There must be a cosmic leak


salon ruigoord

Yesterday, I spent some time at Ruigoord. Ruigoord is a small artist enclave in the Western harbour area of Amsterdam. The village is an oasis of imagination, which has been trying to keep the spirit of the 60s alive. Counterculture, a gay anarchism, psychedelic drug culture, artistic expression and some new spirituality values continue to define life in Ruigoord. When you enter the village, white graffiti on one of the houses – which are used by artists as their workspace – reads: “So much inspiration in such a small place; there must be a cosmic leak.”

Of course, you don’t have to be an adherent of a more bourgeois lifestyle to raise criticism about Ruigoord: isn’t the message of Ruigoord a little outdated? Isn’t it more about drugs than about artistic expression? Is everybody really living along that well, or is there also strife and competition? And of course: aren’t commercial interests to exploit the hippie paradise taking gradually taking over the more communitarian values of Ruigoord?

Despite whatever reserves anybody may have, I am a believer of Ruigoord, and as many Christians have recently explained me, to believe you ultimately have to jump. Obviously, it is not very likely that Christ has in fact risen from the dead, but you just have to believe it, right? Centrally located in Ruigoord is “the church”, a former catholic church (already an interesting feature in the protestant north of Holland), which is now used for creative rituals and parties. Next to the church, you find the “municipal” building, which doubles as the consulate of Doel (almost abandoned village in Belgium) and the embassy of Christiania (free state in Copenhagen).

For me, the place which for me is the most authentic contemporary expression of the spirit of Ruigoord is the Salon, opposite the church. Salon Ruigoord is the workspace of Michael, which is used for various experimental public activities, such as poetry performances, music and lectures. These happenings are an eclectic mix of classical hippie philosophy and culture and more contemporary urban worldviews and cultural expressions.

This particular evening I was listening to three fringe thinkers: Thomas Meijer, Leonie Klooster and Joost Emanuel. Devoid of any academic mannerism, they each developed in their own way scholarly theses on truth, meaning, fiction and the insanity. An important topic through all talks was the distinction between the “true” person or soul – the spiritual origin of human beings – and their purported “masks” which we put on or “personae” we play in society. The  message of these philosophers of Ruigoord was not only the worldview of perennialism – the idea that there is a true core in all world philosophies which is ancient and eternal, but also the message of the pure soul corrupted by society.

I am not sure if this particular message is still important in our day and age. Joost Emanuel, a gifted speaker, gave a speech which resembled a sermon. I called him a preacher of the new age and he replied he’d more thought of himself as a preacher of the now age. But do we still live in times in which pretending to have a global message is still possible? Isn’t the appeal to a universal rational truth precisely that element of protestant Christianity we would like to move beyond? It appears to me that Western hippiedom very much resembles precisely the strife for truth and purity of Northern European protestant culture. It had never occurred to me before that hippies are actually the calvinists of the late 20th Century.

Truth business

the force
Fiction is increasingly offering us the moral certainty science and religion are failing to

In an interesting recent blog post, theologian and philosopher of religion Dr. Taede Smedes tries to explain the anti-religious sentiments of an increasing number of commentators on the website, which aims at connecting people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds together. Smedes considers 2004 a tipping point concerning this development. He argues that the debates in the Dutch media about intelligent design in this period, changed the opinion of many people who from that moment on considered religion as irrational and backward.

The topic of the demarcation of science and religion is fascinating. Both domains are in the “truth business”: they are legitimated by the fact that they produce certain knowledge about reality, which can help people to ease psychological stress. Science was born as a result of the development of methods that attained more trustworthy knowledge than the religious institutions had done, which were from that moment on put in the defence. The reformation created the possibility of competing truth systems, and therefore in the early stages science can be considered as a deviant form of Christianity.

But recently, science is failing in its most important objective: to produce knowledge which enables people to ease their psychological stress. Since science does not produces certain knowledge which also contains moral certainty, people are becoming suspicious of science as well. Furthermore, the core of quantum mechanics – which is the most successful theory about reality ever developed by human beings – describes the foundation of reality as indeterminate. The threat of a statistical universe, which does not contain any certainty even metaphysically, but only possibilities, does not suit very well with the desire for psychological stability.

