Saturday, 26 July 2008

Some more thoughts on Garden Academies

Some more thoughts on Garden Academies in response to a couple of perspicacious and interesting comments made by Jonathan to earlier blogs before I went back to England for a few days last week. Thanks once again Jonathan.

Jonathan makes the important point (with which I agree and one which must surely lay at the heart of any liberal approach to religion), namely that the philosopher (for which I read an active member of any kind of liberal community) is not:

". . . one who HAS wisdom, but as one who WANTS wisdom and is chasing more or less hard on its tail."

As Jonathan goes on to note, in this search

". . . the challenge . . . is holding fast to a liberating consciousness of my own fallibility. It's easy at moments like these, when I can voluntarily announce it to the world and presumably score a point or two for my honesty; it's much harder in the thick of a discussion when SOMEBODY ELSE is demonstrating my fallibility and I am forced to concede that I have overstated my position."


He concludes by saying his wife "has been a wonderful teacher for me in this respect" - I must add here that my own wife, Susanna, certainly teaches me likewise.

This point allows me to swing back to Garden Academies - not least of all because, and once again I concur with him in this, Jonathan also notes that he and his wife feel they are together a kind of "garden academy cooperative." He continues by saying that:

We figure that when our little cell is far enough along on the path, [it will] join-up with other like-minded cells will follow naturally, or perhaps we will become a nucleus of sorts around which others may gather. I think a key is to allow the center to emerge organically, like a plant. We provide the inputs (our contemplative lifestyle in fellowship with friends and family) and the plant just grows.

This point seems particularly important to me because if liberals are going to get real things done in these difficult times then we need to recall that our power has always been in the cultivation of small and ever-evolving gardens which, collectively, show something real about our liberalism which includes, of course, a commitment to the incredible diversity and vulnerability of all life upon our home planet. The moment we are tempted to scale up to bigger institutions we begin to resemble, not gardeners (i.e. people actively commingling with the world) but managers (i.e. people who act at a distance from the world).

It might seem counter-intuitive (and to some even dangerously quietist) but I venture to suggest that perhaps liberals should start thinking much, much more small scale whilst simultaneously learning to trust - absolutely - that the whole is good beyond all our usual human conceptions of in what consists good and bad and that some kind shared covenant (centre) will, if we tend with care our particular plot all the while keeping alive our willingness and desire to talk with our neighbours, emerge organically and the liberal garden will simply grow. However, we mustn't allow this liberal garden simply to become a municipal garden, the real care of which is palmed off to a distant council but, instead, ensure that it always remains a startling diversity of individual yet interconnected gardens that, whilst to some extent private and personal, are always open for view - gardens that always have a bench, a shelter and refreshment available to encourage convivial dialogue with all who pass through.

In saying this I am not advocating some hopelessly idealistic piece of new-age thinking that doesn't acknowledge the brute realities of life but, instead, following a more realistic point made by Robert Pogue Harrison in a chapter exploring an aspect of the work of the Czech writer Karel Capek:

While nature (or God) can be ruthlessly cruel towards the solicitations of human care, as every farmer or gardener knows, its cruelty is in fact only a temporary suspension of its otherwise reliable generosity. (The ever-present threat of such suspension is what keeps human care both anxious and humble in its relations to nature.) Fortunately for the creatures of the earth, nature by and large tends to fulfil its obligations and promises. And fortunately for the gardener, there is enough of Eden in the mortal earth that despite the vagaries of the weather, the miracle of life erupts and blossoms year after year. Thus, even in January, "without the gardener having suspected or having done anything, crocuses and snowdrops have pricked through the soil" (Harrison, Robert Pogue, Gardens - An essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 28)

I guess all I am doing here is expressing something about the well known maxim of the Deep Ecology movement: "Think globally, act locally." What would if a liberal church began to understand itself as one such open garden and each of its members came to see themselves as gardeners of the same?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Consider the cigales of the fields

Here's a bit of rounding up as I get myself back into gear after the quick visit back to England.

Jesus clearly taught that a (the?) primary way we learn about the meaning of life was to look closely at the world - to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and then make up our own minds on the basis of this looking rather than on the basis of some arbitrary and imposed external human authority. Connected with this call to look remember Spinoza said that the more we know singular things the more we understand God (or Nature) - Ethics V.24. In other words the natural world looked at closely, with a single, diamond pointed concentration that transcends the self, shows us something true about God-or-Nature (Deus-sive-Natura) - that is reality or Pure-Being. Looked at thus nature can help reveal to us that the mind-body division which has so coloured the western outlook is, when absolutised and turned into a metaphysics, a false one.

