Sunday, 21 September 2014

Interweaving forms of decent dependency

The hurley burley of a French market at Velleron this summer
Friday saw, of course, Jonathan Harrison’s funeral. For those of you who don’t know, Professor Harrison was a regular attender of this congregation over the last ten years who became for me both a philosophical companion and friend on the way as I tried to see how I might, with intellectual integrity, be a religious naturalist — that is to say to live wholly without the God of theism — and yet still have a lively, religious sensibility and life.  (Here is a link to Jonathan's own website and here is a link to last Sunday's address about Jonathan's personal philosophy.)

As an atheist, albeit one with profound religious intimations, Jonathan was a man, like me and many of us here today, who could not — as you heard in last week’s address about his philosophy — bottom out our world upon the absolute ground of God.

In terms of Jonathan’s funeral as I, a non-theist, stood at this lectern conducting a religious service for my atheist friend, amongst a group of people with the most diverse range of philosophies and theistic and atheistic beliefs imaginable, I became powerfully aware that, from my own point of view, there was no absolute ground upon which I thought this service could be said to rest.

The lack of absolute grounds that I saw so clearly on Friday came as no surprise to me; it’s long seemed like this. But what made the matter of there being no absolute grounds to stand upon so striking was seeing this in the context of loss and grief. Dealing with loss and grief without any absolute grounds to stand upon, forced me to try to articulate to myself — and now to you — what it is in which I do trust; what it is in which I ground my life and which helps me move forward well (enough). I feel I need to do this because you so kindly continue to call me as your settled minister.

Here we may turn to our reading today in which we heard Stanley Cavell suggests that our going forward is

. . . a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation — all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life.’ Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying (Stanley Cavell, “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” in Must We Mean What We Say?, Updated Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 52).

Cavell’s use of the word terrifying here is, I think, key. One may, intellectually speaking, be able to agree with Cavell’s view of what it is we are doing but there are always going to be moments when the lack of something absolute, permanent and God-like to ground it all will seem utterly terrifying — most pressingly, of course, at moments of loss.

It is at these, heart-stopping moments, that there often arises a powerful temptation, explicitly or implicitly, to reintroduce into play an absolute ground — a conventional God — upon which a person believes they can surely depend. My continued use of God-language meant that, at times, Jonathan certainly thought I was trying to do just this and, every now and then he would accuse me of backsliding in my atheism! It was somewhat amusing to me — and I’m sure to Jonathan — that a conversation such as this would occur between a minister and congregant immediately after Sunday service at the Clarendon Arms over lunch and beer.

Let’s stay with the understandable human desire for some kind of absolute dependence in the face of the terror invoked by a lack of absolute grounds. On what kind of God might we depend — that is to say, reasonably ground our life — that isn’t, to borrow a phrase from Edward F. Mooney, “A Strong Force, An Office of Cosmic Management, nor An Inscrutable Interventionist”?

Well, Mooney, in his own work on Søren Kierkegaard, “aimed [to offer his readers] a kind of coverlet or quilt whose patterns evoke a God on whom a self could depend” that was not this kind of strong force. Mooney tried to lead “toward this patterned design by interweaving forms of decent dependency that we can recognize apart from any larger figure of divinity or commitment to a divinity on whom we depend.”

Left like that, this could all sound somewhat vague and insubstantial but here’s Mooney’s own, wonderfully grounded, analogy — one which shows clearly what he means by “interweaving forms of decent dependency”:

My son the scientist does fieldwork, counting bugs on flowers at 10,000 feet in Colorado. He teaches students how to use statistical methods to chart the results of that work. He does grunt work, running a lab, and joins ceremonies of celebration as papers get published and tenure gets awarded. His scientific sensibility is honed and expressed locally in many imbricated practices — fieldwork, lab work, looking at flowers and statistical distributions, running evidentiary checks, proposing explanatory models.  
These locally overlapping activities, loosely ceremonial practices, hang together as a sensibility. They can be pictured as having a nodal point or center of narrative gravity that hovers some distance above this dispersed variety of local sites – and we can call that point or center, ‘Science,’ or ‘the Spirit of Science.’ But to get the feel of this sensibility we don’t obsess on this hovering point or center but immerse ourselves in the local and quotidian, and we certainly don’t start with a detachable and prior commitment to — or belief in — a royal abstraction called “Science” or “The Scientific Method.” Initiates are thrown into the hurley burley collecting plants and learning names. Focusing on local assemblages of meaning and practice – lab work, model building, and so forth — frees them from the need to establish as a condition of local practice the necessary existence of a reified — “Science” or “Scientific Method.” There might be occasions to invoke such an entity commanding the devotion of masters and apprentices, perhaps in the service of rewarding the good or punishing the cheaters. But such occasions would be the exception (from the typescript of Chapter 2 of Excursions with Kierkegaard by Edward F. Mooney  all the quotations in this address by Mooney come from this text).

Reading this analogy only two days ago I experienced a genuine Eureka! moment — “Yes! (I said) that’s it, that’s exactly how I use the word God”.  (My gratitude to Ed Mooney for his insights on this matter is very deep indeed).

It helps me to say to you that, as your minister, I can see I no longer use the word God (god) as “a royal abstraction” but rather as something evoked by the patterns of our form of life together. I realise that I understand God (god) to be a word that emerges within the almost countless, overlapping human, this worldly practices that form our culture’s general hurley burley. I realise, too that I use the word God (god) as a “nodal point or center of narrative gravity that hovers some distance above . . .” our life together. One that only occasionally — for example on Sunday mornings and in certain other  exceptional situations like funerals — needs to be referred to.

