Varied Surroundings

There is more to being human than travelling around the world sampling its many delights, and recent reading has taken me deeper into subjects like philosophy. Though I am a scientist by training, the humanities continue to appeal to me, and various life events have led me to explore them more than otherwise might have been the case. That is now the main thrust of what you find here, along with other things that have a use in navigating life’s journey.


This year has seen me embark on a journey that was caused by an unexpected stimulus. Normally, thoughts on much of my reading can be shared on my outdoors blog, but most of what I have been perusing this year does fall within the realms of travel and outdoor activities, so it is perhaps better that I share it here instead.

In March, I read A Little Book of Humanism, and my religious faith meant that I found much in there that was dispiriting. The concern for others was fair, but it was the disbelief in a higher being and an afterlife that felt really empty, if not overwhelmingly lonely.

That reminded me of a cosmology documentary series shown on RTE television during my childhood, in which the universe felt like a very lonely and desolate place. It might have been narrated by American scientist Carl Sagan, who was not religious, so that may explain the emptiness. Even Brian Cox's more recent efforts can feel similar at times, so it might go with anything that surveys such vast stretches of time using only a materialistic basis.

My response to the perceived onslaught was to take another turn that lead to Edward Feser's The Last Superstition, for some heavy Holy Week reading in advance of Easter. This is a book that mixed head-breaking philosophical explorations that were heavily influenced by Aristotelianism and Thomism, along with right-wing political views that confronted my own partiality to liberalism. The book was inspired by California's legalisation of gay marriage and perhaps was a way of dealing with what a traditionalist Roman Catholic saw as an unnatural, immoral affront. Nevertheless, there was much to take from this though I still my retain own moderate liberalism and there was no attempt to rubbish scientific observations while putting them in an Aristotelian context.

Books about the Holy Bible also formed part of this year's reading, with John Barton's A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths being one of the first. My take home message from that tome was that anyone wanting to find a documented origin of what is in those sacred writings will come away disappointed, for there are many gaps and much comes from various cultures in the Near East.

The last point certainly opened Karen Armstrong's The Bible: The Biography, though that book also decries the rise of literalist approaches to the holy book that arose during the Reformation. Given ongoing collisions between Christian fundamentalists and practitioners of science, there certainly is much to recommend a more allegorical and contemplative approach. That, and so much more, pervades Armstrong's more recent work: The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, a book that showed the value of knowing how other religions approach their sacred books because we all can learn from each other.

Eastertide saw me survey Pope Francis' Fratelli Tutti, as well as The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. The first of these expressed the need to be there for each other, while the second often sounded as if it took a more literal approach to the Bible when an uncovering of underlying truths may have been more helpful. Still, the analysis of the sacred text puts things in their context and elucidates what it says about its origins and inspiration, so it remained useful.

When my father was in his later years, he took to reading and writing history and his interests also included religious history, so I bought him Diarmuid McCulloch's A History of Christianity. This is a large volume that I only finished recently after making slow progress with it over the summer. That effort makes me wonder why I thought it to be appropriate to buy a frail old man such dense reading instead of DVD's of the BBC documentary series, but it introduced many parts of the Christian story of which I had scant knowledge. This includes the evolution of Orthodox Christianity along with the various strands of Protestantism.

As I made my way through McCulloch's master survey, I also made more progress with Edward L. Beck's God Underneath, an autobiographical work that I started around Easter 2017 and I still have to finish. His is a life with many moments that make me cringe, and that is how I only reach for it from time to time. What I was seeking was something more contemplative, and I have a few of Richard Rohr's books to read now. The first of these for me is The Universal Christ, and I plan to take a slower and more deliberate path through these since they appear to have much to offer.

There also is a virtual shelf of other philosophical and religious works that I wish to read, but they are too long for this piece. One thing is beyond doubt: my reading often directs my thinking and this journey is set to continue, though I plan to venture into other lighter works as well. Variety is needed as much in life as is spiritual and philosophical direction. The universe may be a wonderful place, but it feels very lonely without any loving divine presence.