“How we all came to believe in freedom, kindness, progress and equality”
Glen takes 7 values that virtually everyone (in the West) believes in and lives for, and seeks to ask why we shape our lives around them. Equality, Compassion, Consent, Enlightenment, Science, Freedom and Progress. Where can we get our justification for saying these are good things? Was there a moment in history when people started believing in these things and shaping life around them? By believing in these things, are we just mindlessly having faith in unprovable values that we like or find comfortable?
Who is it written for?
Glen conveys that he writes for 3 audiences:
‘Nones‘ – many who are atheistic or agnostic but have perhaps never stopped to think where these precious values might have come from.
‘Dones‘ – the many people in our part of the globe who would perhaps have described themselves as ‘Christian’ at some point in their life but now no longer do, and who see the immense problems with it.
‘Wons‘ – so that followers of Jesus can understand where they and the world around them got their values from, and how to better live with confidence in the days ahead.
“It is not necessary to be a Christian to appreciate the force of Glen Scrivener’s argument in this punchy, engaging and entertaining book.”
Tom Holland (Historian, Author and Podcaster)
A bit about it
As I’ve enjoyed Glen’s YouTube podcasts over the past couple of years, with varied thought-leaders from across the globe, I was crazily anticipating this book at the end of it all, and it didn’t disappoint. He writes in short, snappy chapters, yet readers would be mistaken to think there’s no depth in there. If you watch Glen’s YouTube series, you’ll know that each sentence, and certainly each chapter, is backed up by leading thinkers of diverse background. For example, in his introduction he lists a book or two per chapter that support his writing, as well as stating what he is and isn’t trying to do in this book.
Each chapter tries to take us on a short history of the idea or concept, and help us to see that really each one comes about in history because of Jesus. That other cultures and worldviews are radically opposed to such thinking (or should be, unless they’ve blindly borrowed these ideas).
And in case that sounds too far-fetched an agenda to be true, others across the West are starting to realise Glen’s main thrust of his argument. In the Irish Times ‘Inside Politics’ podcast, Hugh Linehan has just done a very similar interview, bringing out some of the points Glen tries to make. And that’s not to mention people like the secular historian Tom Holland’s foundational work “Dominion”, and many others like Larry Siedentop, Rodney Stark, Kyle Harper and Joseph Henrich, to name a few that Glen quotes (none of whom are Christians).
Ultimately, Glen tries to convince each group of something:
‘Nones‘ – that most of the values they hold to are indeed Christian values, only come about through Jesus. You can’t have these values without Jesus. Or you can, but you’d be basing life on blind faith.
‘Dones‘ – that the values they (rightly!) judge Christianity by, are indeed Christian values. That there isn’t any leg to stand on to try and judge Christianity, unless these values are true.
‘Wons‘ – that Jesus’ values are worth holding on to, sharing and enjoying in their right context.
The group of young adults who I read this with particularly enjoyed Glen’s quotation towards the end of the book:
“Be half a Christian and you shall have enough religion to make you miserable”
Glen really helped us to see that we all want to live by Jesus’ values, even if we find those who take Jesus’ name utterly repulsive at times. But that to take his values, without taking him, is just giving ourselves a list of preachy rules to keep, applied by everyone differently. It is taking enough of Him to make our lives miserable (for none of us live up to our own standards, nevermind His), and not enough of Him to offer us forgiveness and some context for how to apply such values with wisdom.
The weaknesses of the book?
Chapter 5 on ‘the Enlightenment’ rushed over five things (technology, universities, human rights, parliaments, The Reformation) that Glen tried to connect to Christianity. Although he may well have been right, I think this was the weakest supported part of the book, spending not enough time on each one. I could imagine hearing my Muslim friends’ voices making audible remarks in my ear about why some of these things developed. But then again, Glen was writing to an English speaking, Western context, rather than engaging with other religions.
I wonder whether this will be the flaw more generally of the book – that there’s not enough in it to convince the reader on each point, unless they are prepared to do the homework on reading up elsewhere. That said, I know what it is to be an author and to be trying to decide what content to put into the book, while keeping it at a popular level that people will actually read and engage with! A daunting challenge, and I think Glen has done well in what he selected. I trust the way he writes will encourage others to go away and explore more.
Reading it as a book club together here in Crumlin, Dublin, we loved being able to watch his video that goes with each chapter, and discuss the questions together. You can find the videos and discussion guide here for free. I look forward to giving away a few copies of this book, and to continue discussing it with all of you, whether ‘nones’, ‘dones’ or ‘wons’!
Whether you’re a ParkRun fanatic, a Couch-to-5k starter, a pavement pounder or a trail-runner, we all run for a reason. Much as it may be rumoured that I run off jelly-babies, for me as a trail-runner here’s my story why I think joy is the best fuel for running, and what gives me that fuel.
Fuel yourself with joy Running at its best ought to be inherently joyful. ‘Why would you get up from the sofa and put yourself through the pain of exercise?‘ many ask. For the joy that comes from it and through it, would be my reply.
Many will testify that guilt is a bad motivator (Paul O’Connell’s rugby biography being one) and fear too (as rock-climber Alex Honnold discusses with psychologists here). But there’s an endorphin rush you experience deep inside you after you’ve finished that gives you a ‘bounce’ for the rest of the day (even if you’re tired). There’s a delight in the achievement of what you have just done. The thrill of feeling free as you arrive at the peak of a mountain ridge, or stick in the earphones to run and forget the day’s worries. But what about when we feel more drudgery than joy? When we see the next unbearable slope ahead, or after the brief moment of elation on the podium has passed?
Our trouble often is that we think that habit or duty is the antithesis of joy. So as soon as we don’t feel like something, or think it’s too hard work, we give up. Those first few weeks of starting running. Those weeks you seem to be plateauing and not going anywhere. Those days you look at the weather outside and just couldn’t be bothered.
But joy is more than a feeling we get when we muster up a good performance or work hard for all to see on Strava. Such joy would be very short-lived and not a good fuel for running, let alone the rest of life.
Could there be a more deep-seated joy within us that gives us energy even in injury, mental doubts and hard times?