This week the box offices were crushed by the release of the new Star Wars movie (spoiler alert). If anything, Star Wars offers a universe with a clear moral distinction. The bad guys are depicted as fascists with a desire for order. If there has been any consensus about morality globally, it must be that the nazi’s were very bad. The desire for order contradicts the late capitalist demand for pleasure, consumption and exces. Very importantly: the public loves it in a way it rarely loved anything so unanimously.

I believe we are mistaken if we consider religion, science and fiction as distinct domains. They all do the same thing: generating knowledge to fulfil psychological needs. They do this by connecting us to a reality which transcends our everyday experience. Besides moral clarity, Star Wars alludes to the highly popular worldviews which assume “qi” or life force, there are practices of mindfulness and in a fascinating scene, time warps in a kind of shamanic travel of the main protagonist.

In conclusion: religion, science and fiction offer us stories – the kind of knowledge that has been structuring reality for human beings as long as we can remember. The demarcation between “religion” (and religions), “science” and “fiction” is ultimately just a conflict of stories. I see no objection to considering all stories true, even if they appear mutually exclusive. Every story is valuable, because all stories are the unique products of human creativity.

The Face of ISIS


On 29 June 2014, after a series of important conquests in the Syrian civil war, the organisation known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself to be the worldwide caliphate and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi its caliph. On the same day, the Netherlands defeated Mexico two to one at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It was this second event that made headlines in Dutch media. It was only one month later, in the midst of the komkommertijd, that ISIS gradually came to be reported about, when no important soccer matches fought it for attention.

In a brilliant analysis, Scott Atran argued this week that we are underestimating the revolutionary force of ISIS and that we do not acknowledge its idealism enough. Atran even dares to quote a reference to Hitler by George Orwell – thereby affirming Godwin’s law – who said that the writer of Mein Kampf had understood the people don’t only want comfort and safety; they also want struggle and self-sacrifice. ISIS, Atran argues, is giving its followers precisely that: a dream, purpose, the opportunity to create a new world order. In the words of Atran:

The violence of the Islamic State, like the revolutionary violence of many who came before, might be best characterised by what Edmund Burke called ‘the sublime’: a willingness, indeed need and passion, for the ‘delightful terror’ of a sense of power, destiny, giving over to the infinite, ineffable and unknown.

Before, I used to argue that ISIS had not so much to do with religion or Islam, but was basically caused by economic factors, and recruited their troops from the social and economic outcasts of the West. Theologian and politician Ruard Ganzevoort taught me that it is just as much a fallacy to consider religion the root of all evil as it is to consider religion as positive force of love. In his words: “Religion is ambivalent, just as life itself”. The argument of Atran adds to my change in perception on the phenomenon ISIS, that we should indeed look at the ideology and the religious motives at least as much as to the economic factors.

Some commentators already noticed that the rise of ISIS shows much similarities with the French revolution and the Dutch revolt. The whole foundation of the Dutch nation could be credited to the violent rise of religious extremists in a corner of the Habsburg Empire. This observation reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. In this famous essay from 1921, Benjamin explores the justification for violence. States are defined by the fact that they have a monopoly of violence. When revolution occurs, the violence of the revolutionaries is justified by the fact that they strive for a more just society. When the revolutionaries succeed, they overthrow the current regime and install their own monopoly on violence.

According to Benjamin, all regimes have been founded on an act of original violence, which could also be considered as a divine legitimation of power. To maintain this power, when they are confronted with revolutionary movements, regimes have a notorious short memory with respect to their own foundational violence, which is very often not even that far in the past.

Atran very convincingly argues that the ideology behind ISIS does in fact legitimise its violence from the deeply rooted conviction that they are fighting for a better world order. The discursive strategies which are used by the adversaries of ISIS attempt to mask ISIS’ discourse for their legitimacy. Altran has very sharply noted that delegitimatising the Islamic State by calling them Daesh, won’t have much effect.