One 'thing' that took my whole concentration this week was actually seeing, up close, a cigale - a cicada. As many of you will know during summer their extraordinary sound pervades the region and yet, for all their presence, they are very hard to see. A few weeks a go Susanna an I looked at one in a tree through binoculars but this week in Vaison la Romaine we spotted one just sitting on the pavement. So here are a couple of photos and a short video clip of the marvellous insect. I hope it elicits in you something of the wonder we felt.

Secondly, my friend and musical colleague (he's a kind of anarcho-Zen-Buddhist-composer-cyclist-backwoodsman-cum-saxophonist and all round nice-guy) Kevin Flanagan has a blog at last. God knows what it will be like but it will never be less than interesting. Looks like I might be posting some stuff there, too, since it is connected to the Riprap Collective with whom I work. By the way, the friend who knocked him off his bike recently WAS NOT me. I think I know who it was but I won't say. Anyway check it out if you are so minded.

Thirdly I have been enjoying greatly the recent re-release of Dennis Wilson's wonderful 1977 album Pacific Ocean Blue along with unreleased stuff that was to have been called "Bambu." Sublime and perfect music for the 30 degree heat here. It's the official soundtrack for this sabbatical. Here is a link to a short promo film about the release if you are interested.

Fourthly - reading. Am deep into Paul Wienpahl's Zen Diary. This is a very interesting out of print book by a philosopher who I discovered because of his wonderful book "Radical Spinoza." (Here's a link to an earlier blog by me with other links connected with Wienpahl.) In his diary he shows all kinds of connections between the thinking of Spinoza, Wittgenstein and Zen. Now that has been a real buzz for me because I sort of discovered that myself along the way and didn't reject it - nice when that happens isn't it? Ralph Waldo Emerson said something about this kind of thing - "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam that flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a sort of alienated majesty." Weinpahl writes much better and more clearly than me but I can say I read him with no sense of alienation. Anyway, a key idea of his is of the importance of engaging in philosophy as a practical therapy.

I'm also getting through Robert Pogue Harrison's delightful essay Gardens - An Essay on the Human Condition recently recommended to me by Jonathan in some comments to earlier blogs. Thank you Jonathan. Needless to say I am reading this to help me see how a Philosophical Garden (a la Epicurus) might be the kind of structure liberal religionists should be investigating in the face of the continuing demise of the church in all its forms. Also I'm re-reading Freya Mathews and the Stoics (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius et. al.). On the Stoics and how one might practically engage with that tradition it is worth checking out Keith Sneddon's site here.

So, that will do for the moment as I'm going to lie down and snooze after a long ride in the heat in the hills around Chateauneuf du Pape. I might listen to Dennis as I drift off into the Pacific Ocean Blue with the sound of the cigales in the background - which you can do right now too . . .

video

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Joy and woe are woven fine

Just a very quick blog to set things going again after a couple of weeks break. The reason for this was occasioned by a necessary return to England to conduct both a wedding and a funeral of a member of the congregation, Pat Bateman, of whom I was very fond. The week there was a perfect illustration of the truth that "Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine, Under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine" (Blake).

This, and some further very sad news in my wife's family concerning her sister, has left me very much in the mood to settle down with the Stoics for the remainder of my time here. No radical change this as Spinoza's own thinking has been described as a continuance of that tradition.

Also here are a few photos. The first shows an impromptu concert beside Toto's pool near Orange the week before last. Toto is the guitarist - way to the left of the three of us in the middle - then, continuing to the right is Robert Salles (our host here), me on bass, and then Fabrice Pierrat who teaches at the Academie Guyane. Toto lent me the mountain bike to clim the Ventoux. The second, a close up of the same. The third shows us in the middle of a very serious game of Petanque. Left to right, me, Fabrice, Toto and Susanna.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

"If you quarrel with all your sense-perceptions you will have nothing to refer to in judging even those sense-perceptions which you claim are false."

The recent flurry of conversation on this blog about 'Garden Academies' has reminded me of how much importance I place on both the development of a certain kind of naturalised secular religion which maintains a real loyalty to the teachings of the human Jesus and also of the desperate need for our culture to reinstitute a secular system of philosophical education which is capable of introducing people to ways by which they might lead rational, compassionate, happy and good lives - i.e. education for the complete human-being rather than an education designed merely for potential consumers of mostly pointless and ultimately destructive stuff.