Here’s an example from the day of the funeral of what it is I’m trying to get at.

Immediately after the funeral I, along with many others, was sharing some of my own memories of Jonathan. At one point I began to express my deep gratitude for Jonathan’s presence in my life and I found myself saying, without conscious thought, and quite naturally, that this presence had been for me a “God-send”. The people with whom I was talking — knowing both Jonathan’s and my own philosophy — immediately laughed at this because what I had said was clearly both right and wrong at the same time.

It was clearly wrong if the “God” bit of this word was understood as a “royal abstraction” — an absolute ground of being “out there” that was consciously doing the sending and over whose existence or non-existence we could argue endlessly and, mostly, pointlessly. But “God” was just the right word when it was understood as a nodal point or centre of narrative gravity. Citing (the contemporary British theologian) George Pattison, Mooney points out that “the choice is not: do I have to be a fundamentalist believer or a secularist, but: how can I best articulate this mysterious moment in which I realize my life is given to me, as if from another.”

In this sense, when I quite naturally said Jonathan was a “God-send” it was to help me tell a story which expressed my realisation that my life is given to me “as if” from another. I used it to indicate a recognition that both I and Jonathan were grounded in, and depended upon, the gift that is the complex “form of life” which allowed us both to be who we were and in which we were able to share “routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation.”

Under these circumstances, a religious naturalist like me calling a religious atheist like Jonathan a “God-send” is, I think, not to engage in any kind of backsliding as Jonathan feared but, instead, an entirely appropriate expression of a decent dependency “that we can recognise apart from any larger figure of divinity”.

As I stood here on Friday at this lectern I realised that what I felt grounded us all sufficiently — and in which I sufficiently trusted — was the patchwork quilt or coverlet being made with, before and around me, that is our constantly evolving hurley burley life together and whose patterns sometimes evoke from me a phrase like, “he was to me a God-send”.

This is not, of course, the God in which the fundamentalist believes; nor yet is it the God in which the secularist atheist disbelieves. This kind of God is not “A Strong Force, An Office of Cosmic Management, nor An Inscrutable Interventionist” but it is a name I can sometimes meaningfully invoke and which is for me the nodal point or centre of narrative gravity of my own life as your minister.

The word “God” (god) and its use emerges from a form of life which, with its complex, beautiful ever moving quality, seems always to bear witness to the groundless ground upon which we may all decently depend.

This still makes me, I think, a kind of atheist (although I prefer the term religious naturalist), but it also allows me, with integrity, to have said then, and to say now, not only thank God for Jonathan’s life, but also thank God for all of you and the hurley burley life together we all share.

Monday, 15 September 2014

In Memoriam: Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014) — On the religious benefits of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and of having one’s cake and eating it

Prof. Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014)
Professor Jonathan Harrison died last Sunday (14 September) just a few days short of his ninetieth birthday.

Jonathan was born in Liverpool in 1924 but was brought up in Wells, Somerset where he went to the local school. From there he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford as a scholar subsequently becoming senior scholar. He got a first in P.P.E. in 1950. His first job was at what was then called the Durham Colleges in the University of Durham. He was appointed to a lectureship and then a senior lectureship at the University of Edinburgh in 1960. He was appointed to the chair of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham in 1964 and, whilst there, spent a couple of terms at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Jonathan was particularly noted for his work on Moral Philosophy especially his 1971 book, “Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong” (George Allen and Unwin) and his two books on Hume’s moral philosophy published by the Oxford University Press in 1976 and 1980. Jonathan retired in 1988 but continued to write and it was during this time that he published his final, and I think very important book, God, Freedom and Immortality” (henceforth GFI), which, he was delighted to say, one professional peer review thought was as comparable in merit to Hume’s “Dialogues on Natural Religion.”

The reviewer in “The Philosopher” (the journal of the Philosophical Society in England) thought this was a “well written and objective work”, one which:

. . . could well have been entitled ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about God but were afraid to ask’. It was a real pleasure to follow Harrison's reasoning, in a prose style that intimated his familiarity with the written word. Indeed, the text could be read for its salutary use of the English language. 

The same reviewer concluded that one’s own “yea or nay” about this book “does not really come into play; the journey is that pleasant.”

Indeed, my own decade long journey of philosophical friendship with Jonathan, though never less than very challenging, was in the round, just as pleasant as the reviewer had found his book.

Now, before my address looking at certain aspects of Jonathan's philosophy, here are a couple of short extracts from GFI:


From William Shakespeare: King Henry IV, Part II — the quotation Jonathan chose to appear opposite the title page of God, Freedom and Immortality

“Now I, to comfort him, bad him not think of God, I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.”

