Friends of Sophia conferences are a unique blend of academic conference, arts event and retreat.
Divine Harmony: the Third Annual Conference of the Friends of Sophia, Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge, by Zoom, 23 May 2020

The Friends of Sophia, started by Dominic White, is a new collaboration between St. Mary’s University Twickenham, London (InSpiRe Centre for Spirituality and Reconciliation), the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge and the English Province of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), with the aim of overcoming the "silo syndrome" which has developed between the different branches of knowledge, between theory and experience, and between the academy and the world. The Friends of Sophia bring together theologians, philosophers, scientists, artists, psychologists and spiritual directors in annual conferences and other more local activities. The Biblical figure of Wisdom, (Hochmah/Sophia) is emerging as a unifying principle.

On 23 May, we were delighted to welcome some 90 participants from all over the world.

Owing to technical issues on the day, the videos of some of the talks are incomplete – please see below for texts covering the missing portions.

Please click on the below links to go to the relevant speaker.
Douglas Hedley
Férdia Stone-Davis
Valentin Gerlier
Julienne McLean
Peter Tyler
Ian Coleman
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Douglas Hedley (Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University, Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism): Wisdom and Playful Zest (die spielende Lust): Schelling and the legacy of Boehme.
BEGIN WITH TEXT: ‘Thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight’ (Wisdom 11.20)
1 Corinthians 2:
6 Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought:
7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:
10, KJV: "But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God."
In his Ages of the World Schelling enigmatically refers die ‘spielende Lust’ or the playful joy or desire of the hypostasized principle of Wisdom. The word ‘Philosophie’ in German and its European cognates contains the word Wisdom (Sophia) and there is a Biblical (especially Vulgate) tradition of a personified wisdom playing. Yet Schelling was drawing upon a theme in Jakob Boehme.   The figure of Wisdom or Sophia, especially the reference in Biblical Proverbs 8.30 to the feminine divine principle 'playing at the dawn of creation', is puzzling theologically. It exists as chokhmah in the Jewish Kabbalah and as wisdom personified in mystical Islam. Its roots in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament and links with the Virgin Mary are both clear and puzzling. In Christian Theology Wisdom cannot be identified with the Virgin, and is not an allegorical figure. Nor can Sophia be a fourth Divine hypostasis.  Yet Divine Wisdom is significant for a number religious thinkers from Boehme to Solovyov.  Sophia is the Spirit of Play as the cosmic-transcendent-eternal aspect of the playful spirit in the human-existential-temporal correlate: Wisdom is an invitation to collaboration with the Divine.
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) is one of the great German philosophers and his later thought revolves around ‘the deep things of God’, especially after his decisive encounter with the thought of Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) Schelling was a native Swabian, born in Leonberg close to Stuttgart on 27 January 1775. He attended the celebrated elite Tübingen Stift from 1790 to 1795, where he was a contemporary and friend with Hegel and Friedrich Hölderlin, and like them enjoyed a training in philology and theology. Schelling’s mind was shaped by Swabian pietism, writers such as Bengel and Oettinger in which the legacy of the visionary Silesian cobbler Jakob Boehme played a significant role. While Kant and Spinoza were the primary influences in his early career, the influence of Pietism should not be underestimated.  After a brief spell in Leipzig in 1797, Schelling was called (through Goethe’s mediation) to a Professorship in Jena in 1798, where he became the Prince of the Romantics, alongside Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, from 1798 to 1803. For largely personal reasons in 1803 he moved to Würzburg, and in 1806 he left for Munich, where he mainly lived from 1806 onwards, apart a brief sojourn 1820 to 1827 in Erlangen. Whilst he wrote rapidly as a young man, after 1809, Schelling only published a long critical diatribe against Jacobi and one essay on The Deities of Samothrace, published as a supplement to his major project The Ages of the World, a projected and ultimately unfinished new system of philosophy went through various revisions. Yet Munich was a decisive phase for his development. In 1806, the year Schelling moved to Munich, Napoleon granted the elevation of Bavaria from a Dukedom to a Kingdom. Maximilian I Joseph and his Francophile Prime Minister Graf Montgelas created new and important institutions in the city. Schelling became a key figure in this pivotal period of German history in which Bavaria attempted to rival Austria to the East and Prussia to the north. Schelling became the first General-Sekretär der Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) founded in 1808. The proximity in Munich of F.H. Jacobi (1743-1819) and Franz von Baader (1765- 1841) re-ignited his interest in the ‘mystical sources’ of his Pietist childhood, particularly Boehme. The roots of this shift in his thought are in the German Mystical Tradition and the Cabbala.

This was a period in German thought of intense Classicism, yet where the priority of Olympus was under siege, by thinkers like Friedrich Creuzer who saw Greek thought as derived ultimately from India. Schelling was an expert linguist and particular fond of Hebrew, whose priority he defended against his friend Creuzer’s prioritisation of Sanskrit. The appeal of a profoundly Scriptural thinker like Boehme in this period fits with Schelling’s fascination for Hebrew.