Listen to your body It’s what has turned many to find greater purposes to generate joy within themselves. Are you running to get away from the problems and worries of work or to escape for a few hours from a relationship going through a rough patch? Are you running to prove to yourself that you can reach the goals that you aim for? Are you running to keep your body or mind in shape?
Many internal reasons motivate many of us, as we search for the joy to run inside of ourselves. And as we do so, the phrase “listen to your body” becomes a repeated mantra in many circles. Physically and mentally this can be liberating advice. Instead of being chained to training regimes, this gives the freedom to realise when we need to slow down, or when we can push ourselves more. Instead of choosing to try to push our body beyond actual pain in training, we can stop and think why we’re feeling pain and how to combat it.
But like many things in life, “listen to your body” alone won’t get you anywhere. We often deceive ourselves to what we are capable of (either not pushing hard enough or pushing too hard), we don’t understand our body to the extent we think we do, we don’t have the time to be an expert in everything in order to flourish as a runner, or quite simply, we don’t have motivation within ourselves at many times in life. True joy can still escape us.
Running unites And for when looking inside and listening to our body doesn’t do the job, many of us have turned to running communities to help us. ParkRun (local 5k runs once a week in a local park, run by the community, for the community) has exploded across many areas to the extent that there are more people wanting to do it than some parks can host!
Others join running clubs that cater for all standards. Many of these have been able to keep meeting, even with tighter Covid restrictions. What better than to have a weekly rhythm to motivate you and give you people to provide some kind of accountability and support? What about people with huge experience in running alongside you to help when niggles start, or someone who knows what you’re going through mentally, to spur you on?
I find that running unites me with people who I never would have thought about hanging out with before. Something about persevering in hard miles together, side by side, is the perfect way to see each other as fellow humans and to help each other out, even if you have radically different backgrounds or thoughts about life and politics.
Someone could be your enemy at work 9 til 5, but when met out in the mountains, they become a fellow runner. We’ve even seen it in the Refugee Team at the Olympics. Running can unite.
And it can unite us even to the extent many runners realise how it even mimics religious communities. #sundaychurch is a hashtag not altogether uncommon around those who head out for their long run on Sunday mornings, or #parkrunfamily for those who embrace the ParkRun community week by week. It’s a beautiful joy, that the lone runner (although accessing more freedom and flexibility) will struggle to ever replicate in any meaningful way.
The trail is unknown
But ultimately the unity brought by running communities and the wisdom of listening to our bodies is still not where joy can be truly found to fuel us for our running. I myself have learnt the hard way but many others have had similar hard lessons.
I was up running in the Dublin hills not so long ago, and found myself taking a “wrong” turn and losing track of the lead group. I slowed down to see if anyone was following close behind, and sure enough one runner soon caught up with me. As we ran for the next hour together, sometimes in silence (going up the hard slopes!) and sometimes chattering away about everything in life, it soon became evident that our stories overlapped to some small amount, even if he was a 50 year old Dad, and I was only just 30.
There was a day he feared, when the track would run out, and the community would die. A day when listening to his body would do no good. He told it in two ways.
The first was of a friend of his, one of the fittest people he knew. Jumping in the waves on a beach in Wexford with his daughter, he felt his leg snap when he landed on the soft sands of the beach. Somehow, he’d developed brittle bones, and his femur had just snapped. Brittle bones which would plague him for the rest of his life and make even the simplest of things hard. The running community would gather round him to help for his time in hospital and for many weeks, but after the news grew old, he was left alone, no longer fitting into the club that were once his family.
Dramatic as that sounds, this story was echoed in the man’s own life. During Covid, as fit as a fiddle, but suddenly developing a bad case of gout, becoming bedridden and unable to perform many functions in normal family life for weeks on end. The loneliness and lack of purpose was palpable for him.
This story, was also previously mine (with a different condition) which had me in Intensive Care in hospital for several days, having only just come from enjoying a few days running in the Mourne Mountains before that.
Ultimately listening to our bodies in any of these instances wouldn’t have helped – we either couldn’t have told what lay ahead or didn’t recognise the signs. Ultimately the running community could only do so much, before we were left outside the weekly gatherings. Ultimately, joy again would be snatched from us, if we had placed it within ourselves or within our communities.
Could there yet be a runner’s paradise from where could flow a joy that would transcend even these fairly unalterable problems? Or are we as runners just on a lottery, investing our joy like eggs in many baskets, in the hope they won’t all be snatched from us?
It’s something scary to most people, that they don’t want to think about. But for me, I want to find a fountain for my joy that will not run dry during hard times, even when the tears come. A joy that is more durable than most surface-level emotions. A joy that will fuel me when no mountain ridges are mine to run along, when no friends are there to support me, and when nothing inside of me (whether self-knowledge or self-motivation) could keep me going.
And that logically for me, could only be found in the transcendent – outside of this world. A joy given to us by something or someone outside of ourselves.
For me, I’ve met One who claims to have made us to enjoy running, and also has made our playground of the mountains to explore. One who removes guilt and fear, and helps us respond in joy to all He has done for us. One who would give us more self-knowledge than we could ever muster ourselves alone. One who gives us a united community (Church) more inclusive than any running club. And one who knows every turn of the track, and can be there with us and for us even in the moments that ought not to happen – the tragedies of this world. Knowing and experiencing Him, is a fountain of joy that fuels all other things in life, running included.
What are the memories you look back to with fondness? The times you replay over and over in your head on the day winter days. The places you forever have in your mind as incredible, due to some moment that happened there that took you to another plane, despite there perhaps being nothing notable about that place to anyone else who would arrive on a later date.
I remember a trip I once was on, hiking on the west coast of Ireland. Arriving at some cliffs during the golden hour, we sat down to enjoy the stunning moments of last light at the sun set over the water, with the waves crashing on the deserted beach at the foot of the cliffs beneath us. Sitting in silence in long grass, we were captivated.
“So I suppose this is where you thank God, is it?” came the voice from my secular friend beside me.
“Why do you say that?” I whispered back, not wanting to spoil the serenity of the scene in front of us, as if the moment would be taken away if it heard our voices.
“I dunno. Just feels like one of those moments”.
Having just read James KA Smith’s “How Not to Be Secular“, I rather despaired. Short as it is, it took me a while to get through for the rather complex language he chooses to use. But as its a commentary to go alongside the more complex (?) “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor (which I confess to not having yet read), I suppose I can’t shoot the messenger.