From Chapter 30 — “Conclusions” — of God, Freedom and Immortality by Jonathan Harrison (Ashgate Press, 1999, p. 660)

This long and sometimes involved book may regarded as a sustained attempt to investigate the existence of God. If — as seems likely — God does not exist in any straightforward way, it attempts to find some place for religion in a world that shows absolutely no traces of his existing. (There are, of course, for good or ill, numerous traces of people’s believing in God, but God’s existence cannot without circularity be reduced to the effects of people’s believing that he exists, though this ploy is sometimes attempted.)
l regard my attempt to find a place for religion as largely but not wholly unsuccessful. Almost all the traditional attitudes to God — trust, gratitude, reliance upon his help — must turn out to be misplaced if he does not exist. All that remains is a God whom one can contemplate, love, possibly worship and from intercourse with whom one may gain strength and consolation. (The kind of worship I am thinking of is silent and wordless, public worship is heavily laden with belief.) However appropriate these attitudes may be, what solace and help one derives from them is the result of the contemplation and worship themselves, not of divine intervention on our behalf.
This book may also be regarded, perhaps too charitably, as an attempt to reconcile the views on religion of Freud and Jung. Freud regarded religion as harmful because it produced false belief. Jung - to oversimplify - regarded religion as beneficial because it augmented mans powers and made him whole. My somewhat pragmatic attitude to religion involves attempting to recommend it as a way of producing wholeness and augmenting man’s powers, which Jung thought it did, without producing false belief, which Freud though it did.

And from the end of the Introduction (p.4):

It would be a great mistake, however, to suppose that such interest as this book has lies only in its conclusions. In philosophy it is not only conclusions that are important, but also the route one takes to acquiring them. Though it may not be entirely true that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, at least one should observe and if possible enjoy the scenery on the route to one's destination. 


Address: In Memoriam: Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014)
On the religious benefits of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and of having one’s cake and eating it

Jonathan Harrison’s late philosophy speaks powerfully to an age and culture in which many people have come to feel that conventional religious beliefs and metaphysics are no longer either persuasive or sustainable and his final major work, GFI, was a sustained attempt to see whether it might be possible “to find some place for religion in a world that shows absolutely no traces of [God’s] existing” (p. 660).

As I was writing this piece I was continually tempted to dialogue directly and critically with his philosophy — after all this is what I did every time I met with him — but to have done this would have been to fail to bring you before something of his own provocative thinking and that would have been a loss. So, all I want to do in the remainder of this address — necessarily limited to just fifteen minutes — is give you just a few hints of his own religious thinking and to do this mostly in his own words.

Let’s start with Jonathan’s view of God. Here’s an important passage from GFI:

Once upon a time I thought that God did not exist, but might be the object of favourable attitudes (for example love) in spite of this. I have since revised that view and now hold (very tentatively) that a better way of putting the matter is to say that God neither exists nor does not exist. (This is a view that has been held by some mystics.) By saying God neither exists nor does not exist I hope to do justice to two strands in sensible thought about religion, the fact that there are no traces of God in nature and the fact that at least some men need God, and have experience that presents itself as direct awareness of him (p. 672).

His quasi-mystical “way of putting the matter” here needs to be unfolded properly — Jonathan would never forgive me for leaving you thinking he was somehow, secretly, a religious believer. He wasn’t. Firstly, it is important to stress that he thought God, as some kind of actual entity (being) in the universe, simply did not exist. He never once wavered from this view.

But, secondly, even as he strongly affirmed his atheism, he also wanted to make it clear that he saw that:

. . . the vast number of people have thought there was a God because they have confused the phenomenological object of their religious experience with an externally existing, omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good being (pp. 681-682).

Here we find one of his chief, general criticisms of conventional atheists — and Jonathan was certainly never one of those — was that they “have chosen to ignore the phenomenological object of their experience because they have believed that there was no God” (p. 682). In other words they weren't paying proper attention to something important.

Jonathan was an unusual atheist in that he refused to, in fact in all honesty could not, ignore his own religious experiences. In part this was because he “suspect[ed] that religion, like sex, gets dangerous when swept under the carpet”. But it was not just this somewhat negative (though I think correct) concern that kept him concentrated upon his intimations of God because Jonathan’s religious experiences bore for him, for the most part, many positive fruits. Here is a touching, almost confessional, moment from his book:

. . . I have come to be that embarrassing, but not, I think, uncommon thing, an atheist who has what appears to be [be an] experience of the deity whom he believes not to exist. At intervals I feel myself in contact with a being who seems to watch over me and to care for me. Though it comes in different guises, it sometimes — not always — appears to be a moderately benevolent and not excessively agitated eye which follows me wherever I go and occasionally strengthens my resolve and gives me solace and help when I need it, though only to a limited extent (p. 681).

Although, given what you have just heard, this might initially seem a puzzling statement it is helpful to remember that Jonathan thought his book might be regarded as “an attempt to reconcile the views on religion of Freud and Jung” (p.660). As Jonathan noted, “Freud regarded religion as harmful because it produced false belief. Jung — to oversimplify — regard religion as beneficial because it augmented man’s powers and made him whole” (p. 660). Jonathan went on to describe his own pragmatic approach to religion as involving an attempt “to recommend it as a way of producing wholeness and augmenting man’s powers, which Jung thought it did, without producing false belief, which Freud thought it did” (p. 660).

With this mention of wholeness and augmentation we begin, I think, to touch upon something of the human heart of the matter. Although for Jonathan religion — and the idea of God — was clearly a fallible, entirely human product (cf. p 687), for all that, he thought it could still provide real, if always limited, support and comfort to an individual:

The reason why I think my [religious] experience is valuable to me — and I assume that at least some other people are similar — is that it sometimes makes me calm when I am not calm and more confident when I am not confident at all. Sometimes it enables me to look at things from a more detached and less self-centred point of view than I would otherwise. 
[. . .] 
The experience I am talking about is not only (up to a point) useful, it is also enjoyable. Having it has some of the characteristics of certain kinds of (predominantly visual) art. I imagine that in others more fortunate than me it can occasionally be sublime. Even in myself it can partly resemble a clap of thunder or the view of a distant mountain range (p. 684).

