Robin Lane Fox, Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford and Reader in Ancient History, University of Oxford, has recently released a new book about Augustine. I picked it up the last time I went into Waterstones, because it had a pretty cover and because I find Augustine’s views generally interesting.
Winner of the Wolfson Prize for History 2015, the book charts Augustine’s life up to and including his writing of the Confessions. It compares and contrasts his path with those of other thinkers of his time, including the pagan Libanius.
A couple of weeks ago, two of my friends came over for dinner. One is a committed atheist, the other a vague Christian. And me, a… well, a scar.
The conversation turned to religion at one point, and my atheist friend said that she didn’t understand how anyone intelligent could possibly believe in a god. How she is stunned to see scientists and people like them expressing beliefs in entities whose existence can’t be empirically proven.
My first ever introduction to philosophy was reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder when I was twelve. I was quickly hooked, and devoured as many philosophy books I could throughout my teenage years. I’d still say, though, that my first true introduction to philosophy was through Kierkegaard.
I’m not sure quite how to define the difference. I’d loved chewing over the big philosophical questions for years; I read Plato on the train, imagining myself at the Academy, taking part in the conversations. But Kierkegaard was how philosophy became personal to me.
I was seventeen years old and trying to decide what to do with my life. A lecturer at one of the universities I’d applied to sent me some quotes from The Sickness Unto Death, which he thought would be helpful. They were.
I went to my local library and asked if they had The Sickness Unto Death. I wanted to read the whole thing. They didn’t, but they did have a copy of Fear and Trembling. I checked it out, took it home and read it. And philosophy became real to me. All of a sudden I understood how I could create my own philosophical arguments; how I could look around at the world and think more deeply about it, without having to lean on texts that had already been written. It also helped me to make my decision about what to do with my life. It is a very special book to me. And I’ve had the same experience ever since: whenever I pick up a book by Kierkegaard, it seems to have entered my life at precisely the right time.
A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around London when I found myself in a bookshop. You know how it goes. Suddenly you have eighty-three books and no money. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I did find a biography of Kierkegaard for £7. It had to be mine.
Usually, I read obscenely quickly, but this is one of those books which I enjoy so much that I’m savouring it – reading slowly, reading other things in between – because I never want it to end. One of my favourite extracts so far:
“When I look upon the many and varied examples of the Christian life, it seems to me that instead of strength, Christianity… has deprived such people of their manhood, and that in comparison to the pagans they are like a gelding compared to a stallion.”
This amused me. In context, it also spoke of a similar phenomenon to one which we have studied as part of the Pilgrimage Project: that Pagan rituals are often less structured and ‘freer’ than Christian ones. By this I don’t mean that they’re superior. There’s a lot to be said for ritual that includes a level of gravity. The Catholic rituals we encountered on the Pilgrimage Project were often serious, perhaps even sombre: each part of the ritual including a sort of solemnity that underlined just how sacred the Catholics’ god is to them.
The Pagan rituals, by contrast, often felt like more joyful affairs. Perhaps to some this might seem inappropriate for a religious or spiritual setting, but it is representative of Pagan spirituality in general, or at least the parts of it I’ve studied. The goddesses, gods and spirits of the Pagans are more earthy, more real. They don’t bring to mind a faraway, unreachable being who may or may not be listening to entreaties from its followers, so much as a cacophony of voices who are accessible and somehow quite human – or perhaps not human, so much as ‘having personhood’.
Well, there you go. I have a few other quotes in my notebook and I was going to write about all of them, but this has taken up more words than I’d thought it would, so I shall leave it there for now and continue my raving about Kierkegaard in some future posts.
I am, among other things, a researcher in psychology of religion. My work for the past five years has focused on two distinct religious pathways: Catholicism and Paganism. Our main project has been about pilgrimage, looking at people’s motivations for going on religious journeys and their experiences during the treks.
Mainly due to logistics, we’ve focused on European routes: Glastonbury, Stonehenge, Lourdes, and so on. I’ve spent a long time reading about and talking to pagans in the UK about their spiritual rituals and practices. Whilst witchcraft in the UK is still seen as being quite “odd”, it seems to be accepted as a quirky character trait; something that irritates many people within the pagan community, but that at least generally doesn’t lead to mass segregation from the mainstream.
This weekend, I’m doing some work for a client in West Africa, looking at social media in a couple of countries there. One of these is Ghana, and I was perusing the Twitter feed of a Ghanaian news magazine when I came across a reference to witch camps. I decided to look into this further. I am fascinated by folk religions and spiritual beliefs around the world, and know very little about witchcraft outside of Europe. Beyond reading Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa a few years ago, I’d never really done any research on African witchcraft at all.
In Ghana, there are a number of witch camps: small villages where people go when they have been accused of witchcraft in their home communities. Often the camps are friendly and open to strangers, with dedicated chiefs and priests to cleanse new arrivals before they are allowed into the village to live.
Journalist Leo Igwe, visiting Kukuo witch camp in Ghana, reported that many of the witches had been there for many years, with a few in their nineties who had lived in the village since they were teenagers. Some wish to return to their old homes, but are afraid to do so because they fear for their lives; others, however, enjoy living in Kukuo and do not want to leave.
Photographer Jane Hahn visited witch camps in Ghana to document the people living there:
You can see more of Jane Hahn’s striking photography on her website.