It appeared to me he takes a full book to simply outline the basic structures and worldview of where we’ve arrived at, from the last centuries of thought. Of course Smith would resolutely groan at me saying this, given that he’s adamant that this is not just a book about theoretical thought, but outworkings and practice in every area of life, which are far more complex. It’s a radical dismantling of a whole framework. Still, I stand by my motto that experts should be able to translate the complexities of their subject to common people, in accessible ways, if they are worth their weight in gold. But perhaps I’m part of a generation that enjoys being spoon-fed too much. Hey-ho.
None-the-less, the exercise, taxing as it may been at points, was worth it for many reasons, one of which I was reminded of as I read Emily Thomas’ The Meaning of Travel and the appearance of transcendence at many points in it. Smith says:
“The result [of the post-modern way of life, exampled by taking art, decontextualising it and redisplaying it,] is an immanent space to try and satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a ‘place to go for modern unbelief’ without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism – but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage.”
In other words, when we rob ourselves of any transcendent being, or absolute standards, we resort to having a mechanical world (no immaterial realm or anything but cold, random chance) or a utilitarian one (where we decide things in order to get the greatest good for the greatest number). In an effort to unflatten this world (bringing back the depth of what we just lost from shaping our world round higher meanings, absolutes etc.), we try and find such depth in new created ways.
Each of the three illustrations (concert hall, museum and tourism) could easily be expanded upon, but from my last post (of a return to normality, signified by the return of the woman and her friend to the nightclub), you may have glimpsed how the weekly clamour for the night out mimics something of religious worship that went before, not to mention the less regular attendance of gigs for similar (yet different) ends.
As the [liberal] church dies in the west as it accommodates post-modern, liberal theories within its very walls, and forgets to be shaped by the only thing it has different to the world around it (the transcendent, made immanent in the person of Jesus and His words in the scriptures), the walls of those churches do not just lose their transcendent feel, but literally become museums more and more in Ireland and the west.
Whether it still is Biblical writings on the walls, or other ancient artifacts of museums, the visitor would feel little different, if the Biblical texts were to be held out and simply critiqued as one piece of history amongst many. (Of course in one sense they are, but in another, the Transcendant speaks through loud and clear in ways that are unique to the text’s claim that these are also the very words of God). The feeling walking around such museums, whether in ecclesial buildings or otherwise, is the feeling that much old ecclesial architecture would have given – a grand awareness of how insignificant one is, amidst the majestic yet intricate universe towering over us.
Which brings us on to Smith’s (and Taylor’s) third sphere of created transcendence, as he envisages tourism as the new pilgrimage. The traveller goes off on their holiday, ‘gap year’, career break or retirement to ‘find themselves’, religiously ticking off the bucket list items that they must cover in order to have declared that one has been to that location.
The majesty of the Cathedral museum is replaced by the far more diverse Cathedral as we pilgrimage round the world, with ever-increasing boundaries towards our universe and beyond. The mystery remains similarly there, with unfathomable possibilities to explore, delve into and enjoy. Though whether the modern pilgrimage is any less overbearing on the traveller than the perceived smaller cathedral was, inflicting guilt on those who don’t obey the code, or learn the right liturgies as they travel, is another question entirely.
But it brings us full circle back to that cliff edge on the west coast of Ireland. The hunt for “one of those moments” is still the pilgrimage of many travellers in this world. The transcendent found once again, not too far from any one of us. But seemingly out of our grasp for most of our days.
The question that Taylor would ask us is:
Is this a vestige from a genuine transcendent being, still present in this world in some bizarre way? Or is this just a haunting of something society once wished upon, and now leaves us with an annoying desire to do things which appear to be chasing after its likeness?
And the answer he thinks is obvious enough that he has the courage not to express it, and simply says “Try this on for size. Does it make sense of something you’ve felt?“
In all honesty, if we stopped fearing the answer had to be a horrid religious fundamentalism on one hand, or the New Atheist fundamentalism on the other, we might be able to answer more authentically.
Not often do I find a book that combines two of things that I love the most – thinking philosophically, and travel! So when I found out about this one on Twitter one day, I had it downloaded to my Kindle with a single click, and despite not having read it, thought it might be a good one to discuss with others – light enough philosophically to please the traveller but thought-provoking enough to engage the philosopher?
And to my delight, a bunch of others expressed interest and sought to join together on Saturdays each week for 6 weeks. One bravely getting up at 5am in the USA, one staying up later in Australia, one in the Middle East, and two of us in Europe – a diverse bunch in some ways.
Emily, an associate professor of philosophy at Durham University (England), takes us through 11 interesting philosophical ideas, conundrums or thoughts, posed by travel. Loosely shaping her thoughts round a trip to Alaska, the book is packed full of those who’ve travelled the planet before her, both philosophically and otherwise!
It opens with a lovely chapter on why we travel, including a later admission that what will follow is largely flowing from western philosophy of the last few centuries. Curiously, the book irked me a little by claiming that there were no other books on the philosophy of travel, no lectures and no conferences. But I was reminded of thoughts that I’d similarly had when I started writing a theology of travel, thinking that there was very little out there. Her constant referencing to philosophical and travel-related works, showed me that whatever Emily means by this, it’s not because she hasn’t come across other western works. This is indeed a field which needs more writing and thought.
(The following section is a more detailed look at each chapter. If you just want a paragraph summary – feel free to jump to the end!)
Flowing from the first chapter, are largely stand-alone nuggets on various topics, which to the philosophically astute are more connected that might first appear. The second chapter on a philosophy of maps, and how maps shape our reality and how we understand the world, can really help us see differently and realise the lenses we wear. The landscape architect amongst us was captivated, through the rest of us took a bit longer to flesh out what this was really like. Twitter accounts like this one below, put some flesh on the chapter, for those not willing to sit down and digest larger works like this recent bestseller.
Chapter 3 was to outline a relationship between philosophy, science and travel, through the life of Francis Bacon and others. So much of travel has been driven by a quest to find out more about the world whether through philosophical thinking or scientific experiment, and more-often than not, both! Understanding this chapter, might significantly help us all to not fall into the same trap as Bacon was said to have done – thinking scientific thought will progress us so much until the utterance of an apocalypse.
