hesse, 1919/2000, p. 62)
In an attempt to acknowledge and integrate apparent contradictions – rather than shying away from the ambiguity they pose – I am also drawn to Jung’s take on things. I found a lot of resonance with your and Laura Formenti’s writing on soul work in the context of adult learning. Especially your description of individuation, one of the key themes in Jung’s psychoanalytic work, stuck with me: “individuation is an ongoing composition of opposites, in ways that are life enhancing. We are living dilemmas, always struggling, and our disorientation is to be worked on as part of becoming the person we can be.” (Formenti & West, 2018, p. 132). You point out that facing up to this human condition in an attempt to become whole and free requires a significant dose of what Keats (1817/2009) called ‘negative capability’: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. How well that goes together with Jung’s understanding of the Divine as a symbol of everything beyond our understanding, that which “challenges the pride of Ego and its fantasies of control” (Formenti & West, 2018, p. 133), as you write in your book.
If anything, Corona is telling me to give up fantasies of control, and to surrender to whatever might happen. In a twisted way, I can probably say that the situation with this virus brings me closer to the Divine / Abraxas / God. A strange form of living in the present moment occurs, because speculating about the future kind of makes me despair these days. In some moments, I feel capable to tune in to what is still possible in a constructive way. But in other moments, the situation just numbs me. Despite my holding on to a sense of meaning and purpose, sometimes it seems as though things are just happening randomly and there is not going to be justice in the end. I guess one can never know for sure and better finds a way of arranging oneself with that. The best I can do is to trust that whatever needs to happen will happen. It’s not anything that can possibly be proven or that necessarily makes sense, but it helps me settle my worries and carry on living.
I realise that rather than giving you a comprehensive theory of the spiritual in my work, I’ve been weaving together memories, experiences, hunches, and things that stuck with me. It’s an attempt to do justice to the fact that in the end, I can only grasp bits and pieces. Goethe said that the whole manifests through its parts, and it can only be known by entering the parts (Bortoft, 2018). Doing so, a bigger picture emerges; in this case of an understanding of spirituality that is rooted in experience and guessing – gnosis – by which I attempt to live my life. And since I aim for a consistency of values in all areas of life, this understanding also feeds into the work I do.
I hope you are finding ways to keep on keeping on in these strange times!
Wishing you all the best from a quiet metropolis,
Bortoft, H. (2018) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way of Science. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books.
Etminan, H.E. & Plate, W. (2005) Het geheim van de dood. Het Westers dodenboek: wegwijzer voor het leven na de dood. Tielt, Netherlands: lannoo.
Formenti, L. & West, L. (2018) Transforming Perspectives in Lifelong Learning and Adult Education: A Dialogue. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Heidegger, M. (1976) Nachwort zu „Was ist Metaphysik?“, in Gesamtausgabe,
Bd. 9, Frankfurt am Main, Germany: F.-W. v. Herrmann, pp. 303-312.
Hesse, H. (1919/2000) Demian. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Keats, J. (1817/2009) Keats’s Poetry and Prose. New York, NY: Norton.