Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Giant of Provence - defying the Ventoux

Believe everything you hear about this mountain. I'm just back from climbing it via the East from Bédoin: 21 km over 1610 m. Here's how the Wikipedia entry puts it:

"This is the most famous and difficult ascent. The road to the summit has an average gradient of 7.6%. Until Saint-Estève, the climb is easy, but the 16 remaining kilometres have an average gradient of 10%. The last kilometres have strong, violent winds. The ride takes 2-3 hours for trained amateur individuals, and professionals can ride it in 1-1.5 hours."

I did it by entering a randonnee called "Le Défi du Ventoux" which you can read about here. It seemed more fun (and safer) to do it as part of an organised ride. As previous posts will have shown I have only brought to France my Colnago fixed wheel which would never get me up this mountain so I borrowed a mountain bike from a friend of our hosts called Toto (thanks Toto!) to do this ride.

So there I am at seven in Villes sur Auzon (11km away from Bédoin) to register along with Susanna (my wife), Robert (one of our hosts without whose kindness this visit to France and this ride in particular would not have been possible - so a huge thanks to Robert and Carol-Leigh his wife) and Chippie the dog. Six Euros did the job and I was handed a free bottle of wine (really - a Cave was one of the sponsors) and a dossard (a label for the back of my shirt). Then I started to look around at the other cyclists arriving . . .

To be quite frank what I saw began to instil in me a growing sense of fear. Not a single mountain bike to be seen - everywhere lightweight state of the art road bikes and folk in multi-coloured lycra. Now the brochure (article 10) says quite clearly that "Le Défi du Ventoux is not a competition but a permanent randonnee designed to give each person pleasure on a legendary journey" but the general vibe spoke of something different. They repeated that sentiment over the public address system but it didn't quite chime in with the way young guns were warming up in the car park itching for the off.

8.30am and away we go. The first 11km (a warm up) were decidedly speedy headed up, as we were, with motorbikes and behind us a voiture-balai (a broom wagon for sweeping up failed entrants) and a couple of ambulances. Scary.

We hit Bédoin at 9am and, after fifteen minutes faffing around, we finally get off but not before I had a chat with a cyclist from a nearby town who told me he had done this run three times before on a mountain bike but this time opted for a road bike. However, his words about it being possible were of some comfort to me.

The first three or four kilometres were actually fine but then the incline begins to increase noticeably and from then on the scene is set for the rest of the ride which is just relentlessly up and up and up. Every corner you turn there is just more up and more up. This psychological aspect to the ride was for me the most difficult barrier to overcome - you really do begin to think it is never going to end. For about the first 8km of the ride I was certainly not the last in the group but, eventually, I had the voiture-balai behind me. After about half a kilometre of that I stopped and had a word with the driver telling him that I really couldn't ride with that kind of pressure. When he ascertained that I wasn't in any physical distress and that I was simply going to do this climb very slowly he relented and went on ahead. From here on in I felt "comfortable" just going at my own pace.

Shortly after this (at the 10km point) there was the first refreshment station. I was pleased to learn that I was not, after-all, last! Hurrah! I ate some dried fruit and was offered some more to put in my pocket. I accepted. When they said to me to take some more I caused some laughter by pointing out that this was no picnic.

The next 5km to Chalet Reynard were for me the most difficult of the ride. All I could think about was that I was not even half-way up and round every corner was just more of this endless climb. Add to that the fact that every five minutes or so I was passed by another cyclist (the place is swarming with them) just led to me thinking that I was never going to make it.

However, as you leave the forest and just before you get to Chalet Reynard (on this route at least) you catch sight of the summit for the first time. Even though there were still 6 gruelling kilometres to go all of a sudden it seemed possible to keep going. When I got to the refreshment station Susanna, Robert and Chippie were there to greet me. A great additional boost.