Now, there is much more of Jonathan’s thought about God that I could bring before you but it is I think more helpful today to give you now an indication of what he felt his experience of a “non-existent God” did, and did not, require of him.

In the first place it certainly required of him the need to live some kind of “spiritual life”. Here is what Jonathan said about that:

Living a spiritual life may be regarded as paying attention to such intimations of the divine as one has in this world, without our having thought to any other world. Paying such attention might not suit everybody. I suspect doing so is more a matter of prudence than of morality. To love God, if I am right in thinking that it is possible to love a nonexistent God, cannot benefit him, for he does not, strictly speak, exist, but to love him may be of benefit to oneself (p. 671).

On a number of occasions in the last few weeks I asked him whether he was doing any philosophy? He laughed and told me categorically, “No!”, and immediately said he was spending all his time “contemplating the Deity”. Although he quickly added to this his obligatory caveat that he knew such a God did not exist, he was absolutely clear that what counted for him in these difficult times, and which brought him a measure of real benefit and comfort, were his “intimations of God”.

Naturally a non-existent God neither allowed for, nor of course required from him, any kind of petitionary prayer; after all you cannot ask a God who doesn’t exist to do anything because the universe will simply continue in its own way regardless — he was always clear about that. So, for example, Jonathan couldn't, and wouldn't, pray for improved health. However, as you can see, a non-existent God did allow for, and seemed to require of Jonathan, a contemplative attitude and, in Jonathan’s own words, “the “proper attitudes” to such a conception of divinity were “awe, devotion, (silent) worship, love, contemplation, and temporary surrender” (p.667).

A second thing his experience of a non-existent God required of him was to be clear that such a God “cannot give one a moral code” (p. 667). This meant that “the moral codes we have cannot be God-given and God-sanctioned” (p. 667). The disadvantage of this, he pointed out, is that “good moral codes will be less stringently enforced.” On the other hand, the advantage is that “some of the moral codes that will be less stringently enforced will be bad ones” (p. 667).

Given this problem (if it is a problem), Jonathan thought that we should, therefore, derive our moral codes by making “a more consistent direct appeal to love as opposed to rigid enforcement of rules based on the authority of a fallible church or an impossible historical revelation” (p. 662) — provided, as he notes, that “the importance of love is not overemphasised and is taken in a wide enough sense to include love of things other than people, including animals other than man” (p.662).

Were this possible Jonathan thought that many of Christianity’s disadvantages could be overcome and he was prepared to state clearly that “the Christian ethic,” at least subject to the criticism he made of it,

. . . is a good one, though nothing in this world is perfect. It offers solace, comfort and help and the possibility of spiritual quietness, rest and solace which many sorely need and from which I suspect most would benefit (p. 662).

But, as he also said, Christianity was not the only religion to provide such benefits and, although he hoped otherwise, he thought it was “unfortunate that these benefits are usually . . . bought, in their Christian form, at the price of accepting superstition and bad metaphysics” (p. 662). In an amusing expression of this thought he admitted to feeling that in his experience “Roman Catholics were more prone to superstition and Protestants to waffle” (p. 661).

And lastly, today, what about “doing religion” and religious community? Well, it will come as no surprise to find that Jonathan was highly suspicious of all forms of institutionalised religion. He could see it had certain benefits but, in general, he felt it brought with it too much “compromise, a hierarchy of power, and careerist churchmen, who perform a necessary function from not the noblest of motives” (p. 686). In the light of this he said:

[I]stitutionalised religion must inevitably be second best to genuine feeling and belief resulting from one’s own experience and thought. Religion requires more than occasional churchgoing and notional assent to a belief, which institutionalised religion tends to perpetuate. It also tends to discourage, or not necessarily to encourage, experiment and unorthodoxy, which are the lifeblood of all artistic and intellectual activity. Though it offers much more than the joys of conformity, there is inevitably a do-it-yourself element in genuine religion, and it should not be relegated to the status of a spectator sport (pp. 686-687).


Jonathan celebrating his 89th birthday with Susanna Brown
I feel confident in saying it was because here we so strongly agree with this, that Jonathan felt he could regularly attend this church.

I think it is also clear that he could do this because of our willingness openly to allow radically differing conceptions of God, the divine and the sacred to be expressed and explored (including atheist ones), this meant he could maintain, with complete integrity, his own very creative balance of atheism and his personal “intimations of the Deity”.

Lastly, I think it was because we consistently offer people a way of continuing meaningfully to engage with the Christian tradition in a fashion that doesn’t require them, in any way, to accept superstition or bad metaphysics, that he also found here a kind of secular Christian practice and religious community that he was happy (enough) to support.

We should, I think, take all of these things as genuine compliments from a very, very fine philosopher.

Jonathan felt that his book and its conclusions — especially the balance it tries to maintain between a clear atheism and meaningful intimations of the Deity — might be taken “as the manifestation of an unfortunate tendency to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, with the result that it will, like a swallowed filling, fall between two very large stools” (I’ll leave you to unpack this witty school-boy metaphor!) (p. 687). However, he said, that doing this,

. . . is not an unintelligent thing to do. For one thing, it enables one better to understand both animals. And the trouble with wanting to have one’s cake and eat it is not so much that it is wrong as that it looks impossible. If a way could be found of having both, what sensible man would refuse to take it? (p.687).