Such belief about human progression can be found both amongst the religious (eschatologically thinking the world is getting better and better until a Second Coming of Christ), but also amongst the fervently secular (thinking education will be the solution to all our woes, progressing us to nearly some point of enlightenment). These discussions raised by this chapter are foundational.
Chapter 4, brought me back into my first year at university for my core module that started off with Descartes and moved on to Locke. For the others in the group, the framing of their teaching through the travels they embarked on, did not make their teaching any easier to engage with!
Does travel suggest that innate ideas about God (that are thought to rescue us from the infamous ‘brain in a vat’ scenario), cannot be true because all peoples don’t believe in a god (or a particular god)? Philosophically, I could imagine I come to very different conclusions than the author on some of the related questions, but none-the-less, the travel conclusion – that travel can broaden our horizons and help us to learn from those with differing opinions – is one of the foundational reasons many will travel.
The fifth chapter brought relief to those not wanting more philosophy, considering the history of ‘The Grand Tour’ of Europe for education (and other on-the-side benefits). Travel can help us grow in all sorts of ways, though often it can also be abused and doesn’t necessitate growth!
The sixth chapter continued to display a rich education of varied things – this time would please anyone who enjoys fantasy and fictional literature – what is the boundary between truth and falsehood, reality and fictional worlds? Could such fantastical worlds, be just as real as the world we inhabit? For the traveller who perhaps enjoys intertwining travel tails with a modicum of exaggeration for entertainment, the chapter will be thought provoking. And for many of us who wrestle with what place imagination has to play in our thinking, lives and logic, it also raised many a question!
The seventh chapter I was looking forward to the most, given the topic of space is the one to which Emily specialises. Why did mountains appear fearful things? Why was there a change in terms used to describe previously fearful things? Emily tells us one reason is because of a change in how people viewed space – once an atomless existence – later thought to be an extension of the infinite divine (sharing many of ‘his’ properties). I’d love to see to what extent this change in language also correlates with humanity’s exploration and perceived ability to control nature?
Ever craved watching the Northern Lights, or stood overlooking a sight that takes your breath away? The eighth chapter is on Burkean ideas of the ‘sublime’ and the difference between that and beauty. What is it that we’re feeling in light of some of these sights? Is there a difference between fear and awe? Can human creations evoke such things? What about the catastrophe’s we have caused – why do we flock to such sites with such similar feelings?
Closely connected to what had gone before, the next chapter (9) considers wilderness and connection to humans and why we have a strange fascination with escape to wild places. It had us all googling our favourite cabins and wild places to go and sharing them! Although fascinating and one of the chapters enjoyed most by lots of us, I’m not sure any of us followed her reasoning that because we are part of the world around us, we should care for it! Without knowing it, the Humean “ought” could not be found here. All the readers had vastly other motivation for caring for our environment and some thought the current drive to save our world was hard to philosophically ground.
The tenth chapter, I let someone else take the lead in discussing, given I was the only male in the group, and chapter was on whether travel was a male concept! Being brought up with Dervla Murphy being the archetypal traveller in Ireland, and having an adventurous, travelling sister (and similar female, ultra-running friends), I’ve never really found the history of travel being more male dominated (as many things were) to be a thing that has stopped many around me. And nor did my fellow book readers.
It was helpful to be reminded of society’s old gender roles, and saddened by some of the unwanted remnants of that. But I struggled with this chapter because I know that guilt is a bad motivator. So making me feel guilty of my being a male, because of past generations gender constraints, is not going to motivate me to act better. It might in the short-run, but not in the long-run. Guilt, I believe, does not drive action in a healthy way.
But it is also difficult for the female to travel in many places because of current gender roles in some cultures and societies. Should the west colonise these places and enforce their gender norms on others by with-holding aid and trade agreements? Or what is the objective standard of equality that we refer to that ought to transcend culture? It was a chapter that left me with more questions, from quite a simplistic take on the topic.
The penultimate chapter (11) was on ‘Doom Tourism’ and very helpfully lined up the chief problem that the travel industry worldwide will face in the coming years – climate change. The desperation of people to get to sites which will soon disappear (ice caps, coral reef, limited resources, small islands etc) may well cause further danger to those sites.
In fact, in a step further than Emily wrote, if the NPCC and others are right about climate change, flying anywhere for our own pleasure alone may not be the wisest thing for the climate. The credibility of pointing fingers at the structures in society, without doing anything ourselves in our personal lives, is a bit too easy for my liking. Far more questions could be asked that perhaps some publishers may not like adding to travel books, for fear of losing an audience. Perhaps in a theology book (like mine) or a philosophy book (like this one) isn’t the best place to debate science, but we do need to create space somewhere!
The last chapter is a reflection on space travel and whether we (humans) have significance or not. Again, I found the philosophical arguments here to be interesting but not greatly rigorous and too easy to object to. Bertrand Russel arguing that size does not make for significance – thus the size of space should not be bewildering or make it significant. And Guy Kahane arguing that life is more valuable than non-life because a world with life seems to be preferable to a world of craters. Both philosophers I’m sure may make sense in context, but were far too quickly passed over to follow what their logic is, and how it stands to quite simple objections. Still, it was enough to raise my curiosity to go off and explore the arguments more.
This review may make the book appear deeper and harder to engage with than it is, as I find it easiest to engage with some of the philosophical content that the author helps us understand. May the travel-hungry reader be assured that there’s much in the travel narrative to enjoy and discuss, even if the philosophy is harder for the novice to grapple with. However, “I’m glad I read this book with friends – I don’t think I would have done otherwise” was the response of at least two of our group for this reason.
But for me, I’ve loved engaging with it, and will happily recommend such helpful thinking to everyone, as I lead discussions in universities and community spaces wherever I travel in future. I dearly hope that it will get further discussion going especially in Coronavirus days (of limited travel), about the philosophical underpinnings and relevance of travel to the world to come. Because how each of us live and travel, whether we realise it or not, is deeply influenced by the philosophy we hold to. And each of us, whether we realise it or not, is deeply affecting many others in this world by those views we hold too as well.
Given the great dearth of books and material on the topic, does this mean that this book is greatly significant?!! I’ll let you read the book and see.