The question which nobody has been really able to answer yet about ISIS is: who are they? In almost every analysis, ISIS is treated as the ultimate Other, and any attempt to understand the movement usually describes them as violent lunatics. What are the possibilities from meeting the revolutionaries face-to-face? Would they kill me? Is there any possibility, as Levinas would phrase it, to meet the people in Raqqa while “inviting” them in my presence, without judgement, but simply as long lost cousins? Revolutions will always be repeated and successful revolutionaries will always rewrite history. But division of people is precisely what revolutionaries have always wanted – between religions, between social classes – and I think we should not accept the position we have been assigned, namely as adversaries. What if we would go over and ask: can we join you in your dream for a better world? The only way to defeat ISIS is through the exploration of the conditions to meet each other.


Our lost brother

sunThis morning I was called by one of my best friends from Belgium. He wanted to share his thought with me: the East, he had concluded, is not geographical place, but it is rather the symbolic representation of our desire for the mystical. When I was in China this summer, I was wondering wether it would be possible to come to a fundamental difference between the people who are living on the Western side of the Eurasian continent and the people at the Eastern side.

To answer this question I believe we have to find recurse in transcendental history. Transcendental history is not the description of history as we know it has actually happened, but it is the history of everything which must necessarily have happened, although we have no archeological or scriptural sources to prove it. For example, 50.000 years ago, women must have given birth to children now and then. We have neither the material nor the scriptural sources to warrant such a claim, but nevertheless, we know if must have happened.

Another one of this transcendental historical moments is the moment when the human population wondered off into two distinct directions. If we follow on the assumption that the human species “came out of Africa”, their migrations must have come to a decisive point somewhere around Mesopotamia. You could imagine a tribe with two visionary brothers – or sisters, or a brother and a sister – who argued about the best way to proceed. This must have truly been the hyperintelligent, learned and powerful members of the human tribe. Their debate necessarily concerned the following: what should we do: should we continue our movement in the direction of the sun, or will we move away from the sun?

It is very inspiring to consider people from the West as “abendlandische” people, while the people of the East are the people of the countries where the sun is born. It must have been phenomenologically intimidating and existentially disturbing to watch this ball of fire take its course through the blue sky every day. Is this sun something we desire for, or something we are afraid of? The answer to that question most essentially defines the difference between the people of West and East.

Today, I have the opportunity to meet my lost brother or sister. Though our bodies are new bodies and did not take part in this crucial decision for mankind, our genes are still the same. Therefore, I can now ask my lost brother or sister: why did we fight? Why did you decide to go the other way? What was it that attracted you towards the sun? And do you maybe also remember why I was so scared of the sun? The answer to those questions need to be found in the distant past, so a regression through my body is necessary. But there must be a trace left and it must be possible to find this trace. Through this inquiry, we will be able to find the necessary conditions for a reconciliatory embrace.


WeChat: the social fabric of China


Not a single phenomenon is as important in understanding Chinese contemporary society as instant messaging cum social medium app WeChat. Roughly comparable to Whatsapp, WeChat offers all important communication services you would expect from such an app, but it includes a whole array of additional functionalities. Steadily, WeChat is becoming to function as the collective mind of the Chinese and increasingly the surface of everyday life in change becomes incomprehensible without a notion of this extremely popular application.

The general Western prejudice holds that information in China is strictly controlled and that free press is limited. Without having the desire to contradict these analysis completely, my stay I China last summer enhanced my image of this topic. First of all, the fact that Facebook and Google are generally banned in China, doesn’t mean that the services they provide are deemed dangerous by the Chinese government. In fact, Baidu, Weibo and WeChat function similar and often even more advanced ways than their Western counterparts.