As a highly unorthodox minister of religion myself, Jonathan helped me feel more confident that the cake and its eating are there to be had and, although there are countless numbers of people in the world who say it is impossible, that we can have a religion without superstition or bad metaphysics.

Jonathan inspired me to continue to try and shape such a secular religion here in Cambridge and in my ongoing attempt to run with hares and hunt with the hounds I will always miss his witty and provocative friendship.

Thank you Jonathan for the journey and your friendship — rest in peace.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Jazz At The Movies — Playing at Saffron Walden, Friday 12 September

Every now and then I do a few gigs with a band called Jazz At The Movies and tomorrow (Friday 12 September) I'm playing with them in Saffron Walden at the Town Hall at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £7.50 - £12.50 which you can book at the following site:

The show features evocative songs and soundtrack themes from classic films, including The Aristocats, the Servant, From Russia with Love, Agatha, Let’s Make Love, The Pink Panther, The Ipcress File and more. The music swings from Bond to Bacharach, Dankworth to Disney, Porter to Pinter.

The singer is Joanna Eden and the band is Chris Ingham's Quartet which includes, for this tour, the wonderful saxophonist Alan Barnes.

A sell out at Ronnie Scott’s in 2012 and 2013, Jazz at the Movies present an enchanting, entertaining show rich in anecdotes, sophistication and swing.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A farewell until September 10th . . .

The Buddha in our Cambridge backyard
Well, it's that time of year again to down tools and take a rest from blogging for a month.  I'm back in the saddle from the 10th September and, I imagine, my first post after that will be on Sunday 14th September.

As always this break gives me the opportunity to thank all of you for taking the time to read the stuff that gets posted here and for your many and various comments, some on the blog, but mostly in personal communications whether face-to-face or via email. They are all hugely appreciated.

It's been an exciting year in many ways not least of all because of the very generous donation to the church community where I am minister and the first fruits of that should be seen in early October with the launching of a new church website. Keep your eyes peeled for that. But it's also been an exciting year in terms of my own intellectual journey thanks to the discovery of the work and thought of Henry Bugbee and Edward F. Mooney which has helped me in all kinds of unexpected and joyful ways. I've been sent back by them with new insights to some of the key influences in my own life — Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Plato, Jesus, Thoreau, Wienpahl — and also been introduced to a couple of new names, I'm thinking especially of Bruce Wilshire, Gabriel Marcel, and Herbert Fingarette.

In relation to the latter, Herbert Fingarette, you will have noticed that I have adopted some of his words under the title of my blog as they seem to express so well something I aspire to do on this blog:

"These studies are outcomes rather than realised objectives. In making the journey, I have no aims. These studies are intellectual footprints, not blueprints" (The Self in Transformation).

So, to some rest, reading, cycling, walking and reading. I'll be spending time (as I always do) with Jefferson's "Bible" and Epicurus' works but I'll also be re-reading Bugbee's Inward Morning and going through a manuscript of book on Thoreau by a colleague of mine. I also intend to dip into another old friend of a book —A Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard. This volume was the constant companion of many of the early Beat Poets and also of mine whilst I was studying for the ministry at Harris Manchester College, Oxford between 1997 and 2000. Anyway, for various reasons over the past few months, I've been thinking more about the Beat's thinking and so it's clearly time to revisit this extraordinary and important text.

So, just for a while, au revoir and see you all again in September. I wish you all a good and restful summer.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Learning from Boccaccio's humanism — “Umana cosa è aver compassionedegli afflitti" — It is human to have compassion for those in distress

Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron
Readings: Song of Songs 4:16-5:2

From Robert Pogue Harrison: “Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71).

What is one to do in so-called dark times, when the world that "comes between men" no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen's role in the public sphere? There are times when the thinker, patriot, or individual has no choice but to withdraw to the sidelines, as Plato did when he gave up the idea of becoming a statesman and founded a school on the outskirts of Athens. In her book "Men in Dark Times" Hannah Arendt writes: "Flight from the world in dark times  of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped. The same could be said of the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege. A garden sanctuary can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality it preserves within its haven. Some gardens become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . .. Other gardens, by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the forces of darkness (From the chapter "The Garden School of Epicurus").

(From Robert Pogue Harrison: “Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 94-95).

Giovanni Boccaccio
Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the  triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]) (From the chapter "Boccaccio's Garden Stories).


Learning from Boccaccio's humanism — “Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti" — It is human to have compassion for those in distress

This week a song by Loudon Wainwright kept coming back into my mind, its chorus goes as follows:

          It's been a hard day on the planet:
          How much is it all worth?
          It's getting harder to understand it
          Things are tough all over on earth.

These lines have certainly been true every day of the past few weeks and none of us can failed to have heard, over and over again, the harrowing reports of the most awful kind of violence being metered out upon countless numbers of innocent people in Gaza and Israel/Palestine, Ukraine, Libya, and Iraq and, if that were not enough, we are also likely to have been alarmed by the increasingly dangerous Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Those of you who follow the news carefully will know that, although these are the events that are currently making the headlines, there are plenty of other grim stories out there just waiting their own turn in the limelight some of which are to be found right here on our own doorstep.

Now, I'm just about to go away for my summer vacation and I can assure you that I fully intend to try and put wholly to one side most of these events for the duration of my break.