I realised, however, that I couldn't stop here for long because, if I did, the will to keep going would just evaporate and, by now, the sun was getting very hot. So, allez, out into the shadeless moonscape that is so characteristic of the mountain's top for the final push. God that was hard too - especially since, by now, I was also beginning to realise that the altitude was effecting me a little. I took to staring at the road and counting off the dotted white lines at its edge to just to take my mind off the whole thing. Somewhere on this stretch the guy I had spoken to at Bédoin whizzed down the hill in the opposite direction and shouted at me "Courage! Allez, allez." It helped. In the video below that's me in the white shirt toiling up the final few hundred metres to the summit.


Then came the blessed realisation that the summit really was within my reach and very soon I saw Susanna and Robert waving me on. Another five minutes of grindingly hard peddling brought me round the final hairpin bend and to the short 100m final pull to the summit. So concluded the most ball-breaking three hours and twenty-three minutes of my life.


A few photos, a cold Orangina, a quick look at the view (not good because of the heat haze but still spectacular) and then immediately off for the descent back to Chalet Reynard to get my certificate and an aperitif. When I got there I discovered I was the last to finish, oh well - but I also discovered that a few had dropped out along the way so - not quite last. And the young guns? Well, one of them did it in just under an hour and a half.

All in all mad, quite mad but somehow strangely satisfying . . . The flatlands around Cambridge will never seem the same again

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Garden Academies

I realise that a few people who read this blog don't go on to read any comments that are posted but my last post has opened up a conversation with someone by the name of Jonathan that is proving quite helpful to me and, if what I have to say is in anyway helpful or interesting to you, then you might enjoy this fruitful exchange.

It has at its heart the idea of a liberal religious/philosophical project which is striving both for a sane global constitution and also the recreation of the Academy, in the garden-school atmosphere of Epicurus, with the compassion and active ministry of Jesus.

It has often seemed to me that the recreation of garden-schools as the liberal alternative to church-type structures is the way we should - in fact probably must - go.

If you are so minded I'd be very interested in the comments of other people on this idea.

Lastly, the two pictures in this blog are of les Dentelles-de-Montmirail which Susanna and I visted last week and to which I have now cycled a couple of times. Stunningly beautiful.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Not information nor explanation, but understanding

Given the comments I have been making over the past week or so it seemed important to flag up an insight of the American philosopher Paul Wienpahl who wrote The Radical Spinoza (New York University Press, New York 1979) about Spinoza's great work, The Ethics. This is in case anyone thinks I am abandoning old Spinoza - something I don't think need happen at all if you can learn to read him in a particular way.

Wienpahl suggests that we should not read the Ethics as a deductive system but as helping us to an insight into the notion of unity:

The Ethic may be regarded as follows: The scholia unfold the demonstrations, the demonstrations the propositions, and the propositions the definitions. [. . .] There is, then, no question of anything's being proved in the Ethic. There is only the matter of understanding the definitions. On the whole this is the matter of getting clear about the notion about unity (p. 64).

Now this seems to me to be a vital point. We are enable to see that Spinoza's propositions are not really to be thought of as propositions at all but descriptions of what is the case. He is simply "arranging what we have always known." As Wittgenstein observes in the Philosophical Investigations (I, 109):

It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically 'that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible to think such-and-such' - whatever that may mean. (The conception of thought as a gaseous medium.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather by looking into the workings of our language , and in such a way as to make us recognise those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by reporting new experience, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe).

As Anthony Kenny sums it up in the introduction to his revised edition of Wittgenstein (Blackwell, Oxford 2006): "Philosophy seeks not information nor explanation, but understanding" (p. xiii).

We may now return to Wienpahl who, at the end of his book says:

With some understanding of unity our view of what is changes drastically. Instead of seeing the world as made up of discrete things existing independently of each other, we see unity. In the language BdS provided, it is a unity of modes of being. There is Being and modes of being. A tree is an arboreal mode of being. You and I are modes of being, or, more simply human beings. What we have taken to be the real distinctions between things dissolve, and with them conceptual distinctions between "thing", properties, and actions. Loving, for example, which we commonly take to be an action that some one or thing performs can be seen as a mode of being. - That is easy to say, but with time potent in effect (Radical Spinoza p. 155).