More info about the book can be found on the publisher’s website here.
This post comes as the sixth in our Microadventure series found here. Those who have been with us on all our adventures so far, will realise that we’re looking to go away on both physical microadventures, but also mental and perhaps even spiritual ones too. Partly because adventure is not just a physical hobby, but something which embraces our whole humanity – some of the most intense experiences we have are not purely physical activities. And partly because I hope these can be for everyone, regardless of age, ability, culture, or whether you’re stuck indoors during isolation or not! I hope today’s #microadventure may help explain more.
I still remember the day our neighbour sprinted out of the house next door to me, yelling:
“STOP! STOP! STOP!”
This was not characteristic of the old man, who normally spoke beneath his breath, and I don’t think I’d ever seen run in my entire time of living there.
It wasn’t as if I was doing anything mad! Just getting into my car, like I did every other day of the year, and in fact, like I’d done only an hour before. What was his problem?!
“Don’t start the engine!” he cried, arriving beside my open door, and finding me one leg in, one leg out of the driver’s seat. He took an extra two steps over to the bonnet of the car and tapped it twice with the palm of his hand crying as he did so.
I waited a few seconds to see what this dark magic was to produce.
“That’s fine now” he said, walking back to the open door he had sprinted out from, and disappearing without explanation.
It was only later that I found out from him over a cup of tea, that his last cat has sadly died, trapped while enjoying the warmth of a previously used car engine, when it had been started again, and had driven off with the startled cat still in the bonnet. Soon, frightened cat became fried cat.
And so I can imagine the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” might have some merit. Cats do sometimes have an intrigue that leads them into interesting situations. The fact that no-one seems to know where the phrase came from, and that it seems to actually have been something more like “worry killed the cat” to start with, may send us off in a different direction.
Why on earth are we talking about cats and curiosity?
Why on earth are we talking about cats, curiosity and a random incident that wasn’t an incident at all? Well partly because seven cats have just walked past my window today – some several times. But moreso because of one thing I tell every microadventurer (and adventurer) to pack! When interviewed on the Christian Travelers’ Network, I was asked:
“What is the one thing that you always pack when you travel?”
To which I replied:
“Curiosity. And my old tennis ball – it’s travelled more miles than I ever have!”
Curiosity about the world, and about life is a spring-board to many things. It is infinite in its measure – one can be curious about anything in life. It means one can be alone, isolated in a room for months, but perhaps never get bored. It frees one from the virus of never being content with smaller things, by giving us a curiosity about lots of things in life – yet not just the major thrills of travelling far-flung destinations for the perfect ‘Insta pic’.
Yes, curiosity can still be a killer (for our cats, or even for us – if we invest it too heavily in the wrong places or things), but for me, it’s an essential ingredient to adventure, and leaves me happy with #microadventures, not feeling I’ve been robbed with the current circumstances, nor leaving me lacking desire to get out again to see the world.
When curiosity can’t be found
Sadly some days, I enter it rushed, consumed by the tasks I think I need to do, driving home from work listening to the same 10 latest pop songs played over and over again on the radio, and finding myself scrolling the evening away [on my phone], never investing my curiosity in anything deeply, and dulling my senses with a pint (or two), a Netflix episode (or four) or suitable other releases from the daily grind.
Sometimes curiosity is hard to find. All too evasive in a busy world, which rushes by seeking such purpose, yet never travelling slow enough to see it in any of the places it’s found, before distraction carries us off again.
For my secular friends, some said to me their curiosity is motivated by their sense of awe at the world – how small they are in the world, and how much there is to marvel at, if we should stop and get a big picture. Perspective is everything. And getting distracted by religious narratives, for many of them, only takes away from the time we could be curious about more things, and helping others. In fact some religious narratives, they’d claim, take away from this awe-inspiring big picture of our small-ness within the universe, instead having us front and centre of the narrative.
For some of my Muslim friends, their passion to achieve eternal reward, is enough to make them keen to do well on this earth and for our humanity, regardless of what subject or field that may be in – thus generating curiosity about a wide variety of things. The Prophet (PBUH), Qu’ran and Hadiths helpfully sharpen their curiosity away from just general nice things, to what really matters in life – spiritual things, helping the least in society, and obedience to the way of Allah.
Where I find curiosity
For me, it’s been gradually found by meeting and experiencing the One who claims to have made all things. Because He has made such a diverse and wonderful world, and calls us to enjoy it, look after it and to develop it, I find myself gradually growing my interest outside of the small bubble that I grew up in. I find He gives me strength within to empower curiosity that serves.
Where I used to only care about my own hobbies, I find myself taking interest in other peoples’ hobbies. My poor mother, who had to endure endless chat about football, if she ever took me on a walk when I was younger! Now put me in a room with someone doing a PhD in molecular biology, a fan of Love Island (does that still exist on TV?) or other niche things, and I would at least attempt to delve into questions and interest, as much as my limited abilities allowed me to.
Where I used to only care about places of the world I had been to, or wanted to go to, now I find myself curious about all sorts of places – out of fascination for the world, though also because of the worldwide Church.
Where I would have otherwise given up on a friendship or getting to know someone, because of their wildly different opinions, lifestyle or otherwise, now I find I try to have a patience to shape my whole life deliberately alongside diverse others who are not like me, to walk a mile in their shoes (where appropriate) and to ask good questions.
A shared experience?
Quite a few of these things just grow in every human to some extent as we grow older. Yet some curiosity dies, as we grow older and reach a point we think we know everything, or certainly everything we desire to know at that moment (even if we would never say this). So much will need to be intentionally developed.
And so feel free to leave a comment below:
How does your worldview allow for curiosity?
And how does what you believe motivate you to act on this curiosity?
How does your worldview allow for curiosity? And how does what you believe motivate you to act on this curiosity?
And if you’re not sure how what you think and believe affects how you act, why not start by reading something which helps you understand your own worldview more? I recommend a book used at the start of some university courses on philosophy, but it’s not too deep – don’t worry!
[It’s written by a professor who happens to be a Christian (and who is very open about that in the introduction), but I’ve never met anyone who thought that it is an unfair account of other worldviews – he is generous and doesn’t “straw-man” other beliefs. It can be found on the link below, or you can ask me to post a second hand copy to you, if you’re quick.]