Therefore, I’d rather like to think of the divide between Western media and Chinese media as a “silk” curtain, between which cross-influence is not really restricted, but nobody really cares about sharing information over to the other side. Much more than an attempt to limit the flow of information among its own citizens, I believe the ban on Facebook and Google in China could better be interpreted as a measure of protectionism against U.S. corporations. Of course, censorship and regulation are in fact performed by the Chinese government. But if sensitive topics are not discussed (for example the three tabooed “T” subjects in China: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen), it might often be a result of ignorance about these topics by the Chinese, while simultaneously we in the West can not understand that people just would not care about these topics.

The rise of WeChat in particular is intimidating. The app records over 600 million monthly users, over two thirds of the 900 million monthly users WhatsApp has. Currently WeChat is branching out to Africa, to see if it can take over the local internet market. In South Africa we gradually see a battle emerge between WeChat and WhatsApp to gain control over the market. Especially because of the wide spectrum of social services WeChat provides, I believe WeChat could very well at some point become a serious global challenger to WhatsApp. Its messaging service is only one aspect of the app, which is also used as microblogging service, social network, photoblogging service, dating app and payment service.

More than Facebook or WhatsApp, WeChat is able to provide what so many people desire: connection. In China, few meetings between strangers pass without the exchange of WeChat contact data by means of scanning a personalised QR code. That shy stranger you just nodded at in the subway reveals himself to be a highly expressive avatar on WeChat, with an unstoppable wave of stickers and other tokens of social appreciation which are ubiquitous in the Wonderworld of WeChat. To understand China, this is where it is happening now.


Dagen Zonder Lief

dagenzonderliefThe Dutch are very nice, up until the moment they get drunk. The Flemish are very nice, but only from the moment when they get drunk. Twelve years ago I decided to move from the Netherlands to Belgium to study in Ghent. After being tormented for two years by the sheer inaccessibility of the Flemish, I planned to exchange Ghent for Amsterdam. Three films prevented me at that time from acknowledging my defeat. The first one is Any Way the Wind Blows, which I mentioned in an earlier blog post. The other two were Steve + Sky and Dagen Zonder Lief by the Flemish movie director Felix van Groeningen.

Several things had struck me from that movies. For a long time, Holland had always been considered more liberal, more cultural, more progressive and more open than Belgium. The Flemish had therefore developed a love-hate relationship with the Dutch, which usually tipped towards hate. But at the beginning of the 2000s something changed. The Netherlands had currently seen the rise of Pim Fortuyn, while the Belgium were governed by very progressive and liberal governments. In the youth scenes of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels a new cultural generation developed, which was self-conscious, ironic and romantic at the same time. It was a culture which could define itself on its own, without feeling the necessity to compare what was happening in the Netherlands.

In music, we could witness the rise of bands like Soulwax, dEUS and Das Pop. In film you first had the still very ironic Iedereen beroemd! but then there were the aforementioned films. Most striking to me personally must have been Dagen Zonder Lief. For me, it was as if everything I always failed to grasp about the Flemish became suddenly perfectly clear.

The film features a young woman, who returns back to her hometown Sint Niklaas after she had left for the United States, only to find her former social life in scatters. Although the value of friendship is an important theme in the film, it also evokes a much deeper sense of nostalgia, a deep sense that the past is irreversibly lost and that the only thing which remain from the past are hurt and regret. For me, this movie instantaneously excited in me the desire to be Flemish myself. Had I been born in the wrong body? Suddenly it all made so much more sense, the Sorrow of Belgium as Hugo Claus had famously put it, and which could only be cured by Herman Brusselmans assertion: Mijn haar is lang (My hair is long).

Two years ago I finally left Belgium, over six years after I originally anticipated to leave and eight years after my first major Belgium-breakdown. I could finally go in recovery from the disease which is called Flanders. Yesterday I accidentally ran into a group of actors from Belgium, in Amsterdam. I learned that their company was seated in Sint-Niklaas – the infamous background of Dagen Zonder Lief and the town where I had taught ethics in a local high school during the last two years of my stay in the country. While we were discussing the poor state of the theatre scene in Sint-Niklaas, I learned to my great surprise and some embarrassment that I was talking with almost half of the cast of that precious movie. Reality had overtook me and the image I carefully crafted in my mind of the life in Flemish towns of early twenty somethings at the end of the 90s suddenly collapsed. Finally, while Belgium is currently being consumed by the N-VA, I can proudly say I am completely cured.