Wienpahl then goes on to list fourteen further important practical effects: there is identity; there is a kind of knowing that is loving; the so-called inanimate is no longer inanimate, except for certain purposes; consequently, all are capable of Affections (such as joy); it involves understanding God (God ceases to be an object and becomes an experience); moral responsibility looks different (moral commandments are seen as truths when they are understood); there is not good and ill; it overturns the possibility of dualistic thinking; it alerts us to the ecological problem; it enables Eastern and Western thinking to come together; it helps us understand some of the developments in art and science; it reveals that each individual has to strive for the realisation of non-dualism, for insight into unity; it reveals that thinking is not some incorporeal thing but the activity of becoming conscious and living consciously.

Why do I write this? Well, as liberals we have an intellectual heritage which means that we are finding it increasingly hard to commit to a (any) particular faith tradition without first having to hand an excess of information and explanation about its quasi-scientific truth value. This religious/philosophical modus operandi has to stop and we have to find effective ways back to living with understanding. Do realise that this doesn't actually mean giving up on information and explanation in its proper place - that is to say in the natural sciences.

You may, of course, argue that this blog is just such an example of this liberal desire for information and explanation. Perhaps, but if it is then I am only playing a kind of game with you which is to show that everything I am saying here - in so far as you understand it as theological or philosophical information and explanation (which I don't think it is) - is nonsense. In so far as it helps you to understanding how better to live as a confident liberal then . . . well, I'll leave you to decide that. This is no more than a doodle in the sand (John 8:2-11).


For those interested here are a couple of links (which I have given before) to articles by Wienphal.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

World Harmony Run

Just before I went away on sabbatical the church of which I am minister in Cambridge had a visit from the local Sri Chinmoy Group (with whom we have had a long and fruitful relationship and dialogue) and a group of international runners on their World Harmony Run. Here are a couple of pictures from that event. Here you can find a link to their own page on the whole Cambridge visit.

All in all it was jolly good fun and a good example of a simple, fruitful and respectful inter-faith encounter.

Is orthodoxy always a bad thing?

Saul just left a good and helpful comment on my last blog which seems to me worth headlining a bit by pulling it out of the comments section. He wrote:

Hi Andrew, I've been following your recent posts with interest.

I don't want to simplify your debate, but I do want to ask - Is orthodoxy always a bad thing?
My own perspective is that we need a degree of orthodoxy. A stable rock or starting point that despite our explorations, remains there for us to come back to.

Unitarian Christianity is a small drop in an ocean of faith. Surely having a degree of orthodoxy - in the form of established beliefs and an adherence to tradition - is necessary?

We can still be reasonable and open minded enough to accept other faiths contain truth and value - but if we really feel passionately about our beliefs and respect our heritage, then we must preserve as well as develop.

Thank-you Saul, that is a very important point and, far from simplifying the debate, it usefully unfolds another dimension of it. It is one of those simple but complicated matters! What follows is not in any way meant to be a definitive reply - it can't be - but I hope it contributes to the ongoing discussion here and within my own community in Cambridge.

It continues to strike me that one of the major problems for most people who want to be religious liberally is the difficulty of believing in something (anything) with consistency and passion. (It is the same problem faced by both Tolstoy and Wittgenstein.)

Given this I have tried over the past few years to articulate a modern version of what, in England at least, is known as Free Christianity. To this end I along with John Morgan (an American Universalist) produced a prayer-book that tries to offer just the kind of stable rock you call for. Additionally I negotiated a document with a group of Francophone Unitarian Christians called the "Avignon Manifesto" which tries to do something similar. Anyway, you might find these things worth a second glance especially since I think they concur well with the point made in your last paragraph.

My recent blogs have been concerned with the problem of how to undertake this kind of project without then slowly drifting back into the more usual kind of orthodoxy which is utterly resistant to new insights and which can come to believe that its form of words, beliefs and praxis are alone universally absolute. I don't think anything I have written is at all like this but I can see how this kind of attitude could, under certain circumstances, begin to develop from it. So, what I'm looking for is some kind of safety valve that ensures that, whenever such a tendency begins to develop, a stop is put on it. In short I'm grappling - not so much with belief as such (say over the divinity of Christ or otherwise or the efficacy of one religion over another) - but with the way in which we hold our beliefs and with the status of the words we use to express them.