I hope as we #microadventure onwards together that curiosity will overflow from our pockets and our hearts. But delightfully, that despite its abundance, it won’t take up any luggage allowance at all for us, but will make for epic adventures ahead!
So here we are 2 days into our microadventure challenge in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Why haven’t I posted about a challenge yet? Well I’d love to say it was because I didn’t want to post things on April the first, lest you think it was an ‘April Fool’. But in all honesty, it was more because I had a “fail” of a day 1.
“You failed on day 1?! What type of adventurer are you?!” might be what you’re saying (or at least thinking) right now. “We tuned in to get inspiration, not you failing at step one of a MICRO-adventure.”
And that was certainly what I beat myself up for a while thinking. I’ve solo-travelled many countries, been held at gun-point, run ultra-marathons, slept in incredible places, took on all sorts of challenges. So why had I just failed at this silly thing?
But that’s where I want us stop for a second (and having not even started, I’m guessing stopping won’t be too difficult!). Failure is something we must get used to as adventurers (and humans!), and not feel guilty about (in this case of adventuring – perhaps different in the case of moral failure). You don’t end up on world adventures, doing heroic things, if you can’t embrace failure. That could be failure doing incredible feats, but more likely it’ll be failure in basic things like I’ve just done: Not getting enough work done that day; filling my evening with other priorities like church prayer meeting, phoning a friend; and looking up at dark skies thinking “this isn’t the night to start”.
Now there are good things in there, and ways around all of the other things, so that I could still have gone ahead. But for whatever reason, my heart wasn’t in it, and with only myself to motivate me while I’m in isolation, I failed. Let’s call it what it is, embrace it and figure out how to move on.
Al Humphreys reminds us that for every person we look on and think “wow, they’re an incredible world adventurer – I wish I could do those things!”, there are ways of starting with baby steps to head in that direction. Micro-adventures can be those baby steps – gradually easing us out of our comfort zones, and over time, expanding the list of experiences we are very happy doing, allowing us to leap forwards with what we attempt.
In the meantime, I’ll catch up soon with the 30 microadventures, and before we do, let’s just take this as a great starting place: failure will always happen if we attempt things in life, so let’s learn to process it well and move on.
Let’s hope day 2 is a bit better….let me know how you’re getting on!
Emily Thomas (Assoc Prof. in Philosophy at Durham) puts together a bite-size look at travel, taking us through various fun things about the history and philosophy of travel, in order for us to change how we think about it. Plenty in here to agree about, laugh about, disagree about and wrestle with, in short chapters. You’ll need to buy your own ebook (£9.98 on Kindle).
Part of the 9Marks series – short, practical chapters. There’s things radically alter our lives and church life, questions that’ll challenge things you believe, heart-warming thoughts that’ll help you treasure God, things to disagree with, and much more. Has the church ended up following tradition/pragmatics rather than the Bible on some things? Have we robbed ourselves – and more importantly, hundreds of thousands of unreached peoples – of eternal enjoyment of God, by not thinking through this? The author would suggest so.
If you’re in the UK/Ireland, I can send you 1 of 12 copies that I have, for £4/€5 (including postage). (Or buy an ebook yourself for £9.50)
We’ll meet on Zoom each week (likely at a time that suits the Irish timezone) – I have Zoom (paid), so you’ve no need to signup or pay.
There’ll be a social meet-up this coming week, to meet each other, chat and see what speed we want to go at.
Drop me a line on the “contact us” page if you don’t already have my contact details and want to take part.
Finally, if you’re a friend/mutual acquaintance and you’re struggling for money at this time of crisis, but still want to take part, just say (no shame!) and I can put some of my travel/petrol money (unused this month) towards a copy for you.
With the Corona-virus keeping many of us isolated or indoors, I’ve been back pondering what good news there is in all this for travellers, and the travel industry.
In many ways, the industry is being decimated, day by day, as this continues. Small airlines are weekly being put into administration, travel companies are packing up and even most normal summer holidays plans are now in doubt for many of us too. Is the virus then, the antipathy of travel?
Is the virus the antipathy of travel?
Perhaps, in some ways. But as writer Marcel Proust (and later Alain de Botton) have reminded us, we daren’t harbour ‘travel’ as the ultimate goal, or else it will destroy us (particularly in times like these). Proust is famous in his writings, for deliberately isolating himself at times in one room, and still taking us on an incredible traverse of thinking, imagination and creativity, that leaves us marveling at the tiny subsection of the world around us. One could possibly, he claims, be more satisfied within a small room, than a world explorer is with the whole world at our fingertips.
The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them us.
Marcel Proust, The Remembrance of things Past (translated, Moncrieff)
And that’s striking exactly what the Christian good news also says. We can visit other strange lands and still not learn or grow, depending on how we view our travels. Travel ought not be our ultimate goal, or else we’ll be broken by it when it’s not freely available. We ought not be bored, even if we were stuck in isolation, if we view things well.
By a lonely prison wall…
But it’s also different to what the Christian good news says. What Proust is left with, is looking inwards to ourselves, in order to view the vastness of the world, and glimpse the diamond through different lights. Not only do we struggle to do this (just think about how quickly we “other”/distance any viewpoints that are different to ours in the world), but looking within to find true vision and imagination for life, is shrinking your universe to a prison cell. Or so Rebecca McLaughlin would have us believe….
The fact that Proust actively chose to self-isolate in a cork-lined room (to help protect him from the noise and outside world) may baffle many of us at this stage in our virus-strewn world:
“…it was my intention to resume the next day, but this time with a purpose, a solitary life. So far from going into society, I would not even permit people to come and see me at home during my hours of work, for the duty of writing my book took precedence now of that of being polite or even kind.”
But ultimately Proust came up with great works of art, which captivate many like myself today. So perhaps it was worth it?
So as you isolate or socially distance yourself from others in the weeks ahead, I hope we can soon look through any boredom, any temptation to pick up your phone again (for the hundredth time) to scroll, to instead see the world with eyes that aren’t our own. And ultimately, it is my dream, that we would all see through the eyes of the maker of the universe, who can give us infinite glimpses beyond what we could ever muster from within. It is only through His eyes, that we can escape our rather warped, lopsided views of reality.