Jan Mayen

One of the most exotic parts of Europe is the almost deserted island Jan Mayen. In the sixth century, the island was discovered by the Irish monk Brandaan in a expedition to see if there were any pagans left at the outer edges of Europe. The black island featured a terrifying smoking mountain. Brandaan understandably believed he had found the gates of hell. 

Jan Mayen is a small isolated island in the Arctic Ocean, lonely situated between Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. The Dutch conquered stationed some troops on the island in the 17th Century, to support their whale hunt, but deserted Jan Mayen again after 1650 when the whales were gone. In the 20th Century the Norwegians discovered that the island provided ample opportunity for the fox hunt. Equally successful as the Dutch whale hunts, all foxes were gone by the 1920s and few Norwegians desired to stay on the freezing island afterwards. 

Because Jan Mayen could not be occupied by the nazi’s during WOII, the Norwegians who were manned the weather station formed a small independent free state. They actually needed to defend themselves against the nazi’s on several occasions, of which some plane wrecks still testify. 

Jan Mayen has one of the most minimal histories of any European place. The remoteness of the island is striking: to reach the island you need to board on a 20 meter long sailboat, the Aurora, which leaves from the quays of Iceland. The journey takes two days. The only tourist attraction is the ascent of the Beerenberg, the characteristic volcano on the island.          

Since Europe is currently facing a crisis, as a result of nationalism and an unstoppable influx of immigrants, I would like to urge everybody to undertake a trip to Jan Mayen. It appears extremely necessary in a time when national borders are being redefined to discover what had been perceived in the 7th Century as the border between with the underworld. Jan Mayen might offer us refreshing and possibly spiritual new look on contemporary Europe and its outer edges.


The Nova Effect

Especially with modernity, religiosity had become something suspect. According to the secularisation thesis, the rational advancement of societies will ultimately lead to the decline of religion. The contemporary situation in fact proves the opposite. After a decline of religiosity after the second world war, today we see how religion continuous to rise again.

After having studied religion for some years, I believe it is not really possible to make a relevant distinction between religious and non-religious people. So-called “atheists” often express a commitment to their beliefs, which also has an influence on the rituals they take refuge to. And even for the rest category of the “non-religious”, for whom religious questions are apparently meaningless, we see often how morality, meaning making and rituals also connect these people to a larger framework of ultimate sense. The only truly non-religious are therefore the nihilists and the depressed; true nihilists are hard to come by, and fortunately, depression is for many people a transitory experience, although it might stick for a very long time.

The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has written a striking analysis of religiosity in our postmodern age with his 2007 publication A Secular Age. According to him, present day religiosity is characterised by what he calls the “nova effect”, in which the possibilities for individuals to give meaning to their lives has increased exponentially in the past decades. Since religiosity is no longer a public matter, but has been relegated behind the front door, the question how to understand our position in the world has become a matter of individual deliberation and therefore the options to do so have become vast.

Therefore, although “religion” in the form of institutional affiliation has been in decline, the individual expressions of religiosity have skyrocketed. I believe this evolution is an enrichment to society. If religiosity is not in the first place a public matter, this enables people to experiment with forms and expressions to connect to their perceived divinities. The diversity of people will lead to unexpected encounters when we inquire each other about our spiritual or religious rituals. No longer does modernity drive a wedge between institutional believers and the modernists; the postmodern playful human has claimed the spiritual for herself in order to create new relationships with others.


Night watch

“Kwetsbaar lillend vlees

Ongebroken scheppingskracht

De nachtwacht houden” – Eugeen

Processed with VSCO
Anish Kapoor, “Internal object in three parts” (2013 – 2015), detail, silicon and pigment.

This afternoon I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with two of my guests from Belgium. At the Rijks, there are currently three works on display from the contemporary artist Anish Kapoor. This triptych, which is called “Internal object in three parts” is very daringly displayed in the “Gallery of Honour” of the museum, which is devoted to masterpieces by illustrious Dutch painters such as Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer and above all Rembrandt.