This thought meant that, when it came to writing this, my final address before leaving, there was an immediate, almost overwhelming temptation to produce what we might call a “flight from reality sermon” by concentrating on some obviously pleasant topic which had a chance of leaving you (and me) with a certain sense of contentment and hope even if, ultimately, it achieved this by simply ignoring all the current horrors. But, ultimately, I didn't feel that this was at all the right thing to do because, whether we like it or not, these events are clearly pressing upon all our psyches and I think it would be foolhardy, and perhaps even psychologically dangerous, to pretend otherwise.

So what to do? Well, it took me three days and the writing of two failed addresses before it came upon me how I might be able to offer up a right (enough) word for this situation. On Friday night as I began to fall asleep Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313–1375) “Decameron” (1353) came quietly into my dreams.

The year is 1348 and there is a terrible plague running unchecked in Florence. As Robert Pogue Harrison says:

In the city, civic order has degenerated into anarchy; love of one’s neighbour has turned into dread of one’s neighbour (who now represents the threat of contagion); the law of kinship has given way to every person for himself (many family members flee from their infected loved ones, leaving them to face their death agonies alone and without succour); and where there was once courtesy and decorum there is now only crime and delirium (Gardens, p. 84).

To escape this horror a group of seven young women and three young men decide to go to out of the city for two-weeks to a secluded villa within a wonderful walled-garden and there "to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making taking care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct" (Gardens, p. 84). What could be more different from the horrors of Florence than this garden idyll.

At first sight it might seem that their retreat to this villa and its gardens was precisely the flight from reality that I have admitted to being wary of. But, as Harrison points out:

While their escapade is indeed a ‘flight from reality’, their self-conscious efforts to follow an almost ideal code of sociability during their stay in the hills of Fiesole are a direct response to the collapse of social order they leave behind. In that respect their sojourn is wholly “justified” by Hannah Arendt’s standards [when she says]: “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped (Gardens, p. 84).

This seems to me to be a vital insight to hold on to — not only by myself, as I go on vacation but also by us in our day to day life as a church.

That this is so became apparent to me because this address was finally begun the day after a conversation with a colleague in which I had just admitted that, after my sabbatical of 2008, an important change had occurred in my own outlook.

In my early years as your minister I brought into play — with varying degrees of success and failure — the tradition of political, social and religious activism I had inherited from my youth. It was a stance which brought with it a global vision and hope and, whenever I needed to explain this (either to myself or others), I generally said something akin to Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis found in his “Theses on Feuerbach”: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”. In this effort to change the world the large-scale, nineteenth-century Christian Socialist movement was my basic starting point, it was an activist tradition shared by own own liberal religious movement. (At the end of this address I’ll return to Marx’s aphorism and offer it up again but in a very different key.)

But it is clear that the world today is not what it was in the nineteenth-century, it is not even the world of the 1960s into which I was born and which had its own fair share of radical activist movements. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries we have all become increasingly suspicious of those who promote, and attempt to enact, the kind of grand, world-changing schemes I had been so strongly influenced by. Technology and globalisation have brought with them new kinds of fragmentation and democratisation — some aspects of which we will feel to be good, some bad — and they have all definitely cut against the old style political and religious activism I inherited. Boccaccio’s humanism, at least as it was presented to me by Harrison, played a key role in the process of reassessment I have had to undergo since 2008.

This process helped me begin better to see that “[o]ur condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic” and, in turn, this allowed me to begin to move away from what Harrison calls “the triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation)” and decisively towards “the civil humanism of neighbourly love.”

The primary consequence of this has been a recognition of the need to live out, again as Harrison notes, some kind of “minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour” which, “according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day” and to state strongly and clearly: “Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti" (It is human to have compassion for those in distress).

Given that we here have begun to hold from time to time “Epicurean Gatherings” it is worth remembering in passing that Boccaccio’s “Decameron” is considered by Harrison to be “one of the most elegant, if non-doctrinal, expressions of Epicureanism in its genuine latter-day form.”

Anyway, the news of the last couple of weeks — and our own everyday lives with their own real vicissitudes — shows clearly that in order to achieve this, “periodically” we all find ourselves “in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification” in which we can “escape reality”. But, and it is a hugely important but, this escape must always be undertaken according to Hannah Arendt’s standards, namely, that “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped”.

Contingent historical events have meant that we are now a very small community and, whilst we can still from time to time display a successful activism (e.g. in the support of same-sex marriage legislation), we have to acknowledge that we are no longer an effective, single activist force for change in our society.

Consequently, I think that, today, this liberal church community best placed to offer, at least once a week, something like the garden to which Boccaccio’s ten youngsters escaped when they made their way into the hills six-hundred and sixty-six years ago.

Today, we are clearly at our most effective in our ability to render one to another “the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” and “[t]o add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life” and, as I hope this address has made relatively clear, we are able to do this to Hannah Arendt's standards. The real (if modest) hope is that those who come here on a Sunday morning or evening, when they return to reality on Monday morning, will find they are better able to get through the next day and week. At the very least we can provide some kind of meaningful support for the modest activism each individual is able to undertake themselves.

It’s important to realise that after two weeks the ten storytellers in the "Decameron" also make a return to reality. Although it was as true for them, as it is for us, that time spent together in fellowship — sharing story, song and conversation — may seem to have little or no immediate, direct effect on the “outside” world, it is not true that nothing has changed. What the ten friends, and we, do together is something we may call “recasting reality” and, as Harrison notes,

By recasting reality in narrative modes, they allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief” . . . [and the magic of stories and gardens is that] they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.

As I have put it at other times, whilst it is true there is no other world than this one, there is another world, namely, this world seen or interpreted differently. To paraphrase what I often say about prayer, though we may doubt our interpretations change anything, let it never be forgotten that interpretations change people and people change things.