And that’s what I invite us to do as we #travelintandem – in the corner of our bedrooms, in the chaos of virus-affected-life, and in the bizarre moments we stop scrolling to think.
“I’m travelling to find myself. To find who I really am. To discover the potential within me. Too experience all the world has to offer.”
Or so many say about travel. And it’s true. But what if you could do the same from home? Would it be boring? What would it look like?
I got introduced to Alain de Botton through his book “The Art of Travel” and several TV shows that went along the same lines. And much as I travel in tandem to a different pulse of life and in a alternative direction to what he tries to persuade us all of, he’s someone I still find intensely thought provoking and wonderfully helpful in life’s paths.
So when I heard that a conversation card pack had been launched by him, I set my usual scepticism aside and bought it. Normally, I would think such things are a cringeworthy waste of money, that could be spent on asking the same questions, without the cards infront of me. But when a church pastor on Twitter who I respect, said he would happily give every ‘Fresher’ (first year) one of these upon entry to university, my ears pricked up.
Sadly in our current age, deep conversations are not always had. In Ireland, perhaps not without a pint or two in one’s hand. In other cultures, perhaps at other times, or in other places. But increasingly, the soundbite, technological world that we live in, darts from trivial topic to the next in a line of banalities, and doesn’t often deepen. If people get too serious, or chat about something for too long, jokes are quickly made, and many turn away from such displays of earnestness or knowledge. Do we perhaps fear those we think have a ‘powerplay’ over us and don’t want to be shown up for what we do not know? Or might it be because knowledge is genuinely used for ill, or in a lacklustre way that sends us yawning and reaching for our drink again? Or have we just lost our wonder and awe at the incredible world around us?
For those who bemoan this current state of society, I do wonder whether there was ever a “golden age” in this regard? The old geographically-limited, (often more conservative) cultures or decades, where people spoke only to their family, neighbours or village each day, did not breed the same diversity or curiosity perhaps as modern-day culture allows for.
Nor do I wish to assume that those who can hold conversation on one topic for a period of time and travel deep into conversation with it, are necessarily better off, morally superior or more gifted than those who cannot. Some cultures go direct into a subject, whereas others circle around it. Many tertiary educated people are taught to think in certain ways, but this should not necessarily exude better things than those who do not learn in such ways.
However, if I look at my life and see no deep relationships where I delve under the surface of the superficial and enjoy the hidden mysteries of people’s character, the vibrant colours of their personality or the reality behind why their hearts beat the rhythms of life which they do, then I must pause a moment. Why is it I don’t ever converse on this level? Could I find more our about myself by doing so? Might I learn how to love others better, or to disagree well with those from diverse backgrounds? Dare I suggest, that I find myself corrected, sharpened, encouraged and changed by similar expressions to me?
And that’s where these cards come in. They’re not cheesey, they ask great questions for the western, individualistic mind, and they could both simultaneously reveal far more about yourself than you’d want to find out, and surprise yourself with the strengths and ways of living that you have been gifted in. It could be a step to becoming self-aware. A step to finding who you are.
Alain chooses 9 topics, which are in my mind, perhaps the top 9 spoken of or dreamt about every day on university campuses. You can see them in the picture above. (Has he missed one? Let me know your thoughts.) And of course, “Travel” is one of those top topics the current generations are buzzing about. Here’s a few of the questions to get your juices flowing:
are you more attracted to a nomadic or settled life?
if you were in a city and had to choose between a good meal and a bad hotel, or a bad meal and a good hotel – which would you prefer?
what makes a person a good travelling companion?
would you prefer a view of a desert or of the sea? Why?
I could imagine these cards being used in various ways. Some will use them in a formal classroom setting. Others may bring them out for dinnertime conversation. But many will simply read them, and be provoked to ask better questions, or to steal them for everyday conversation!
Like everything in life, you’ll like some of it, and may not like other bits of it, but perhaps it could even be a springboard to making your own cards too? But be warned, Christian traveller – please do not make these a tool to preach at people. If you make your own cards in order to get “better” questions, please do ask yourself why your worldview or thought-process doesn’t like the questions given. Do you not know how to relate to the questions at hand? Do you not understand why such things could be fascinating or wonderful glimpses of a Christ-centred eternal reality? Are you seeing life through such narrow lenses that you only want to ask a couple of questions to everyone? Perhaps I might dare to suggest that if so, these question cards might teach us more than what you think we have to bring to others.
Disagree? Or curious?
Well perhaps you can ask me more and we can listen to each other well. Let’s travel together and chat, side by side, and see where it takes us.
But regardless, can I ask you whether you’re willing to start to cultivate such deep relationships with diverse people? It’s not easy!
There are a few Travel Golden Rules which go unchallenged and are seemingly accepted by all and none, when travelling.
Travel is a great educator that shows you how little you know and how small you are in the universe
Travel helps restore your faith in humanity (soo much good out there)
Travel helps you see that all ways of life can be acceptable – we are all on the same path as humans – we just need to find who we are
And underpinning all of these:
No-one must presume to have exclusivity on how to live a life of satisfaction
Because (correlated to the above 3 points):
We are small and know so little: so stop arrogantly assuming that your way is better than others, or that you know enough to tell others how to live
& 3. There is good in every religion, belief and way of life – humans are in general good at heart, so don’t claim that your way of living is the only way. Just get on, be free, be true to yourself, and don’t harm others.
Tim Keller (A New York Times Bestselling author), writes engagingly to persuade us that although some elements of the above are true, that the general ethos of these statements, are far from enough, to help us make the most of our travels (although he writes in a more general context than travel).
(For those who have heard of or read Keller before: “Making Sense of God” is like the prequel to his bestseller, “The Reason for God”. Not many people these days in the west are motivated to read of the evidence for God – we don’t want there to be a god, and see that god is a dying breed, given whats going on in the west, the advance of education, and the creating of happiness elsewhere in life in far more fun places than religious rituals. So Keller wrote the prequel to try and persuade us that God is something we might like to explore more about and to see that it will be of great benefit to us to do so.)
You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.
Keller starts off by making two points (chapters one and two):
Religion is not going away. Although it is perceived to be a quickly disappearing thing in the west, that due to birth rates across the world and conversion rates, belief in God is forecast to keep growing bit by bit. So if we want to live in peace in a pluralistic society, we better pay attention, nevermind if we want to explore what satisfies.