The choice is very daring indeed, because the works are an expressionistic depiction of something, which resembles blood, meat, muscle tissue and fat tissue. The most adequate description would be that the works depict a rabbit which was put in a shredder. The works are made of silicon and color pigment. Passing visitors, when confronted with this work in the most classical of museum wings, posed the eternal question: “Is this art?”, thereby implying: “This is not art.”

Processed with VSCO
Rembrandt Van Rijn, “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” (1662), detail, oil on canvas.

Opposite the Anish Kapoor reliefs was one of my favourite works of Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum: “The Syndics”. On this picture, we see six Dutch burghers, apparently surprised by the entrance of the spectator. In a most delicate way, Rembrandt breaks through the “fourth wall” of the painting. In the juxtaposition with Kapoor’s carnal festival, the glances of the “inspectors of dyed cloth” become even more poignant. As if they are inspecting and judging the appearance of these peculiar presences in the room. “Mene, mine, tekhel, upharsin.”

Kapoor’s works demands attention. In an interview in NRC Handelsblad, Kapoor has expressed his suspicion that his show at the Rijksmuseum might become an exercise of humility for him. But despite the condescending murmur you hear when you stroll through the “Gallery of Honour”, the context of the 17th Century masterpieces is necessarily and irrevocably changed by Kapoor’s critical expressionism. They present an aesthetic of the sublime next to works which were created in an age where beauty was the only aesthetic. Kapoor therefore reminds us, that it has become impossible to genuinely repeat the spirit of the Golden Age.


Daoism and climate change

The final negotiations of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, most likely concerned whether the long expected “final draft” of the agreement would contain a commitment to attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or stick with a phrase which would spin the commitments to “(far) below 2 degrees Celsius”. While the Western nations have the luxury to show off their moral superiority in forming a “high ambition coalition” (which also includes all nations so poor that they can only rely on moral superiority) which strives for the 1.5 degree ambition added to the final draft, countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia have other interests to consider and decided to cool down (pun intended) the negotiations.

Meanwhile, I was taking part of a conference on the study of Chinese religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of Groningen University. At this conference, James Miller, a scholar of Chinese studies from Canada, presented a plea to think about the environment from the perspective of Daoism. One of his assumptions is that the common ecological perspective which frames our environmental endeavours as a desire to “save the planet” is part of a fundamentally Christian worldview and above all ultimately absurd.

Part of this common perspective in which the “protection of the planet” is central, Miller argues, is the idea that time evolves in a progressive and irreversible way. Our existence is meaningful because of this progressive movement. The natural environment is considered as the background on which we can project meaning. Furthermore, meaning is not part of the natural world. Human beings are assigned as “guardian” of the environment.

As opposed to this worldview, Miller puts forward a Daoist worldview, which promotes the idea of self-cultivation in relation to the natural environment. Furthermore, the flourishing of some things also requires the destruction of other things; the energy I obtain to live comes at the expensive of the death of many others. Miller argues we should be aware of the “transformational” character of the natural environment, which is an essential part to the Daoist understanding of the universe. Religion could therefore be understood as the negotiation on the economy of cosmic power.

The environmental crisis is thus not an appeal to save the planet, as the Christian/humanist worldview understands it, but rather challenges us to respond in a creative way. Miller suggests we should think of religion as the “collective representation of death and violence”. The environmental question challenges us to quantify human violence and to see how we can consume in a creative way, thus avoiding the destructive patterns we have developed in the past.

When we only think of climate change and the environmental crisis as a materialist problem, we fail to see the underlying worldviews that, first of all, identify the crisis as a crisis and secondly how the solutions which are the result of these worldviews might in fact aggravate the situation. I agree with Miller that the Daoist worldview offers an adequate alternative model, which focuses on transformation and vitality, but also acknowledges death, violence and destruction as part of nature. It also enables us to look at climate change as a challenge, instead of a crisis.