In this period Schelling’s speculative philosophy takes a distinctive turn. For Schelling, as for Hegel, the finite mind is properly a mirror or speculum of the infinite. Speculative philosophy is the attempt to grasp the world as the Gegenbild (Counter-image or Reflection) of the Divine (per visibilia ad invisibilia). [1]Early in this crucial Munich phase, in 1809 Schelling published a text that formed a decisive shift in his thought. On Human Freedom, a text where the influence of Boehme becomes very evident. Here the idea of a self-differentiation in God is developed. God is presented as a complex unity both as ground (or me on, “not being”) and his actualised being. This model of the eternal becoming of God as self-constitution is developing in various drafts known as The Ages of the World. 1811, 1813 and 1814/5. The manuscripts were never published and were destroyed in the bombing raids in the Second World War. In the Weltalter, Schelling draws upon the idea of Divine Wisdom as Sophia and play. At this level, play becomes the spirit of cosmological and existential re-creation.

Christian Critique of ‘Play’
The positive theme of play within the Christian tradition has been developed by Hugo Rahner in his Der spielende Mensch, Einsiedeln 1952. Yet the negative aspect of play or game (The German word ‘Spiel’ means both) is highly significant in Christian thought.  Tertullian in his De spectaculis. 197-202) provides a trenchant critique of the Roman practices of the circus, the theatre and amphitheatre, and their links to pagan rites and idolatry.  Pascal’s celebrated critique of the balls and hunts and games of the French elite might be cited as another landmark critique of play in Christian thought.  Such play is unmasked by Pascal as a form of distraction, revealing the spiritual malaise of fallen mankind. Soren Kierkegaard’s condemnation of a life lived on the level of the aesthetic as opposed to the ethical and the religious is in this tradition of Tertullian and Pascal.  Kierkegaard diagnoses boredom, anxiety, and despair as the major threats to the human psyche. For the aesthete, boredom is the greatest terror (Either/Or). Tertullian, Pascal and Kierkegaard all seem to represent vividly the Christian-occidental rejection of play.

[1] Cecilia Muratori, The First German Philosopher The Mysticism of Jakob Boehme as interpreted by Hegel, p.166, esp. footnote 212.
Férdia Stone-Davis (Director of Research, Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology) Harmony Embedded: Transcendence and the Material
Through the experience of music, and in an understanding of being with God, Férdia Stone-Davies proposes a model of understanding reality which overcomes the tension of vertical transcendence and horizontal, material immanence through a “transversal” approach.
Valentin Gerlier (Temenos Academy/Cambridge University) Foolish Wisdom and Wise Folly in Shakespeare and Nicholas of Cusa
As part of his wider research about speaking to the Divine rather than just about the Divine, Valentin Gerlier looks at how Shakespeare and Nicholas of Cusa, indirectly linked via Erasmus via The Praise of Folly, somehow articulate aspects of the ineffable Divine Nature by their use of the affirming language of praise.
The first few minutes of the video are missing. In this introductory passage, Valentin considers the use of paradox “when making sense of our relationship with reality and even reality’s relationship with the divine”. For Nicholas, it raises the mind to a mystical mode of reasoning beyond the principle of non-contradiction, such as in the “coincidence of opposites” employed in his The Vision of God. And Shakespeare, while inheriting a Renaissance love of paradox, does not regard it as a mere literary or rhetorical conceit. Rather, he explores through drama the harmonisation of tensions of “between self and world, man and woman, Fool and King, nature and culture, hidden and manifest and ultimately Creator and creature.” The contradictory potencies of these tensions become aligned in the service of divine love, revealed at wonderful moments when the human characters “become bearers of a more-than-human grace”.
Julienne McLean (writer on Carmelite spirituality and depth psychology, and Jungian analyst): “An Embodied Meditation on the Wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila
Reconnecting with the body is an important theme in the Friends of Sophia, something made all the more urgent by the virtual nature of conferences during the Covid-19 pandemic. Julienne leads us in an embodied meditation of experiential anatomy and breath, guided by the teaching of St. Teresa of Avila on the Four Waters of Prayer.
Peter Tyler (Professor of Pastoral Theology and Spirituality, St. Mary’s University Twickenham) Divine Harmony: The Symbolic Reality of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marie-Dominique Chenu and Edith Stein.
Starting from the principle that the Christian perspective is essentially symbolic, Peter helps us to find divine harmony in a world of disharmony through Hopkins’ The Wreck of the Deutschland and the theology and witness of Marie-Dominique Chenu and Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross).
Ian Coleman (composer, and organist and deacon of Holy Redeemer church, London) The sound of the Holy Trinity: how Renaissance composers do theology in music
Taking us beyond “theologies of music” which can unintentionally reduce music to words, Ian Coleman shows explores theological music of the Renaissance, starting with some music, Duo Seraphim by Francisco Guerrero. Here it is sung by the Coro Angel Barja, directed by Aitor Olivares Garcia
The first minute of Ian’s talk is missing from the video, in which he explains that he chose this recording, even with its certain imperfections, as it uses a signi´Čücant number of younger voices, and has more energy and bite than other versions.
Second musical extract:
Guillaume Dufay, Veni Creator Spiritus
Third musical extract:
Claudio Monteverdi, Duo Seraphim
Previous Conferences
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