Wittgenstein's thinking is useful here (well might be useful - we'll see) because he is trying to show (in part) that philosophical and religious propositions are not at all like those used by scientists. But philosophers and theologians can all too easily be seduced into believing that their words are doing something quasi-scientific when they are not at all (at times I have, alas, been included amongst their number). He is also trying to show that neither is our religious language metaphorical; as he provocatively suggests: "In religion talking is not metaphorical either; for otherwise it would have to be possible to say the same things in prose." This is particularly important for liberals to grasp because much of their defence of religion is based on being able to interpret it metaphorically. I should know because, as a careful read of this blog will show only too clearly, I have done this repeatedly and, I now think, wrongly.

If we can show that our religion - even when we choose to express it in "orthodox" ways (i.e in a fashion that provides a certain kind of useful stability and tradition) - says nothing about the world that can be used in an oppressive quasi-scientific way and also that neither is it metaphorical (i.e. can be recast in a quasi-scientific way) then there might, just, be a way forward for us. We might be ready to start articulating the kind of tough, rough and ready practical liberal 'orthodoxy' that a genuine liberal can adopt with passion and a clear conscience; to articulate a faith which can effectively stand up to some of the very unpleasant forces abroad in our world without, at the same time, becoming merely a mirror image of those same forces.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Illuminating comparisons to get an understanding of how [things] are

Today I sat in a cafe in the gardens of the Rocher des Doms in Avignon (see picture on right) all afternoon reading Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein as well as thinking about some of the stuff I talked about in the last blog. There, over a cold beer in the cafe, it struck me that part of the reason those who like to think they are liberals (that includes me of course) are in big trouble is because we are operating with concepts which are highly unstable (such as tolerance, inclusivity, fairness, justice etc.) and consequently dangerously open either to accidental confusion or deliberate misuse. Despite my recognition of this problem - though it is daily becoming a more forcible recognition - I realise how easy it is to be seduced into believing that these terms can be used to refer clearly to reality itself. It may well be doubtful they could ever have done that but assuredly today they do not.

Ray Monk offers up a useful summing up of what Wittgenstein's (later) philosophy was trying to get us to do which may prove useful in this matter. It was to encourage us to keep in mind "that things are as they are" and that we should try "to seek illuminating comparisons to get an understanding of how they are."

So perhaps one very practical thing those of us who are liberal writers, commentators and pastors can do in the increasingly uncomfortable situations we find ourselves is to start finding some illuminating comparisons to show in what consists a liberal religion and praxis rather than trying to say it with words that can no longer (and never really could) bear this weight. (Maybe this is why Jesus never wrote a word - except that famous doodle in the sand - but only lived and taught?)

I suppose my point (obvious though it may be once stated) is that to be a liberal (and to follow Jesus) isn't to subscribe to some socio- or religio-political doctrine that you can outline or describe conceptually but something you do (illustrate) every moment of your life. It is seen in the way you greet the day and the people you meet, in the way you walk through Nature herself, buy and eat your food; it is in all the gestures of your being. As Jesus said:

"By their fruits - by what comes from them - you will know them. From the burdock you do not gather grapes, nor apples from an aspen. A good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit. So you will know these men by the fruits of their teaching" (The Gospel in Brief Ch. 4).

As I smiled at the waiter who had brought me my beer, said thanks, left a tip, said 'au revoir' to the people on the table next to me and tried not to step on the ducklings that had wandered up to my table from the pond, I realised that these acts were a better expression of my desire to be liberal presence in the world than any amount of conceptual talk about tolerance, inclusivity, fairness and justice I might attempt here or elsewhere.


The other two pictures in this blog are me looking daft out on a ride into the foothills around the Ventoux (nowhere near ready for the big climb) and the Reformed Church in Avignon we have been attending since being here and where we have been made most welcome. A very nice bunch of people indeed.

Friday, 6 June 2008

I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking.