With this point I can begin to draw to a close today by returning to Marx’s famous words I mentioned earlier, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” Those of you who know me well know that I am a great admirer of the contemporary Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo. He, and his colleague Santiago Zabala, feel that in our new situation and condition Marx’s statement needs to rephrased as follows:

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Hermeneutic Communism, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5).

In other words, in our wholly new historical, political, religious and social situation, it seems to me that the best and most effective way a small liberal religious movement like our own can change the world today is to continue to gather together with wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

We were pleased to welcome to the service this morning the Revd Dr. Kenneth Torquil MacLean who is the minister emeritus of the UU Church of the Desert, Rancho Mirage, California. He is an old friend of our own minister emeritus, the Revd Frank Walker. After the service we thought it would be fun to have our photo taken together and I add it here. Below that I have also posted a photo of the sky outside the church taken shortly afterwards and just before the heavens opened.
L. to r.: Andrew, Ken and Frank
Outside the church just before the heavens open on Emmanuel Road

Past Arcadia and Kingdom come — a guest posting by Julian Holloway

Nicolas Poussin's Et in Arcadia ego
On Sunday 20 July 2014 a member of the congregation, Julian Holloway gave the address. I'm very pleased to be able to post it here.


Reading 1
Ted Hughes Tales from Ovid 1997

Though all the beasts
Hang their heads from horizontal backbones
And study the earth
Beneath their feet, Prometheus
Upended man into the vertical - 
So to comprehend balance.
Then tipped up his chin
So to widen his outlook on heaven.
In this way the heap of all disorder
Was altered.
It was adorned with the godlike novelty 
Of man.

And the first age was Gold.
Without laws, without law’s enforcers,
This age understood and obeyed 
What had created it,
Listening deeply, man kept faith with the source.

Men needed no weapons.
Nations loved one another.
And the earth, unbroken by plough or by hoe,
Piled the table high. Mankind
Was content to gather the abundance
Of whatever ripened.
Blackberry or strawberry, mushroom or truffle,
Every kind of nut, figs, apples, cherries,
Apricots and pears, and, ankle deep,
Acorns under the tree of the Thunderer.
Spring weather, the airs of spring,
All year long brought blossom.
The unworked earth
Whitened beneath the bowed wealth of the corn.
Rivers of milk mingled with rivers of nectar.
And out of the black oak oozed amber honey.

Reading 2
Isaiah 25:1-8 

For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.
Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers, as the heat in a dry place; even the heat with the shadow of a cloud: the branch of the terrible ones shall be brought low.
And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it.

Reading 3
Matthew 13:33-35

Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.

Address — Past Arcadia and Kingdom come

We moved here from a village on the coast of northwest Scotland as far from Iceland as it is from Cambridge. In the 70s and 80s it was a port for the “Klondykers”. These fish processing ships serving the Eastern Block trawlers then massively over harvesting the international waters of the North Atlantic.

In the village lived a quiet retired civil servant — who, local rumour had it —was a retired MI5 officer keeping an eye on the comings and goings in the port. I met him a few years ago, when the Cold War was over the rusty ships had gone.

One of the things we talked about was the neolithic tombs in the wilderness nearby. I’d just visited one of them — rather damaged by peat cutting, I’m sorry to say. It is in a place where the wind howls in from every direction. I said how ‘nasty, brutish and short’ I imaged the lives of those early farmers had been — raiding parties from other tribes, cold — and wet — and lonely — and hungry.

The old gentleman said very politely that it wouldn't have been like that at all: At that time, around 5000 years ago, the climate was far warmer than now; the population density was so low that there was masses of space to forage and hunt and do a little farming; that the families in that community would have had nothing to fear because they were practically alone in a fruitful landscape, and everyone else had all that they needed so there was no cause for conflict.

This startled me a little because he was seeming to bath the harsh landscape that surrounded us in the golden light of Arcadia. But, afterwards as I thought about it I felt that I would be a better man if I could share this old spy’s willingness to believe the best about mankind and our past.

Last night I rang an archaeologist friend. He assured me that the northwest Scottish Highlands in the Neolithic period would still have been a pretty cold and windy place, and that even in the Mesolithic period — when we were hunter gatherers, before the discovery of agriculture — there had been plenty of war.

So was the old man wrong? I think he was so wrong he was right. And we are in a church here, where we look to the power of ideas and sometimes soften the precision of our gaze to see what stories actually mean.

My ‘nasty brutish and short’ attitude came out of Hobbes on the political side and is powerfully buttressed by Darwin. Its a pretty standard modern point of view — that the natural condition of mankind is anarchic, a condition of violent competition, if not fundamentally evil.

I’m currently working, very slowly, through Don Quixote. And was struck by one part where where he ludicrously lectures a group of kindly goat herds, saying:

“Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden… no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather from the sturdy oaks their sweet ripe fruit… Then all was peace, all friendship, all concord…”

Of course the deluded old Knight is apeing the passage from Ovid that we heard earlier.

Ovid himself set out a whole structure — a wretched slow-motion fall of man…

We have a sense of the Golden Age. In addition to peace and plenty, there was no need for justice because all was in balance… and ‘Man kept faith with the Source’.

The Age of Silver was harder to survive in, but mankind was still good.

“The Age of Brass
Brought a brazen people,
Souls fashioned on the same anvil
As the blades their hands snatched up
Before they cooled.”

