Controversy takes on many guises. The dapper, outrageous comedian. The ranting extremist. The taboo-testing pop star. But when it wears the demeanour of a diffident don, it can beguile and charm you in ways that diminish its sting, while deepening its impact.
At the end of his talk at the Richard Benson Hall, Rupert Sheldrake was asked how he coped with the hostile response to his controversial hypothesis of morphic resonance. The theory proposes the idea that nature has a memory and functions on the basis of shifting habits, rather than fixed laws.
He described the experience of reading an editorial in the scientific journal Nature, which carried the headline, “A book for burning”. It was a furious attack on his book The New Science Of Life, which first set out the principle of morphic resonance.
As he recounted the tale, with wry good humour, we took in the rather startling idea that this, the gentlest of gentlemen, has enemies who would see him discredited and shamed among his peers. Yet the notion that informs his latest book, Science And Spiritual Practices, seems far from divisive. It seeks to bridge the gap between science and religion which currently exercises intellectuals and polemicists across the world.
We learned two important lessons from Sheldrake’s talk. The first was that patience and polite determination are potent weapons in the face of choleric disagreement. The second was that tea is the rocket fuel of both scientific endeavour and spiritual practice.
He told us how discussions over tea at
And he told us that while governments and traditional sources of funding have been unwilling to support more holistically-based scientific research, the new generation of technology billionaires are expressing considerable interest. He invites them round for tea to discuss the possibilities.
He’s such a nice chap, Rupert Sheldrake. But his kind, thoughtful, polite and self-deprecating nature belies a deep grasp of scientific practice and a polymathic knowledge of the history of science and spirituality. This, and the kind of English steeliness that perhaps only tea can sustain, make him the most redoubtable of opponents for those who challenge the ideas and experiences that he believes are essential for the wellbeing of humanity and the world we share.