One of the things that has driven my writing and thinking over the past eight years has been a growing recognition that unless those of us who consider ourselves to be liberal religionists get ourselves 'into shape' we will continue to ceding ground to increasingly illiberal and dangerous religious forces. But a real danger presents itself when you begin to unfold what that getting 'into shape' could entail. The truth is I beginning to realise that done in a certain way such a 'fitness' programme can mean that liberal societies (national and small scale ones such as individual churches) start adopting religious and political strategies that are not that far removed from those they seek to counter. With a little space to think - that is to say a way from the pressure of having to write a sermon every week - I can see that, to some extent, this criticism can be applied to my own work, at least in my recent attempt to underpin the kind of liberal Unitarian Christianity I practice with a Unitarian metaphysics largely derived from Spinoza.

On the one hand the danger is that in pushing such a metaphysics one is, tacitly if not explicitly, trying to express an orthodoxy (albeit one with liberal intentions) and, on the other, the danger is that one is in truth simply building a house on sandy ground (for there is never going to be a way to prove - to oneself or to others - that one's preferred metaphysical system is true absolutely). So dogma on the one hand, self-deceit on the other. Hmm.

If one takes these two dangers seriously (as I am) then a third danger arises which is that one can come to equivocate dogmatically. It becomes a matter of dogma not to get 'into shape' - not to follow a particular faith with passion and commitment. Here you simply end up with a version of the first danger.

So what on earth to do? It is precisely at this point that I think a re-examination of Wittgenstein's work may prove helpful because he offers us a way to re-engage passionately with religion (in the context I am speaking that is a religion based upon the teachings of Jesus though others may chose something different) but without at the same time thinking that our religion 'says' anything true or false about our world. What our religion can do is help us live in a particular way and be changed in ways that are beneficial to ourselves and, we hope, others. In other words our religion can help us show something that we will never be able to say.

In "Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius" (p. 305) Ray Monk cites Wittgenstein as saying:

I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather: when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. Thus it also does not matter at all if the words used are true or false or nonsense. In religion talking is not metaphorical either; for otherwise it would have to be possible to say the same things in prose.

Anyway, with these thoughts in mind I went to Avignon to see my friend Ronald Gabriel yesterday (Wednesday) to have a talk about my present work and I began a long and complicated exposition of what I might do. Eventually he, quite rightly, observed that I seemed to be heading in the direction of articulating a new kind of orthodoxy (albeit with "liberal" pretensions) - which is precisely the thing I have been rebelling against for so long. He continued by asking me what was wrong with simply restating Jesus call to "Love thy neighbour as thyself"?

That really struck home and I realised, with uncomfortable clarity, that I was trying (once again) to say what can only be shown. This 'saying-of-what-cannot-be-said' can only become a huge obstacle obscuring what is plainly before one's eyes namely that it is enough just to follow the example of Jesus.

All of which leaves me with an interesting dilemma because, as you will be aware, I am here in the south of France on a sabbatical during which I had every intention of writing some summary of my thinking! Whatever else I will be doing (and that includes a fair bit of cycling and Tai Chi) I will be revisiting very carefully Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief as a good place to begin to reorientate myself and, if you are in anyway minded to agree with me, to help you do likewise.

The Gospel in Brief can be downloaded as a .txt file here
As a .pdf file here
And ordered here

Before signing off I want to make it absolutely clear that in all of the above I am not claiming to be presenting an accurate interpretation of what I think Wittgenstein himself thought - I am simply not a Wittgenstein scholar - all I am doing is using his writings as a springboard for my own thinking.

Lastly, for your delectation, a view of clouds over Mont Ventoux taken on yesterday's cycle ride.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Nous sommes arrivés

Safely here in Bedarrides, just north of Avignon, to start my sabbatical. Just beginning to organise some sort of schedule of work and rest but I'm not sure how that will unfold. Anyway, for the meantime, here are a three photos. The first is of the local church (our rooms are just behind it) ; the second, out of the kitchen window during one of the many storms that have come our way in the past four days; the third a picture of the appartment in Avignon where we stay on a Sunday night.