Then the Age of Iron… “the day of Evil dawns”. Gold, war, commerce. “The brides heirloom is a piggybank for the groom to shatter. Brothers who ought to love each other prefer to loathe…”

Finally the giants — seeing how man behaves — assault the Gods and are ‘squashed like ripe grapes’.

Its quite a spiral down.

Then Ovid makes something happen that speaks to the fears of today: Ecological disaster falls. Jove decided to drown mankind — the ice-cap melting, perhaps.

Which of these ages do we live in?

I think most of us believe we live in the Age of Iron. And isn't there something a bit pathetic about this assumption — an assumption Ovid had already noticed when he wrote — that most people think they live in a time so unsatisfactory they have fantasies of it all ending, as if life isn't good enough. Evidence of this fantasy is found in the success of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ or the film ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ when suddenly, like the flick of a switch a violent ice age falls.

Don Quixote has his weaknesses - most obviously that he is potty - but (putting that aside) you do have to admire his courage and, above all, his optimism. At one point he says to dear old Sancho Panza “I — by Heaven's will — have been born in this our age of iron to revive in it the age of gold…” This is an almost messianic declaration. He’s mad, but by saying it Don Quixote shows us that some people in every age still look at the future as being worthy of becoming Golden again. And he thinks he can make it happen.

In Judeo-Christian culture, the Garden of Eden has its equally persistent twin: A heavenly last stage of history, when the Messiah comes down and imposes God’s order on earth. Like Ovid, Isaiah (in the reading) presents it to us as a feast where God and the earth’s bounty is given without sadness and toil.

Jesus — the new testament is peppered with references to Isaiah — uses the image of the banquet persistently. Both of them promise that God will “swallow up death for ever”. This happy apocalypse was central to what the Jesus offered his followers, and the Kingdom of Heaven was even more imminent for the early church than the ecological catastrophe is to us. That said, the Kingdom of Heaven didn't come in the most extravagant sense. And that sense doesn't mean much to me, except that it shows me a fallible Christ which worries me. And if Christ’s literal Kingdom meant much to you, you’d probably be worshipping at a very different church this morning. For us the apocalypse is likely to be moral or physical.

But there is a Kingdom which we — at the progressive end of the religious spectrum — can help to persist.

As the parable said “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” This I take to mean that part of Jesus’s Kingdom is to be lived here on earth and that somehow processes are at work for the greatest of all possible goods. We can really live with that and for that.

Now the point of what I am saying is this:

Everybody believes that the age they live in stinks. Jesus did. Cervantes the creator of Don Quixote did — he was enslaved for some years. Most of us do — though in many ways this the best time that there has ever been to be alive.

Many people also believe that human beings are too ‘natural’, evolved through Ages of ruthless competition, to be really benevolent, or really deserving of benevolence.

But this is a hopeless position. If the sense that man had a Golden Age — either behind him or in front of him — were entirely extinguished in every heart our civilisation we would surely be in the Age of Iron, and… back to Ovid: ‘The inward ear, attuned to the Creator’ would be trodden underfoot, and Astraea “the Virgin of Justice, the incorruptible — last of the immortals — [really would abandon] the blood-fouled earth.” Goodness would be extinguished in the world, because we would have lost faith entirely in our human goodness.

I can see the magic for those people who wait, expectant for a literal Kingdom of Heaven to arrive on earth. And I think it has evident value, because preparation for the supernatural Kingdom, helps many many people  live with goodness and kindness and care in the world. I certainly don’t hold onto these supernatural aspects of a future Kingdom of Heaven. But I do believe in the goodness and the need to live our lives with benevolence and fellowship… and the need to hope — as poor mad Don Quixote hoped — wish for the revival in this, so often, sad world of ours the Age of Gold.

The ‘hope’ that we were once truly happy and can be again is I believe the leaven the parable speaks about. And that is what I began to learn from an old spy on a stormy evening as we talked about neolithic burial sites.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Weighing everything by the measure of the silent presence of things . . . each step a meditation steeped in reality.

I decided to try a new circular walk today that I was introduced to by another Cambridge-based blogger whose blog is called "Keep Pushing Those Pedals".  If you want to try it yourself you can view the route here. I cycled up to Wandlebury and left the bicycle locked up at the cycle parking there and headed out on foot.  Yet again I took with me Henry Bugbee's "The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form" and once more during my walk I stopped to eat, drink a ginger-beer and re-read some selected passages. On this round of re-reading I came upon the passage I quoted back on 4 June just after I had discovered him:

During my years of graduate study before the war I studied philosophy in the classroom and at a desk, but my philosophy took shape mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place. And the balance in which I weighed ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified by racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality (The Inward Morning, p. 139 — entry for Aug. 7).

It is just so true that I find myself needing to bring it before you again here. It is really only on foot (or in my case also on the bicycle) that I can do any proper thinking. (When I am at my desk — especially on a Saturday writing my address for the following Sunday — I find I can only write in so far as I am able to draw on the meditations of place that have occurred earlier in the week.) A pencil note of my own in the margin a few pages later sent me on to the entry of Sept. 17 (ibid. p. 194) in which Bugbee quotes Thoreau from Walden:

"Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track then."

Of this Bugbee says, in part:

"The Way can be but one unique way for each person. Yet this is no way, no clear prospect, or marked path ahead: neither straight and narrow nor broad and meandering" (ibid. p. 194).

These import of these words accompanied accompanied me on my walk home.

As always I add here a few photos from the day.