There is no contrast between a secularism based on evidence and religions on faith. All worldviews rest on evidence and all need faith to accept some of the implications. Not much can be proved by repeatable, testable experiments in life. Even agnosticism (which sometimes tries to claim is a lack of belief, rather than a worldview), still has tenets on which it rests, which it accepts often by faith. You won’t find many people who doubt their doubts, but many who blindly accept a position of doubt.
Given that we can talk about evidence, and religion is not going away, Keller suggests we might like to explore it some more through the following lenses:
3. A Meaning that Suffering Can’t take away from you. There’s nothing worse than religious people suggesting that you can’t have meaning unless you have god. It’s nonsense. But could religious meaning be more hopeful and real than other meaning? Keller argues that finding meaning in God, transcends events in life like suffering which rob us of many things we turn to for meaning. For those of us who are independent travellers who don’t have suffering in our lives, we might think this irrelevant – we have our meaning quite happily thanks! But suffering will strike us all without exception in life soon enough, if we choose to love or let anyone be close to us.
4. A Satisfaction that is not based on circumstances. The richer we get as a society, and the more free we are to have sex, enjoy ourselves and do what we want the….happier we are? Statistics would seem to suggest otherwise. Even when we have it all, we seem to feel like there’s something illusive still to come. Keller looks at 2 categories of response: those who keep hunting after satisfaction, and those who resign themselves to seeing it not being possible. And in both of these, he tries to make the case that we cannot find satisfaction while we try and root it in the subjective self.
5. Why can’t I be free to live as I see fit, as long as I don’t harm anyone? To Keller, unconstrained freedom is impossible, if we are ever going to have love. Love is the most liberating freedom loss ever, according to him. And so it is impossible to have satisfaction with no negative limits. As soon as we love anyone, they demand our time, attention, passions. And so it is with God – when we fall in love with Him, it will be a constraint, but one that flows from the heart of someone who made us and was willing to die for us, so that we could be free.
6. The Problem of the Self Finding our identity in outer relationships was how it used to be done – who we are married to, what our family name is, what god we worshipped, what tribe we are from. But that limited who you could be, it dwarfed us under poor societal expectation, and led to harmful situations. But finding our identity within ourself hasn’t been easier either. What about a warrior of past centuries who had two desires deep within him – aggression to fight and thirst for blood, and a same-sex-attraction. He would reject the latter (or be scorned) and adopt the former as his identity – he was a warrior! But the 21st century man would do the opposite. Why? He would admit he needed therapy for such violent desires, but would fully embrace the “real him” sexually, because society told him that was acceptable. So really, his decision of the “real” him, was just back to coming from whatever society thought. What if we could be free-d from defining ourselves by any of these?
7. An Identity that doesn’t crush you or exclude others As an alternative to looking to society to define us, or inwards to figure out which of our feelings should define us, Keller suggests we will find freedom looking upwards, in our identity being something outside of ourselves, but which isn’t performance related (the way our identity in society was/is). If we do badly or don’t live up to expectations, we still manage to keep this upwards identity. Here Christianity is very different to every other “performance based” religion, which demands that one does well in order to gain status, confidence or eternal life. When travelling, the two things people push back on, when I describe an identity outside of myself, is that (1) it means I don’t value anything in myself anymore and (2) it means I create a “them” vs “us” (Christians vs non-Christians) attitude which is bad for society. Keller shows that if Christians have done this, they have misunderstood the Christian message, which holds together self-denial and self-realisation, at the cross, and unites us all together in a shared humanity.
8. A hope that can face anything Suicide rates across many western societies are rising. The optimism of where society is going is being perceived by many to be unfounded in reality. In this chapter, the author sets forward a case that a personal, concrete and unimaginably wonderful hope, is exactly what is needed. Arguing from intuition, but also from the lack of practical response from any other worldview, Keller sets forward perhaps the least convincing chapter, but perhaps the most heart-warming to those who want to dream of what is to come. Read after chapter twelve, this chapter comes alive.
9. The Problem of Morals From the least convincing chapter, to perhaps the most logically convincing chapter of the book. How do we get our morals? Keller lays out all the ways that modern western philosophers (and humans!) claim to be able to act morally, and of course agrees that they do! But his main question, is whether there is any way of establishing that we “ought” to act morally. (Atheistic) Evolutionary views, alongside social constructionist views struggle to give us this moral ought. And intuitionism (Dworkin et al.) admit similar short-comings. What I loved about this chapter is that Keller is once again at his best, quoting atheists and top [atheist/agnostic] philosophers who come to these conclusions, rather than standing over things and declaring them himself.
10. A justice that does not create new oppressors “The goods [of churches] may outnumber the abuses, even by far, but wrongdoings lodge more deeply in the memory and consciousness. In the end it would be better to look for other grounds on which to explore the relationship between religious faith and justice”. And so this chapter mainly focusses on how one can have “human rights” without oppressing those who disagree about the standard. Ultimately, Keller points to the fact that the Biblical metanarrative continually exalts the underdog, and has at its heart, a Saviour to follow, who comes to die for the people. His followers are called to be transformed into His image, not dying to re-create a Christian culture, but to love all people, even their enemies. Such radical transformation, if it works, would give a basis for justice, that does not oppress.
Finally,in the last two chapters Keller concludes with some evidence for all the above being found in a belief in God, and where we can turn to examine that. He finishes with a powerful story of a Japanese internment camp, and a secular humanist, who believed in the good of all humanity, and the lack of evidence for God, and how the material his chapters (long before they were written), led him to belief in our need of God.
You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.
For any thinking traveller, I would urge you to give this a read, with the caveat that Keller writes for New York professionals, and whilst it isn’t littered with complicated language (in fact, Keller simplifies and summarises many ideas very helpfully!), it will still reference all the top thinkers and their ideas, and deal with them, in a way which may seem daunting to those who haven’t been familiar with other ways of thinking.
The joy of travel is that it will inevitably cast questions into your mind and life, and this is a book which will help process those.
**My thanks to the blog “doesgodmakesense.com”, for the image which I have used for the header on this post. Their graphics simply borrowing from Keller’s original.