But, before I return directly to these two themes, I want to round off for the moment my recent notes on Wittgenstein whose thinking seems to me to say many useful things to liberals who have recognised that there are real limits to human language and that, therefore, one must be very wary about giving undue status to any expression of religion or faith, including one's own. At its best this can lead to a certain positive kind of humility but, at its worst, it can lead to a moral and spiritual paralysis. Liberalism, at least in the circles I move, seems utterly paralysed. The danger I am then concerned about (mentioned in an earlier blog) is that any attempt to redress the balance and to present a confident and effective liberalism once more we could all too easily slip into a "liberal" dogmatism that is not too different from the illiberal forces we seek to challenge.

I've been looking at Wittgenstein to see if his thinking can offer any help to us in this dilemma and, in particular, I have been flagging up the idea that, although every language (whether religious or scientific) may not be able to SAY anything true about the world (as it is in itself) various human practices can contribute to SHOWING us something true or false about the world (as it is in itself). It all hinges on a realisation put well by Kai Nielsen that:

"There is no perspective outside of or beyond our practices as a whole. That is, that is, no leaping out of our skins. But for any one or several or particular cluster of practices, where for specific reasons we come to have trouble with some specific practice or specific cluster of practices, it or they can either be reformed (sometimes deeply reformed) or sometimes even set aside. There is, to repeat, no practice which is immune from criticism. And the same is true, at least in principle, of clusters of particular practices. So we can repeatedly, relevantly and intelligently criticize our very practices and the beliefs and attitudes that are a part of them. This includes our faiths - that is, our trustings. It is just that (1) we cannot criticize them all at once or stand free of all our practices, and (2) that in criticising a practice or a cluster of practices we must also be using practices" (in "Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion" edited by Robert L. Arrington and Mark Addis, Routledge, London 2004, p. 164).

It might be an utterly prosaic and uninteresting point to make but, after reading Wittgenstein and a lot of commentary about his work, I am left with the simple fact that as liberals we simply have to acknowledge once more the vital importance of our practices even though, as Nielsen observes, there is no "Archimeadean point independent of all practices from which to criticize any of them" (p. 164).

It reminds me of a point made by Epicurus in both his "Letter to Herodotus" (10:37-38) and in number 23 of his "Principal Doctrines" (trans. Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson): "If you quarrel with all your sense-perceptions you will have nothing to refer to in judging even those sense-perceptions which you claim are false." Change "sense-perceptions" to "practices" and you'll see my point - though of course a sense-perception is a practice itself and not a saying about the world.

Anyway again and again I am left with realisation that after much thought and reflection, the best practical guides who SHOW me how to live remain the wholly human Jesus, Spinoza, Lao Tse, Epicurus and Epictetus. It is a Way (a practice) not immune to criticism - as I have just pointed out - but at least it has the benefit of being a Way to which I am actually committed to and which helps me do what I can to criticize and challenge some of the completely mad and destructive practices I see developing in the world whether perpetrated by religions, political parties, countries, bankers, manufacturers, multi-nationals and . . . and . . .

So, to conclude, below is my rather Spinozistic re-casting of Jesus' summation of the Jewish law and the well known passage from Micah 6 (you can find them here in a short pattern of daily meditation I recently prepared for use in the church of which I am minister) and then Epicurus' basic counsels:

Understand that nothing can be, nor be conceived without God and that whatever is, is in God. Therefore, we must love God with everything we have - our feelings, our intelligence and with all our physical and mental strength. The next most important rule is to love Nature as we love ourselves. These are the most important rules by which to live a life. Everything else said on this matter is simply a commentary upon them.

With what attitude must we live in the presence of God and how do we acknowledge that we are not independent and apart from this Divine Unity? Our reason and experience tells us that we should simply try to do what is good, that is to say, to live and act justly, to love kindness and compassion, and to walk humbly through Nature.


1) Don't fear God.

2) Don't worry about death.

3) Don't fear pain.
4) Live simply.

5) Pursue pleasure wisely.
6) Make friends and be a good friend.
7) Be honest in your business and private life.

8) Avoid fame and political ambition.


(The picture shows a view of the river Ouvèze by which I have spent a lot of time reading since being here.)